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WUWM is honoring the lives of Latinos in Milwaukee and their contributions to the community during Hispanic Heritage Month.

Milwaukee Brown Berets seek to use storied past to make an impact in the present

Walter Garron and Bernie Gonzalez
The Brown Berets Wisconsin

Milwaukee has a long and storied history with social activism and intertwined within the fabric of that history, is The Brown Berets. A national organization that emerged in the late 1960s, The Brown Berets are most known for their social advocacy around farm workers' struggles, educational reform, and fighting against police brutality.

Defined by their recognizable berets with a yellow patch and accompanying brown uniforms, the Brown Berets continue to be a symbol of fighting for civil rights within the Latinx community in Milwaukee, and across the country.

Maria Cruz, a retired educator who is also helping document the oral histories of The Brown Berets in Wisconsin for the Wisconsin Latinx History Collective, recalled the origins of the Brown Berets in Milwaukee.

“It was in the southwest first (The Brown Berets organization) but then it really hit hard in the Midwest in places such as Kalamazoo, Michigan and Kansas City and then of course Chicago and of course Milwaukee,” says Cruz.

Cruz explains that a large part of the early Brown Beret members were made up of Tejanos who were in Wisconsin as migrant workers. Cruz says that the Milwaukee sector of The Brown Berets was defined by a deep rooted passion for helping others.

“In the marches and the demonstrations they (The Brown Berets) were the vanguard, their business at that time was to take care of the marchers,” says Cruz. “They were the front line, they made a pact that they would put themselves on the line for others.”

In Milwaukee The Brown Berets did take a short hiatus, however, recently the Milwaukee chapter has reorganized and the current recruiter, Bernie Gonzalez, explains why.

“We started seeing some things that were happening in our community, you know the political situation didn’t help and it kind of divided the country,” says Gonzalez. “Hate groups started coming out and they weren’t hiding anymore, and so this kind of created a sense of fear for a lot of people in our community and so we felt it was important to reorganize and to reassure the community that they weren’t alone.”

Gonzalez says that The Brown Berets will continue to be a force of hope in the Milwaukee community and will continue to oppose hate in the city of Milwaukee.

“One of the things that we immediately started doing is we took on the immigration issue, we did a march,” says Gonzalez. “We were marching and making some demands and reminders to the Biden administration that there are still some people who are living in the shadows…we want to hold institutions accountable — we are all about helping our community.”

Mallory Cheng was a Lake Effect producer from 2021 to 2023.
Beck Andrew Salgado was a producer with Lake Effect.
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