MILWAUKEE — Milwaukee is one city, but it's made up of many diverse neighborhoods. Each area has its own characteristics and quirks that contribute to the culture of the Cream City. Whether it's the Queen of Thurston Woods, the men trying to change the perception of the 53206 ZIP code, or the Peace Gardens of Sherman Park, Milwaukee has no shortage of interesting places and people.
The My Block series has covered so many neighborhoods in and around Milwaukee, but you have never seen the city's south side like this. In this edition, we meet the people who took a risk by leaving their home countries to come to Milwaukee in search of a brighter future for them and their families. The majority of interviews conducted for this story were in Spanish. For this article, we have included the original Spanish quotes and the English translations.
"My favorite thing about the community is that it's always very welcoming. It feels like home, you know," Elizabeth Ramirez said.
She is the one who took us around the Muskego Way neighborhood to introduce us to the people and places that make her community feel like home. The Muskego Way neighborhood is bordered by Greenfield Avenue to the north, 16th Street on the east, Beecher Street to the south, and Layton Boulevard to the west.
"We have everything you could need here in our block. We have, like I said, we come to the local restaurant. You can go to the corner store. There’s a bakery here. There's even a hair salon, you know. There's a lot here," Ramirez said.
The My Block series explores the neighborhoods in and around Milwaukee. From Eagle to downtown Waukesha to Milwaukee's South Side. I met with Elizabeth Ramirez so she could show me the Muskego Way neighborhood through her eyes and experiences. Where we went and who we talked to was all up to there. There was no script to follow. Welcome to Elizabeth's neighborhood.
Raising a Family
"I've personally been here for 25 plus years, so I really love that sense of community that there is," Ramirez said.
She knows this neighborhood better than anyone else. If she wanted to, she could probably walk these streets with her eyes closed and still run all her daily errands just navigating by memory. Ramirez feels safe here.
"I feel comfortable knowing my kids are going to grow up having that sense of family and togetherness in our block."
At the time of filming this, she was pregnant with her fourth daughter. As of the publication of this article, she has given birth to a healthy and beautiful girl.
"When I grew up here, like I said, there was still that sense of neighbors coming together, knowing each others kids, you know, playing with the next door neighbor. So I really hope for that for my baby," Ramirez said.
“Right here from this specific block from Muskego to like 22nd, we have like churches. We have like businesses. We have people that are really involved, so luckily there haven’t been too many negative things happening besides reckless driving, but I know that happens everywhere right now," she added.
Pandería El Sol
The first place we went to in Muskego Way was Ramirez's neighborhood bakery, Pandería El Sol.
"I was like 15 or so when I remember coming here more often, and I’m like - I don’t want to say right now. I'm in my 30s right now, so it's been like definitely over 20 years," Ramirez said with a laugh and a smile.
The bakery makes different types of pan dulce or sweet breads all throughout the day. So you don't just have to arrive in the morning to get the freshest bread. Ramirez said that some of her favorite items are the conchas, churros, and bread with cajeta, which is like a thickened caramel.
"(They are) simple bread recipes, but it's like very popular in our culture," Ramirez said.
And it's that cultural significance that helps people who have immigrated to Milwaukee feel like they are still connected to their home. That's especially the case for employee Tanya Andrade.
"Me siento identifica de donde soy. No me siento como que soy en Estados Unidos."
"I feel like I can relate to where I'm from. I don't."
It's that sense of home that makes living in a foreign country feel a little easier. She came from Mexico to provide a better future for her children.
"Si provocando, es de aprender ingles, que mi hijas estudian, y también que lo aprenda."
"Trying to progress, learn English, that my kids study, and they also learn."
Andrade said it's not always easy to live in the United States, especially since she doesn't speak much English, but for her it's all worth it. It's the same case for the the next person we met.
Carnicería Vargas is a butcher shop and corner store that's directly across the street from the bakery. It has been there for more than 20 years; however, it was recently purchased by Saera Vargas and her husband. This is a dream come true for the couple.
"Mas delante, pues, crecer porque no a la mejor abrir una tienda. Comprar un edificio. No se. Se vende mas servicios a la communidad. Tener una taquería."
"In the future, well, grow because what’s better than opening a store and buying a building. I don’t know, and that way be able to give more services to the community. Have a restaurant."
