Hear, Here tours

Three Waves of Immigration in La Crosse: A Self-Guided Oral History Tour

Hear, Here, the national award winning audio-documentary project, will take you through the impact of three waves of immigrants into La Crosse: German, Hmoob, and Cuban. This self-guided tour will ask you: how do the experiences of these migrants differ and why does this difference matter?  

Hear, Here is an audio-documentary project that spans downtown La Crosse, Wisconsin.  Wherever you see orange street-level signs there is a story about that specific space.  Each story is told by the person who experienced it. This tour can either be taken online or by foot.  If you are taking the tour in downtown La Crosse save this number into your phone before heading out: 1-844-432-7529.

From its inception Hear, Here has sought stories from historically underrepresented groups including foreign nationals, refugees, and immigrants to the area.  One of the goals of the project is to bring out stories that are not typically heard because traditional narratives of the area focus on protestantism, prosperity, and whiteness.  Hear, Here tries to honor the voices and experiences of those who do not fit into the dominant narrative and whose experiences are often unreported, unnoticed, silenced, or dismissed.

In this tour, we will focus on three waves of immigration to La Crosse and their varying experiences hearing stories from Germans, Hmoob, and Cubans who live and have lived in La Crosse.  

A special thank you to Special Collections of Murphy Library as all photographs were secured through their assistance!

In this tour about immigration, we would like to acknowledge that most people in La Crosse are immigrants even if they have been here for generations as the city of La Crosse occupies the land of the Ho Chunk people.  

Germans in La Crosse

In the mid-19th and early-20th century, roughly 30% of Wisconsin residents were foreign-born.  Around 1920, Germans were the highest percentage in La Crosse at 38.4% of total foreign-born, followed by Norwegians at 23.7%, Czechs at 6.6%, Austrians at 4.3%, and Poles at 3.8%.  

The largest flow of German immigration to America occurred between 1820 and World War I, during which time nearly six million Germans immigrated to the United States. From 1840 to 1880, they were the largest group of immigrants. Many left following the Revolutions of 1848.  In the German states, a wave of political refugees fled to Wisconsin, who became known as Forty-Eighters.  They included professionals, journalists, and politicians.

German immigrants came to La Crosse in large numbers between the 1840s-1920s.  They were encouraged to migrate by Wisconsin’s Commissioner of Emigration from the 1850s to the 1870s with pamphlets written in German distributed in both Germany and in eastern port cities of the US.  The early German life of La Crosse focused around societies, with immigrants from the southern parts of Germany most involved in singing societies, and those from northern Germany in athletic groups. In 1876 they built a German hall which became the center for balls and musical events.  The World Wars brought some prejudices against those of German-descent in La Crosse. Because of the anti-German sentiment during WWI, Germania Hall was renamed to Pioneer Hall and Berlin Street to Liberty Street.

Our first Hear, Here story is told by Jake Hoeschler about his uncle Frank Hoeschler, a proud German-American born of German immigrants.  Beginning in 1927, Frank bought property along 5th Street (which he later had renamed 5th Avenue for the cache) to build six Art Deco-style buildings, attracting national retailers such as J.C. Penny's and Sears.  In this story, brought to us by the UWL Oral History Program, Jake Hoeschler recalls how his uncle Frank paid tribute to his German heritage on his buildings, but was accused of being anti-American.

Jake Hoeschler's Hear, Here Story - https://www.hearherelacrosse.org/stories/jake-hoeschler/

Note: If you are doing the walking tour go down 5th Avenue between Jay and King Streets to find the sign marked: 1-844-432-7529 Location #6, Story #3.

Question(s):

What shifted between the 1850s-1870s when German immigrants were encouraged to migrate to Wisconsin using pamphlets written in German and 1930s-1940s when it was no longer acceptable to have slogans in the German language on the side of buildings? 

