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  • Writer's pictureTeresa Nguyen

José Carrillo

(1950 – 2023)


Story and Interview by Teresa Nguyen

December, 2023

José Carrillo - Janesville, WI - Photo courtesy of JATV Media Servies

Retired General Motors Employee

United Auto Workers Leader

Co-Founder of Local MLK Celebration

President of Labor Council for Latin American Advancement-Rock County

Executive Board of United Migrant Opportunities Services, Milwaukee

Member of Partners in Prevention Rock County

City of Janesville Board of Review Member

State Wisconsin Prison Industries Board

Latino Student Advocate for School District of Janesville

Co-Founder of Rock University High School

Student Mentor of Math and Science

Recipient of the MLK Service Award

Board Member of Visitors for The UW System

Board Member of Global Wisconsin, Inc.

Board Member of Rock University High School

Board Member of Diversity Action Team


Author’s Note:


I was very sad to learn that José Carrillo had passed away on the afternoon of December 7th, 2023. Our mutual friend, Santo Carfora, informed me by phone. He was with José when he took his last breath.


Santo Carfora

José was a friend to so many in this community. And Santo was a dear friend of José’s over the decades. More recently, José had suffered some serious health issues and surgery. Santo was frequently there by his side throughout José’s challenging recovery. We are grateful to Santo, for being such a wonderful and supportive friend to this inspiring leader.


When my “Tales of Our Heritage” co-producers, Frank Schultz and Alan Luckett, and I wanted to interview José, it was Santo who encouraged us, arranged for the interview and came along for support. We were glad, though not surprised, that José was gracious and willing to share his experiences, viewpoints and his sense of humor for this production.


Not only will his interview be a part of the show, but we will dedicate “The Tales of Our Heritage” to José Carrillo, one who made such a difference in Rock County. We encourage the public to attend this unique, multi-media production featuring six groups that call Rock County home. It opens April 11th – 14th, 2024, at the Janesville Performing Arts Center. We hope you will attend to support José’s family and the ideals in which he believed.


Former YWCA Executive Director Angela Moore called José “a kind and gentle equity warrior”. What a perfect description of who José really was.


He will be missed by all those whose lives he touched; his former GM co-workers and Latino workers of GM, his “brothers” from the UAW, his friends, many students, their families and co-workers at the school district and all of his fellow board members from the many important organizations on which José served. Above all, he will be greatly missed by his dear family.


In José’s interview, he closed with a simple, yet powerful message: “My grandmother used to say, ‘If you see an injustice and do nothing, then you are a part of it.”


José embraced this philosophy, as well. May his message guide you in the choices you make and the ways you help our community, and may José’s memory be a blessing.


 

Interview with José Carrillo


Early Years in Migrant Work


I came from Guadalajara, Mexico, originally. I made my way to Tijuana, mostly on foot, when I was 19. Some of my family members lived there. I also had family living in the United States. They told me about the opportunity for better jobs there. I started working in the U.S. as a migrant worker in the fields.


I had traveled and lived all over the United States working on farms as a migrant worker, starting in Southern California in the 1960s. I got involved in the farm labor union then. I tried to help the workers find a better life through the Cesar Chavez movement, and I had a chance to meet him and Delores Huerta, as well. Organized labor is important. It’s important that the workers have a voice.



As migrant workers, we followed the harvests and the seasons, from crop to crop, which is why we moved all over the United States. Typically, a lot of the migrant farm workers come up from the south, from Texas and 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.


In 1971, I came to Wisconsin to work in the Wautoma area where they had large cucumber fields.


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, some of the workers would come and talk to me, seeking help. So, I started to help them to gain better workers’ rights.


I decided that farm work wasn’t providing enough for my family, as well. And I always had an ambition to try and better myself and to give my family a better life.


From Wautoma I went to Milwaukee. There, I met people in a program 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. They also provide assistance to the families. Because I wanted to get out of the migrant work, I joined the program. I’ve been with them now for over 45 years, first as a participant seeking assistance, and then as a member and later as a UMOS board member.


Arriving in Rock County


I think coming here was written in my destiny.


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 area, I took a job with American Motors, which was a company eventually 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 told by a friend that the Chrysler plant in Belvidere, Illinois, was hiring and was given the directions. One day, I decided to go there. I was coming down from Madison, but I stopped at the Oasis in Janesville. I happened to ask the clerk if he knew where the car plant was, not realizing there was a GM plant close by.


He said, “Oh sure, it’s not too far.” So, he gave me directions and I arrived at the Janesville GM plant and asked for an application.


I turned in the application on the spot and the guy at the front desk asked me to sit in a chair and wait.


A short while later, a lady came out and asked me, “Do you want to start working tomorrow?”


That’s how I started working at the Janesville General Motors plant.


Feeling Like an Outsider


When I first came to work in Janesville, in 1976, I noticed that there were very few Latinos here. There weren’t many working at GM, either. It was just me, Rudy and Jesús and a few more. That was it, maybe 7 Latinos.

