Tomah High School conducted a panel to commemorate Hispanic Heritage Month Tuesday in the THS cafeteria.

Topics discussed included information on the Hispanic population in Monroe County, its impact on the workforce and the future of the Hispanic community in the United States and Monroe County.

In Monroe County approximately 2,000 residents are Hispanic, said panelist Alfonso Sanchez of the Lugar de Reunion, a Hispanic Resource Center in Sparta. He said that represents an increase of 17 percent over recent years.

Not all of that population is Mexican, he said.

“They’re mainly from Mexico, and (there are) some people from Peru and Bolivia, but very few,” he said.

Panelist Maria Reiland of the Wisconsin Job Center, said 83 percent of Hispanic people in the United States were born in this country.

“So when you see people that have dark hair, most of them were born in the United States,” she said.

The increase in residents has had a positive impact on panelist Amanda Wallerman’s dairy farm, Ridgeville Holstein, LLC.

Wallerman said Hispanics have become a vital part of her farm, which normally employees between 12 to 14 people. She said 10 to 12 are Hispanic.

She said it’s a misconception that Hispanics are hired because farmers pay them less.

“If one of you came to our farm right now, I would pay you the same price that I’m paying my Hispanics ... your work ethic is what matters to me,” she said.

Wallerman said it’s important to “dispel that myth that they’re cheap labor. No, they’re dependable labor. So for us, that’s a big thing to have them be part of our crew and know that they’re going to be at work every day, and if they’re not, somebody that they coordinate with is going to be there.”

Panelist Betsy Breckenridge, an English Language Learner teacher at Western Technical College, agrees.

“My sister-in-law is a farmer in the state of Washington, berries mostly, and most of their workers are Latino as well, and it’s the exact same thing,” she said. “It’s not about the wage, it’s not about what they pay, it’s what they get in return — loyalty, hard work, work ethic. It’s a family farm, and the employees have become part of the family and they take care of each other when people are ill ... there’s a death in the family, everybody pulls together.”

She said it’s a misconception that’s held across the country.

“I mean I’m talking the state of Washington and here we are in Wisconsin,” she said. “So this is something for farmers nationwide, I think, and it’s a value that people recognize all over the place.”

Hispanics are invaluable, wonderful people, Wallerman said. She said they need people in their corner rooting for them.

“They’re not what the media likes to portray them as, that they’re just across the border and they’re all bad people,” she said. “They’re not, the majority of them are good, they’re just like you and me; they just want what’s best for their family and try to make the best for their family.”

One obstacle the Hispanic population faces locally − and one that can cause such a misconception − is the language, Reiland said.

“You hear a lot of people saying, ‘Well they don’t want to learn English,’” she said. “It’s not that they don’t want to learn English, it’s just difficult to learn another language, and to become fluent in another language takes years.”

Officer Guillermo Ortiz of Fort McCoy said Monroe County needs to be proactive by providing more opportunities and resources for immigrants to learn English and become fluent in the language.

Breckenridge agreed but notes the difficulty of acquiring those resources.

“Coming from California, where our numbers are so high, every teacher in the state of California is trained in how to teach students who don’t have English as their first language,” she said. “It is mandatory. Everyone has that training because our numbers are so high. In Wisconsin, although the numbers are growing, Western Technical (College) in Tomah doesn’t offer English language classes because there aren’t enough students going there to justify that.”

However, racism is also a factor, Breckenridge said, and addressing that is another challenge.

Education and training about discrimination are key, panelist Master Sargeant Freida Carter of Fort McCoy said, even if resources are tight.

“You have to get creative when you do provide that training because making people aware will do more for you than turning a deaf ear,” she said.

Carter said it’s important to make people aware of discrimination and what it entails.

“Some people don’t know,” she said. “If I’d been in Tomah, Wisconsin, my whole life, I many not know that what I’m doing is discriminatory or even hurtful because, guess what, my mom did it, her mom did it and her mom did it.”

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