Mireles: ‘We are Here’

Mireles: ‘We are Here’
Oscar Mireles

Oscar Mireles is the executive director of Omega School in Madison and is the city’s fifth poet laureate.

For many Wisconsinites, Feb. 18, 2016 might have been just another day. They might have missed the national news coverage on CNN about the 20,000 Latinos from across Wisconsin who converged on the state Capitol that day to protest the proposed anti-immigrant laws in the state Legislature. Perhaps they were unaware that A Day Without Latinos caused police to close off several blocks surrounding the Capitol to allow the dozens of school buses with protesters from Green Bay, Wausau, Racine, Whitewater and Milwaukee to make their way through the city.

A Day Without Latinos was a one-day strike called by Voces de la Frontera, led by executive director Christine Neumann-Ortiz. The organization is a grassroots immigrant rights and advocacy group based in Milwaukee and has recently hired a part-time office worker in Madison. Local community activists Grisel Tapia, Mario Garcia Sierra and Armando Ibarra helped coordinate the Madison effort.

For people in Madison, the protest rally was difficult to miss. Traffic was diverted, roads were closed and restaurants such as Quivey’s Grove closed their doors for the day to show solidarity. Tens of thousands of Latino families and their allies marched to the Capitol to make a bold statement about the impact of immigrants on the state’s economy. Many of them did so by stepping out of the shadows cast by living as undocumented workers in Wisconsin.

As I was thinking about the rally’s statewide impact, I remembered a 2013 report cited in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that showed Hispanics represented 6.3 percent of Wisconsin’s population, totaling 363,925 and surpassing African Americans as the largest minority in the state. Hispanics were present in all 72 counties. In short, we are here, in large numbers and growing. We are rooted and changing Wisconsin. I never thought I would see this happen in my lifetime, but I have.

Wisconsin is known around the world as the Dairy State, but most people don’t know that immigrant workers, primarily Mexican, now make up 40 percent of the dairy industry workforce in the state. John Rosenow, a dairy farmer from Waumandee in Buffalo County, was quoted in a 2010 article by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism as saying that Mexican workers have “incredible work ethic, incredible reliability” and that he has had “no problem getting people to come to work.”

Many dairy farmers met with Voces de la Frontera and worked out an arrangement with their Hispanic employees to attend A Day Without Latinos. Some paid their workers’ wages for the day while other employees picked up the slack and worked additional shifts. Also, many dairy farmers marched alongside their workers to demand that these anti-immigrant laws be stopped.

Over the past several decades, I have served as the editor of three anthologies titled I Didn’t Know There Were Latinos in Wisconsin. These anthologies are collections of poems, essays and short stories that capture the Wisconsin Latino experience. Some writers shared their adjustment to the Wisconsin climate, not only in terms of the cold weather but also the stares from being perceived as an outsider. Some shared their Latino family stories from the perspective of having been in Wisconsin for generations, and many shared that they still long for their homelands, including Mexico and countries in Central and South America.

The Day Without Latinos rally has affected our community in Madison. I spoke with many of my colleagues and they said it was amazing to see families out there protesting, and not since the Act 10 protests of 2011 had such a large group descended on the Capitol. A Madison policeman told me informally it was among the most peaceful demonstrations he had witnessed.

At the Voces de la Frontera planning meetings in Madison for A Day Without Latinos, I had a chance to meet four Latina teenagers who were organizing their fellow students at four area high schools to walk out and join the protest. I was struck by their passion, focus, talents and determination. They were all taking challenging subjects in high school, including some advanced placement courses; several were working part-time jobs to help out their families and all had taken a leadership role in their Latino student organization. One of the students had recently won a $5,000 scholarship from the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County. As a member of the baby boomer generation, I was inspired to see young activists use social media tools like Facebook, Snapchat and Twitter to get the word out about the rally, and have the guile and confidence to handle the traditional news media.

More so, I was amazed to learn that some of these students are “dreamers.” Dreamers are undocumented immigrant youth who were brought to this country as young children. Many dreamers have applied for President Obama’s executive action titled Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, commonly referred to as DACA. Although temporary, DACA provides legal status and work authorization to this group. Since it was first implemented by the Obama administration in 2012, it has had a dramatic impact on the lives of those who are eligible.

Finally, A Day Without Latinos affected me in a very personal way. While I had not been involved in the initial planning, I served as a chaperone for the students who walked out of Madison East High School. It was amazing to see white, Asian American, Native American and African American high school students come together to support their Latino classmates. A movie released in 2004 called “A Day Without a Mexican” tried to illustrate what California would look like if Mexicans no longer worked as gardeners, cooks and construction laborers. An interesting concept indeed. My hope is that the people of Wisconsin understand the important role Latinos play in our economy. Without comprehensive immigration reform, many Latinos will continue to live and work in the shadows, and they deserve better than that.

The Wisconsin Idea demands that we marshal our collective energy and resources to not let members of another generation of immigrants living in the great state of Wisconsin have the American dream put just outside their reach.