Milwaukee’s Mexican community began in 1920, when the Pfister & Vogel Leather Co. recruited a handful of men from the midwestern states of Mexico to work in their Menominee and Bay View plants on the city’s near south side.1 Unaware that they had been brought as strikebreakers to help settle a labor dispute, these workers initially faced the ire of the city’s older immigrant communities on the shop floor. Outside of workspaces, these early pioneers also confronted discrimination on the city’s near south side, where they encountered police discrimination and struggled to find adequate housing.
In spite of these early difficulties, the arrival of the laborers’ wives and children in the second half of the 1920s helped lead to the development of a vibrant community. Mexicans owned grocery stores, taverns, and also organized multiple mutual aid societies to promote and preserve cultural traditions. In the heart of the city’s south side, where most of the colony had begun to develop, the clergy and laity of the Catholic Holy Trinity Parish took notice of their new neighbors, and worked with leaders within the Mexican community to develop a Spanish-language mission. The Our Lady of Guadalupe Mexican Mission was established in December of 1926, and became a focal point in organizing the religious and social life of the Mexican community.2 By 1927, the Mexican Colonia had grown to over 3,000 members, with laborers working in practically all of the city’s major industrial plants.3
Faced with high unemployment with the onset of the Great Depression, Milwaukee’s Mexican colony shrank considerably. By 1933, the community had been reduced to fewer than 1,500, as many either returned to Mexico of their own accord, or were repatriated by local and federal government agencies. Many of those who remained turned to religious and welfare institutions like the St. Vincent de Paul Society and the Family Welfare Association to help them cope with dwindling employment opportunities.4
Mexican laborers and their families began making their way back to Milwaukee as the city entered the industrial upsurge initiated by the country’s entrance into World War II. Many Mexicans came to Wisconsin throughout the 1940s and 1950s through the Bracero Program, a wartime measure initiated by the governments of Mexico and the United States to provide contract labor to industrial and agricultural employers.5 Due in large part to increased employment opportunities, Mexicans could count over 10,000 within their community by 1950.6
Object story created October 2013.
- “Habla Usted Ingles? Mexican Newcomers Anxious to Learn,” Milwaukee Journal, May 15, 1923. ↩
- “Mexicans Dedicate Chapel,” Milwaukee Sentinel, December 26, 1926. ↩
- “Where Mexico Has Invaded Milwaukee,” Milwaukee Journal, August 14, 1927. ↩
- “Mexican Colony Here Dwindling; Jobs Scarce, Relief Food Strange,” Milwaukee Journal, October 7, 1933. ↩
- “Provide Class for Mexicans,” Milwaukee Journal, May 30, 1945. ↩
- Joseph Rodriguez, Sarah Filzen, Susan Hunter, Dana Nix and Marc Rodriguez, Nuestro Muliwakee: The Making of the United Community Center (Milwaukee: Wisconsin Humanities Council, 2000), 11. ↩