Historians Work to Refocus Wisconsin History On Latinx Community & Contributions
Rafael Baez is the first Latinx person recorded to have lived in Milwaukee. Baez was a talented musician, recruited by an American opera company to travel throughout Mexico and the United States. Ultimately, he settled down in Milwaukee and married fellow musician Mary Schoen in 1889.
Baez made a life for himself in the city. He became a choir director, an organist for several churches and synagogues, a music tutor for some of the city's elite, and even a musical composer with published pieces. On top of all that, Baez is Marquette University's first documented Mexican and Latinx professor, where he taught music and theory.
Sergio Gonzalez is an Assistant Professor of Latinx Studies at Marquette University, and the author of Mexicans in Wisconsin. "After Rafael Baez, there's a bit of a lull in the number of people coming from Latin America to Wisconsin. It's not until the 1920s that we start to see a large influx of people," Gonzalez states. Local tanneries and factories recruited young Mexican men to work in backbreaking positions. Soon, small colonias or little colonies of Mexican families started building on the south side of Milwaukee near the factories.
Moving towards the 1950s, a large wave of Puerto Rican migrant workers moved into Wisconsin. Then, gradually from the 1960s to the present day, refugees from Cuba and Central America arrive looking for a safe place to call home. Gonzalez says, "Milwaukee has always had a very diverse Latinx population. It's never been just one; it's not Mexican, Puerto Rican, or Cuban. It's always been a wide kaleidoscope of different peoples."
It's important to note that Baez probably was not the first Latinx Milwaukeean. The history and documentation of Latinx people in Wisconsin hasn't always been complete. Archives or institutional records don't always hold the entire picture of history. Gonzalez is a founding member of a group called the Wisconsin Latinx History Collective, which is re-envisioning Wisconsin's history to be more inclusive of all Latinx stories.
Over the next five years, the collective is working in partnership with the University of Wisconsin-Madison, The Wisconsin History Collective, and Chicana por mi Raza Digital Memory Collective. Tess Arenas is the founder and lead of the collective and is known for her work at Somos Latinas History Project.
"We're trying to set the historical record straight about what Latinx people bring to a community and to our state," she says. "By educating others about our contributions and our possibilities, we can remove barriers — attitudinal barriers and behavioral barriers for Latinx people flourishing in this state."
Arenas and Gonzalez are collaborating with public historians like Margarita Sandoval Skare to collect the stories of Latinx Wisconsinites. Sandoval Skare is a retired Milwaukee Public Schools teacher and librarian who started the genealogy tent at Mexican Fiesta more than 15 years ago with an exhibition dedicated to the early Mexicans who immigrated to the city. "My father is one of them; he is called one of los primeros, or one of the firsts," she says.
Sandoval Skare is an expert genealogist and has helped thousands of people trace their family's lineage. If you're interested in starting yours, she recommends that you start at your local library. "Libraries have scanned so many types of documents, maps, and charts that you may not find anywhere else," she says. The Milwaukee Public Library offers services like Ancestry and HeritageQuest for free use in the library.
Sandoval Skare says the next major step is to interview your family and collect documents. "You wanna collect birth, marriage, baptismal documents, death documents, cemetery documents, maybe high school documents," she explains. She also recommends attending free online classes hosted by the Milwaukee County Genealogical Society.
Reclaiming the Latinx historical narrative is at the forefront of all of their work. Gonzalez emphasizes, "History is a question of narratives. It's a question of power, a question of actors."
"We have to think about who has historically had the opportunity to have their voice included in the narratives we tell each other," Gonzalez says. "And the way in which those narratives often color things beyond just the history book that we write, and the stories we tell around the dinner table."