Tuesday, September 1, 2015

A Dream Deferred

ZIP CODE 53206 is often dismissed as the poorest and most troubled neighborhood in Milwaukee. But the labels overlook the everyday lives of the people who make it their home.

A glimpse beyond the stereotypes.

Stories and Photos by Barbara J. Miner. 
Milwaukee Magazine, February 2015.

On a spectacularly sunny afternoon in October, I approach a gorup of people along Hopkins Avenue on Milwaukee's North Side. 

I walked the streets and talked to residents, community advocates and religious leaders for several months. It didn’t take long to realize 53206 is more complicated than I had thought. It also became clear that trust is a huge issue. And not just because of the ever-present racial tensions in Milwaukee, one of the country’s most segregated metropolitan regions. The residents of 53206 may have differing opinions on issues such as police/ community relations, parental responsibility and Milwaukee schools, but distrust of the city’s major newspapers, television and radio stations – “the white media” – is rampant.

Follow the mainstream media for any time, especially talk radio and television, and one begins to understand the distrust. More often than not, Milwaukee’s central city is portrayed as a black ghetto filled with victims and villains,

They are wary, and I am nervous. I explain that I am working on a story about the 53206 ZIP code. “Oh, you want to write about all us poor people,” one woman on the sidewalk says. Her sarcasm is unmistakable, and I also detect anger and disgust. She walks away.

I turn to two young people sitting on a nearby porch. They intro­duce themselves as Andrea and Berrion. I joke about the problems of a white person walking around 53206 and asking questions. But, I add, I am a gray-haired older woman and hopefully not mistaken for a cop.

As Berrion and Andrea remind me, an unknown white person may be greeted warily even if they aren’t a cop. I could be with child protective services. Or a reli­ gious proselytizer. I’m not even sure of all the possibilities.

What I do know is that 53206 is often written off as Milwaukee’s poorest ZIP code, an epicenter of drugs, violence and joblessness. But it is also home to some 29,000 people – more than the cities of Stevens Point or Superior.

For almost 30 years, I have lived in Riverwest in 53212, east of 53206. I get frustrated with people who look only at the numbers – the crime, the poverty – and assume that I live in a “bad” neighborhood. Spurred partly by that divide between perception and reality, I began working on this story on 53206 with one main focus: Look beyond the stereo­types. What might you find?

I walked the streets and talked to residents, community advocates and religious leaders for several months. It didn’t take long to realize 53206 is more complicated than I had thought. It also became clear that trust is a huge issue. And not just because of the ever-present racial tensions in Milwaukee, one of the country’s most segregated metropolitan regions. The residents of 53206 may have differing opinions on issues such as police  community relations, parental responsibility and Milwaukee schools, but distrust of the city’s major newspapers, television and radio stations – “the white media” – is rampant.

Follow the mainstream media for any time, especially talk radio and television, and one begins to understand the distrust. More often than not, Milwaukee’s central city is portrayed as a black ghetto filled with victims and villains, good guys and bad guys, all caught in a web of murder, mayhem and government handouts. There are few stories of everyday people doing their best, just like folks in Wauwatosa or West Bend, to earn a living, raise a family and find some happiness in life. People like Warren and Shirley Harper, Patrice Townsend, Lester Carter Jr. and countless others in 53206.

Warren, hanging out at his favorite spot along Green Bay Blvd.

Warren Harper is the 81-yearold owner of Warren’s Lounge on Hopkins Avenue, just east of the now-defunct A.O. Smith complex that once churned out auto and truck frames by the thousands. He is a sports fanatic partial to the Green Bay Packers, an avid card player partial to Spades, and a kind and gentle host who speaks his mind. 

On one of my visits, Warren explains that his wife, Shirley, is not there because she had cataract surgery and has had to go to the hospital twice. 

“Twice?” I ask, surprised. “I hope everything’s OK.”

“Of course twice,” Warren says. “She has two eyes, one right and one left.”

The laugh is on me. But it’s good-hearted.

For many white people, walking or driving around 53206 presents many reasons to be uneasy, even during the day. Too many businesses are closed or have imposing metal bars and padlocks. The corner grocery stores are small, with a plethora of liquor and cigarette advertisements and notices for the govern­ment-funded WIC and Quest food programs – all telling you that, no, this wouldn’t be like walking into a Pick ’n Save. And what about that group of young men on the street corner? Should you worry? Sometimes, the answer might be “yes” – especially at night, when even neighborhood residents take precautions. But what happens when fear becomes the dominant response, all day, every day, even when there is no reason to be afraid?

The first time I visited Warren’s Lounge, a friend had invited me. But it was still intimidating, and not only because of the small, dark doorway and the fact that all the buildings across the street had long ago been abandoned. What kind of tavern has a heavy metal grate on a locked door with a bell that must be rung to get in?

Once inside, however, Warren’s reminded me of “Cheers.” Even if they don’t know your name, they’ll treat you well. I soon understood why people routinely travel in from outlying ZIP codes and suburbs to spend a few hours at the lounge.

And the doorbell and locked front door? I ask Warren, assuming it had to do with being robbed. “It was kids being mischievous,” War­ren explains. During the summer, kids would open the door, throw a tomato or egg, laugh and run away. By the time Warren ran after them, they were long gone. The doorbell solved the problem.

Warren tries to be at the bar seven days a week, beginning in the afternoon. Shirley opens up at 7 a.m. and works five days a week till noon. More often than not, Warren is wearing his 2011 Green Bay Packers Super Bowl hoodie, while Shirley prefers her Wisconsin Bad­gers sweatshirt. They’ve been married 59 years, with four children and nine grandchildren. One of their sons died last winter after a series of illnesses exacerbated by diabetes. It’s been hard on them.

Warren and Shirley moved to Milwaukee in 1957, part of the Great Migration of African-American farmers and sharecroppers traveling north in search of jobs and a better life. They moved to North 26th Street in 1963, the first black family in a neighborhood dominated by Jewish and German residents. Their home skirts the eastern edge of the 30th Street Industrial Corridor in 53216, which, in its heyday, employed many of the neighborhood’s residents and spawned a host of businesses nearby. They bought the bar in 1970, a chance for Warren to do more than work in the city’s tanneries.

“Business was really booming, and we had fun,” Shirley says. Facto­ry workers would stop in for a quick lunch of chicken or a burger, or relax at the bar after their shift. When the Green Bay Packers played at Milwaukee County Stadium, which they did until 1994, players would often stop by Warren’s.