Beloit Even Start Dancers - Photo by Teresa Nguyen

No one wanted to rent me a house. I was forced to commute back and forth to Kenosha, WI. My wife and I had just had a baby, our daughter Julieta, and we had two other children. They needed their daddy, but I was working and traveling back and forth to Janesville all the time.


I became involved in the union here. One of my UAW brothers told me he had a house he could rent to me.


I said, “Really? You accept me?”


He replied, “Of course! You work here and you’re a UAW man!”


That’s how I was able to get a place in the nice Fourth Ward. When I lived there, it was a really nice neighborhood. Even when it was criticized for being a bad area, I said, “Well, that’s not true. I lived there and my kids grew up there. And they didn’t turn out too bad!” (José laughs.)


Other Latino GM workers had trouble getting housing here, as well. They were all living in Delevan. It was hard to witness. Many of the migrant workers in Walworth County came here to work at Seneca. They were hard working and not afraid of doing manual labor.


Education


At one point, I thought again to myself, “I can do better than this.” That’s why I searched for a new position. I had always wanted to be a teacher, but I was good with numbers, so I became an engineer. First, I attended Blackhawk Technical College to earn my GED.


José with former City Council Member, Sam Liebert - Recognition from the City of Janesville

At GM I had been working as an electronic technician. Then, there was a new course that had just opened in Robotics. So, I studied that and became certified. I eventually obtained my degree at Milwaukee School of Engineering.


I wanted to apply for an apprenticeship program as a technician. Not everyone is nice, and the guy I spoke to said, “Oh, you’re never gonna’ make it.”


Actually, I like it when people say things like that. It gives me a chance to prove them wrong. So, I said, “Well, let me see.”


I applied for the position because I was qualified with my new certifications and degrees. I had an issue with my knee and was in the hospital when I got a call. The person on the line said, “You can come in on Monday to start your apprenticeship.”


The doctor said I wasn’t ready to walk, but I signed a release form and got out of there to start the apprenticeship!


Eventually, I worked my way up to being in charge of Robotics Electronic Repair.


I worked at GM for 30 years until my retirement. “Thirty and out” was my goal. That’s when you work for 30 years until retirement age and then you retire to allow someone else to have a position.


I got out just before the plant closed. I received all my full benefits, which was a blessing. After I retired, they said they were going to close the plant. I didn’t believe it and never expected the plant to close. It just didn’t seem possible! I assumed they were using threats of closing as a bargaining chip.

The Janesville GM Sign Toppled - Photo by David Abb

We were all truly surprised when it happened. We had been working 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. Especially when they changed it over to a new line of robots, we worked all the time. I thought perhaps they’d shut down for a short period, and then retool the plant to manufacture a different vehicle, but that never happened. They turned to plants in Texas so they could get rid of us. But we were the more sophisticated plant of GM. They would bring in new equipment to us all the time.


The closing of GM affected so many people here in Rock County. It was such a shock.


United Auto Workers Leader


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.


I started working with the United Auto Workers union leadership. In this position, I helped Latino workers with housing opportunities. 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. It was recently still active, but as a smaller group.


During that time, with the help of the union, we started talking about things asking, “How will you hire minorities when you have this practice?” 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. We demanded that they hire more Latinos.


That started to happen and we began to gain more Latino workers. At one point, I was handed a stack of applications and told I could distribute them. Also, the union helped those who were laid off at other GM locations to come to the GM plant in Janesville.

José and UAW friend, Bruce Penny

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. Most of the jobs they could find were in service jobs.


Education Advocate


When I first retired, I wanted to go home, sit on the couch and relax! However, reflecting on my purpose in life, I remembered how I saw a lot of Latino kids through the years coming into the plant with their parents.


After the first couple of weeks into retirement, my main focus became education. I wanted to work with the Latino students in the schools. My own kids were in high school at the time. They had been students of Santo Carfora.


I spoke with Dr. Tom Evert. He welcomed me to work with the students as a volunteer. I got in touch with friends in the community who were active teachers and administrators. I had the opportunity to volunteer and help the Latino kids out at Parker High School under Assistant Principal Barb Dougal.


Parker High School

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 as Superintendent, she asked if I’d like to come work with her down at the ESC as the Latino Student Advocate.


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, learned where they were from, what problems they were going through, their challenges, etc.


What I found in my work was that by the time these students got to middle school, they had totally forgotten their Spanish language and 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. But the students never translated what the teachers actually said!

José (right) and other community members giving cultural presentations at Jackson Elementary

We had a program called Educate for Success, which was designed to boost their academics and social skills. It taught them how to adjust to the community and we combined kids from both high schools, Craig and Parker. We’d bring in Latino people from UW Milwaukee or students who went to Blackhawk Tech to speak to the kids. The students needed these role models. Often times they looked 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 became frustrated, though, because it seemed that the students were discouraged from using or preserving their Spanish language. The problem with a lot of these programs is that they get these grants, 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.


Changes in Rock County


When I first came here in 1976, it was a peaceful place and I wanted to raise my kids here. But Janesville wasn’t really ready for having a more diverse community. 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, 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 “Go back to Mexico!” I experienced a lot of racism in those early years in Janesville.

