This Museum Exhibit Depicts the History of Latinx Farmworkers
The unveiling of 'Estamos Aquí' has been a catalyst for curiosity about the Latino community in Northeast Wisconsin.
Photo courtesy the Neville Public Museum.
Estamos Aquí, Spanish for "we are here," is the title of a new exhibit on the first floor of the Neville Public Museum in Green Bay, Wisconsin. The exhibit examines Latino identity in the immigrant and migrant community in Northeast Wisconsin—a place generally known for its inhabitants being predominantly of German, Polish and Scandinavian descent. In Brown County and neighboring Oconto County, the 2016 census puts the percentage of whites at 88 percent and 96 percent, respectively.
If not for almost-lifelong resident Antonio Saldaña in partnership with the local advocacy group Casa ALBA Melanie these Latino voices might have gone completely unheard. In fact, much of the exhibit—designed and built over two years—is modeled on Saldaña's experiences as a child migrant worker.
Saldaña's family of migrant workers had been coming to Northeast Wisconsin annually since the 1930s. They would spend a few months every summer picking cucumbers at a farm which supplied the now-defunct Bond Pickle Company. At the entrance of Estamos Aquí stands a replica of the twenty-five by sixteen-foot one-room house in which Antonio, his 13 siblings, and his parents all lived while in Wisconsin for the harvest. Saldaña points to a spot near the door where he slept on the floor. Born in Oconto County, he started working the cucumber fields when he was 4. "As soon as you could walk or talk, you were working," Saldaña says. He estimates that for one day's work, the entire family was paid about $60-70 in the 1970s (about $400 in today's currency).
There may have been tiny houses in which they stayed, but there was no real "home" for the Saldaña family. When they weren't in Wisconsin harvesting cucumbers, they would be harvesting tomatoes in Ohio or picking cotton, onions, or carrots in Texas. Saldaña's cousins harvested oranges in Florida and California. "It was hard to make friends because of the language barrier; we were mostly around other migrant workers. It was hard to get educated because we were moving around," Saldaña says. "We changed schools all the time, but somehow I stayed in because I was smart."
Saldaña became a permanent resident of Wisconsin at the age of 14 when he had the opportunity to live with his older sister in Green Bay and go to school full time. Saldaña is a fourth-generation American, yet was the first in his family to obtain a high school diploma, and then a college degree.
Though the cucumber farms are long gone, the state's main industries of today are still sustained by Latino immigrant and migrant work. One of the first bright, yellow walls you encounter inside the exhibit reads: "Half of all dairy workers are Latino." Half of all meat processing employees are Latino, as well—and their contributions in each industry are artfully detailed in Estamos Aquí. The rest of the display illustrates numerous Latino, but mostly Mexican, traditions—holidays, family customs, dress, and cuisine. A section dedicated to assimilation displays a bright, woven, green and gold Green Bay Packers poncho. Considering the name's tie to the Wisconsin meatpacking industry, the significance of the fan gear is poignant.
The unveiling of Estamos Aquí has been a new catalyst for curiosity about the Latino community in Northeast Wisconsin. The requests for Saldaña to come and speak at schools, churches, and various community groups about his experience as a migrant worker have been rolling in. Asked about the challenges of being a Latino—and an informal ambassador of the Latino community—in a predominantly white community during the Trump era, he replies that people now often ask him, a part-Native-American fourth-generation American, if he is going to be deported since he "is here illegally" and how he is "going to get over the wall?"
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To prepare for each talk, Saldaña scopes out the area in which he is about to speak a couple days in advance, not so much because he fears for his safety, but so he can mentally prepare for a place where people might not want to hear what he has to say. "People know me because of [Diverse Voices, the biweekly column he had for 13 years in the Green Bay Press-Gazette]. But I still get these comments and I still need to make sure I know where I'm going." A barometer for the climate might be the number of Trump signs in the area. Clark County, for instance, leads Wisconsin in dairy production and went almost 64% for Trump in 2016 (and dairy farms are feeling the consequences of the Trump presidency).
Saldaña is pragmatic about the politically difficult climate in which he's made a home: "I tell people, 'Trump did not invent racism. But the hate we see coming out? It's because of his rhetoric; he gives [racists] permission to say whatever they want to say. We have to fight everything. And once people get more comfortable with us, things will be better.'"
The reception to Estamos Aquí, the resulting press, and his talks around the area, however, have been overwhelmingly positive. Last week, a fellow congregant in his church told him, "I just wanted to let you know I saw your story on TV and I can't believe you're playing [piano] in our church." A member of the audience for one of his talks was incredulous, asking "That happened here? That happened in Northeastern Wisconsin? How can that be?" to which Saldaña answered, "I don't know—you've eaten a cucumber. How do you think that got there?"
Saldaña himself is also extremely pleased with how the exhibit turned out. "For me, Estamos Aquí was a dream come true because it was something I had always wanted. Then it came through and everybody just loved it. I never knew it was going to end up like that. And they had never gotten such positive reviews. These doors—they're now open for me to educate."
Antonio's next project is to preserve the actual migrant house in which his family lived, which he managed to locate three years ago, and then to raise enough funds so that it can be moved to and re-registered at Heritage Hill State Historical Park. It would crystallize his family's place in Northeast Wisconsin history, a proclamation on behalf of all Latino migrant and immigrant workers that "we are here."