“And now it’s all gone,” Shirley says. “First A.O. Smith left, and then Tower. For a while, we had the train, but now even that’s gone.” (Talgo Inc. had moved in to build modern trains. But the company left after Gov. Scott Walker rejected federal funds for rail travel, and the Re­publican- led Legislature canceled Talgo’s contract with the state.) 

Warren and Shirley’s son, Warren Jr. – called Wayne by everyone except his dad – retired after 30 years in the U.S. Air Force and recently visited his parents. He worries about the ZIP code’s demise. “I could take a picture in Turkey, or other places, and you would say, ‘Oh, that’s the Third World,” he says. “But you take pictures here, it’s similar. And we are in the United States.”

The problem goes deeper than the neighborhood’s loss of factories. “There’s investment out
there, and there are jobs,” Wayne says. “But they’re in New Berlin or Waukesha. There’s no bus, so how are people going to get there?”

At the same time, Wayne considers the neighborhood his first and favorite home. When he walks past the red brick building on the corner of 26th and Keefe, he can’t help but remember the German bakery where he bought donuts for a nickel. He has a home in New Mexico, but his wife passed last June and his two children, one a lawyer and the other in law school, have their own lives. He sometimes thinks about moving back to Milwaukee.

“People think I’m crazy,” he admits.

Shirley and Warren, meanwhile, don’t plan to close the lounge. It’s their life. Their children and younger relatives have pushed them to bring in hip-hop bands in addition to the jazz and blues bands that occasionally play there. In September, Vet Spencer, 40, opened up PoGurl Cafe in the back of the lounge, serving everything from soul food to tacos, seven days a week.

“We struggling, but we’re still here,” Shirley says.

Asked what would help the ZIP code most, Shirley has a half-century of experience behind her answer. “We need some businesses,” she says. “People can’t have a job if there aren’t businesses. Back in the day, we had everything we needed, including a George Webb’s. But now, even the corner mailboxes are gone.”

Granny's, 19th and Teutonia Ave.

ZIP codes, established in the 1960s as part of a national system to deliver mail efficiently, also evolved into a profiling system for marketing, real estate and data collection. (ZIP, an acronym for Zone Improvement Plan, was chosen to imply speedy delivery.) 53206, with a perimeter of almost nine miles, runs from North Avenue to Capitol Drive on the north, and from Interstate 43 to 27th Street on the west. It is home to such historical landmarks as Union Cemetery; St. Mark African Methodist Episcopal Church, the state’s oldest African-American congregation; and Borchert Field, which hosted the minor league Brewers baseball team from 1902 to 1952. Made obsolete when County Stadium was built in 1953, Borchert Field was demolished to make way for I-43.

The ZIP code includes distinct neighborhoods, from Franklin Heights to Amani to Arlington Heights. Sections near Capitol Drive were once a stronghold of the black middle class, with stately brick homes. Farther south, it’s not unusual to find two homes on a lot, one off the alley and another fronting the street. Some 97 percent of the ZIP code’s residents are African-American. 

Overall, the statistics are sobering. According to a recent report on 53206 from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Center for Economic Development, only 36 percent of working-age males in the area are employed. The poverty rate for children is about 66 percent. Although the percentage of people with high school diplomas and college degrees increased significantly between 2000 and 2012, median household income declined during the same period. On average, workers in 53206 have longer commutes than other Milwaukee workers, and rely more on public transportation. 53206 has also been shaped by the war on drugs, which morphed into mass incarceration policies that disproportionately imprison African-American men. Today, Wisconsin locks up a higher percentage of black men (1 in 8) than any other state, in a country that incarcerates more people than any other nation. Most of the

African-Americans jailed in Wisconsin come from Milwaukee's poorest ZIP codes, 53206 in particular.

It is politically acceptable to attribute the problems of 53206 to an inner-city culture that has abandoned a sense of personal responsibility. Last March, for instance, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Janesville) said in a radio interview that there is a “tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular…[of] generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work.” 

The statistics belie Ryan’s remarks. Spend any time in 53206, and the question soon arises: Who has abandoned whom?

Leaving aside the loss of family-supporting manufacturing jobs, consider: There are no public libraries in 53206. No major parks. No Walmart, Kohl’s, Home Depot or Ace Hardware. No prominent restaurants, not even a McDonald’s, Wendy’s or Burger King. No Jewel-Osco, Sentry, Aldi or Pick ’n Save, with only a small Lena’s grocery off Fond du Lac and Meinecke. Child care centers, which have a median hourly wage of $8.64, are the fastest-growing business. Social service agencies have made a commitment to the area, but charity is not an economic development strategy.

Even the feds seem to be abandoning 53206. The U.S. Post Office, still in operation on Teutonia Avenue, stands small and forlorn, with cracks in the foundation and red brick walls. No one has bothered to fix the broken window facing the street.

I am about to enter a meeting at St. Matthew C.M.E. (Christian Methodist Episcopal), and I hear a friendly voice. “Hey, white lady. How you doing?”

I look over and see Cheryl Smith, whom I had met two days earlier at the church’s Sunday morning meal program.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Smith quickly adds, worried I might be offended at her spontaneous hello.

“No worries,” I respond. She has perfectly captured how I often feel in 53206.

Throughout the fall and early winter, I talked with Smith several times and she came to laugh about her “white lady” comment. “Now that we’ve got that out of the way, I can call you Ms. Barbara,” she says.

Smith, 54, moved to 12th and Chambers streets four years ago, attracted by the area’s low rents: “I live in this ZIP code because, frankly, I can’t afford to live anywhere else.” She had been an office worker processing insurance claims, but chronic cardiopulmonary problems forced her to go on disability. “Trying to balance with that one disability check of $900 every month, that doesn’t go a long way,” she says.

The last few years have not been easy for Smith. In addition to losing her job, she and her husband separated, and he is now incarcerated. But she is thankful for St. Matthew’s. “It’s a good place to start
to get back on your feet,” she says.

Located on Ninth Street off Locust Street, St. Matthew’s is best known as home of the Community Brainstorming Conference, held monthly since 1986 to discuss concerns within the African-American

community. In recent years, many members of St. Matthew’s have moved outside the ZIP code. The building is old and the issue came up: Should the congregation rebuild or move? “It was a very short discussion,” says the pastor, Rev. Richard Shaw. “The church members want to stay here in service to the community.”

Through St. Matthew’s, I also met LaVale Henry, who lives nearby and works part-time at the church in security and maintenance. He also has part time jobs in landscaping and home repair, and helps
out his father, who is on dialysis.

