Once upon a time, people gathered in town squares or plazas to talk over the events of the day.
Today, the Spanish speaking community in Milwaukee is finding new ways to connect with each other, preserve and share language, history and culture, and integrate into the broader society.
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee graduate student Sergio López Ramos is leading an effort to create spaces focused on the Spanish speaking community in Milwaukee and Wisconsin. The efforts started with seven workshops last semester.
López Ramos, who is a teaching assistant in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, founded a learning program called “Somos Latinos,” (We Are Latinos) where he teaches reading, writing and speaking skills in Spanish to Latin American immigrants and heritage language speakers.
Somos Latinos is a project that supports those efforts to develop language and academic skills, learn about history and culture and foster a sense of community and integration, he explained.
One of the key goals is to help Wisconsin Latinos, particularly those of the second or third generation, retain and improve their Spanish so they can become fully bilingual, López Ramos said.
“Many of them speak Spanish, but they haven’t studied Spanish academically. What we wanted to do is create a space where Latinos can share their experiences, practice their Spanish, write articles and improve their skills,” he said.
Somos Latinos started with a fall-semester lecture series that discussed the history of Latin America, Mexico, Puerto Rican poetry, Chicano and Latino art and LGBT concerns in the Latino community. Writers were invited to post comments or blogs to the www.somoslatinoswi.org site. The university’s Roberto Hernández Center, the Heritage of Latin America Association (HOLA!) and the Latino Student Union, the Spanish and Portuguese Department and YES (Youth Empowered in the Struggle) helped support the lecture series. More than 40 students were involved, and the group plans to continue programs in the spring semester.
Another key goal of Somos Latinos is to build a sense of community in Milwaukee, both among Latinos and between Latinos and other Milwaukeeans.
“We want to break stereotypes and demonstrate that the Latino community has a lot to share with Milwaukee,” López Ramos said.
Today’s political climate offers some uncomfortable challenges to the Latino community, such as candidates who portray everyone who speaks Spanish as an illegal immigrant and others who demand that only English be spoken, López Ramos said.
“Being bilingual and bicultural does not mean you are not an American, that you don’t belong to this community.”
He added: “Milwaukee is a really segregated city; we would like to open some doors. We can be friends, and we would like to find the connections that help build stronger ties.”
López Ramos is also interested in helping promote the value of being bilingual, rather than dwelling on the politics of “English-only” mandates. “There are many professional and personal opportunities for those who are bilingual.” He is working to improve his own bilingual skills, taking an English as a Second Language (ESL) course to improve his writing in English.
López Ramos grew up in Monterrey, Mexico and completed his B.A. at the Tecnológico de Monterrey in political science before moving to Milwaukee a year ago to work toward a master’s degree in Spanish. “I liked the city because it was medium-sized and livable, not so big that it was difficult to get around.”
While the weather is a little more brisk than in Mexico, he said: “I am learning to live with the winter. It’s okay. Everything has its price.”
López Ramos’ long-term goal: “I would like to find a place or a job where I can help the community, either with an organization or at the university.”