Sergio Gonzalez, an author and doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is earnest, intense and seems destined to lead.
At 30, Gonzalez is completing his Ph.D. in history with a focus on labor, immigration and working-class history. In November, he was honored by Centro Hispano of Dane County with an award recognizing the person whose efforts strengthen the collective voice of Latinos in the community.
He is the author of “Mexicans in Wisconsin,” published by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press, a book that counters stereotypes about Mexican immigration. In painstaking detail, he describes the perseverance of Mexicans who came to the state much earlier and with more varied backgrounds than most probably think.
The book’s dedication honors his parents, “who traveled different paths from Mexico” to settle in Wisconsin. Those stories inspired him.
But Gonzalez says he’s also been motivated by Scott Walker and Donald Trump. Their actions and attitudes influenced his academic path and currently animate his passion as an immigration activist.
Gonzalez was born in Milwaukee and completed high school in Brookfield. His father is a plumber. Both parents became naturalized U.S. citizens long ago. In 2010, Gonzalez earned his bachelor’s degree from UW-Madison with a triple major in secondary education, history and Spanish. He then taught a dual-language immersion program at Madison’s Sennett Middle School.
“My first year of teaching was actually the year of Act 10,” Gonzalez told me, referring to the anti-union initiative championed by Walker, then the new governor. Act 10 all but eliminated collective bargaining rights for most of the state’s public workers. “So, I ended up spending quite a bit of time at the Capitol (to protest) and growing pretty disheartened.”
That episode pushed him toward graduate school to study labor and immigration history. Today a passionate advocate for Latino rights, I met Gonzalez last month among a group of Latino leaders who visited with the Cap Times editorial board.
These days, the climate around immigration seems particularly harsh, with a president revealing a profane contempt for non-white immigrants. It is easier, I guess, to blame non-white people for the economic grievances of working-class whites than to focus on the real culprits — globalization and technology.
Trump has recently been trying to win congressional support for his border wall with Mexico by holding hostage the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which protects young and undocumented immigrants from deportation. Arrests of undocumented immigrants were up dramatically during Trump’s first year in office.
Against that backdrop, Gonzalez fights to counteract the anti-immigrant narrative and related stereotypes.
His book tracks the migration of Mexicans to Wisconsin, especially to Milwaukee in the 1920s. It begins with the story of Raphael Baez, a classically trained musician who came to the United States as part of a touring company in 1884 and lived in Milwaukee from 1886 until his 1931 death. He became prominent as a longtime church musical director and married a woman of German descent.
Gonzalez used that anecdote, he explained, to make the larger point that assumptions about Mexicans being uneducated and uncultured farm workers are often wrong. “I start the book with kind of an unsettling narrative,” he said. “I think we usually think about Mexican immigration primarily as an agricultural or an industrial migration, but the story is much more varied than that.
“Madison is a perfect example, of course,” he continued. “This is one of the most diverse Latino populations in the state and that’s because of the university here. That’s one of the largest draws for people of Latino descent.”
The other major misconception is that most Mexicans arrived recently: “Our history goes back more than 100 years and so this idea that we’re a new community that’s recently arrived — we’re as much a part of the immigrant history of this state as the Germans and Poles.”
Mexicans and other Spanish-speaking people did not appear in Madison in significant numbers until the 1970s, he said, when the population moved from migrant worker sites to cities.
Yet it is Madison, Gonzalez said, that is an ideal place to address immigration. “I think Madison’s kind of the best place to have that conversation because Madison actually has the most diverse Latin American descent community in the state.
“In Milwaukee, it’s a predominantly Mexican descent and Puerto Rican descent community, but here in Madison it’s much more diverse,” Gonzalez said. “Of course, you have the Mexican and Puerto Rican community here, but you also have a large Central American and South American population as well.”
I asked Gonzalez what he would have Madison’s large community of engaged and sympathetic white progressives do to better support Spanish-speaking people.
First, he said he wishes people would not talk about an “achievement gap,” a term most often used to describe African-American academic struggles in the city, but which could also apply to Latinos.
“I avoid that term,” he said. “I don’t think it’s an achievement gap; it’s an opportunity gap, because the idea of an achievement gap focuses too much on the community itself not being able to achieve a certain metric.
“I think what Latinos, as other marginalized communities in the state and in Dane County have shown, is when given equal opportunity and equitable resources there is no gap.”
In last month’s group discussion, I asked about what some regard as unprecedented targeting of Latinos under Trump.
Gonzalez interrupted: “I want to get rid of the word ‘unprecedented,’” he said. “As a historian, it’s an unsettling word. ... The issues that are raised under the current administration are not new ones for us. They may be amplified, they may be louder, they may be nastier, but they have been there.
“And so as we continue to organize, our resiliency comes from the fact that we’ve been here before. I mean, that’s one of the reasons that I wrote the book. We’ve continued to persist. And our community will continue to organize.”
Of that, I have no doubt.