Henry, 44, attended Madison High School, dropped out and soon found himself in trouble with the law. “I had been in gangs since I was 14,” he says. “I was in and out of prison three or four times. You know, gang-related stuff, fights. Silly stuff.”

Henry remembers his epiphany. He was 33 years old and serving time in the state prison at Waupun. One day, he watched an old man slowly and carefully walking with a cane. “I made a vow to myself that day,” Henry says, “that I would get out of prison and never come back. I was not going to die in that place.”

After prison, Henry got his high school equivalency degree through MATC, where he also took classes for a certificate as an appliance technician. He is hopeful about his future. But he looks at today’s youth and sees a younger version of himself. It worries him.

“There’s nothing here for the youth to do,” he says. “And when there’s no future and nothing to do, what happens? You get in trouble.”

Similar concerns – will our children get in trouble? Will they be safe? – haunt parents throughout 53206. There is a higher percentage of children 18 years and younger in the ZIP code, compared to Milwaukee County. In addition, roughly 64 percent of all families in 53206 are single-parent families headed by women, double the county average. Women such as Marquita and Melissa Smith.

Twin sisters, Marquita and Melissa were born 30 years ago at a time when factories began disappearing from Milwaukee and instability became the new norm. From the ages of 5 to 15 years, the twins’ family moved about 18 times. They were evicted four times, lived in four different shelters, and attended six different schools. The one constant was the support they found at Hephatha Lutheran Church at 17th and Locust streets.

Two years ago, Marquita got the chance to buy a home near Hephatha through Habitat for Humanity. She was nervous, but determined. “If my childhood struggles taught me anything, it’s that I never want my kids to experience Some of the things I did,” she wrote in a statement celebrating the Habitat program.

Ever since she was 16 years old, Marquita has had a job. For the last nine years, she has worked at the Aldi grocery store on 67th and Capitol Drive. Working is a matter of dignity and survival, and helps offset decisions she made when she was younger that, she admits, “I am not proud of.” Marquita has four children, ranging in ages from almost 2 years old to 11. She remains close to their father, who often stays at the home.

Melissa and her two children, ages 8 and 9, moved in with Marquita after an electrical fire in her rented flat about a year ago. A beautician, Melissa also works part time in a parent project at the Hopkins Lloyd Community School a few blocks away. The twins don’t dream of being rich or famous. They just want their children to be safe and have a better childhood than they had. “My dream is for my children to grow up without a lot of crime around them,” Melissa says, “for them to finish school without bullying, and to have positive role models.”

Cinammon,  near 23rd and Chambers.

North Division High School, located on 10th and Center streets, has always reflected the neighborhood’s demographics and dreams. Golda Meier, the late prime minister of Israel, graduated from North Division in 1915. Vel Phillips, who holds so many “firsts” as an African-American woman that it is hard to keep track, is a 1942 graduate. U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore graduated from North in 1969.

On a recent Monday afternoon, I talk with North Division students in a social studies class who are studying 53206 as part of a geography unit. There are about 12 students, slightly more young women than men. It doesn’t take long for differences to emerge.

“The police, I can’t explain it, but they don’t like black people,” says Rueben.

“That’s not true,” D-Andrea replies.

“I agree with him,” Teyonda says, nodding toward Rueben. “The police don’t help us.”

The back and forth escalates: “They’re just doing their job….” “People can be innocent and still get intimidated by the police….” “Why did they kill that guy Downtown?”

Before long, the discussion is at an impasse. Roderick Rush, the teacher, switches topics. What might the future hold for 53206?

“It ain’t got no future,” says one young man.

“Nothing’s going to change, ’cause nobody cares,” another says.

Finally, D-Andrea, one of the more outspoken students, has had enough. “If you’re not going to try to make the change we need, and put in the effort, then just shut up,” she says. “And don’t complain.”

Soon, it’s D-Andrea against three of the boys. The teacher again steps in, and I ask a question: If you were interviewed on television about the ZIP code, what would you want people to know?

The sharp differences yield to a common plea.

“Notice that we are here, that, like you, we are human, and we deserve the same things you want.”

“We got talent, all of us in the ZIP code. People need to see that.”

Later that night, I think about the discussion and how many of the young men said they lack hope. A poem by Langston Hughes, “Harlem,” written in 1951, comes to mind.

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up

like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore–

And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over–

like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?

In the 1960s, moving to 53206 especially the more affluent north end was a step up, a chance to move away from the inner core just north of Downtown. By the late 1980s, that was no longer the case, as factory jobs disappeared and whites moved to the suburbs.

Living conditions got worse with the nationwide collapse of the housing market in 2007, triggered by predatory and subprime lending practices. In 2008, as the recession escalated, unemployment grew and foreclosures skyrocketed. As with deindustrialization, 53206 was forever changed by decisions made in banks and boardrooms far removed from Milwaukee.

Overall, the foreclosure crisis in Milwaukee was not as bad as in some cities. “But the foreclosures were concentrated in certain areas, making the impact greater than one might think,” notes Maria Prioletta from Milwaukee’s Department of City Development (DCD). One of those areas was 53206.

The perception is that the housing bubble affected people who perhaps should not have bought a home in the first place, Prioletta adds. “But a lot of the people who lost their homes in 53206 were long-time owners. They were the backbone of the neighborhood.”

The area near 24th and Burleigh is an example of how the foreclosure crisis has altered neighborhoods and made progress difficult. In 2005, the Children’s Outing Association (COA) opened a 54,000-square-foot facility at 2320 N. Burleigh St. Among its amenities: three full-sized gyms, an arts room and performing arts studio, computer labs, a family resource center and a medical clinic. It’s a terrific facility.

But the housing bubble burst two years after the complex opened. Today, if you walk along the north side of Burleigh from COA to 25th Street, there are six boarded-up homes and two more appear unoccupied. By the time you finish your walk, the shine is off the COA facility.

In 53206, there are 7,052 residential properties with one to four units, according to DCD figures. Since 2007, about 30 percent have had foreclosure filings, and about half of those have been sold in sheriff sales. Currently, more than 10 percent of the ZIP code’s properties are vacant, according to city figures.

Seen in this context, perhaps the real story of 53206 is in the people who remain committed to the neighborhood and refuse to give up.

One of the many homes in 53206 devastated by the foreclosure crisis.

Patrice Townsend is parent coordinator at Milwaukee Public School’s Auer Avenue, a K4-8 elementary school. She is getting ready to escort a group of young students to their after-school transportation. She touches base with each student.

