Stand at the corner of 5th and National, and here’s what you see: An antique store, a dance studio, a purple-doored hamburger joint, and a row of Bubblr bikes for rent. The busy intersection is gritty, somewhere between industrial and cool, sort of gentrified but also still unpolished. The rumble of the interstate one block west is a reminder of the neighborhood’s centrality, as are the three rivers that border it.
This is Walker’s Point.
Near this intersection on 5th Street is a hybrid hair salon/plant shop, Folia. Intricately carved wood pillars frame the windows, which are full of dripping monsteras and pathos. It’s the kind of shop where everything is hip: the elegant block lettering on the signage; the restored wood in deep auburn stain; the cellar doors locked tight with old-fashioned devices; the upcycled chandeliers; the cream city brick. It’s a spot that seems emblematic of the current vision for Walker’s Point sitting at the crossroads of history, industry, and young urban money.
If you look next to the door, though, you’ll see a small medallion mounted on the brick: the designation of a Walker’s Point neighborhood landmark. No other information is given. Lucky for my students and me, though, we were walking the block with historian and native Milwaukeean Sergio González, and he filled in what the medallion left out. This building was the original home of the Our Lady of Guadalupe chapel, the first mission established by Milwaukee’s Mexican community in 1926. And in this one building, with this one group of students and teachers on this one block of Milwaukee, we have a crystallized snapshot of how we remember and forget in our Milwaukee.
When I told my Wednesday students that we were going on an expedition to Walker’s Point, I got a lot of blank stares. While two of the students were familiar with the neighborhood—specifically its Día de Muertos altars—the rest knew nothing. This surprised me. Half of my Wednesday group are Latinx, and Walker’s Point has the largest concentration of Spanish speakers in the state. Plus, Walker’s Point is Milwaukee’s “it” neighborhood right now; had they really not heard of Zócalo and the Selena mural and Purple Door Ice Cream?
Spoiler alert: They really hadn’t.
So when we walked into the Walker’s Point Center for the Arts, the students had few expectations beyond wanting to make it to the food trucks before our bus left at 3pm. But so much instantly called out to us: Letterpressed posters in Spanish and English begging for better driving. Mosaic art declaring “Black Vidas Matter.” Spanish conversations in the background. Before we’d even gotten to the academic part of our visit, the girls were chatting with the mosaic artist, an alumna of their same Catholic school, as well as the gallery director, who used to work in the school’s admissions office. This place they didn’t know was just one step removed from spaces and places in Milwaukee that they considered home.
During the official “history” part of our visit, Dr. González told us the story of Milwaukee’s Mexican American community. He told us how Rafael Baez migrated to Milwaukee from Puebla in 1863; the first known Mexican immigrant in Milwaukee, Baez was an accomplished musician and a professor at Marquette University. The 1920s brought wider spread migration when the Pfister-Vogel Tannery imported labor from Mexico. Although the tannery was only concerned with a short-term labor supply, the Mexican American community that sprung up and stayed has since become an essential part of Milwaukee’s community fabric. And that community has been centered right here in Walker’s Point.
Yet so much of this fabric is being erased. Not completely—“Milwaukee’s too segregated for that,” locals remark—but still noticeably so. For example, a neighborhood landmark, the blockwide La Fuente restaurant, was recently demolished with little fanfare, its Selena mural crumbling to make way for a new condo development. A recent Washington Post article recommending Walker’s Point as a home base when visiting Milwaukee mentions none of this. Instead, the WaPo article vaguely says, “No one Milwaukee neighborhood gives a complete portrait of the city, but Walker’s Point comes closer than most. In addition to prestigious restaurants, this centrally located district is home to some of Milwaukee’s bustling sports bars, liveliest gay clubs and tastiest tacos.” Amid the art galleries and midcentury furniture stores, glass pantries and CBD shops, it can feel like Walker’s Point’s Mexican American foundations are being pushed aside to make space for the new Milwaukee. Folia and its silent history as the first Mexican American church in Milwaukee (the shop’s owners didn’t even know they were in a former chapel!) are emblematic of this erasure.
I think of this again a few days later when I hear Sergio on the radio, talking about the lack of National Historic Landmarks commemorating Milwaukee’s Latino community. “The way in which we recognize specific places as being historically relevant in many ways dictates what we think is important about who we are as a people. And the fact that Latinos don't have any recognized place in the National Register speaks to that larger forgetting of a century-long history of our people in the state,” Sergio said. Even here in Walker’s Point, it can be easy to forget how important the Mexican American community has long been to Milwaukee.
Which was why we were here. When I first asked my Wednesday students what they wanted to explore about Milwaukee’s history, they rattled off the expected: The Pfister Hotel. The Pabst Mansion. The Milwaukee Public Museum. They also begged to head farther afield: the lakefront, the suburbs, maybe even Chicago. To them, exploring Milwaukee meant exploring a Milwaukee they didn’t consider their own. But here in Walker’s Point, we were reminded that, not only is all of Milwaukee our Milwaukee (case in point: Where did the Pfister fortune that funded the hotel come from? The labor of Mexican migrants right here in Walker’s Point), but all of Milwaukee is worth exploring. All around us is evidence of remembering and forgetting, and so much of what we forget is the history of communities that don’t build hotels, that don’t have the power to declare National Landmarks, that don’t have the wealth to resist demolition. Even more specifically, too much of the history we forget is the history of communities of color.
But I also wanted them to see that, even in the familiar parts of our city, there are layered histories just beneath the surface. For example, while the thriving Zócalo food truck part might seem at first glance like an emblem of gentrification, that surface-level understanding is complicated by the fact that the founder, Sergio’s cousin, has family roots in Walker’s Point. In fact, the González family (baby Sergio included) was once featured on the cover of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, on the steps of the Our Lady of Guadalupe church in Walker’s Point, for a special issue on Milwaukee’s Mexican American community. Entrepreneurial success is understood differently when it is of the community, not replacing the community.
Or take Xela, the director of the arts center where we began our neighborhood visit. She is a newly elected member of the Milwaukee Public Schools board of directors. As a Milwaukee transplant based in Walker’s Point, she straddles this history and carries it forward into the present-day politics of our city and its institutions. She embodies Walker’s Point: past, present, future.
I am reminded of this the week after our Walker’s Point visit, when my co-facilitator and I introduce the students to their next task. They are going to collect stories in their own neighborhoods, just like we did in Walker’s Point. Photos, selfies, soundscapes, and interviews, they are going to think about what remembering and forgetting look like in their immediate worlds. As we learn about oral history from Professor Rob Smith, we ask who they might want to interview in their own neighborhoods. Whose stories in their communities were worth collecting? Jamila quickly offers up her grandma, and then the room is otherwise silent until Aracely sucks her teeth and says to the ceiling, “Nobody. Nobody in my neighborhood is worth interviewing.” There is a pause, and then voices speak up: “What about a barber?” “Yeah, or a corner store owner?” “I’ve got a neighbor that has lived here forever.” “Do you think I could interview the kids that sit on the corner?” Even as our list of potential interviewees grows, Aracely’s dismissive “nobody” sits with me, as if there are no stories worth collecting in her world. And that becomes the ultimate forgetting. But we refuse to forget, and so instead we all prod her with ideas as if to remind her: Your Milwaukee matters, and there are stories here worth collecting. Your Milwaukee is worth remembering, too.
While living in Mexico, I joked that speaking Spanish forced me to be far more Zen about life: Since I could only speak in the present tense, I was forced to just live in that present tense.
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