Reflections/Jonathan Gramling

Jonathan Gramling

Preserve Latino History

I should have written this column last issue for our Hispanic Heritage Month issue. But I had to get Donald Trump out of my system as he outlandishly tries to justify having classified information in the basement of his Mar-a-Lago estate and in his office there. I’m surprised Trump didn’t attend the funeral of Queen Elizabeth since he views himself as King Donald the First of America. Don’t get me started.

I have enjoyed and valued The Hues’ working relationship with the Latino Professionals Association to highlight young Latino professionals each year. They do an excellent job of choosing people to highlight who reflect the diversity of the Latino community in Madison, from people who immigrated here to people who were Madison born and raised. They purposely select people from diverse professional backgrounds as well as country of origin. As the majority of Latinos in Madison trace their roots to Mexico, there is always a healthy representation there although over the years, LPA has reflected the richness and diversity of Latin America.

I enjoy getting to know the LPA honorees every year and the ones I don’t know, all of a sudden they pop out at different Latino functions. They have been there all along, but now I know them. For example, when I was at Rhumba for Rainbow on Saturday night, I was watching the people dancing on the dance floor at Varsity Hall in Union South. All of a sudden, Angel Gaytan, one of the LPA honorees who will be featured in our October 3rd issue, popped out as one of the dancers on the floor. We exchanged familiarities and then Angel continued his dancing.

Just as Omar Sosa expressed in an article that appears in this issue, while I may not have lots of money, I have lots of riches because of the people I meet and interview over the years. Angel is an awesome entrepreneur who like many Latino immigrants, keeps progressing towards his dreams.

And speaking of dreams, how cool is it that Wensy Melendez and his father Odilon keep moving steadily toward their dream for Amigo Construction. I’ve known Wensy for about 10 years now, back when they had their offices in the Watson Street area off of Stewart Street. I do believe that it was Juan José López who introduced us way back then. I have always gotten along with Wensy, perhaps because we are both entrepreneurs albeit I am of the social entrepreneur kind.

But I have watched Wensy and his dad work steadily, without fanfare, one step at a time toward their dreams. And now they have purchased a huge, lofty building in Lake Mills, one that reminds me of the manufacturing buildings of my youth In Milwaukee, as they get ready for the next phase of their business. This is history in the making as Amigo Construction is one of the largest Latino-owned businesses in Dane and Jefferson Counties. This is history in the making and it is happening right now.

And as I think about history, I wonder about what is happening to Latino history here in Dane County. Now I have to admit that much could be happening here in Dane County that involves the documentation of the Latino history of Dane County. Drs. Tess Arenas and Armando Ibarra have written some seminal pieces about the history of Latinos in Wisconsin that have included information about Latino history in Dane County.

But I haven’t seen any effort — again to the best of my knowledge — to document Latino history in Madison/Dane County and to disseminate it widely and to have it taught in Madison and Dane County schools. What are the milestones? Where did people come from? How have they impacted Madison/Dane County?

I know that each Latino organization has a sense of their own history, particularly Centro Hispano, the longest running Latino organization in Dane County. But how do these little snatches of history here and there get combined into a comprehensive story of Latinos in Madison and Dane County?

I know there are people like Marcial Marquez who lives in Pardeeville who lived in South Madison in the 1960s. What about the United Farmworkers movement and its engagement in Madison? How will it be preserved that Juan José López was the first Latino elected to the Madison public school board or that Ricardo Gonzalez, I believe, was the first Latino elected to the Madison Common Council? What was the first Latino business that operated in Madison/Dane County? I don’t know, but I remember Soils and Engineering Services was Latino-owned in the 1980s, if I am not mistaken. Who was the first Latino professor at UW-Madison? Was there a Latino elected official before Ricardo? Have there been any state representatives from Dane County? What were the first Latino non-profits/organizations in the Madison/Dane County area?

There are so many things to make note of as it relates to Latino history. And so much of that is in the minds and memories of Baby Boom generation Latinos who are fading toward the sunset of their lives.

In my opinion — and I am loathe to tell people what to do — a group of Latinos interested in the legacy of the Latino community in Madison/Dane County need to come together and form a Latino Historical Society and needs to apply for grants to hire historians to document the history and to disseminate it to Dane County Schools.

People who don’t know their history are bound to repeat it. I hope people don’t repeat it because they are unaware of the Latino history that is there.

Knowing your history allows you to move forward with confidence. The history of Latinos in Madison/Dane County needs to be known and preserved for the sake of the children and generations to come. That’s my two cents worth.