The above section was written by Ariel Beaujot and Tiffany Trimmer, Professors of History at UWL.  Some sections are taken from the following:

Germania_House_La_Crosse_Germans_ImageFrom_Special_Collections_Murphy_Library_UWL
German_Hoeschler_Jake_HH_Story_Exchange_Building_5th_Ave_ca1942_Fantles_La_Crosse2_30062_ImageFrom_Murphy_Library_Special_Collections_UWL
German_Oktoberfest_1968_dancing_Drindl_Lederhosen_ImageFrom_Murphy_Library_Special_Collections_UWL

Cubans in La Crosse

According to the 1980 U.S. Census, La Crosse had an unusual racial makeup.  It was 99% white. This made La Crosse the 5th whitest metropolitan area in the United States.  However, even as this census was taken, these demographics were soon to change because of the migration of Cuban and Hmoob refugees to the area.   

The Freedom Flotilla, also known as the Mariel Boatlift, occurred in 1980 after President Carter opened the doors to the United States for hundreds of thousands of Cuban refugees. Nearly 15,000 of those refugees would eventually arrive at the resettlement camp at Fort McCoy, a military base 35 miles east of La Crosse.  Most of those who came to Fort McCoy were less-advantaged Cuban refugees; mostly of African descent with no family in America. The camp at Fort McCoy had been prepared on very short notice and was fenced with high-security barbwire.

While the refugees--also called Marielitos--waited to be sponsored out of the refugee camp, they created a social life, education and entertainment programs including two newspapers, their own radio station, and an Afro-Cuban folkloric dance troupe, which performed at several venues in Minneapolis and at UW-Madison. There also was a group of artists, who created a large collection of paintings, sculptures, and other artifacts.  Young refugees at the camp were avid soccer, chess, and baseball players, as well as boxers. They held regular tournaments with local high schools. Seven refugees even traveled to La Crosse to try-out for the Milwaukee Brewers, and three of them signed contracts with professional teams in Milwaukee and Sparta. The internal newspapers portrayed these refugees’ activities outside the camp as positive ways to gain visibility with potential sponsors for the rest of the detained Cubans. In the paper, these artists and athletes were described as “individuals of great merit” who served as ambassadors to the American public.

However when many Cubans settled in the community, they found that the Wisconsin press had constructed a negative image of them. Articles intersected Cuban refugees’ stories with national debates about sexual “deviancy,” economic recession, the cost of refugee resettlement programs to taxpayers, and public dissatisfaction with the Carter Administration.  Kathleen Mann, the lawyer who represented many Mariel refugees in La Crosse, described Cubans as “adult individuals at a tremendous disadvantage” and victims of “sublimated anti-Cuban feelings.” Most violations registered for Marielitos had been the obvious result of a lack of comprehension of U.S. laws by the immigrants and their inability to communicate in English with the authorities and La Crosse residents.

With this in mind, let us listen to two stories by Ernesto Rodriguez Reece, a Cuban refugee who arrived as part of the Mariel Boatlift in 1980.  In the first story, Ernesto talks about an encounter with the police after being in La Crosse for five years and his confusion surrounding jaywalking laws.

Note: If you are doing the walking tour go to the corner of 4th and Pearl Streets to find the sign marked: 1-844-432-7529 Location #7, Story #8.

Ernesto Rodriguez Reece Hear, Here Story 1 - https://www.hearherelacrosse.org/stories/ernesto-rodriguez/

In the second story told by Ernesto, we pick up again on the theme of the increasing intolerance for immigrants who speak English as a second language:

Note: If you are doing the walking tour this sign is on Harborview Plaza near(ish) State Street.  Look for the sign marked 1-844-432-7529 Location #7, Story #7. However, more efficient for walkers would be to listen to the story as you head to the next location which is up State Street outside the Hmong’s Golden Egg Rolls restaurant.

Ernesto Rodriguez Reece Hear, Here Story 2 - https://www.hearherelacrosse.org/stories/ernesto-rodriguez-2/

Question(s):

La Crosse went from the 1920s with a 30% foreign-born population, who spoke English as a second language to 60 years later in the 1980s being a predominantly white and English as a first language population.  Discuss the differences between the immigrants that were here in the 1920s and the refugees that came in the 1980s. What were their different experiences and why were they different? Can immigrant groups be compared and contrasted one to the other or does every group (or even every individual) have differing experiences and circumstances?  

