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Latinos in Wisconsin

Posted 11:50 a.m. Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2023

UWL Professor Víctor M. Macías-González will present "Wisconsin's Latino Past and Present" as part of the Hispanic Heritage Month celebration on campus.

Learn about Wisconsin’s Latino history

Most Latinos in Wisconsin are U.S.-born, and only about one-third are immigrants. Mexican Americans in the state are mostly local-born, but many are transplants from surrounding states or the U.S. Southwest. The first large-scale migration began in the late nineteenth century.  

UWL celebrated Hispanic Heritage Month with a talk about Latino history in Wisconsin in September 2023.  UWL Professor Víctor M. Macías-González presented "Wisconsin's Latino Past and Present."

The story of Latinos in Wisconsin

The story of Latinos in Wisconsin starts with the first Spanish Colonial settlers who claimed Upper Louisiana and explored a place called Pais de Los llinueses in the 1760s. These Spanish colonial traders and officials lived along the Upper Mississippi in the second half of the eighteenth century. During his talk, Macías-González will share the story of their relationship with Indigenous peoples in the Great Lakes and Upper Mississippi region, "Pais de Los Ilinueses,” the name Spanish explorers' gave to Illinois and Wisconsin.   

The first half of the talk will focus on history and the second half will be dedicated to the issues that Latinos face, particularly in education. Macías-González has dedicated a significant portion of his career to helping to eliminate barriers to education for Latinos pursuing K-12 and higher education with the development of multiple programs that provide outreach to teachers to set up mentoring and tutoring. One program called Parent College continues each year providing outreach to Mexican-American parents to help their children succeed in school and pursue college.  

When were Latinos first in Wisconsin?   

Spanish map from 1817. De José Caballero, capitán de artillería provincial de Nueva Vizcaya - Real Academia de la Historia, Dominio público,

The Spanish government claimed the Mississippi River and explored it starting back in the 16th century. They returned to set up settlements in the 1760s with St. Louis, Missouri as their regional administrative center. They established bases and trading posts as far north as the Minneapolis and St. Paul area. Early maps from the 18th century call this area in the north, which encompasses Wisconsin and Illinois, Pais de los Ilinueses. While they did fur trading, lead mining and other activities, these early settlers also used this northern section of the river as an early warning system to make sure French, British, and later American fur traders wouldn’t be using the river as an invasion route to seize Spain’s valuable silver mining operations in Northern Mexico. 

Large Texas migration brought more Latinos to the region 

After the American Civil War ended in 1865, and once railroads began to emerge across the country, Mexican Americans from Texas discovered they could get higher wages by hitching a train to the north and working on farms in Wisconsin and Minnesota over the summer. They began a process of seasonal migration for better work from the 1880s on. 

White Texans had long stayed out of South Texas, but when that predominantly Mexican-American area became valuable due to the arrival of the railways, they began to push Mexican Americans out. White Texans wanted the land that Mexican-American families lived on so that they could grow crops like cotton, citrus fruits, and cattle to sell to northern U.S. markets. Tensions rose between Anglo settlers and Mexican landowners by the 1910s, which led to violence in south Texas. Vigilantes and law enforcement, specifically the Texas Rangers, lynched and shot thousands of Mexican-Americans. This episode of violence was called La Matanza or the massacre. Survivors fled to the Upper Midwest, where they established communities from Chicago to Milwaukee and Saint Paul. Here, they established themselves doing seasonal farm work from spring to fall, then returned to Chicago, Milwaukee, and Saint Paul during the winter. By the 1920s they had lively communities with their own churches and social clubs. Milwaukee's Mexican American community is heavily influenced by this Tejano (Texas Mexican American) migration.  

Hispanic vs. Latino  

Mexicans and Mexican Americans are two thirds of all Latinos or Hispanics in the U.S.

Many ask the question, “what is the difference between Hispanic and Latino?” Hispanic and Latino mean the same thing. They are pan-ethnic terms, meaning they group together various ethnic groups into one group based on their related cultural origin. Hispanics and Latinos are all descended from Spanish-speaking cultures (the old Spanish Empire) in the Americas. They can also include people from Spanish colonies in Asia (Philippines, Guam) and Africa (Morocco, Equatorial Guinea), as well as Mexico, Central America, South America, and the Caribbean. Today there are almost 63 million Latinos in the U.S. About two-thirds are Mexican Americans. 

The terms are different in that they came at different points in history for different reasons — including the government’s need count and categorize people for the Census and people’s need to form their own identity.  

Hispanic and Latinos differ in their preference for one word over the other. Hispanic is considered an older term, like "Caucasian" is an older term for Whites or European Americans. Latino is a newer term that is used by more working class and leftist members of the community who don't want to call attention to the European-Spanish background but focus more on their shared heritage of colonialism in the Americas.   

Is Hispanic a race?  

No. While Hispanics and Latinos have a related cultural origin, they may be of any race.  