“LaQuan, how was your day?” she asks. “Good, OK, or not so good?”

“It was OK,” LaQuan answers.

“Well, I’ll give you something because you were honest with me,” Townsend says, “and maybe tomorrow will be better.” She hands him a foil-wrapped piece of chocolate.

Townsend, 47, has lived on 24th Place south of Burleigh since third grade. She attended Divine Savior Holy Angels High School, one of a handful of African-Americans at the school, and graduated in 1985. Ever since, she’s worked in child care and elementary education.

Townsend lives in the same house where she grew up. She can close her eyes and, one by one, list her neighbors. There are the Lees across the street, and the Turks, the Mitchells, the Davis family and the Bufords, whose son Rodney played in the NBA. The Simpsons, who live next door, moved in about the same time as her family. 

She’s never been robbed and knows of only one house on the block that has been burglarized, about three years ago. I find that hard to believe. “We watch out for each other,” she says.

About five years ago, Townsend reached a point in her life when she knew she would not have children. She became the foster mother of two children, Ahjah, 12, and Charles, 15. Both have medical problems and had been bounced around the foster care system before living with her.

Of her four siblings and her mother, who lives in a condo out past Mayfair, Townsend is the only one still in the neighborhood.

“My mom gets on me constantly about moving,” she says. “But I won’t. I’m grounded here. I’m connected… I won’t deny it, I hear shootings almost once a week. I hit the floor and call the police. But I still believe that people in our neighborhood are here because they want to be.”

It’s not just her job, her neighbors and her foster children that tie Townsend to 53206. For 28 years, she has worked part time at Carter’s Drugs on 24th and Burleigh, about halfway between Auer Avenue School and her home.

Townsend suggested I stop by Carter’s Drugs to meet her boss, Lester Carter Jr. Known as Dr. Carter to people throughout 53206 and many beyond its borders the pharmacist is a living legend. When I posted a picture of Dr. Carter on Facebook, it generated hundreds of shares and comments. Typical posts: “This man is a sweetheart.” “The neighborhood protects him out of respect.” “When I couldn’t afford a prescription for my son when he was little, Dr. Carter came thru for me. Bless this icon!!!!!!”

Dr. Carter has run Carter Drugs since 1968, when he bought it from a German pharmacist who became one of his best friends. He is called “doctor” in recognition of his knowledge of preventive medicine and herbal products especially his line of pain relief and cough syrups and his willingness to share advice that some customers value more than their physician’s.

Befitting a man who is 83 years old, Dr. Carter is decidedly old-school. He has gentlemanly manners and a quiet speaking voice, and in winter, he sports a knee-length wool coat and an Irish driving cap. When on the job, he wears a “Carter Drug Store” white medical coat, as well as a white shirt and a hand-tied bow tie, usually red.

“I’m one of the few left in the world, it seems, that still ties bow ties,” he says. “Years ago, during senior prom, the young men would be lined up out the front door, waiting for me to tie their ties.”

Dr. Carter loves his job, loves his customers and, make no mistake, loves his neighborhood. “When Channel 4 or Channel 6 come here and ask me if I’m worried about all the crime, I look them right in the eye and I say: ‘This is a beautiful neighborhood.’”

Dr. Carter says he has never had to call the police. There has been occasional shoplifting, but nothing he couldn’t handle, he says. I ask his secret.

“It’s very simple,’ he said. “I made a rule when I first started, that I would treat everyone with respect and courtesy. I don’t care if someone is 2 years old, or 22, or 102. They are Miss so-and-so or Mr. so-and-so.”

Then Dr. Carter tells me a story, one of an endless supply.

“The other day, young man comes in,” he begins.

“‘Remember me?’ the man asks.”
‘“I sure do,’ I tell him. ‘“You were one of the biggest hoods on the street.’”

‘“I’m a preacher now,’ the man says. ‘“And you’re the one that straightened me out.’”

It didn’t hurt that Dr. Carter knew all the parents in the neighborhood and would let mothers know if their children misbehaved. And that Dr. Carter had been in the military and knew how to box.

For almost half a century, Dr. Carter and his wife, Irene, lived upstairs from the store. Irene died in October, and he now lives with his daughter in St. Francis.

Forced by health concerns to cut back, Dr. Carter has turned over the fulfillment of prescriptions and the store’s ownership to Hayat Pharmacy, an independent, Milwaukee-based chain. But his heart remains in 53206. Three days a week, a transit van brings Dr. Carter to 24th and Burleigh, where he is readily available to tell stories, suggest remedies and do whatever he can for his customers.

“Once I get to be 100, I might start thinking about retiring,” he says with a twinkle in his eye, all but daring me to disagree.

Dr. Carter.

In some ways, Carter’s Drugs represents the end of an era, and not only because Dr. Carter bought the store at a time when African-Americans in Milwaukee believed in the promise of a better life. With the sale to Hayat Pharmacy, yet another black-owned business is gone.

The future of 53206 is unclear. And if there’s any nationwide lesson to be learned from the past several months, it is the fragility of social relations in our unequal and divided metropolitan areas.

As I finished this article, the Langston Hughes poem kept echoing
in my mind: “What happens to a dream deferred?”

Closer to home, one particular conversation I had stands out. Clayborn Benson, head of the Wisconsin Black Historical Society at 26th and Center and a former photojournalist at WTMJ 4, talked about how the media and powers-that-be are always asking people in 53206 the same question: “Aren’t you fed up with the shootings?” It’s a meaningless question, Benson said, because the answer is obviously yes.

“What people really need to be asking is, ‘Do you want this job that we have for you?’” he said. “And that would make all the difference. The difference is a job.” ■

Barbara Miner is a Milwaukee-area freelance writer. 

The New Immigrants

Curtiss, Wisconsin, was settled more than 150 years ago by Norwegians and Germans. Today, most of its residents are from Mexico. Yet the divergent paths of immigration to this outstate farm town are more similar than you would think.

By Barbara J. Miner

Located in the middle of north-central Wisconsin, Curtiss is a town you pass by on your way somewhere else. There are no “Up North” tourism attractions, no prominent lakes, forests or rivers. The closest city, Wausau, is 41 miles to the east.
My father-in-law grew up on a dairy farm 2 miles outside of Curtiss, part of a closely knit Norwegian community. Every other year, give or take a few, my husband Bob and I travel to Curtiss on a mid-July Sunday for family reunions involving the descendants of various Ole’s and Peder’s and Tandlokken’s from the Lillehammer region of Norway.
When I think of Curtiss, what comes to mind are dairy farms. Lots of them. In fact, Clark County, where Curtiss is located, has more dairy herds than any other county in Wisconsin.