The above information was compiled from the works of others, edited by Ariel Beaujot. Much of the text is borrowed language from the following:

Cuban Youth at School_ImageFrom_Murphy_Library_Special_Collections_UWL_CO_CREDIT_La_Crosse_Tribune_for_photo
CubanRefugeeSewedUSFlagOnCap_AwardWinningPhoto_CoverOfLXTSpecialEditionInSearchOfFreedomCubanOdyssey_20October1980_PhotoBy_Steve_Noffke_ofLXT_LikelyTakenAtFortMcCoy_ImageFrom_Murphy_Library_Special_Collections_UWL_CO_CREDIT_LACROSSE_TRIBUNE_for_photo
Cubans_Musicians_Recording_Guitars_ImageFrom_Special_Collections_Murphy_Library_UWL_CO-CREDIT_La_Crosse_Tribune_for_photo
Cubans_photoBy_Bill_White_Unidentified_Cuban_Refugees_Participate_in_WWTI_WTC_Classes_at_Fort_McCoy_ImageFrom_Special_Collections_Murphy_Library_UWL_CO-CREDIT_La_Crosse_Tribune_for_photo

Hmoob in La Crosse

The first Hmoob refugees arrived in La Crosse in June 1976.  By 1982, there were approximately 800 Southeast Asian refugees in La Crosse: 600 Hmoob, 120 Cambodian, 55 Vietnamese, and 25 Lao. Today, the largest minority population in the La Crosse area is the Hmoob people. According to 2010 U.S. Census data, the city of La Crosse is nearly 5% Asian.  The Hmoob people are less than 0.5% of the immigrant population in the United States; however, they make up approximately 10% of the immigrant population in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

The Hmoob came to the United States as refugees from Southeast Asia due to conditions created by the Vietnam War. Approximately 60,000 Hmong in Laos aided the United States (specifically the CIA) during the Vietnam War. They helped save downed pilots, and they disrupted supply-lines, among other things. When the United States abandoned the war effort, communist forces persecuted the Hmoob. Large groups of Hmoob fled mainly to Thailand. The journey to escape Laos was very dangerous. Vengeful authorities sought out those fleeing and the final hurdle before leaving Laos was to cross the very dangerous Mekong River into Thailand. Families crossed together with the elderly, infants, injured persons, and small children. Many Hmoob perished during this journey.

Many Hmoob remained in Thai refugee camps for years, separated from both family and their homes/farmland. Slowly, the United States, Canada, Australia, and France began the process of resettling the Hmoob people (the situation was very complicated as the U.S. didn’t want to readily admit that it had carried out militaristic actions outside of Vietnam in Laos during the war. This aspect of the Vietnam War is sometimes referred to as the Secret War). Many Hmoob ended up in La Crosse because several church groups in the area worked to sponsor families in their transition from Southeast Asia to the United States.

Initially, the needs of these people from Southeast Asia, with vastly different cultures, lifestyles, languages, educational levels, etc., were not being met. In 1982, a group of agencies and individuals, concerned about the resettlement of the refugees, formed the La Crosse County Refugee Task Force. Leaders of the Hmoob and Cambodian communities joined the Task Force and were instrumental in making the needs of the refugees known. Cheu Yang, a Hmoob leader from Laos, and Sam Ghanty, a leader from Cambodia and a professor at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse (UWL), played key roles in identifying the need for culturally-appropriate services for the refugee communities.  To meet the needs of the increasing refugee population, the La Crosse Area Hmoob Mutual Assistance Association, Inc. (HMAA, now the Hmoob Cultural and Community Agency) was formed in December 1982. At that time, the mission of the agency was to serve as an educational and charitable organization assisting refugees’ adjustment to life in the United States. The HMAA implemented programs, advocated for appropriate services from other agencies, and coordinated refugee services.

Our first story in this section is told by ChongCher Lee, owner of Hmong's Golden Egg Rolls.  He is reminded of the uncertainty of life in the Ban Vinai Refugee Camp and the tremendous changes he has experienced throughout life when he looks at a photograph hung in his restaurant.

