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If you ask a group of people what it means to be an American, you might get a different answer from each person. For instance, responses based on someone's political beliefs, family history, military record, or other life experience.But what does it mean to be an American for people from underrepresented groups in an era when civility and tolerance are sometimes in short supply?WUWM's Race & Ethnicity Reporter Teran Powell is exploring the topic in our new series, called I'm An American.

'We All Have Rights, And We Should Fight For Them': Ramiro Castillo

Teran Powell
Ramiro Castillo and his dog, Canela, at their home in New Berlin.
I'm An American is a series that explores what it means to be an American for people from underrepresented groups.

If you ask a group of people what it means to be an American, or whether they consider American to be part of their identity, the answer can vary. You may even run into someone who isn't quite sure how to answer.

That was the case for Ramiro Castillo — a Hispanic man in New Berlin who’s featured in the latest installment of our I'm An American series.

Husband. Father. Owner of his own construction company. Community activist. These are just a few of the words that I came to realize describe Ramiro Castillo.

The youngest of six children, Castillo says he grew up in a small village in Central Mexico, son of two hardworking parents. Life was simple and fun growing up. He vividly remembers the day the village had running water from a well, saying it was his "happiest day ever."

Castillo says he left his village to find work in the U.S. when he was 17. He says many young people did the same, after seeing others create opportunities for themselves.

"What I was seeing, like every other kid or every other man, they came with the new shoes, working shoes, dressing different. So, they call the attention [of] the others to follow them because you could see the change. You could see with going out of the country, you would bring money and you would be living a better life," he says.

WUWM's Teran Powell has an extended conversation with Ramiro Castillo.

Castillo came to the U.S. in 1984, becoming a citizen soon after.

Castillo addresses the narrative that immigrants are taking American citizen’s jobs. He says that’s not the truth.

"If I talk to a farmer, 60 percent of their employees are Hispanic because they don't want to do it anymore, they don't want to milk cows anymore," he says. "We as Hispanic, or any other entity, that we come with no education, all we know is work."

And Castillo adds that, historically, the U.S. brought immigrants into the country for work without concern about their legal status. But sent them back to their home country when work was done.

"It's very sad when people say we're taking somebody else's job because I know this. They bring us, they used to bring us when they need us. They bring us when they were short labor. They kick us when they don't need us," he says. "If these people who's telling me that I'm stealing the job, if they would start reading history, it's not true."

"If these people who's telling me that I'm stealing the job, if they would start reading history, it's not true."

Castillo says he's experienced racism and is aware of the hateful thoughts some people have about the Hispanic community, but he doesn't hate anyone for it.

"If I take offense to everything I observe from other people, I wouldn't have a life and I'd be sacrificing sometimes even my family just by getting offended by everybody. I don't think it's a good way to live life," he explains.

Castillo says he identifies as 100 percent Hispanic. But he's not sure how the label "American" fits into that identity as well.

"Being a Mexican American, or however they call it, I still feel pain. I don't know if I feel American 100 percent," he says.    

Castillo says that's because of the history between the U.S. and Mexico, and the poor treatment some Hispanic people have received over the years. He says while he finds the question tough to answer for himself, he considers his children to be American.

He says he wants people who hear his story to take away a few things: we're all human beings, we all have rights, and we should fight for them.

Support for Race & Ethnicity reporting is provided by the Dohmen Company.

Do you have a question about race in Milwaukee that you'd like WUWM's Teran Powell to explore? Submit it below.


Teran is WUWM's race & ethnicity reporter.
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