Vargas and her husband have worked in the butcher industry for decades. When they had the opportunity to buy the store, they knew they couldn't pass it up. They serve their community and offer traditional Latino foods, ingredients, and drinks. Paired with the bakery, you almost wouldn't know you are still in Milwaukee.
The store has literally everything. There is a produce section, non-perishables, condiments, and of course the butcher shop. The specialties are the homemade sausage, pork, and steaks. While it might just be considered a butcher shop or corner store, it certainly could be a small grocery store.
While we were there Ramirez picked up various ingredients for dinner for her family, including a pound of ranchera steak and five bags of tortillas. Safe to say, she comes here often.
"I would say if not every day for something at least like three to four times a week just because you always need something like if need some more tortillas," she said.
Carnicería Vargas is a staple in the community. The convenience of getting fresh quality food that's within walking distance can't be understated.
"A lot of people, like, let's say they don’t have access to transportation that easily, thankfully having it close by you can just walk to the corner store," Ramirez said.
After Ramirez bought all her food for dinner, we left the butcher shop and headed to our next stop.
Unforgettable Moments Flower Shop and Events
Next, we stopped by one of the many flower shops on the South Side, Unforgettable Moments Flower Shop and Events.
The shop is entirely Latino-owned and operated. Ramirez comes here to pick up new plants and flowers occasionally. On the day we went with her, she bought a new plant.
Roberto Gonzales, who has been at the shop for two years, is proud to work in Muskego Way.
"The Hispanic community has been working with us a lot," he said. "Most of our customers - they are Spanish speakers."
To him, it's important that he be an active member of this community and help those just like him.
"Me gusta la comunidad. Es que la se une y siempre se nos apoyado siempre y hay causas siempre. La comunidad es muy unida."
"I like that the community is so unified. We always help with causes. The community is very united."
There are so many things that connect this neighborhood, from the language to the culture to the food. That's what makes this community so special. Everyone is connected and that creates a true community feel.
Ramirez purchased her plant, and we were on to our final stop.
Taquería la Esperanza
Taquería la Esperanza is one of Ramirez's favorite spots to eat in Milwaukee. Partially because it's just a few blocks from her home, but also because the food is absolutely delicious. Ramirez admitted with a smile that she might come here a little too often.
"Although, I shouldn’t because I should be cooking at home, right? I probably come like twice - like two to three times a week."
It's not hard to tell why. The rich smell of carne asada on the grill fills the restaurant as soon as you walk in. She ordered the chilequiles, and I had the taco dinner with asada, pastor, and chorizo.
"(The owners) always been so welcoming of everyone. Like she kind of feels like your aunt, or you’re going to see your aunt that you’re going to go visit, but they really take care of you," Ramirez said.
That aunt-like figure is Paula Monroy. She owns this restaurant with her family. She runs the front of house operations and her husband is in the kitchen.
Just like the others we have talked to, she likes that so much of the neighborhood is Latino.
"Pues aqui estamos en el centro la comunidad Espana, entonces nos gusto porque la mayoría de nosotros estamos aquí."
"Well we are in the center of the Spanish community, so we like that because the majority of us are here," she said.
Being so far away can really put a toll on someone especially when there are cultural and language barriers. But Monroy has carved out a community of her own that makes the transition easier.
"Esta como casero, como realmente Mexicano."
"It's like home, really Mexican."
This restaurant might be integral to the community, but it's also a crucial way Monroy plans on creating generational wealth for her family.
"Pues, pienso que, para mis hijos tener algo donde ellos dejarles inherencia como algo que sigue nuestro tradición, que tengan un futuro mas adelante para sus hijos."
"Well I think, well, for my kids to have something where I can leave them an inheritance, to have something where they can continue our traditions, and that they have a better future for their kids."
One Last Question
Neighborhoods like Muskego Way prove that we have more in common than we have differences. While we may not share the same cultural background or speak the same language, we all share the most important values. We are all trying to pave a way for ourselves, create a bright future for our families, and live to our greatest potential.
I had one final question for Ramirez.
"Is there anything else you'd like to say about your neighborhood?" I asked.
"We're really a close community in this block, and we're looking forward to having, you know, more green spaces here, keeping our streets clean, and having a lot more opportunities for our block, you know."
If you want your neighborhood to be featured or know someone who would be a good ambassador for their community, reach out to James Groh at email@example.com.