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Jesús Salas | Wisconsin Historical Society

Feature Story

Jesús Salas

Celebrating Wisconsin Visionaries, Changemakers, and Storytellers

Jesús Salas | Wisconsin Historical Society

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A Lifetime Advocate for Migrant Workers

Changemaker | Jesús Salas | 1944 - Present

Madison on Highway 21 to petition lawmakers to hold farms and food industry corporations accountable for better working conditions for migrant farm workers. Jesús Salas, in front leading the march, is holding a microphone. Next to him is Salvador Sanchez, also a march leader. Two men behind Salas carry images of Our Lady of Guadalupe. One man in glasses is carrying the National Farm Workers Association banner with the Aztec eagle symbol. To the right, a man is holding the American flag. With Father Garrigan, in the middle of the march, are two men holding signs that say 'Juntarnos para ser reconocidos. Hablar para ser oidos. La raza tiene causa

Jesús Salas, leader of Obreros Unidos (United Workers), Wisconsin's migrant farm worker union. Jesús Salas, líder de Obreros Unidos, un sindicato para trabajadores emigrantes en Wisconsin. - WHI Image #92280

Jesús Salas is a celebrated changemaker who has dedicated his life to farmworker justice. Salas and his family first migrated to Wisconsin in the early 1940s during a time of increased migration to the area during and after World War II.

Increased demand for food and a simultaneous shortage of labor during the war created a demand for agricultural workers. Government programs permitted employers to hire foreign laborers and Texas Borderland migrants to work in the fields, and between 1942 and 1964, millions of Mexican workers came to the state and helped transform Wisconsin into the agricultural powerhouse it is today.

Salas and his brothers were seasonal migrants for 10 years before relocating to Wautoma, Wisconsin in 1959. Although he was just a child when he moved to the state, the third-generation migrant worker quickly grew into a leader in the growing movement for farmworker justice. In 1966 at age 22, Salas co-founded Oberos Unidos (United Workers). Under his leadership, the group organized migrant farm workers to march from Wautoma to Madison to raise awareness of the impoverished conditions in which laborers lived and worked.

Salas and Oberos Unidos went on to organize numerous protests and boycotts, gaining the endorsement of César Chávez and helping to improve conditions for migrant workers throughout Wisconsin. In 1969 Salas became the first Latino CEO of United Migrant Opportunity Services, a non-profit advocacy organization which provides programs and services to improve the employment, education, health, and housing opportunities of under-served populations.

Salas was also a teacher, and he taught bilingual skills at Milwaukee Area Technical College for two decades. He was a lecturer at UW-Madison and UW-Milwaukee before being appointed to the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents. Salas continues to be a changemaker and an advocate for immigrant and migrant civil rights.

Sources: Hispanic History in Wisconsin | Mexicans in Wisconsin | Documenting the Struggle For Farmworker Justice | Wisconsin Academy of Science and Letters | Jesús Salas: A Lifetime Advocating for Migrant Workers' Rights in Wisconsin

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