Curtiss, WI, home of the Abbyland Foods pork slaughterhouse. (Photo by Barbara J. Miner)

With its history of dairy farming and 19th-century immigration, Curtiss is an iconic Wisconsin village. But it also foreshadows Wisconsin’s future. Sleepy, middle-of-nowhere Curtiss, with 279 people, is now 70 percent Hispanic, according to the U.S. Census’ latest American Community Survey.
“The older white families that lived here, they’ve died or moved out, and now it’s mostly Hispanic,” says Randy Busse, the village president. Busse, a father of five, jokingly says of his family: “We’re the oddballs in town.”
A century ago, Busse would’ve been anything but odd. European immigration was the norm, as Norwegians and Germans, in particular, called Curtiss home.
These European immigrants are now invariably honored as hardworking people who built Wisconsin. Looking through the rose-colored glasses of history, we forget the tensions that existed – the stereotypes of Irish as drunkards, the criticisms of German immigrants who sought to maintain their language and culture.
I wondered: A century from now, how might Hispanic immigrants be viewed, as second and third generations learn English and become “Americanized”? And what might the small town of Curtiss tell us today about this latest wave of American newcomers
Bob’s family’s history in Curtiss began in the 1870s. Ole Thompson and Peder Pederson, Bob’s great-grandparents, were part of a Norwegian migration that found a touch of home in the farms, forests and winter temperatures of central Wisconsin. What’s more, the area had one of the largest bodies of pine timber in the state, and by the 1870s, the logging industry was well established. Which meant jobs. 
Norway, by contrast, offered few opportunities. Ole, for instance, was one of seven children, but he was not the oldest son. Which meant he did not inherit the family farm. Which meant he had a limited future. Which meant that America beckoned, especially those undeveloped lands in central Wisconsin.
Like all family histories, Bob’s Norwegian genealogy is complex. But one story stands out. When Ole Thompson and Peder Pederson came to Wisconsin, they worked the lumber camps during the winter. But what they wanted above all was land. Under the Homestead Act of 1862, you could get the deed to 160 acres if you cleared and developed roughly 5 acres every year for five years.
During the summer, when the lumber camps shut down, Ole and Peder pitched tents next to each other and helped each other clear land. They made sure they were on separate boundaries so they could make separate claims.
I’ve always been impressed by the practicality of pitching those tents next to each other. And by the determination it took to clear 5 acres of land a year, long before gas-powered chainsaws.
Both Ole and Peder were part of large families that immigrated to the Curtiss area, the first arrivals earning enough money to send back to Norway for siblings. Once in Wisconsin, they stuck close together (and sometimes married their friend’s sister, which is how both Ole and Peder became great-grandparents to Bob.) Those early settlers helped establish the village of Curtiss in 1882 and laid the groundwork for its economic infrastructure, from sawmills to banks to cheese factories. They even set up a Norwegian Lutheran Church, because they didn’t want to be mixed in with the Germans and wanted services in their mother tongue. Many, including Ole, never learned more than a smattering of English. Ole’s grandchildren, in turn, never learned more than a smattering of Norwegian.
Bob’s father, Art, was one of Ole’s grandsons. Art boasted that he was “full-blooded Norwegian,” and he chaired the Oslo-Madison sister city project. He traveled to the family’s Norwegian homestead near Lillehammer and, until his death, proudly flew the Norwegian flag at Brewers tailgate parties. No document, however, identified Art as Norwegian; he was American.
 The categorization for 21st-century non-white immigrants is more complex. “Hispanic” was first used in 1970s U.S. Census reports to refer to people from Spanish-speaking countries, Spain included. Some prefer “Latino,” which identifies people from Latin America and is based on geography, not language. This story uses the term most commonly used by people in the Curtiss area and which conforms to government statistics – Hispanic.
Curtiss during its days as a 19th Century lumber town.

Humberto Lopez, 51, was one of the first Hispanics to settle in Curtiss. In an interview at his home, half in Spanish, half in English, he explains his story. He was born in a small pueblo in north-central Mexico, and left for the United States when he was 16. He worked as a butcher in small towns and cities in Illinois and Wisconsin – everything from a two-employee business that made dog food to a slaughterhouse that butchered 200 cows a day. But he did not have legal papers, and ultimately was apprehended and deported. Like many in that situation, he returned to the U.S., crossing the border on foot with the aid of “coyotes,” the name given to human smugglers. A family member had told Lopez about work at a slaughterhouse called Abbyland, so he came to Curtiss.
Twenty-five years later, Lopez still lives in Curtiss. He and his wife, who is from the same pueblo in Mexico, have raised six children here. Both have become U.S. citizens; their children, by virtue of being born here, have always been citizens.
In an odd way, Lopez reminds me of Bob’s Norwegian relatives, and not just because he’s tall and lanky and wears jeans, a fleece jacket and a baseball cap. He’s a man of few words. He shrugs off events that others might dramatize – deportation, crossing the border illegally, the realities of working in a slaughterhouse. Hardship is part of life.
Work is the main reason Lopez is in Curtiss. But that’s not all. In a sentiment echoed by other Hispanics, he speaks of good schools and, equally important, “seguridad.” The Spanish word is used broadly to mean not just economic security but the benefits of small-town life, without the crime and problems of big cities, and where neighbors look out for each other. Having grown up in a small Mexican pueblo, he’s comfortable with the slow pace of Curtiss. He doesn’t mind that the town almost died after the railroad stopped running in 1938, or that the main street is little more than a post office, a community center and a scattering of homes.
After nearly two decades at the Abbyland slaughterhouse, Lopez left to work at the Tombstone Pizza factory in nearby Medford. His wife still works at Abbyland, as does his oldest son, Oscar. In fact, it’s hard to find anyone in the area, white or Hispanic, who doesn’t know someone who works at Abbyland.

