A Place to Call Home
Celebrating diversity in small-town Wisconsin
In an effort to promote better understanding and appreciation of our community's cultural diversity, I interviewed and photographed area residents to create a unique exhibition in collaboration with the Hoard Museum in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin. Merrilee Lee, the museum director, selected objects and photographs from the museum's collection to add historical context.
The end result is an exhibition that has raised awareness of immigrants in our community, the challenges they've overcome, and the contributions they make every day. The exhibition opened in July 2018 and was initially intended to be a "one and done" temporary installation, but is now on display whenever gallery space is available. The contemporary portraits and story panels have also traveled to the UW-Whitewater campus.
Photos from the opening event are below. Scroll down to view photos and stories.
View photos and stories below
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People have been moving to the Fort Atkinson area for thousands of years. Many of the early settlers’ values — like courage, perseverance, hard work, and devotion to family — have also been exemplified by more recent arrivals, up to the present day. Our community is enriched by the people who have moved here.
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Kuldip: Yearning for peace and stability
When describing the spirit of his native home, Kuldip said, “We are farmers, we are Sikh, and we work hard. That’s what we do.”
Kuldip was born and raised in the state of Punjab, an agricultural region in northern India, and his faith is a central force in his life. As a Sikh, he follows three main principles: constantly keeping God in his thoughts, earning a living through earnest effort, and serving others with kindness and generosity. “No one will ever go away hungry from a Sikh temple,” he said. “You can show up in the middle of the night and they will feed you for free.”
He and his parents moved to the United States in 1996, motivated by the desire to escape more than a decade of unrest and violence: anti-Sikh riots swept through India in late 1984, resulting in the deaths of more than 10,000 Sikhs. Although most of the violence occurred in Delhi, about 300 miles to the south, Kuldip’s family felt threatened.
“After 1984, we had a bad situation with terrorism and stuff like that,” Kuldip said. “We are peaceful people. We don’t want to hurt anybody. Everybody wanted to come to a peaceful life, and America was a peaceful country.” The family moved to northern Wisconsin in 1996 to join his eldest brother, who had recently graduated from the UW-Superior, and later they moved to Madison.
In 2007 Kuldip and his wife, Karamjit, moved to Fort Atkinson and purchased the Mobil gas station and convenience store on Janesville Avenue. Today he and Karamjit work together running the store, and they’re glad to have found a safe and stable place to raise their two sons, who attend Fort Atkinson High School.
“We came for a peaceful life,” Kuldip said. “We work together and we are enjoying our life. People are so nice and friendly.”
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Maria: Helping others achieve their dreams
Maria first came to the US from the Dominican Republic as an exchange student, and after spending a year in Florida she decided she wanted to stay. One of her sisters was already living in Fort Atkinson and she encouraged Maria to move.
Even though she had studied English in college, she found the language barrier to be formidable. “I was learning English in my country, but when I got here, it was completely different,” she said. “The accent, and the speed.” She recalled a time when she was working at a fast-food restaurant and a customer asked for a bag with her order. The customer spoke quickly and Maria couldn’t understand her. “I was so nervous, and my mind blocked. And then she called me ‘stupid.’ I felt so bad. But those experiences have been pushing me to be where I am right now and to grow more and do more for my community.”
Maria has lived in Fort Atkinson for more than ten years, and she has been working at Spacesaver since 2008. She completed her Bachelor's degree with a double major in English and Spanish at the UW-Whitewater in 2015. “That was a real challenge, being a full-time employee and having my daughter,” she said. “The feeling when I went to my graduation was one of the best feelings I ever had.”
Maria would like to return to college for a degree in psychology, and in the meantime she has started an informal group for other Latinas who are striving to achieve their full potential. “I want to help other women accomplish their dreams, and to help them realize that there actually are no barriers that cannot be overcome," she said. "Bad experiences, or bad discipline, or people with bad attitudes might try to stop you. They might be in your way but I think it’s always possible to get what you want if you are consistent, and if you have faith, and if you work for it.”
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Martin: Building a family’s future, despite legal limbo
Martin was only eight years old when he crossed the border from Mexico to the United States with his mother, his uncle, and his infant sister. After reuniting with his father in Tennessee, the family moved around for a few years before eventually settling in Fort Atkinson when Martin was in sixth grade.
“I consider Fort Atkinson to be my hometown,” he said. “It’s where I grew up, and it’s where I met my best friends. It’s where I became an ‘American,’ I like to say.” Martin used air quotes because he actually isn’t an American citizen. He’s a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) registrant, which means he can legally remain in the United States if he maintains a clean record and pays a $500 fee every two years to maintain his status.
While DACA allows Martin to live here legally, it also forces him into an “in-between” existence. He went to Blackhawk Tech to pursue a career as a lineman, but he can’t get a Commercial Driver’s License because DACA registrants are considered temporary residents. For now he works as a troubleshooter for Charter Spectrum.