Who are Hispanics? 

In 1750 the most powerful empire on the planet was the Spanish empire. Spain pushed its culture and language to colonies across the world, and most of those colonies were in the Americas. These colonies were organized into four viceroyalties operated by and for a Spanish settler population. The largest of these colonies was New Spain, a massive stretch of land that ran from present-day Washington State southeast through Louisiana and through the U.S. West, Mexico, and Central America, and out to the Pacific. Other viceroyalties included New Granada (Panama, Colombia, Venezuela, and Ecuador), Peru (Peru, Chile, Bolivia), and Río de la Plata (Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay). When Spain was weakened in the nineteenth century, the empire fell apart and these viceroyalties disintegrated and eventually became 19 separate independent countries in the Americas. 

People in the Spanish Empire had diverse racial backgrounds; they included Spaniards, enslaved Africans, Indigenous peoples, and Asians. The Spanish recognized 64 different racial and ethnic categories, very different from the two-race system that the British had in what became the U.S. Since the 1800s, as people from the old Spanish Empire interacted with the U.S., race became a problem.  As the U.S. government counted people using racial categories in the Census it struggled with how label people who originated in New Spain or the other old viceroyalties. They spoke Spanish and were perceived as different because they were Catholic and mixed race, but they didn’t have a category for them. At that time, people did not select their own racial category on the Census. Instead they were assigned one.  Various labels were tried throughout history such as “non-white,” “Spanish-Speaking,” “Mexican,” “Spanish,” or “Spanish American.” But these ultimately were rejected or didn’t stick with shifting politics.  In 1970, the government created a new category, “Hispanic,” to track the Mexican-American, Puerto Rican, Cuban and other Spanish-speaking populations in the U.S. That label Hispanic became a pan ethnic label to represent people from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds including those originating from New Spain and other parts of the old Spanish Empire. While the term has lasted almost a century, the only thing these individuals have in common is their Hispanic culture.  

Who are Latinos? 

Along the way there were ethnic pride movements. Mexican-Americans began to take pride in their non-whiteness in the 1970s and 80s, stressing their indigeneity instead. With those changes, many rejected using the word Hispanic because it is similar to the word Spain, and Spain felt more distant after hundreds of years and thousands of miles of distance. People wanted to quit overemphasizing their whiteness and connection with Spain by losing the term Hispanic. 

Instead, at that time, they advocated for using a word that they understood to mean Mexican: Chicano. They created a movement around that identity in the 60s and 70s. But the term Chicano also didn’t stick, as the FBI used the COINTELPRO program to destroy this ethnic separatist label, which was seen as a threat. Puerto Ricans also had a nationalist movement and preferred the term Boricuas for themselves.     

U.S. interventions in Central America and the Caribbean over the 20th c. destabilized the region and prompted migration to the U.S. Refugees didn’t like the labels the Americans created to talk about them and were all from Latin America, so they used the term Latino. The term was invented as an alternative, but it lasted. Fast forward to 20th century when the word Hispanic was losing its favor because of its connection with Spain and whiteness instead of indigeneity. Some people opted for the term Latino instead.   

Latinx meaning 

Throughout the history of using the word Latino, some people have wanted to make the term more gender inclusive. In Spanish the “o” signals that a word is masculine. So, some rectified that by adding the feminine “a” ending to include both: “Latino/a.” Over time, especially within the last decade of the transgender rights movement, some advocated for use of a more gender-neutral version that included neither “o” or “a,” instead using “Latinx.” Still the more traditional versions of Latina/o or Latino continue to be used depending on a person’s preference and the context where they are using it. The difference can also be seen generationally with younger generations and those in coastal states and larger cities using the more gender-inclusive version of Latinx more frequently. In Latin America, the term Latine is used because scholars and activists there urge the use of the “e” as more neutral; the x does not occur as often in Spanish and “nx” is not pronounceable in Spanish, they argue. 

About Victor M. Macías-González

Victor M. Macías-González

Macías-González is Professor of History, Race, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, and serves as Faculty Fellow for Diversity and Inclusion in the College of Arts, Social Sciences, and Humanities and has worked at UWL for 24 years.  He is president of the U.S.-Canada Association of Historians of Mexico, and serves on the board of the Committee on LGBT Status in the Profession of the American Historical Association; the board of the Association for the History of Women and Gender in Mexico; and on the advisory board of OutHistory New York.  He has received numerous awards, recognitions, and fellowships for his contributions in the area of Diversity and Inclusion as well as for his historical research from the UW System Regents, Yale University, The University of Texas, the American Historical Association, and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education and in 2021 received the Wisconsin LGBTQ Leaders of Color Award, and in 2017 named among Wisconsin’s Most Influential Latino Leaders.   He serves as historical consultant for PBS Wisconsin and reviewed the “Wisconsin History Center Project" of The Wisconsin Historical Society.