The story of Abbyland begins in Abbotsford, a city of some 2,300 people about 7 miles east of Curtiss and the region’s economic hub. In 1977, Harland Schraufnagel started Abbyland with a beef plant in Abbotsford. From a handful of workers, the company has grown to 1,000-plus employees in eight divisions. The Curtiss-based divisions include Abbyland Trucking, the Pork Pack plant, and the Curtiss Travel Center that includes truck stop facilities and the El Norteño restaurant.
The heart of the company is its meat processing, with the beef slaughterhouse in Abbotsford and the pork slaughterhouse in Curtiss. No figures are available publicly, but it’s common knowledge that the plants rely on Hispanic workers. As Busse, village president of Curtiss, says, “You can’t get white people to work in the slaughterhouse. That’s what Harland told me himself.”
When I was turned down for an interview with Schraufnagel, I figured Abbyland didn’t want to talk about its employees’ legal status. But that’s not the only reason. In this era of animal rights, the last thing any slaughterhouse wants is a reporter knocking on its door. There’s never been a comforting way to kill, decapitate, dehide and debone a 250-pound pig or a 1,400-pound beef cow. Busse, who lives next door to the pork plant in Curtiss, has seen the company grow. In the beginning, he says, the plant slaughtered 100 hogs a day. “Now they slaughter about 2,200 hogs a day. That’s a lot of hogs.”

Ubaldina Romero, with her granddaughter Natalie. Romero lives in Curtiss and works at Abbyland pork plant. "She's the last person the pigs see before they die," Ubaldina's daughter, Alma, jokes. (Photo by Barbara J. Miner)

Alejandro Vazquez is one of the many Hispanics who has worked at the Abbyland pork plant. He came to Abbotsford 11 years ago and worked second shift cleaning the plant. “Bastante sangre [plenty of blood],” he says. But, he adds, it was only a job. Vazquez’s real passion is his bilingual weekly tabloid, Noticias.
The 54-year-old Vazquez was born in Mexico City and trained as a journalist. When he first immigrated, he worked at several jobs in Illinois and Wisconsin, everything from an electronics factory to inseminating cows. He returned to Mexico for a decade and then came back to the United States again, this time to Sparta. While working at a small plastics factory near Sparta, he started Noticias.
“One day,” Vazquez says, “a friend called and said, ‘Alejandro, you need to write your paper in Abbotsford.’ I asked why. ‘Because there’s a big Hispanic community,’ he said. ‘And if they like your newspaper there, people everywhere will like it.’”

Almost 11 years later, Noticias is going strong. In one of the many indications of the growing Wisconsin Hispanic presence, Vazquez distributes Noticias to more than 60 towns, villages and cities in a dozen-plus central Wisconsin counties.
Vazquez’s two children, meanwhile, have decided to settle in the area, which makes him immensely happy. His 25-year-old daughter graduated with an international business degree from the University of Wisconsin-Stout and works for an international company in Wausau that often sends her abroad because of her fluency in both English and Spanish. His 18-year-old son works as a welder, having returned from a brief stint in Oklahoma. As Vazquez tells the story, “After six months he called and said, ‘Dad, I miss you and I miss Abbotsford and I miss Wisconsin.’”
Vazquez is an intermediary between the white and Hispanic populations. He is well-suited. During our breakfast interview at the Abby Cafe, he is dressed casually in knee-length shorts, Nike high-top sneakers and a Noticias T-shirt. Slightly overweight and slightly balding with gray specks in his hair, he has the demeanor of a friendly uncle. He also has a decent command of English.
An unabashed booster of Abbotsford, Vazquez takes offense that anyone might question his commitment to the community. He launches into what could be misconstrued as a lecture, but I interpret it as a reflection of deeply held convictions.
“We don’t select the country where we are born,” he says, speaking slowly and clearly so that he is understood. “Next year, I will write my application for citizenship, and I, too, will be an American. And this decision is my decision. It’s not my father’s decision. So I am more American than many people who are born in America. Because I decided.”

No one knows for sure how many of the Hispanics in the area have legal papers. Everyone I talked to assumed that, except for children, young adults and second-generation Mexican-Americans born in the U.S., most are undocumented. Voting records in Curtiss provide one possible indication. According to Jane Stoiber, the village clerk, there are 43 registered voters in Curtiss, and of those, only three are Hispanic. At the same time, the U.S. Census’ 2009-2013 ACS report estimates 70 percent of the residents are Hispanic. (The Curtiss ZIP code, meanwhile, serves about 1,200 people in the village and surrounding areas, and about 16 percent are Hispanic, according to the census.) “There are more Hispanics that are able to vote; they just haven’t registered,” Stoiber says.

As I traveled the back roads of Clark and Marathon counties, I was struck by the overwhelming quiet. No sirens. No interstate highway traffic. No big-city bustle. No big hills, just gentle rises and falls, with straight sand-and-gravel roads that stretch to the horizon. If the wind is not blowing, time itself seems to stand still.
Change does not come quickly to Clark County. But if you take a longer view, the changes are significant. I think back, once again, to Bob’s Norwegian ancestors.
Norwegian immigration to Wisconsin began around 1840, made possible by the Black Hawk War of 1832. After the Sauk leader’s defeat in what is now southern Wisconsin, Native Americans were pressured to sell their land and move west of the Mississippi River. White settlers rushed in, and in 1836, the Wisconsin Territory was established. In 1848, Wisconsin became a state. Eager to attract more immigrants, the state established a Board of Immigration and published Wisconsin guides that were translated and distributed in Europe. The modern-day system of passports and visas hadn’t been invented, and European immigrants didn’t have to worry about being branded as “illegals.”
On Feb. 2, 1848, a few months before Wisconsin became a state, the U.S. and Mexico signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended the Mexican-American War. Overnight, Spanish-speaking residents of California, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and parts of Wyoming and Colorado were no longer Mexicans. The always-complicated relations between the countries began a new chapter.
Even before statehood and the Mexican-American War, there were Hispanics living in Wisconsin. But it wasn’t until the 1950s that Mexicans gained a significant foothold. In big cities, they would often work in the tanneries or factories. Most, however, came as migrant agricultural workers under the federal Bracero Program that ran from 1942 to 1964. By 1961, there were an estimated 18,000 migrant workers in Wisconsin, mostly Mexicans.

