Products spring out from the walls of Veracruz Mexican market in Monroe, Wisconsin: packets of cinnamon sticks, nuts, seeds, herbs, spices, tiny rainbow-colored sprinkles, chicle; a wall of healthcare like anxiety pills and vitamins for energy, and a shelf devoted entirely to various forms of muscle pain relief. A large meat case full of Mexican specialties, such as longaniza. Pinatas. Maiz. Jarritos. Chicharrones. And rosquillas, a treat in between a cracker and a cookie which is what newly arrived immigrants ask for most often, says Maribel Lobato. She and her husband Santos Tinoco have owned the store for 13 years in Monroe, a small city in Green county about 40 miles south of Madison.
The couple are often first contact for an increasing number of Latinos who immigrate to Monroe – which is 95% white – to work on dairy farms. “We can see the new faces because we know all the Latinos in Monroe,” says Lobato. She offers them donated furniture, clothes, a way to connect to home. An InterCambio Express telephone for sending money sits beneath an advertisement for a $19/hour job at a cheese factory, “but this place requires good papers”, customers in the store say in Spanish.
“I. Am. So. Busy,” says Lobato, who switches between speaking fast English and even faster Spanish.
When a family skidded off the road during their first winter in Monroe and the dad broke his arm in three places, Lobato took care of the kids. The store served as a Covid vaccination center. People bring traffic citations into the store they need help filling out; profiling is so common that after a certain number of tickets, many Latinos here just get a new car. Still, customers will risk the 40-minute drive from Beloit, a city in a neighboring county with a growing Latino population, to get the products they miss. About once a month, someone calls Lobato in the middle of the night to pick them up from the side of the road after their car is confiscated because they don’t have a license.
Across the street from the market, Latino men play pick up games of soccer at Twining Park on weekends. When Lobato and Tinoco arrived 20 years ago from Veracruz, Mexico to meet her brother who had found work on a dairy farm, visibility of Latino culture was rare. That will only continue to change.
As the number of dairy farms in Wisconsin declines, the size of dairy farms is increasing; large farms with thousands of cows that require round-the-clock milking, and by extension, a larger workforce. The foreign-born population in Wisconsin has grown by 45% since 2000, with rural counties seeing largest and fastest growth of that population. Immigrant workers make up approximately 40% of the workforce on Wisconsin dairy farms, and up to 90% are undocumented, according to UMOS, a multi-state farmworker advocacy organization, and the largest Hispanic-managed non-profit organization in Wisconsin. The shift in the way of dairy farming is slowly shifting the demographics of America’s dairyland.
Green county has seen one of the state’s fastest growths in Latino population, increasing by an estimated 228% from 2000 to 2019, according to the Applied Population Lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Monroe is the largest city in Green county and has seen a steady increase of Latino immigrants over 20 years. With a population of only about 10,800, new people stand out, which has made the adjustment, like the farm work, incredibly difficult for some dairy workers.
But as the dairies grow, so will the new population. Work on dairy farms is year-round, not migratory, not seasonal, like on crop farms, which means employees are able to settle down. They build networks and lives. Dia de los Muertos, and Las Posadas, a Mexican Christmas event, are celebrated not just in homes but out in the community, at the YMCA. White kindergartners now come home telling parents new Spanish words they learned, thanks to a language immersion program started two years ago in Monroe’s three elementary schools.
Where Americans get our milk is not a red barn, and the people doing the milking are not Mom and Pop, who happen to be white. Without the immigrant labor force on large farms, the nation’s dairy industry would be in crisis.
‘I sleep, eat, work … like bears’
Flies swarm through screenless front and back porch doors of the house where dairy worker Solomon , 38, who is undocumented, lives in Monroe. Inside, kitchen cabinet doors have fallen off, paint is peeling, and sheets serve as room dividers.
The house is hot and quiet. The five other men – all co-workers at the same dairy down the road – are either at work or dead asleep. The house’s owner is their boss at the dairy. The rent is taken directly out of Solomon’s checks.
“First, you’re afraid, they’re huge,” says Solomon, adding that cows in Mexico are “crazy” so it’s natural to be fearful. “Then you see other Latinos doing it and it’s like, OK, I can do it too,” he says through interpreter Natasha Morgan.
Morgan, who is white, grew up in Monroe and four years ago married a Mexican man; together, they have two kids and one on the way. It was through her job at a local non-profit that offers 24-hour crisis support for women that she first came to know this house. She recently helped a female dairy worker who had been living here but had just been fired. The woman didn’t understand why she was let go, but understood the owner wanted her out of the house, too, immediately. Morgan drove her and her child to a temporary safe house.
