Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Hispanics in Wisconsin

Hispanic Americans in Wisconsin | Wisconsin Historical Society
EnlargeMrs. Matias Perez and her daughter empty buckets of cucumbers picked into burlap bags.

Picking Cucumbers, 1970

Wautoma, Wisconsin. Mrs. Matias Perez and her daughter empty buckets of cucumbers picked into burlap bags. View the original source document: WHI 25046

EnlargeA central Wisconsin labor camp consisting of a row of wooden framed building with asphalt siding which housed migrant laborers.

Central Wisconsin Labor Camp, 1967.

A central Wisconsin labor camp consisting of a row of wooden framed building with asphalt siding which housed migrant laborers. In 1942-1964, more than 4 million Mexican workers entered the U.S. for temporary employment under the Bracero Program which was an agreement between the U.S. and Mexico. The agreement was created in response to a lobby from growers in western states who anticipated labor shortages during World War II and the Korean War. View the original source document: WHI 91132

Hispanic Americans have lived in Wisconsin since before statehood, but they did not become a sizable population until the 1950s. Prior to the 1950s, most were Mexicans, who worked as migrant laborers. Manufacturers and agricultural contractors hired them to fill labor shortages caused by immigration laws that restricted the number of Europeans allowed to immigrate, as well as shortages caused by strikes. By 1925, around 9,000 Mexican Americans lived in Milwaukee. Most lost their jobs during the Depression and moved back home.

World War II Population Growth

The increased demand for food and simultaneous shortage of labor during World War II created a demand for agricultural workers. The Emergency Farm Labor Program, adopted in 1943, permitted employers to hire foreign workers to work in the fields. Under this program, Wisconsin growers imported male workers from Jamaica, the Bahamas, British Honduras, and Mexico. Over 13,000 German prisoners of war were also used in the fields. These Germans worked at 38 camps throughout Wisconsin from 1944 to 1945. 

Bracero Program

After the war, the importation of Mexicans continued, supported by the federal Bracero program. Millions of Mexican farm laborers came north as part of the program until it was discontinued in 1964.

Hispanics in Wisconsin Today

Today, Mexicans are the largest Spanish-speaking group in Wisconsin. Mexicans arriving in the 1950s and after have found an established community of Mexican Americans to settle into, particularly in Milwaukee.

Another fast-growing group of Spanish-speaking residents is Puerto Ricans, who began arriving in Wisconsin in the late 1940s. They were drawn to industrial jobs in Milwaukee, Kenosha and Racine counties. Wisconsin is also home to political refugees and other immigrants from Cuba, El Salvador, Columbia, and Nicaragua.

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