José Carrillo of Janesville is a retired General Motors employee, and an activist/advocate for the Latino community.
Tell me where you’re from and about your work before coming to Rock County?
I came from Mexico, originally. I have traveled and lived all over the United States working on farms as a migrant worker. I came to Wisconsin to work in the Wautoma area. I decided that farm work wasn’t providing enough for my family. And I always had the ambition to try and better myself and to give my family a better life.
That type of work (migrant farm work) is very rewarding spiritually and I have a lot of respect for the farmers and farm work. But still, I tried to help the workers find a better life through the Cesar Chavez movement. We followed the harvests and the seasons, which is why we moved all over the United States.
Typically, a lot of the migrant farm workers come up from the south, Texas, Arizona, and work through the various seasons and locations. They’re never in one area for very long. But, I learned a lot about the struggles the farm workers go through. Some of the workers would come and talk to me, seeking help. So, I started to help them to gain better workers’ rights.
From Wautoma I went to Milwaukee. There was a program there called UMOS (United Migrant Opportunity Services). It is not a union, but an organization that tries to help migrant workers find other kinds of work. So, because I wanted to get out of the migrant work, I joined the program. I’ve been with them now for over 40 years, first as a participant seeking assistance, and then as a member and now a UMOS board member.
When did you come to Rock County?
I came here in 1976. When I was a participant of UMOS, they helped me to find a job in Racine at a foundry. After working in the foundry in the Kenosha/Racine area, I took a job with American Motors, which was a company that eventually was swallowed up by Chrysler. I saw the writing on the wall, and I didn’t like the way things were going. I knew they’d be closing soon, so started to job hunt elsewhere. I was aware that Janesville had a General Motors plant, so I came and took a job here at GM.
I worked at GM for 30 years until my retirement. “Thirty and out” was my goal … where you work for 30 years until retirement age, and then allow someone else to have a position. I got out right before the plant closed. And I received all my full benefits, and feel it was a blessing.
I never expected the plant to close. It just didn’t seem possible and I assumed they were using threats of closing as a bargaining chip. I was truly surprised. I thought perhaps they’d shut down for a short period of time, and then retool the plant to manufacture a different vehicle, but that never happened. It affected so many people … it was such a shock.
In what ways have you helped the Latino community here in Rock County?
Since early on, I was a part of the Civil Rights Committee with the UAW. I was the president of that committee for nearly 20 years. We’re still active, but smaller these days.
It used to be that General Motors had a huge impact on Janesville’s population, culture and society. In those days, the plant had a practice of handing out applications for employment to their employees. So then, the employees would give the applications to their family and friends and, therefore, they didn’t have very many minorities at the plant.
During that time, with the help of the union, we started talking about it, asking, “How will you hire minorities when you have this practice?” So, we sat down at the bargaining table with the company and said that we needed to do something to give everyone an opportunity for employment. So, that started to happen and we began to have more Latinos who were hired. Also, the union helped those who were laid off at other GM locations to come to the GM plant in Janesville.
When they closed our General Motors plant, many of those workers left to work for GM in other states, or they retired. Not too many stayed, unless they were retired. And when GM went, a lot of other jobs went with other local companies affected by the closing. There wasn’t much left here for the Latino community. The only jobs they could find were service jobs.
Currently, I am a member of the Board of Visitors for the UW System. I’m also President of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement-Rock County, a board member of the Arrowhead Library System and UW Rock County Foundation. I also serve on the board of Global Wisconsin, Inc., which is a statewide non-profit organization supporting international education. It is also the author of the global Education Certificate.
I’m very dedicated to advocacy and education and am a member of the Governing Board at Rock University High School here in town. It’s always a joy to work with others who are like-minded and in a position to also make a difference. I also belong to Diversity Action Team here in Rock County, and continue my work on the UMOS Board.
What was your new focus in your retirement?
To go home, sit on the couch and relax! I was very involved in the UAW community activities and in UMOS. Actually, the UAW inspired me to want to help others, to take social action. Together we are stronger … I really believe that.
My main focus when I retired, after the first couple of weeks, was in education. I got in touch with friends in the community who are active, teachers, administrators, and I’ve had the opportunity to volunteer and help the Latino kids out at Parker High School for Assistant Principal Barb Dougal. I worked with the students in math and science homework and such.