Female dairy workers with children hope to share a home with another mother so they can tag-team childcare, Morgan says. Other times, they take their children to work. Morgan says she knew of a dairy worker whose child slept in a playpen through the mother’s night shifts. Anything to keep working.
“We don’t ask for breaks,” says Solomon. He works 16 hour shifts cleaning stalls and feeding cows after milking for the first six months as a dairy worker. Sitting across from him their dining room table is Giovanni, Solomon’s 18-year-old nephew who is shy with a sparse mustache and wears long sleeves and jeans, despite mid-day June stickiness. He just got to Monroe a month ago from Veracruz. He works as a milker – most immigrants work positions that are repetitive, require little training, and sidestep the language barrier such as milking or pushing, which means bringing cows down to the parlor.
Solomon goes to Veracruz market and sends $1,500 to his wife and two children in Mexico every two weeks. Some Sundays he will pick up a game of soccer at the park, but he is usually too tired. “I sleep, eat, work,” he says. “That’s what we came here to do, be like bears.”
Solomon’s friends who work at Pinnacle – a dairy that milks 5,000 cows and whose website advertises jobs in English and Spanish – say there is a constant turnover of workers. “You have to do every job fast, everything is fast,” he says. Does he want to work at Pinnacle? He shakes his head hard, no. “Too fast,” he says, snapping his fingers quickly to describe the pace.
Todd Tuls, owner of Pinnacle, says he would describe the pace there as “average” and that his staff were mostly Latino, with an “average or better than average” on turnover. He estimates more than 90% of his workforce is Latino.
‘They show up, they need a paycheck’
The 20-minute drive from Monroe to Brodhead, the county’s second most populated city with just over 3,000 people, seems to be just field after field of corn. The three biggest dairies in Green county are all in Brodhead — Pinnacle started milking in 2018 and is the largest; second is California-transplant Spring Grove, which arrived in 2000. Jeff Williams can see it from the top of Williams Bedrock Bovine, the third-largest farm in the county, which he owns with his brother, Brad. They took the farm over from their father, starting with 48 cows in 1982 – a standard number at the time.
Bachata music blasts from a phone plugged into a speaker next to the milking parlor as dangling milking units clank against 24 metal stalls. A pusher and two milkers move mechanically, never looking up even as Jeff yells over the noise to check in with a shift manager named Lupe.
Jeff, a tall man with a chalk-white mustache, says that even in 2008 when they first expanded up to the 1,100 milking cows they milk today, it was hard to find anyone but Latinos willing to work on the farm; now, it’s been more than five years since a white person has even applied for a job there. Of the 24 employees who work on the farm, five are not Latino, including Jeff and Brad.
“It boils down to they are willing to do the work,” he says, “They don’t have parents footing the bill for them. If they want housing or a car, they have to work. They show up, they need a paycheck.” The majority of the Williams brothers’ Latino employees, including Lupe, have stayed with them for 12 years or more. Jeff suspects it’s because they “are never just pointing our finger for them to do something for us. We’re in our waders waist-deep in cow shit right next to them. We do monthly pizza parties, stuff like that. In the winter, we give them allowances to buy cold weather gear. We see them as humans and try to treat and pay them accordingly,” he says.
His farm’s, any farm’s, survival requires a reliable workforce. With that in mind, he understands the need for immigration reform, a viewpoint that isn’t popular in Green county.
“How hard is it to give them some sort of legalization and work towards documentation or legal status? These guys all pay into social security and these guys will never see a dime of it,” he says, with his often unhinged bravado. “At least give them a goddang driver’s license.”
If he expresses this sentiment at the watering hole with white locals, or in a county board meeting where he’s served as a representative for seven years, responses often turn quickly to the misconception that Latino farmworkers don’t pay taxes. “I remind them that it doesn’t matter what color anybody is, they are all on the same pay schedule. I think it enters into racial prejudice,” he says. “They don’t know so they assume.”
‘It was very hard to live here at first’
When dairy workers come into Veracruz market, the smell is telling. But Santos Tinoco won’t send them away or ask them to take off their manure-caked boots. “I know where everyone works,” he says. “They just want to get a drink, some food, go home and relax.” They talk to him about their workdays. He says they tell him that at Pinnacle they barely have time to drink water on a 12-hour shift. (Pinnacle co-owner Todd Tuls refutes this, saying shifts are 12 hours but team members get multiple breaks for 15 and 30 minutes.)
Tinoco says his first name with a hard “A” like “sand”, the more American way. “Life is easier now than before,” he says. “I’m more comfortable now. People know me now. They give me respect for what I’ve done in this town, that’s the benefit of a small town.”
