By Molly Snyder Senior Writer Published Feb 17, 2003 at 5:26 AM

Latinos are the fastest growing minority group in the city of Milwaukee, with a population that surged 82% between 1990 and 2000. Even though Latinos settled in what would later become the U.S. long before Anglo colonists arrived, Mexican immigrants did not find their way to Milwaukee until the 1920s.

Most Central Americans came to the Midwest in the '80s to escape civil wars and extreme poverty in their homelands. Many of those who came to Milwaukee settled in the then-fledgling Walker's Point area.

Today, both the Latino community and the Walker's Point neighborhood are on an upswing, thanks to strong leadership, an increase in educated Latinos and the evolution of the UCC (United Community Center or Centro de la Communida Unida.)

Located on the corner of 9th and Washington, the UCC is a cluster of clay-colored buildings decorated with colorful murals housing Café El Sol, a preschool, elementary and middle school, senior living center, daycare center, health clinic and a gymnasium. The Latino Arts Auditorium and Gallery and a bank will be completed soon.

The popularity of Mexican food in Milwaukee has also boosted the community throughout the years, with restaurants like La Fuente and La Perla winning multiple "Best of" awards and Tacqueria Axteca and Cempazuchi popularizing cuisines from other Mexican regions.

Mexicans and Puerto Ricans are the two largest Latino groups in Milwaukee, but every Central American country is now represented in our population.

Julio Espinoza moved to Milwaukee in May of 2001 from Somoto, Nicaragua. Espinoza, who was a political organizer in Nicaragua, came to Milwaukee with his wife, Jessica, an American who had been living in Somoto as a Peace Corps volunteer. The two were married in January of 2001, and moved back to the United States to be near family and so Espinoza could learn English and get a college education.

Espinoza arrived in Milwaukee able to speak only a few English words. After almost two years, he is able to conversationally speak English, has a job, owns a duplex in Riverwest and attends MATC.

Recently, we asked Espinoza, who is 35, a few questions about what it was like moving to Milwaukee after living in Nicaragua, a country at war with the United States for a large chunk of his life.

OMC: What were your perceptions of the United States when you were growing up?

JE: Because Nicaragua was Communist in the '80s, I grew up with a certain perspective about the U.S. I was told Americans were war-like, racist people and closed-minded politically. I grew up during a regime that, from the time I was in first grade, taught me the worst possible images of Americans. Every morning, after singing the Nicaraguan anthem, we would sing the Sandinista's anthem that has the line, "fighting against the Yankees, the enemy of humanity."

OMC: Wow. No wonder you grew up feeling the way you did about Americans. But now that you live here and are married to an American, have you perceptions changed?

JE: It depends. I think Americans are very preoccupied with money, but now that I have learned more about the people, I recognize that peoples' sentiments are different from the government's actions.

OMC: What has been the most challenging aspect of living here?

JE: The language and the weather. There are similarities between English and Spanish, but it's very hard for me to follow when people speak too fast. And I don't like the cold. In Nicaragua, we have two seasons: dry and rainy, and both are warm. I am a tropical man.

OMC: Is Milwaukee a good place for Latinos to live?

JE: Yes. The work is good, the Latino community is very accepting and it's not like Southern California or Texas or Florida where Latinos always get hassled for no reason. And people here really like Mexican food.

OMC: What do you miss the most about Nicaragua?

JE: My mother and my mother's food. Her gallo pinto (red beans and rice) is very good. I miss my house, San Pedro. It was my grandfather's house, and then my father's house and then mine.

OMC: What don't you miss?

JE: Children and old people asking for money at traffic lights. Seeing country people who don't have any food or money. The sound of busses beeping at 4 a.m. Here, I have a nice life with my wife. We have beautiful moments. And I have made new friends and can take a hot bath.

OMC: You didn't have hot water in Nicaragua?

JE: No, never. No one has hot water.


OMC: Are you involved in Milwaukee's Latino Community?

JE: No, not yet. I am observing and learning right now. But I like politics and someday will be more apart of the community.

OMC: Have most of the Latinos you've met here share your feelings that Milwaukeeis a good place to live?

JE: Yes.

OMC: Approximately how many Nicaraguans live in Milwaukee?

JE: More than 100.

OMC: Do you feel close to other Latin American groups here, like Mexicans and Puerto Ricans?

JE: Yes, but I feel closer to Latinos from the smaller countries, like Guatemala and Nicaragua. And there is tension between the larger groups here.

OMC: How did you feel when you first moved here?

JE: I was nervous and confused. Every night for a couple of months I felt homesick. But I am happy here. I want to go to the university and have a beautiful family. We say it, "Tener una familia bonita!"

OMC: Is there anything else you would like to add that I didn't ask you?

JE: Yes. I come from a place that spent 50 years at war. A lot of innocent people died. The worst thing that could happen right now would be to have a war. You cannot fight terrorism with more terrorism. We should have many discussions until we find peace.

Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.

Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.