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Hispanic leader Ricardo Diaz, once a vocal critic of the Old Guard, is now part of it. His voice may be softer, but his passion can’t be quelled.

Hispanic leader Ricardo Diaz, once a vocal critic of the Old Guard, is now part of it. His voice may be softer, but his passion can’t be quelled.

You’ve led the United Community Center since 2003. What’s new at the UCC?

We recently welcomed an additional 100 students to our school [Bruce-Guadalupe Community School]. Our total is now 1,165, which is an all-time high and makes us one of the state’s largest elementary schools. We want to grow to 1,600. We are trying to complete an $8 million fundraising campaign for the expansion of the school and a new facility for women under the influence of drugs and alcohol who need rehabilitation.

Education has been the center’s core mission. 

We are now the largest feeder to Catholic high schools in the region, which is amazing since we’re not a Catholic school. For example, about 20 percent of the student body today at Marquette High is Hispanic. That means we are sending our kids to top-quality schools. We as a community have issues about unemployment, teen pregnancy and drugs. But the counter to that is education. We are like a laboratory at the UCC. We have had a number of failures, but we are changing a stereotype. Most of the Milwaukee area thinks of the Hispanic community as that place on the South Side where they’ve been to a couple of Mexican restaurants. But this is a thriving community.

What does the growing Hispanic population mean for the region?
Milwaukee is the best city for Hispanics in the country. We have a community growing by leaps and bounds. You think about where we are, with the cold weather and snow, yet we have a community that’s been here for over 100 years. It’s not unusual for us to have four generations of one family in our building at one time.

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Mitchell Street is in the heart of the Hispanic community. How do you bring more life to it? 

It’s a puzzle. Retail is a huge issue. We need to continue to identify retailers that are good in central city markets and take as many obstacles away from them as possible. Perception is huge. Maybe we need neighborhood ambassadors like Downtown or to experiment with lighting and streetscapes.

How has legislative redistricting affected the Hispanic community?

As a country, the politicians pick the electorate. It’s not the other way around anymore. I think it’s wrong. It really has changed the political discourse. I think that’s the danger with redistricting. I think there’s an indirect effect when you gerrymander certain districts, when it comes to being open to other ideas. When you have broader districts, there is a more balanced approach.

What’s your view on immigration reform?

This country has totally been built on immigrants. There are many industries, including dairy, agriculture, the service industry, that if it weren’t for the immigrant population, particularly those coming out of Mexico and Latin America, this country would not function. Building fear and fences and being paranoid is a long-term mistake. There’s nothing wrong with Milwaukee that another 100,000 people wouldn’t solve. We lack density. The thing that makes cities great is density.

Born and raised in Cuba, how did you end up in Milwaukee?

My aunt and uncle claimed me. I came five years ahead of my parents. I was 10 when I moved to New Jersey. We later moved to Puerto Rico. I came to Milwaukee to go to Carroll College.

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In contrast to younger, vocal activists, at 63, you have strong ties to the business community and traditional organizations. 
There is very much a need to have diversity of opinion within a community. I think real growth occurs when you can have reasonable disagreements about how to approach an issue. There’s an incredible need, particularly around immigration, where you need those individuals that really speak up loudly.

You have certainly spoken up loudly yourself over the years.

In the mid-1980s, the UCC leadership team, myself and the board of directors, became active advocates for the improvement of public education in Milwaukee. After years of standing on the sidelines trying to make changes but still not being satisfied, we decided if wanted to see real change, we needed to get into the game ourselves. That’s when we started our own school. We finally decided to not just talk about what we can’t do – that’s easy, but what are the solutions? – and to make them happen.

Condensed and edited from a longer interview.

Hear more about the story on WUWM’s “Lake Effect” Nov. 12 at 10 a.m.

This story appears in the November, 2014, issue of Milwaukee Magazine.
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