Student Mural Commemorates Milwaukee's Rich History of Migrant Workers

Sep 27, 2016

Next spring, a giant mural celebrating the history and culture of Milwaukee’s Latino community will be unveiled on 1st and Mitchell on the city's south side.

Several groups have partnered on the project – United Migrant Opportunity Service, UWM and ArtWorks for Milwaukee. But as WUWM’s Keio Horton reports, the people creating the mural are students from the university and various high schools.

Keio visited the Kenilworth building on the east side, where students are applying the paint. Yet the first thing they had to do, back in February, was interview Latino migrants.

"Within this mural, we have a lot of who we are in it. The way we paint, the way we put a brush directly on the paper."

Right now, the mural consists of large pieces of paper, taped to the wall. Some parts are only sketched out, but most are bright and colorful. They contain the faces of Latino activists and inspirational quotes in Spanish.

Standing on a ladder, free-handing, while looking at images she had created on a laptop, Isabel Castro says she’s learning about her Latino heritage.

“Within this mural, we have a lot of who we are in it. The way we paint, the way we put a brush directly on the paper,” says Castro. "It’s like to the meaning of where we came from, who we are and how we plan to strive, how we plan to grow and what would be our next step after this mural.”

The faces of Latino leaders and UMOS executive officers reside in the mural as Shorewood High School student Medalia Santos adds more detail to them.
Credit Keio Horton

Castro attends Escuela Verde Milwaukee and is one of about 16 students working on the project. First, they had to interview local migrants and Latino activists, and then decide how to depict the stories shared.

Blyna Perez from St. Anthony High School heard some of them for the first time. “I’ve learned that the farm workers didn’t just do farm work – they also did industry work. They sometimes worked in breweries, and I also learned that they took over Chapman Hall,” Perez shares.

It was during the Latino Civil Rights movement of the 1970s that activists marched from Madison to Milwaukee. They demanded equal housing and protections for migrant workers. It all culminated with a demonstration at UWM.

Student Isa Cortes says she was blown away by hearing that hundreds of Latinos took over Chapman Hall. “I hang out in the Roberto Hernandez Center all the time and that’s what was won by the Chapman takeover,” Cortes says. “It’s pretty cool that I sit in the place that they fought for.”

Medalia Santos, a student at Shorewood High School, is anxious to see how people will respond to seeing the mural and history. “I want people to be impressed and feel moved by it because it’s really powerful,” Santos says. “What people had to go through with the fight and how we’ve overcome so much.”

Students Eduardo Rangel Corona and Blyna Perez paint in some Spanish text in a section of the mural.
Credit Keio Horton

“I feel like the students have learned a lot from it; I know I have as a staff person – just second-hand,"  Fressia McKee from ArtWorks for Milwaukee says.

She says it’s been a learning experience for everyone. “Everything from learning really inspiring stories and histories of people who are still around and people in our same city.”

McKee also says she’s pleased with the way the students have committed to the yearlong project.

So is UWM Professor Raoul Deal. “It’s been a community building experience just making the mural," he says. “I would hope that the mural would inspire other people to work in this way with history.”

Eduardo Rangel Corona, who attends Ronald Reagan High School, says he’s learned a lot about history and the passion of art itself, telling a story with his paintbrush. “I love art making so I was like this is for me. Since this is a very big mural and it is for the community, I wanted to leave my mark somewhere.”

At the moment, the mural is 75% complete. Once it’s finished, crews will install the paintings onto framework on the Butters-Fetting building on 1st and Mitchell. That should happen in spring of 2017. Those involved will also produce a documentary, featuring the interviews the students did with Milwaukee’s older Latinos.

Sections of the mural that are completely painted and wait to be framed.
Credit Keio Horton