Centro Hispano has announced that Sergio González has earned the 2017 Ilda Conteris Thomas Award and will be honored as part of a year-end banquet hosted by Centro Hispano on Friday, Nov. 17, at the Madison Club.
The award is named in honor of Ilda Conteris Thomas, who was the first-ever executive director at Centro Hispano 34 years ago. Centro Hispano is an agency on Madison’s south side that provides a multitude of services to Dane County’s rapidly growing Latino population. The award presented in her name honors an individual whose efforts ensure a strong Latino voice in the community.
“Sergio is so thoughtful. He has done so much important work behind the scenes to ground so many efforts and we feel he is the perfect fit to receive this award named after our founder,” Centro Hispano Executive Director Karen Menendez Coller tells Madison365. “Without Ilda, Centro wouldn’t have been grounded so that we could grow to be the place we are today. Born in Wisconsin, Sergio also exemplifies what Ilda always stood for – service to others, service to community, all while respecting history and heritage.”
González is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and has been lecturing about the history of Latinos in Wisconsin as well as the historical roots of many issues now in the news. He says that nothing that is happening today is at all new.
President Trump has seemingly upped the ante on attacking the Latino community as well as other immigrant communities. To some around the country and around the state of Wisconsin, it feels unprecedented. But Gonzalez says one of the first things he tells his audiences is that attacks on the Latino community are as old as time in Wisconsin.
“The Wisconsin Latino community dates back to the late 1800s. One thing I remind people of is that we’ve been here for a long time,” González told Madison365. “This isn’t the first time legislators have tried to demean us or place us on the fringes. The number-one misconception of the Latino population is that this is new. That we’re recent arrivals. That the entire Latino community just showed up.”
González said that Milwaukee’s Latino community can be traced back to the 1920’s and that Latinos have been part of the conversation of belonging in this state for over a century.
“We need to demystify this idea of the ‘new immigrant,’” Gonzalez says. “Latinos are really your neighbors, your friends, your co-workers, integral members of the community. But the misconceptions that Latinos are criminals and job takers, and all of that, is propagated at the upper levels of our national government and legislators in our state government.”
The Wisconsin State Legislature is currently in the process of reviewing two bills that would make the lives of immigrants even more difficult. Assembly Bill 450 would lead police and public employees to investigate immigration status and detain undocumented people for deportation. Senate Bill 533 is designed to block undocumented or impoverished immigrants from being able to obtain local identification cards instead of state identification that they aren’t able to obtain.
Madison, like much of Wisconsin, has long been a place of “sanctuary.” State employers and police have not traditionally cooperated with mandates telling them to check detainees or employees’ immigration status or report them for deportation. The Trump Administration has sought to attack the sanctuary status of Wisconsin and other placers.
This too, González says, is old news under new language.
“I guess the biggest thing I’ve been doing since the presidential election is sharing the work that I’ve done on the sanctuary movement in the 1980’s,” he says. “I’ve been writing about the sanctuary community in Madison. It’s a resurgent movement right now. I think the first thing to understand is that the concept of sanctuary was born in the 80’s when communities heeded the call to help Central American people. It’s the idea that morality, not legality, would be the concept at hand.”
González helped draft language that protects UW-Madison as a sanctuary campus. He says the school, churches and even some restaurants serve as sanctuary entities representing the idea that it’s not their job to act as enforcement for ICE.
González has also been researching the impact that an assault on the Latino community has on Wisconsin’s all-important dairy industry. Mass deportation or policies that attack immigrant workers would have a profound effect on Wisconsin’s dairy labor force, a force that is needed to work the lands and farms that make Wisconsin proud.
“It’s important for us to find balance,” González said. “We cannot minimize the situation we’re in right now. Communities have the right to feel attacked and afraid but immigrants in the history of our nation have faced other intense moments of alienation and repression, as well. In the Great Depression, one of the first scapegoats was Latinos. There was a Great Repatriation movement where a million Latinos were deported, many of whom were native-born or documented. These moments of vilification because of economic turmoil or social unrest are big parts of our history.”
González’s providing of historical context for current events is one of the reasons he is being celebrated. For many in the Latino community, it is easy to lose heart or feel overwhelmed by the scope and breadth of the White House’s rhetoric. But viewing the current situation as part of a historical ebb and flow is something Gonzalez hopes can help focus people towards as they continue to show resolve.
“Community activism is an interesting thing because we all have something to contribute to make our state more interesting and welcoming,” he says. “There’s a lot of rich history that will help us understand the history of the Latino Wisconsin community.”
Centro Hispano will honor Gonzalez at its 28th annual celebration and mini-gala. The event starts at 5:30 p.m. on Friday, November 17 at the Madison Club on East Wilson Street.
“I’m deeply honored. Centro Hispano has always represented a place of belonging for people in a city that often marginalizes communities of color,” González said. “But Centro has always been a place people know they can come to where they can find allies. It means a whole lot to know that my work is contributing to a larger mission.”