Tracking Your Past: Latinx in Wisconsin

Doris Green

Search for “Latin American genealogy” on the Wisconsin Historical Society website (www.wisconsinhistory.org), and zero results pop up. Search for “Latin American family history” to see only six results; three have nothing to do with Latin Americans in Wisconsin. The family histories of Latin American descendants are deeply hidden.

One positive result of your search is a brief biography of Camille Guerin-Gonzales (1945-2015), whose family traced their roots back 17 generations in northern New Mexico. Guerin-Gonzales earned her Ph.D. at the University of California-Riverside and eventually went on to direct and redesign the Chican@ and Latin@ Studies Program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Another result is a story about farm worker advocate Jesus Salas, a third-generation migrant worker who settled in Wautoma and co-founded Oberos Unidos (United Workers) in 1966. Beyond organizing protests and boycotts, Salas also taught bilingual skills at Milwaukee Area Technical College and was a lecturer at UW-Madison and UW-Milwaukee before serving on the UW System Board of Regents. 

More stories like those of Guerin-Gonzales and Salas should become visible over the next five years, thanks to the creation of the Wisconsin Latinx History Collective. (“Latinx” is a gender-neutral term for “Latina and Latino.”) In addition to genealogy, the collective aims to research and document labor, migration, citizenship, political organizing, religion, health, business, culture and the arts.

The collective’s 80 members represent faculty, staff, and students from UW-Madison, Madison College, UW-Whitewater, UW-Milwaukee, Viterbo University and UW-Parkside, as well as community researchers and leaders from Milwaukee, Madison, Green Bay and Waupaca. 

“You can’t have just academics looking at our history,” according to project lead Andrea-Teresa “Tess” Arenas, quoted in the Spring 2021 UW-Madison Letters & Science newsletter. An emerita faculty affiliate with the UW-Madison Chican@ and Latin@ Studies Program, Arenas said, “We all have our discipline, lenses, and biases, and that can lead to ignoring other developments, and then we have the community members who are doing interviews and documenting and it brings in a whole new perspective.”

The WLHC is working with the WHS to strengthen existing Latinx archival collections. Family history is as much about the present and future as it is the past. The WLHC project promises to record and preserve Latinx presence in Wisconsin to inform, enlighten and encourage future researchers and family historians.

Doris Green authored “Elsie’s Story: Chasing a Family Mystery” and “Wisconsin Underground: A Guide to Caves, Mines, and Tunnels.” Also available: “Minnesota Underground: A Guide to Caves & Karst, Mines & Tunnels,” co-authored with Greg Brick. Visit http://henschelhausbooks.com.