Note: If you are walking this site is in front of the restaurant on State and 10th Streets.  This is the only sign in the area, and the number is 1-844-432-7529 Location # 6, Story #9.

ChongCher Lee Hear, Here Story - https://www.hearherelacrosse.org/stories/chongcher-lee/

Our second story is told by Nauhoua (Tony) Yang.  He speaks of his first house in La Crosse after coming from a Thai refugee camp, how different the homes were, and the adjustments made by his family after moving to La Crosse.

Note: If you are walking this site is at Vine and 10th Streets.  It is the only sign in the area marked with the number: 1-844-432-7529 Location #8, Story #3.

Nauhoua (Tony) Yang Hear, Here Story - https://www.hearherelacrosse.org/stories/nauhoua-yang/

Question(s):

Both the Marielitos and the Hmoob lived in refugee camps before they were sponsored by people and organizations already living in La Crosse--the Cubans at Fort McCoy on U.S. soil and the Hmoob at Ban Vinai in Thailand.  Thinking about the different placements of the camps and different social services provided for both groups in the U.S., how do you think life was different and similar for these two groups that came around 1980?

The above information was compiled from the works of others. It was written in part and edited by Laura Godden of Murphy Library Special Collections, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. Information on the history of the La Crosse Area Hmong Mutual Assistance Association (HMAA) was borrowed from the HMAA website in 2013. Since then, both the website and the organization’s name have been updated. HMAA is now the Hmoob Cultural and Community Agency (HCCA).

Hmong_Family_7June1983_Appearedin_LXT-LaCrosseTribune_ImageFrom_Murphy_Library_Special_Collections_UWL_CO-CREDIT_La_Crosse_Tribune_For_photo
Hmong_New_Year_Neg35mm4-64-1PhotobyEdHill_photoFrom_SpecialCollections_MurphyLibrary_UWL
Hmong_UWL_International_Students_True_Sing_shows_her_Hmong_artwork_during_Asian_Awareness_week_at_UWL_ImageFrom_Murphy_Library_Special_Collections_UWL

Conclusion:

When we think about the history of these three waves of immigrants and refugees to La Crosse, we should think about both the historical context of their leaving and their coming.  Many Germans came after the Revolution of 1848. The middle class who left Germany were relatively well-off, included professionals, journalists, and politicians. They were populating a newly incorporated city (1856) with other European immigrants moving to the area as part of Manifest Destiny after the forcible removal of the Ho Chunk from the land in the 1840s.  Germans who arrived before 1870 came in the time of open immigration where the United States did not restrict any immigration to the country. The Hmoob and Cuban refugees who came to La Crosse were also fleeing their countries after revolutions, in both cases leaving communist regimes. The Hmoob were coming in the 1980s with strict immigration laws and a history of anti-Asian immigration policy that began with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. While there was and is much anti-Latino/a immigration sentiment in the U.S., Cuban immigrants are given preferential treatment under the 1966 Cuban Refugee Act.  Also, both the Hmoob and Marielito refugees came under the newly created Refugee Act of 1980 which allowed over twice as many asylum seekers into America than previously. The Hmoob and Marielitos, however, by and large did not come with financial advantage nor did they have the ability to pass as white. In both cases they were entering a well-established city, a city that was predominantly white and had not experienced an influx of immigrants in many years.

The collective stories of immigrants and refugees to La Crosse are part of our collective story.  At its best oral history projects like this one can act as catalysis for personal reflection, intercultural dialogue, and political action. To facilitate this let me leave you with some questions:

  • What has this tour taught you about how the city has approached immigrants in the past and how it might do so in the future?  
  • Are you an immigrant yourself?  If you are, what stories might you tell those around you to help them understand your experience of immigration, and settlement in the US?  
  • Whether or not you are a migrant what might you as an individual do to help immigrants to La Crosse feel and be welcome?  
  • What policies at the city and state level could be put in place (and how can you help move those forward)?  
  • What else can we do to encourage immigration to La Crosse and help those who move here feel at home?