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How Jesús Salas documents the legacy of Wisconsin farmworkers – and his own

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by PrincessSafiya Byers / Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, Wisconsin Watch
January 3, 2024

In 1966, Jesús Salas led the historic march of migrant farmworkers from Wautoma to Madison, in the process helping organize Wisconsin’s first farmworker union.

He went on to become a leader in Latinx community organizations throughout Milwaukee and Wisconsin. His memoir, “Obreros Unidos: The Roots and Legacy of the Farmworkers Movement,” was published in June by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press.

Salas’ story details how the work of the farmworkers movement created a lasting impact on the Latinx community in Milwaukee and the rest of Wisconsin.

A young life in the fields

Salas came from a family of migrant workers and spent most of his childhood working in fields across the nation.

“It was a family-based working system when we were migrant workers because wages were so low you depended on a family income,” Salas said. “But in my family, we still had to go to school whether our clothes were stained from sugar beets, or we smelled like onions, it was a part of our life.”

After spending years as migrant farmers, Salas’ family settled in Wautoma, Wisconsin, in 1959.

But a trip back to the labor camps changed his trajectory. He went back to help open a day care center for the children of workers.

“So I went back to the labor camps after a few years of being away and I got a different picture of what conditions of the migrant workers were,” he said. “Parents we were trying to recruit for the day care would come to me with problems about housing conditions, how they weren’t getting paid, lack of sewer systems, people getting hurt and not knowing what to do, etc.”

After three years, Salas got word of Cesar Chavez marching in California and called him to form a relationship and learn about the labor organizing being done there. That’s how he began organizing.

The organizing begins

“So we went on strike and petitioned the Wisconsin employment relations commission to recognize us as a union,” Salas said.

According to Salas, it was a rocky start because they lost the first strike. But after going back to the drawing board and learning a bit more, they organized a walkout, and then they began to see progress.

“It was a tremendous victory because people were doubting us and feeling like we weren’t representing the workers,” Salas said. “But after that victory, it was a resounding message to the whole industry that workers were interested in joining our union.”

Salas landed in Milwaukee in 1968 after participating in the grape boycott to support California farmworkers organizing for a union. Boycott efforts were concentrated in the big cities, and displaced migrant workers were going to cities in search of jobs.

What he saw in Milwaukee pushed the fight even further.

The battle for rights broadens

“The big battles were access to education and the Latinization of service agencies,” he said. “Because at that time, we had all of the service agencies being born. But the problem was Latinos couldn’t access them because we didn’t have a college education.”

Salas, with other young leaders, fought for space for Latinos on the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s campus and bilingual opportunities in Milwaukee Public Schools.

In addition to working to change minimum wage laws and housing codes, Salas and Obreros Unidos, the name of the union, also participated in civil rights marches with James Groppi, the former priest and civil rights activist, and the NAACP Youth Council. 

“I was getting settled in on the 500 block of West National to organize a grape boycott,” Salas said. “Several blocks down the street, here comes Father Groppi from the North Side marching with the NAACP Youth Council protesting employment discrimination against Allen-Bradley.”

After meeting them, Salas said the two groups began supporting one another by getting involved in one another’s marches and addressing issues that affected both communities as a unit.

The work of Obreros Unidos led to changes in the law surrounding migrant workers, housing conditions and the wages system, as well as opportunities outside of farm work.

It was integral to the creation of many service agencies. It helped bring health care to migrant workers.  And the group helped create better educational opportunities for Latino students throughout Milwaukee and Wisconsin.

Salas became the first Latino CEO of United Migrant Opportunity Services. He also taught courses at MATC and UW-Madison.

For more information

You can click on this site, “Obreros Unidos: The Roots and Legacy of the Farmworkers Movement,” to get the book through the Historical Society. But it is also available on other platforms.

A version of this story was originally published by Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, a nonprofit news organization that covers Milwaukee’s diverse neighborhoods.

This article first appeared on Wisconsin Watch and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.