The stereotype remains strong that Hispanics in rural Wisconsin are migrant workers. And while many still work in agriculture, they are permanent workers. What’s more, the Wisconsin dairy farm, an institution central to the state’s identity, would not survive without the immigrant workers. “If the Hispanic workers were deported tomorrow, we’d be shut down, just like half the state,” says Steve Bach, a dairy farmer near Abbotsford who has a herd of more than 1,500 cows.
Bach estimates that about half of his hired help is Hispanic. That’s in line with a study published by UW-Madison in 2009, which found that 40 percent of the workers on dairy farms were immigrants, most from Mexico.
Bach, like other farmers, isn’t crazy about reporters. Issues of immigration and legal status are controversial. Besides, there’s rarely any downtime on a dairy farm. Plus, there’s the concern the reporter is fronting for an animal rights group. A farmer I’ll call Tom D. Harry allowed me to visit. But the rules were clear. No name – “Tom, Dick or Harry will do,” he said – and no photos with his workers’ faces. “I don’t want to get any of my workers in trouble,” he said.
Harry, who is in his mid-70s and has been a farmer his whole life, has a picture-perfect Wisconsin farm near Abbotsford. He has hundreds of dairy cows and, except for members of his family, all of his workers are Mexican, five full-time and one part-time. Two of the full-time workers have been with him for 13 years, the others for seven or eight years.
Dairy farming has never been easy. Every day, regardless of weather or whether you’re sick, tired or just wanting a break, the cows need to be milked. Today, the norm on all but the smallest farms is to use milking parlors and milk three times a day. “Anybody milking 150 cows or more, or anybody using a parlor, they pretty much got Hispanics working for them,” Harry says. Echoing comments by others, Harry says the farmers depend on Hispanic workers because “the whites don’t want to do the work. They all want 9-to-5 jobs.”
Harry’s farm’s milking schedule – 5:30 a.m., 1:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. – means that workers are needed 24/7. With factory-like precision, cows enter the milking parlor in groups of 20. Workers swab the udders, attach the milking machines, and when the milking is done, shepherd the cows back to the barn and bring in a new group. Even if I had been allowed to interview the workers, there wouldn’t have been time.
Neither Harry nor Bach had much good to say about federal and state immigration policy. “The whole thing is stupid,” Harry says. “Let’s face it, agriculture needs these workers.”
The prohibitions on getting driver’s licenses made the least sense to them. Ten states provide access to driver’s licenses regardless of legal status, but Wisconsin does not. The exception is undocumented young people who fall under a 2012 Obama administration policy granting increased protections.
When I met Harry in his farm’s driveway, before I barely had time to introduce myself, he launched into a complaint as we walked to the barn. “And then they can get a $700 fine if they don’t have a driver’s license,” he started, explaining how it was easy for his workers to get in legal trouble. He then backtracked and told the story from the beginning.
A few years back, he got a call from a worker at 3 a.m. The worker lives in nearby Abbotsford, and said a cop had been following him and called in his license plate. Harry believed his worker when he said he wasn’t breaking any driving laws. But, Harry surmises, when the registration showed a Hispanic surname, the cop pulled his worker over. “My son and I go to get him, and he also gets a fine for driving without insurance. It added up to $700.”
Harry drove his worker home, and asked him how he would get to work on Monday. “He said he would drive,” Harry says. “And they all drive, ’cause how else are they going to get to their job?”