After volunteering a while, there was an opening as a teacher’s aide for the ELL program. So, I took that position. After that, when Dr. Evert left the district and Dr. Schulte took over, she asked if I’d like to come work with her down at the ESC as an advocate for the students.
My concentration was with the Latino student body and community. I learned a lot in that position. I had a lot of contact with the families, where they were from, what problems they were going through, their challenges, etc. I found that with these students, by the time they got to middle school, they had totally forgotten their Spanish language, they weren’t signing up for Spanish.
And, to make matters more difficult, the parents weren’t learning English, either. There was a disconnect. The parents would bring the children to translate for them at conferences. The students never translated what the teachers actually said!
I became frustrated with the program because it seemed the students were discouraged from using or preserving their Spanish language. The problem with a lot of these programs is that they get grants for them, but when the money runs out, the program goes with it. Then all the work you’ve done disappears. So, I was let go, as well, which was around the time I became very sick.
As a Civil Rights activist, I was the founder of the Martin Luther King celebration at Blackhawk Technical College. I believe that we need to continue to promote awareness of all diversity as well as the history of our diversity.
I’ve heard good things about the new superintendent. I’m hoping we can bring back the after-school program for the students. We had a program called Educate for Success, which was a program to boost their academics and social skills; how to adjust to the community and we combined kids from both high schools, Craig and Parker. And we’d bring in Latino people from UW Milwaukee or students who went to Blackhawk Tech to talk to the kids.
The students need these role models. Often times they’d look like them or went to the same high schools, grew up in the same culture, etc. They’d talk to the students and encourage these kids to stay in school and to study hard.
I hope to continue my work in education with the Latino community in Rock County. I can say for sure that education works. It can release you from the grips of poverty and give you a new life.
What are some of the changes you’ve seen in the Rock County Latino community over the years?
When I first came here, the minority populations were so few, you could say nearly insignificant. The people I met at the plant were Latinos from Delevan. Janesville wasn’t really ready for having a more diverse community in those years.
But, even though I was encouraged and invited to live in Beloit or Delevan, I decided to stay here in Janesville. My kids all went to school from pre-k through high school graduation in the Janesville district. Over the decades, our Latino community has really grown in Rock County.
I’ve seen a lot of changes over the years, especially in the way people approach me. It used to be that people would insult me to my face. They would say, “Get out of here, you dirty Mexican.” Or they’d say, “Go back to Mexico.” I experienced a lot of racism in the early years here. And I know it’s still there … that there are people who still feel that way, but we are treated with more respect these days.
There are people who are willing to get to know you. They start to know who you are and see that you are just another human being like they are. They are more willing to socialize with you, want to eat your food and drink your tequila.
One of the most positive changes I’ve witnessed is that there’s been more education about diversity here. People are becoming more open-minded.
How do you see the Latino community today?
When we were a part of the union, back in the late 80’s, we were encouraged to form our own organization, our own Latino Chapter. That was the first one in the state of Wisconsin. We became well organized, established festivities here, like Cesar Chavez Days and had a Latin Dance day where we invited the community out. It’s not that way anymore. I’d like to see more unity in our Latino community.
Unfortunately, I see a lot of the Latino culture changing today. I see that the children aren’t speaking Spanish anymore. They are too concerned about their image, with what others might think if they’re identified as Hispanic. They are torn between two cultures.
At the same time, a lot of families are too busy to teach their children about their culture. They don’t have enough to pay the bills, so both parents are working a lot of hours and the kids often have to grow up on their own.
Do you want to stay in Rock County?
At one time I dreamed of moving south because of the warmer weather. But, I decided to stay here. I’ve been here for most of my life, my kids grew up here. Their friends are here.
I’ve been married nearly 50 years to my wife, Maria Luisa Cortes. My son, Luis Alejandro Carrillo is a Chief Warrant Officer II; he was commissioned by President Obama and was also awarded the Bronze Medal of Valor. I’m so proud that he was inducted to the wall of honor at Craig High School. Another son, Leonardo Carrillo, was in the Marine Corps for 12 years, and he now lives in Kansas City, MO. My daughter, Julieta Carrillo Henry, currently lives in Chicago. We have six grandchildren. So much of my family and friends are here. So, this is truly our home.
“Education works. It can release you from the grips of poverty and give you a new life.” ~ José Carrillo