Hispanic/Latinos in Wisconsin: History

The earliest known Hispanic/Latino encounters with Wisconsin occurred during the fur trade era in the 18th century.1 Spanish officials supported the American cause during the American Revolution, assisting in raids of British supplies stored at Prairie du Chien in Wisconsin.2 The Spanish-speaking communities of Wisconsin date back to 1910.3 People of Mexican heritage began to settle here after the Mexican Revolution.4 Many others came throughout the 1900s to work in various farming and manufacturing industries.5  Since then, other Hispanic/Latino groups migrated to the state in search of economic opportunities or political asylum.

According to census records, only 200 Hispanic/Latinos lived in Wisconsin by 1940 and 1,000 by 1950.6  However, these numbers are misleading, as they omit seasonal and temporary workers who were here during that time. An example of this is the record of Mexican Americans who lived in Milwaukee by 1925. Records show that about 9,000 Mexican Americans lived in Milwaukee during this time but the Great Depression caused many of them to lose employment and return home.7 The first known group of Puerto Ricans came to Wisconsin in the 1940s.8 Many came to earn money to bring back to their native Puerto Rico.9 Most of these workers found jobs in tanneries, foundries, and factories.10 Initially, these groups of workers were given a warm welcome by Milwaukee's white residents.11 In 1952, a "temporary Puerto Rican committee" was formed to help this group adjust to Wisconsin by providing information about schools, churches, and other social institutions. They were even given social gatherings.12  However, this warm welcome did not last long, and this group was not afforded any special privileges after their initial introduction to Wisconsin.

During World War II, there was an increased need for food and agricultural  workers.13 The Emergency Farm Labor Program of 1943, also known as the Bracero Treaty, allowed for temporary employment migration from foreign countries to the United States.14 Wisconsin farmers imported male workers from British Honduras and Mexico.15 in addition to other male workers from Jamaica and the Bahamas.16 Laborers were brought here under this Program until 1964.17 In 1971, a special task force was created by Governor Patrick Lucey to investigate the inequities faced by Wisconsin's Hispanic/Latino population and to make recommendations for state action.18  Released in June of 1971, the report contained a list of recommendations for issues faced by this community, including education, housing, health services, and employment.19 The recommendations provided by the task force were based on a report, prepared by members of the Hispanic/Latino community, that established the problems their population faced in  Wisconsin.20 The report did not achieve its goal, as in contemporary times discrimination, segregation, and inequality have hindered their progress.

Today Hispanic/Latino Americans live in every Wisconsin county. In addition to large Mexican and Puerto Rican communities, Wisconsin is also home to political refugees and other immigrants from Cuba, El Salvador, Columbia and Nicaragua.21 The cultural customs and traditions brought by each group that falls under the "Hispanic/Latino" category are significant to the cultural development of this state. Hispanic/Latino communities are very diverse, with a wide range of socioeconomic characteristics, racial and ethnic backgrounds, cultural traditions, and language abilities. They include recent immigrants as well as generations of U.S.-born and permanent residents. Before civil rights laws passed, racism and discrimination were common for Hispanic/Latino families, making it difficult for them to obtain the necessities of daily life. Decades later, they are still trying to redress these injustices.

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  1. www.wisconsinhistory.org/; visited on 11/19/2014
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid. 
  7. http://www.wisconsinhistory.org/turningpoints/tp-052/?action=more_essay; visited on 11/19/2014
  8. Gurda, John. "The Latin Community on Milwaukee's Near South Side." (Milwaukee: Milwaukee Urban Observatory, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, 1976); Online facsimile at: http://www.wisconsinhistory.org/turningpoints/search.asp?id=1261; visited on: 11/19/2014.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid.
  13. http://www.wisconsinhistory.org/dictionary/index.asp?action=view&term_id... type_id=1&term_type_text=people&letter=H; visited on 7/29/2011
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Report to the Governor: Governor's Investigating Committee on Problems of Wisconsin's Spanish Speaking Communities (1971); Online facsimile at: http://www.wisconsinhistory.org/turningpoints/search.asp?id=1262; visited on: 11/19/2014.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Ibid.
  20. www.wisconsinhistory.org/; visited on 11/19/2014
  21. Ibid.

Additional information about Hispanic/Latinos in Wisconsin

  • More information on Hispanic/Latino population estimates is available from an interactive data query system, Wisconsin Interactive Statistics on Health (WISH), on the Wisconsin Department of Health Services site.
  • A synopsis of health-related findings about Hispanic/Latinos in Wisconsin can be found in the Department's Wisconsin Minority Health Report, 2001-2005, P-45716 (PDF).
  • Latinos in Wisconsin: A Statistical Overview presents demographic information on the state's Hispanic or Latino population. The report relies principally on data from the 2010 Census and estimates from the 2010 American Community Survey (ACS) to create a statistical portrait of Latinos in Wisconsin and draw comparisons with Wisconsin's total population in a series of charts, maps, and tables. Thematically the report focuses on demographic and socioeconomic characteristics of the Latino population such as size and distribution, age structure, composition of households and families, education, income and poverty, employment, housing, and health care. In a few instances the report includes time-series data including the results of earlier Censuses. To supplement Census and ACS data sources, the report also draws on data from the Wisconsin Departments of Health Services and Public Instruction.

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Last Revised: September 10, 2018