Still, he remembers feeling disrespected recently when he applied for a business permit at the city hall. “Those secretaries answer me rude, they said, ‘You better forget about this,'” he says. “But it never gets me down.”
It’s harder for him to talk about how racism has impacted his and Lobato’s three sons, so she steps in to explain how alienating going to school in Monroe was for them. “One day he came home and asked me can we buy paint to paint his skin. I said it’s OK that we are brown. I told him paint would come off in the shower anyway, but when he went away, I cried,” she says of their oldest son. Their youngest son, Santos, Jr, the genial kid restocking Jarritos in the store, once shaved his eyebrows and all his arm hair off after being teased at school for not having blond body hair.
Sara Stone has been an ESL teacher in the Monroe school district for 18 years. At Taco Martinez, one of two Mexican restaurants in Monroe, a handwritten note above a bright orange InterCambio phone for sending money next to the register says, in Spanish, that anything over $1,000 requires a photo ID. The young woman working the register is Stone’s former student; so is the young woman’s brother, who is the cook. Stone will teach their little sister, who is sitting behind the counter watching TV on a phone, in the fall.
ESL means the students need extra support understanding English and don’t speak English at home; in Monroe, most ESL students are Latino. Enrollment for 2020-2021 at the Monroe school district – three elementary schools, one high school and one middle school; a total of 2,236 students – is 84% white, 12% Latino.
“I’m a bit of a bitch, a ballbuster, at work, because I’ve had to be. I’ll have teachers tell me, ‘Come get this Hispanic out of my classroom.’ Just because the last name is Martinez doesn’t mean he’s one of my kids,” she says, adding that out of about 80 teachers in the district, there are only two that are not white, and they are aides. “Sometimes I was disappointed by my colleagues.”
In 2018, she successfully advocated to the school board for a second ESL teacher at the elementary school because of Pinnacle’s pending arrival. How Pinnacle’s arrival would compound Monroe’s housing crisis was also a concern. “We just don’t have apartment buildings here,” she says.
Like Lobato, Stone never seems to be off the clock, driving around huddles of pastel-colored trailers and the area’s few apartment complexes for unofficial home visits. “This is how you read a report card, fill out medical forms, pay on your kid’s lunch account,” she says. “I did a lot of driving.”
A few blocks from the elementary school, at Monroe Bible Church, Dan Krahenbuhl’s title is senior pastor, but the Latino congregation call him El Pastor de los Latinos.
A leader of that congregation is Freddy Herrera, who came to Monroe from Veracruz 23 years ago. He works in a sausage factory, 12 hours a day four days a week, “But on Sundays, I serve the Lord,” he says.
Herrera and other local Latinos had been meeting regularly at the home of the man who now leads the Spanish service at the church. He worked at a dairy and rented a house from the dairy farm owner that was large enough for about 20 people to gather and pray in the living room. Two years ago, Herrera approached Krahenbuhl to ask if they could use the church’s building instead for worship. Initially, there was hesitation from one of the church’s senior members.
“The question was, how are we, as Christians, supposed to facilitate law breaking?” Krahenbuhl says, referring to how most of the Latinos in Green county are there without papers. He relates the Latinos in Monroe to foreigners who came into the land of the Israelites in the bible. “In the bible, everything says you treat them well, and take care of them. That’s what we’re doing,” he says. “It’s the government’s job to handle the laws and what to do about citizenship.”
Krahenbuhl talks slowly, fingertips touching in front of his chest. He’s the kind of pastor who stays after leading back-to-back English-language services to stand and clap along with about 50 Latino church members for the Spanish-language service in the afternoon. He says the hour-straight of worship singing in the service is “neat”, though he can only make out a few words of it.
A young man walks in carrying an energy drink in one hand, a bible in the other. Two little boys repeatedly get shushed by their mom as they talk too loudly in English. Herrera, in a pastel pink shirt with his eyes shut, is pacing the stage, finger pointing to God.
“It was very hard to live here,” Herrera says of when he arrived in Monroe at age 14. “Most of the old people look at you. Call you illegal. Never heard someone speak Spanish. Never seen Latinos. A long time ago, they were afraid, they’re gonna rob us. It’s better now. They teach Spanish in the schools now. They know we are here to work on the farms and we’re hard workers.”
On Father’s Day, Herrera, his two kids, and his wife were packing up to move out of a rental into their first home. He says of Monroe: “I feel like it’s home.”
This is the second part of a two-part series on America’s changing dairyland, you can read part one here: Small farms vanish every day in America’s dairyland: ‘There ain’t no future in dairy’