José and wife, Maria Luisa (left front) at a Diversity Action Team event - Photo courtesy of Santo Carfora

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. When they start to know who you are, they see that you are just another human being like them. They are more willing to socialize with you, 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.


Challenges for the Latino Community


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 Cezar Chavez Days and had a Latin Dance Day and we invited the community to attend. It’s not that way anymore. I’d like to see more unity in our Latino community.


When GM started closing plants in the 1990s, a lot of Latinos came here to Janesville to work. They came from Chicago and other states like Indiana.


Photo of José - courtesy of Bruce Penny

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 so 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.


There are still a lot of issues to tackle. I hope to help people to find work and to make enough to feed their families. If we bring work opportunities to our community, a variety of jobs, good paying jobs with good benefits, then everyone does better and the community will improve.

Last August, 2022, Jose Carrillo joined California's U.S. Congressman, Ro Khanna at UAW Local 95 to discuss bringing major manufacturing jobs back to the mid-west.

It’s the workers who create the value of a company, so they need to be treated well.


The community is definitely growing. There are several Latino owned businesses, restaurants and grocery stores now.  


José’s Values and Philosophies


Actually, it was the UAW that inspired me to want to help others, to take social action. Together we are stronger. I really believe that.


Beloit Even Start Dancers performing at Library Park, Janesville, WI - Photo by Teresa Nguyen

And I can say for sure that education works. It can release you from the grips of poverty and give you a new life. If you have an education, you can have opportunities. Opportunity is what everyone needs.


As a Civil Rights activist, I was the founder of the Martin Luther King celebration at Blackhawk Technical College. I had been working on the UAW Local 95 MLK Awards. Not enough people attended, so then I met with Leslie Brunsell, who started working with Blackhawk Technical College to hold the ceremony there. We chose a date close to MLK Day. She started getting others to bring food to the celebration. The program grew incorporating entertainment, as well. Now there are a lot of people who attend every year.


I firmly believe that we need to continue to promote awareness of all diversity as well as the history of our diversity. It’s important to take action and get involved.


When the KKK came here, our UAW Civil Rights Committee met and worked on a plan to refute their message of hate. At that time, I got together with other community leaders like Santo Carfora, Neil Deupree and with Leslie Brunsell. That’s how and why I got involved in DAT.


Diversity Action Team of Rock County promotes the same values I have. It’s always a joy to work with others who are like-minded and who are in a position to make a difference.


On the topic of immigrants and those who seek asylum, I believe it’s important to see their viewpoint. No one in their right mind would leave their families, their communities, their culture and go to a new country where they don’t know the language. Only desperate people do this. Thet are experiencing truly dire situations. They don’t even know if they can find a job here, yet they risk their lives just to find a better opportunity.


José was on the board of Diversity Action Team

Rather than spending money on fighting immigration at the border, why don’t we invest in bringing jobs into their country and in infrastructure? These U.S. corporations that have plants in Mexico and elsewhere in Central America, they aren’t doing that to help the local community or local economy. The big companies that move there do so to avoid U.S. regulations and to hire cheap labor, so it’s all about their own profit-making.


Latin American companies and U.S. companies who have plants there need to pay fair wages, as well, so the people will be able to live a decent life. That would help them to want to stay there. Those low wages are contributing to the problem.


Everyone, no matter who you are, has the same goals; they want to have a good life, to provide for their family, to do well and have a nice house. We all share common desires, dreams and aspirations.

José with friends, Jaleh Dabiri and Rene Bue - Photo courtesy of Santo Carora

On racism and division, I think we have to respect others and be like a brother to others. Then we won’t hate people just because they are different from us.


When you are a part of UAW, you become a part of a family. I want others to feel that same sense of belonging. Through the union, we learned to treat others like a brother. I’ve always believed that you have to treat others with respect and dignity, no matter who they are.


My grandmother used to say, ‘If you see an injustice and do nothing, then you are a part of it. So, you need to say something or at least do something about it.” I think she would be proud of me now.


José and his wife, Maria Luisa - photo courtesy of Bruce Penny

Family and Home


At one time I dreamed of moving south because of the warmer weather. But I decided to stay here in Janesville, Wisconsin. I’ve been here for most of my life, my kids grew up here. Their friends are here.


I’ve been married over 55 years to my wife, Maria Luisa Cortes. My son, Luis Alejandro (Alex) 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. He lives in the mountains of Nevada. Another son, Leonardo (Leo) 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. She visits us often.


Julieta and father, José

Julieta also became highly involved in her own community and said this about her father when she ran for the Janesville School Board,


“My father, José Carrillo, taught my brothers and I at a young age the importance of public service. We were taught values that included family first, and family includes community, education, faith and public service.”


I am proud of this country and proud of being a Latino American. I’m proud that my sons served in the U.S. Marine Corps.


Now, we have six grandchildren and a great-grandchild. So much of my family and our friends are here. So, this is truly our home. I’m glad I chose to stay.


The Carrillo Family-Photo courtesy of Bruce Penny




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