Julian and his wife, Victoria, are in their early 30s and have lived in Abbotsford five years. He admits they do not have legal papers but, with the confidence of youth, he readily gives me his last name. Like farmer Tom D. Harry, I don’t want to get anyone in trouble, and so I don’t use it.
Julian and Victoria grew up in a small town near Ixtepec in southern Mexico, where he worked in the cornfields. But after economic changes brought on by the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), when U.S. corn flooded the Mexican market, agriculture jobs started drying up. Julian and Victoria headed to the U.S., first to Indiana and later to Atlanta.
Like many recent immigrants to the area, their first language is Mixtec, a grouping of indigenous dialects common to southern Mexico. They speak Mixtec to each other but generally speak Spanish to their four daughters, who range in age from 4 months to 6 years.
Unlike Lopez and Vazquez, Julian and Victoria hope to earn enough money to return to Mexico and build a home. “Los abuelos están en Mexico [the grandparents are in Mexico],” Julian explains.
Julian had a sister living in Abbotsford, and she knew he wasn’t happy with Atlanta. He worked at a factory, but the pay wasn’t great and he didn’t like the commute. What’s more, he missed small-town life and working on a farm. “My sister called and said, ‘Come here to Abbotsford. The work pays more, and you can get more hours,’” Julian says in Spanish.
For the last five years, Julian has worked at a dairy farm 15 minutes from home. There are 10 Mexicans at the farm and four whites. The Mexicans work in the milking parlor while the whites drive tractors and work the fields.
Julian has an easy laugh and a friendly smile, and shows nothing of the toll of working six days a week while being the father of four young girls. Dressed in blue jeans, slide sports sandals, a black T-shirt and an Adidas baseball hat worn backward, he looks like anyone else in his generation, white or Hispanic. During our conversation, it unfolds that Julian not only works six days a week, but 13-hour shifts on four of those days, beginning at 4 p.m. and ending at 5 a.m. He earns $8.50 an hour, no overtime. Nonetheless, he likes it better than the factory because it’s close by and he can work more hours. At no point does he complain, and at one point he merely says, “Luchar para vivir [fight to live].”
Two days later, I interview a family with a father in his mid-40s who also works on a dairy farm. The family is more cautious, and a look of fear spreads over the mother’s face until I reassure her I will not use her last name. Both children are U.S. citizens in their 20s, and both live in Marshfield, but the parents do not have legal papers.
The family came to the Abbotsford area two decades ago. The father, Jorge, works six days a week at a dairy farm of 200 cows. He is salaried, $800 every two weeks. The owner has moved away from the farm, and they live in the farmhouse free of charge. A few years ago, Jorge took a week off due to health problems. Other than that, he’s not had a vacation in 14 years.
Back in Milwaukee, I tell some of these stories to Bob, especially the long hours for the dairy farm workers. He thinks of his late Uncle Ralph. As the oldest son, he inherited the farm homesteaded in the 1870s by Peder Pederson, whose last name was later Americanized to Peterson. Ralph worked decade after decade without a break. He lost his leg in a logging accident and eventually ceded the farm to Tom, his oldest son. Tom held on to it as long as he could, nearly working himself to death. About 15 years ago, a Mennonite farmer came to the door, opened up a briefcase full of cash and offered to buy the farm. Tom reluctantly took him up on the offer, knowing it was the end of the Pederson/Peterson family farm but feeling he had little choice.
Variations on this story are common in Clark County as older white families face two main choices: expand and hire immigrant labor, or sell to the Amish and Mennonites increasingly settling in the area.
Jose and Serafina Hernandez, at their home in Abbotsford, WI. The couple emigrated from Mexico to California in 1970, and came to Wisconsin in 1998. (Photo by Barbara J. Miner).
When I started working on this story, I wondered if Curtiss was an anomaly. But perhaps it’s merely ahead of the curve.
Wisconsin’s Hispanic population remains centered in the state’s southeastern cities, especially Milwaukee. But a growing number are moving to rural areas to the north and west. According to a March 2014 report by UW­Madison’s Applied Population Laboratory, in Trempealeau County along the Mississippi River, the Hispanic population increased by 595 percent from 2000 to 2010. In Lafayette County, along the Illinois border near Iowa, it increased 467 percent. In Clark County, the Hispanic population grew 220 percent.
In Abbotsford, the changing demographics are most apparent in the schools and churches. Reed Welsh, district administrator of the Abbotsford School District, took his first teaching job in Abbotsford 38 years ago and hasn’t left. He lives a block and a half from the school and has been a football coach, social studies teacher and high school principal.
Welsh first noticed the changing demographics about 20 years ago, when a Spanish-speaking student, Oscar, joined the football team. Today, the K-12 district is almost 40 percent Hispanic, with the figure approaching 50 percent in the early elementary grades. The area’s economics have also changed, and the school provides just under 70 percent of its students free or reduced-price lunches.
Under a 1982 U.S. Supreme Court decision, undocumented children have the right to a public education. But Welsh goes beyond that legal obligation. Soft-spoken, calm, with an aura of competence that has no need for bluster, he says, “I am all about Abbotsford and this school. Anybody who walks through these doors, we’re going to give them our best shot.”
Welsh admits that “as a school district, we’ve had a few bumps along the way.” He likens the situation to stages of life. “When that first wave of families came in, it was as if the veteran teachers had grandchildren, and we wanted to make it work. Then we went through those teenage years, with a bit of rebellion, and I remember stopping a few rumbles before they occurred. And now we’re in the adult stage. Things are running well as a school district.”
The Hispanics have also become essential to the district’s finances. While schools in some surrounding areas are losing students (and state aid), the current enrollment in Abbotsford of about 720 students is some 10 percent higher than 15 years ago.
If anyone has a better handle than Welsh on Hispanics in the area, it is the Rev. Tim Oudenhoven – a priest in his early 30s who looks young enough to be one of Welsh’s high school students. Father Oudenhoven is a Green Bay-area native of Dutch, German and Bohemian ancestry. He took Spanish in high school and college, and that was enough to get him assigned to serve Hispanics within the La Crosse diocese after he was ordained five years ago. Known to Hispanics as Padre Tim, he spreads his time between four parishes, often hours apart.
In Abbotsford, Padre Tim celebrates Mass in Spanish every Sunday at 1 p.m. at St. Bernard’s. The Hispanic church membership has doubled under him, to some 300-400 people. More than 135 children and teenagers are signed up for catechism classes. On the Saturday I interviewed him, he was to perform five baptisms in Spanish.
Padre Tim doesn’t care if his parishioners have legal papers, but he’s aware that immigration issues cause the most problems. For some, leaving Mexico – or returning – may be a matter of life or death. “A lot of the people I serve come from very tough areas of Mexico, especially these days with the drug wars,” he says.
For many, immigration “becomes a dance,” Oudenhoven explains. “The children may be legal, but the parents aren’t. And there’s no way right now for them to become legal. They’d have to go back to Mexico, wait 10 or 15 years and, if they’re lucky, get papers.”
And, of course, there’s the constant fear of the immigration authorities. “La Migra [immigration officials] came to Sparta in September and detained 12 people in the middle of night,” Padre Tim says, citing the most recent example he knew of. Within Abbotsford, there were raids a couple of years ago with black vehicles coming into town and apprehending people, according to Welsh.
More recently, problems tend to happen when people are stopped for other reasons, perhaps driving without a license, and found to be without legal papers.
Padre Tim’s sense is that intercultural relations are generally civil. The problems, he says, stem mostly from misunderstandings: “Some whites think Hispanics are breaking the law by not having papers, and so they are bad people. Or they are trying to milk the system and ‘we’re paying for them.’ But of course, the Hispanics pay taxes.
“On the Hispanic side,” he continues, “there’s a lot of fear. If they are here illegally, they don’t want anyone turning them in. And if one person is mean to you, you worry that everyone will be mean to you.
“Generalizations, on both sides, get us into trouble.”
When I interviewed Padre Tim, it was over breakfast at Medo’s Family Style Restaurant in Abbotsford, a classic diner complete with homemade pies and fresh-baked bread. At one point, he talked about how whites and Hispanics tend to live in parallel but separate worlds. In between bites of his waffles, Padre Tim nodded toward the kitchen, took a sip of coffee and said: “I know for a fact that there’s a Hispanic working back there. To most people, he remains invisible.”

Curtiss children at play this May at the Lion’s Club park  (Photo by Barbara J. Miner)

During my final visit to Curtiss, I drive over from Abbotsford on a Saturday afternoon to hand out “thank-you” photos I had taken a week earlier. I go to the Lions Club park, which consists of a children’s playground, an open-air pavilion in case of rain, and a baseball diamond. It also acts as an informal town center.
The Abbotsford High School graduation had been that afternoon and, as I enter the park, it’s clear there’s a party. I realize it is for Jessica, the daughter of Humberto Lopez. He recognizes me, gives me a big ¡Hola! and before I know it, Jessica’s mother is handing me a paper plate and telling me in no uncertain terms to get some food.
Memories flood over me. The park pavilion is the exact same place where the Tandlokkens/Petersons hold their family reunions. The exact same picnic tables, the exact same buffet setup at a wooden counter in front of a small but serviceable kitchen. Even the Nesco cookers look the same, except they have beans and rice instead of pork-n-beans.
I look outside and, I swear, the young group of men standing just outside the pavilion could easily be Bob’s cousins. Backlit by the setting sun, you can’t tell if they’re Norwegian or Mexican. But you hear their laughter and notice their casual banter, the fingers hooked into their pants pockets, the beer bottles resting against their hips.
The next day, back in Milwaukee, I tell Bob about stumbling into the celebration and how it brought back so many memories. But, I tell him, there was one noticeable difference. The Mexican celebration had an amazing sound system, with really good Mexican music. This was a party just getting started.
Bob tried to be offended. But he knew what I meant. The Norwegians have many admirable traits, but dance music is not one of them.
Barbara Miner is a Milwaukee-area freelancer whose most recent feature for Milwaukee Magazine was a profile of Milwaukee’s 53206 ZIP code.

This article first appeared in the August 2015 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.