In this issue of On, we share stories that bring into focus the reality of immigration in Wisconsin. We believe that when differences and rhetoric erode our sense of others’ humanity, the WHC has a role to play. We feel this is a topic that asks us to slow down and listen, so we have attempted to offer an entry point that is grounded in our common humanity.
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In this issue of On:
- Welcome: From the Director’s Desk
- Featured: Interview with Cinthia Téllez
- In the Spotlight
We have a joke around the office that there is no such thing as a humanities emergency. Our brand of humanities may move you to action, but doesn’t typically involve flashing lights and sirens. We’re working to broaden and deepen your sense of what it means to be human, and building bonds of human understanding — not fighting fires.
Today, as immigration remains at the red-hot center of our politically divided nation, I see a humanities emergency.
When our differences and our rhetoric erode our sense of others’ humanity, that’s a humanities emergency. When anyone is cast out from the circle of moral consideration, that’s a humanities emergency. And when there’s a humanities emergency, nothing is more urgent than slowing down and grounding ourselves in our common humanity.
So, at the WHC, we’ve set to the side the political firestorm around immigration. We’re offering Wisconsin an alternative entry point to a conversation that, indeed, we need to have. That starting point is stories from immigrants’ lives.
Each immigrant has a unique story. If you aren’t part of that story, or aren’t looking for it, it’s a story you might not pick out from the rich fabric of the 5.8 million lives being lived in Wisconsin. To bring the reality of immigration, and of Wisconsin immigrants’ lives, into focus, we found great partners in the staff and board of Centro Hispano of Dane County. We invited two respected journalists, Bill Berry and photographer Gary Porter, to join our team. Together with eight immigrants, Gilberto, Saul, Ana Claudia, Fernando, Jennifer, Mario, Cinthia, and Panfilo, we created an exhibition called Immigrant Journeys from South of the Border ¡Mi travesía hasta Wisconsin!
With gorgeous photographic portraits and first-person stories, this traveling and digital exhibit invites you to meet men and women who came here from Mexico, Honduras, Colombia and Uruguay. To help you place their stories in context, we include a few facts about Wisconsin’s Latinx population, and about immigration to Wisconsin from around the world.
The exhibit tour begins in Dane county in the summer of 2019, but anyone can find it online at WisconsinImmigrantJourneys.org. Experience it either way, and join me in bringing the humanities — and your humanity – to one of our state’s and our nation’s most consequential conversations.
Dena Wortzel’s day job is as executive director of the WHC. The rest of the time she can be found wrestling hay bales, messing with animals, and watching the grass grow on her farm in Hollandale.
Only four Latino students, including me, graduated from my Janesville high school class of 230. Not everyone got the support I did, however. My high school categorized minority students and gave them service or not based on their expectations for success or their likelihood of going to college. The dropout rate was high.
The reason I thrived then, and continue to thrive, is because I had a constant series of mentors that began with my mom. She was my role model ever since we left Guanajuato, Mexico. When I was 11, we moved to California, and then Janesville, where my high school mentor gave me the extra support I needed. He was one of the first Latino residents in Janesville in the 1960s.
During my sophomore year, my mentor gathered a group of about five students–all undocumented–and suggested that we help him with the annual Latino Family Day. Little by little, he started adding more opportunities for us so that by senior year, we were doing outreach to Latino families to help them learn more about the college application system.
Along the way, he pushed us to take harder courses that would count for college. He prompted us to think about our futures: What do you want to do? What’s your passion? What do you think you’re good at? Where do you think you can improve? He inspired us with his own story of being the first in his family to go to college. If I went to college, I would be the first in my family, too, so I connected with him at that level. When I was admitted to college, he kept encouraging me. “We did the hardest part: getting into school,” he said. “Now, you’re ready to go.”
My first year of college, Scott Walker was elected Governor. Before, under Governor Doyle, I paid in-state tuition. Within a matter of months, under Walker, I was required to pay out-of-state tuition because I was an undocumented DACA* recipient. Instead of paying two grand, I now had to pay five. The university said they could offer only fifteen scholarships that would cover tuition. Because there were about fifty of us undocumented students, we knew the decisions would come down to grades.
Unfortunately, my first semester was not great. I hadn’t even had a regular English class until my last two years of high school. It would take a whole semester for me to write a ten-page paper–with help. So to do that on my own in college was a huge eye-opener. For the first time, I got a C in English. I remember talking to my professors: “I don’t want you to make an exception for me, but please recommend things that I can do so I can get to the level of the other students.” With their help, I ended up doing really well in the humanities. I also began taking biology classes and joined the soccer team. Soccer had always been a bridge that helped me connect with people and find my inner strength and focus.
