What would a day be like without Latinos?

Madison will be pondering that today as thousands of Latinos will be leaving school, work, and businesses to come to the state Capitol building to protest two pieces of anti-immigration legislation that the Wisconsin State Legislature is trying to push through. Several area businesses will be closed today for “Día Sin Latinos (Day Without Latinos)” to demonstrate what the community would be like without Latinos and immigrants.

Centro Hispano Executive Director Karen Menendez Coller
Centro Hispano Executive Director Karen Menendez Coller
“If all the Latinos that were working in Dane County where to walk out, it would be huge – especially here on the south side and on Park St,” Centro Hispano Executive Director Karen Menendez Coller tells Madison365. “So many of the employees that are hired by local businesses are Latino, so services would drop in so many ways. We are such a growing population here that consumerism would be affected. If the kids walk out, you will definitely see it at the schools. It will be a large void that is felt.”

Centro Hispano works to improve the quality of life for Latinos and others living in Dane County by empowering youth, strengthening families, and engaging the community. Recently, Centro has been ground zero for people coming together to network and to organize.

“A little while back, Christine Neumann-Ortiz, Executive Director of Voces de la Frontera, had an interest in creating a Voces chapter here in Madison,” Menendez Coller says. “That was something where we could see a gap and we thought was necessary for what we do. We needed to have a coordinating force.”

Based out of Milwaukee, Voces de la Frontera is Wisconsin’s leading grassroots immigrant rights group. They have been working with Centro to create a space in Madison where important discussions can happen. This past Saturday, Centro was host to over 300 people who gathered to talk about plans for the day of action on Thursday. “It’s exciting because I feel for the first time I’m seeing families take ownership of these issues,” Menendez Coller says. “They’ve had enough and they are just going to do something about it.”

Christine Neumann-Ortiz holds up a sign at Centro Hispano.
Christine Neumann-Ortiz holds up a sign at Centro Hispano.

There are two anti-immigration bills going through the Wisconsin state Legislature that are helping to energize the movement. The first bill prohibits towns and counties from issuing, or expending funds for the issuance of a photo identification card for any resident of the town or county other than an employment-related identification card for employees of the town or county. The second bill prohibits “sanctuary cities” and bars local governments from adopting ordinances that prevent police or other local officials from asking crime suspects about immigration status.

Menendez Coller does not understand where the rush of legislation is coming from or why it is suddenly needed.

“Day-to-day, I see families. I see people working two or three jobs to give their children a better life. The exclusion is hard for me to watch,” she says. “The two things that promote equity – employment and education – well, we won’t give you a driver’s license so you can’t drive to any type of work and the kids can’t go to college because we’re not going to allow them to do that. It’s just an unwelcoming feeling and it affects so many in our community. It sends a message that we just don’t see these individuals as equals. We can’t treat them the same.

“They don’t understand. People don’t know the numbers, they don’t know the background in those communities, they don’t know the issues that are involved,” she adds. “There is a big fear that has been created and unfortunately it’s been simplified to criminals=Latinos or danger=immigrants.”

According to a recent University of Wisconsin-Madison study, immigrants account for more than 40 percent of the hired help on dairy farms. They make up a big part of Madison-area businesses including construction, hotel, manufacturing, restaurants and grocery stores. Many of these Madison-area businesses will be closed today including several of the Latino Chamber of Commerce of Dane County’s member businesses.

Latino Chamber of Commerce President Mayra Medrano
Latino Chamber of Commerce President Mayra Medrano

“The Latino Chamber of Commerce of Dane County is opposed to these anti-immigrant bills as they would significantly impact our local economy,” says LCC President Mayra Medrano. “Latinos make a significant contribution to our community and are very involved in entrepreneurship here. We want to support them.

“Latinos and immigrant workers contribute to the Wisconsin economy on a daily basis,” she adds. “Latinos and immigrants live in Wisconsin and in this country, because they too want to be part of the American Dream.”

Organizers of “A Day without Latinos and Immigrants” are calling for people to assemble at the at the State Street entrance of the state Capitol at 10 a.m today. High school students in Madison and other cities are planning to walk out of class and march or board buses to the Capitol. Buses will be leaving from Centro on Madison’s south side to go up to the Capitol.

“I hope that there will be a lot of people who aren’t Latino at the rally today – white people, African American [people],” Menendez Coller says. “I hope that there will be a huge number of Latinos, but I also hope that this is the first step in the entire city seeing this as something that we need to rally around and that this is not just something that is our issue, but affects the whole community.”