I got the call that I had been given the scholarship. My high school mentor always told me, “You’ll figure it out as you go.” He was right. I got my associate’s degree the next year.
In 2013, I moved to Milwaukee and began pursuing a degree in biology at UWM. A year later, however, I had to drop out of classes because of my finances. Determined to still be involved at UWM in some way, I searched until the Office of Undergraduate Research steered me to Raoul Deal’s mural project with ArtWorks for Milwaukee. When he learned of my situation, Raoul took me under his wing. He made me a mentor and researcher for the youth working on a mural to honor United Migrant Opportunity Services, or UMOS, a group started 50 years ago to help migrant farmworkers in Wisconsin.
What I remember most is my conversations with Latino students who were interested in becoming artists, a pursuit which isn’t always taken seriously by Latino families. I would tell them, “Sometimes you have to sell it to your parents. Lay down the whole plan. And then you have to stick to that plan. And if something comes up, you improvise, but you never drop the goal.”
Yes, I changed my major, but I stuck to my plan to graduate. During my final year, I had the opportunity to work for public health professor Jenna Lloyd, interviewing social service agencies who work with immigrants and refugees, and I went on to graduate with my bachelor’s degree. For awhile, I worked with UMOS. Now I’m the Healthy Schools Program Coordinator at the Sixteenth Street Community Health Center, where I’m learning from Tatiana Maida how to educate Latino families about making healthy choices by adapting their eating and exercise behaviors.
Because of all my mentors throughout the years–my mom, my high school mentor, my teachers, my soccer coach, Raoul, Dr. Lloyd, Tatiana–I know how to be one, too, and I’m choosing to use this skill to benefit the health of our communities in Milwaukee.
In the Spotlight:
Waldemar Ager believed that encouraging immigrants like himself to share the best from their cultures of origin makes America stronger. The legacy of this early 20th century Norwegian-American writer and civic leader continues to inspire conversations about immigrant identity. The WHC supported a series of programs organized by the Waldemar Ager Association in Eau Claire that encouraged conversations like the one shown here, about cultural loss, led by sisters Khoua Vang, True Vue and Pa Sia Moua. True Vue explains, “My generation is losing our language and our culture, and our kids are losing them even more. Part of my mission is to save as much as I can.”
Globally, over 33,000 people are forced to flee their homes every day, resulting in the highest level of displacement in recorded history. The impacts of this displacement include increased immigration. How can youth in Wisconsin learn about this complicated issue and better understand the ways their communities are growing and changing? Displacement and Immigration: Through a Different Lens, a partnership between UW-Green Bay and the Neville Public Museum, funded in part by a grant from the WHC, invited young people to special screenings of films like ‘Salam Neighbor,’ a documentary about life in a refugee camp on Syria’s border. In this photo, the filmmaker spoke with the audience via Skype.
Creators, Collectors and Communities: Making Ethnic Identity through Objects invited visitors to reflect on cultural continuity and change in southwestern Dane County, paying particular attention to the influence of Norwegian immigrants to the area. Artistic traditions, such as rosemaling (pictured here) were demonstrated and taught in hands-on workshops.
Immigrants make up a majority of the workforce on Wisconsin dairy farms today. Los Lecheros is a vivid, carefully researched 20-minute documentary film that explores rising tensions over undocumented dairy workers. We are proud to offer screenings of the film which was produced by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and Twelve Letter Films. Contact us to host a community screening and discussion. Find a film event, or schedule your own, by visiting us online at WisconsinImmigrantJourneys.org.
Nearly 40% of Latinos in Wisconsin are under the age of 18. The impact and influence of the Latino community on Wisconsin’s economy, educational system, businesses, and culture will be told through stories from a new generation of leaders in Latino Wisconsin, a documentary film-in-progress funded in part with a grant from the WHC.
Tshab Her and Victoria Kue use textiles in their artwork to explore themes of Hmong identity, history, family, and politics. Pictured here, Tshab Her holds up a sticker from her #hmongspace (Daim duab lo ua ntu zus) piece in the exhibition when you were made (thaum koj tshwm sim). Victoria Kue’s piece bury us to the moon (ua kom txaus ntshai) is installed in the background. The WHC was proud to support this special exhibition at Lawrence University, as well as public programs off campus that opened meaningful conversations about the formation of cultural identity and the generational evolution of identity in immigrant communities.
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