His classification as a temporary resident also means that he can’t marry his life partner, who also holds DACA status, and with whom he has two daughters, a five-year-old and a baby who was born in April. “Technically we can get married, but if we did we couldn’t be sponsored to eventually get our citizenship,” he said.
Although the government considers him to be a temporary resident, Martin has lived in Fort Atkinson for most of his life and he’s doing his best to build a secure future for himself and his family here. “I want to have a family, and work, and enjoy life,” he said. “That’s the American Dream.”
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Filippa: Building a Fort Atkinson tradition
Salamone’s Italian Pizzeria and Sports Bar in Fort Atkinson has hosted thousands of date nights and celebratory meals over the years. But the founders were novices when they first entered the restaurant business.
“I had my family’s recipes, but cooking in a restaurant was all new for me,” said Filippa, who founded Salamone’s with her husband, Russ. “I started a little at a time, and I got used to it.”
Filippa and Russ got married in Sicily and lived in a close-knit Italian neighborhood in Rockford, Illinois, for the first ten years of their marriage. Filippa never needed to drive in Rockford because her friends, extended family, and church were all within walking distance. She and her five children didn’t feel the need to learn English because they spoke Italian at home and around the neighborhood.
After Russ was laid off from his job, he and Filippa decided to open a restaurant in Wisconsin. They moved to Fort Atkinson in 1981, marking a huge change for Filippa and her family: she and the kids had to learn English, she got her driver’s license, and she learned how to cook for a crowd.
Their first Fort Atkinson venture was a small take-out location on the south side of town. Encouraged by their success, they moved to a larger downtown location on Main Street and then expanded again to their current location in 2000.
Today, three of their grown children run the restaurant and Filippa cooks there nearly every day. “We still do it the old way,” she said. “We make everything fresh.” She and her staff make their own dough and their own sauces, and Filippa makes her signature cannelloni, lasagna, meatballs, and other favorites from scratch. “I hope people like my food,” she said. “It’s homestyle.”
Although moving to Fort Atkinson was a big change, Filippa knows it was the right decision. “I love Fort Atkinson,” she said. “It’s a small city, and it’s beautiful. I’m glad we moved here.”
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Yamin: Combining the best of small-town and big-city life
Yamin’s parents were among a wave of emigres who left the new nation of Bangladesh after it gained independence from Pakistan in 1971. They moved to London in 1974, and Yamin was born there five years later. “There were lots of aunts and uncles around,” Yamin said, remembering his boyhood home. “In a way our household was a typical Bengali household, right there in London.”
While he was in college, Yahmin met his future wife, Mairead, a veterinary student from Northern Ireland. Their friendship eventually blossomed into romance, and they maintained a long-distance relationship after he moved to the United States in 1999 to pursue a doctoral degree at Georgetown University. Mairead joined him there after earning her veterinary degree, and their first child was born in 2004.
Soon afterward, Yamin was offered a position at the UW-Whitewater and the family moved to Fort Atkinson. “I grew up in London, and growing up was fine there, but I wanted my own kids to have space,” he said, adding that the town offers the best of both worlds. “It’s a good combination, with small-town life here and the university just a few miles down the road, and with Madison and Chicago close by as well.”
Yamin and Mairead are raising their three children to appreciate their heritage while also embracing life as Americans. “They’ve had a chance to experience both our cultures,” he said, adding that the family travels to Europe nearly every year to visit grandparents and other relatives. “It’s always going to be a mixture.”
He said he feels fortunate to be living in Fort Atkinson. “It’s been a welcoming community for us,” he said. “I’ve been lucky in the opportunities I’ve had, and I feel like we’re in a good place.”
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José: Working for a healthier community
José grew up in Santo Domingo, and from a young age he had to bum rides to baseball practice because his parents didn’t have a car. “I never gave up,” he said. “I always went to practice, and then I made it. I became a professional baseball player.”
He signed on with the Milwaukee Brewers and moved to Wisconsin in 1999. While he was initially overjoyed at his good fortune, he soon found that the transition from a life of poverty to living as a professional athlete was difficult. His inability to speak English also left him feeling isolated. “One day I called my mother and said, ‘I don’t want to be here anymore. I want to come back,’” he said. “But my mama is very tough. She was like, ‘My son, this is what you wanted. You wanted to play baseball and you got it. You need to man up.’”
His mother’s words strengthened his resolve, and he started asking his roommates for help. “That’s how I learned English, and then I was open to talk,” he said, acknowledging with a laugh that he still doesn’t speak perfectly. “I got very strong about it. When people didn’t understand me, or if they laughed at me, I didn’t care anymore.”
An injury eventually forced José off the team, and now he has transferred the discipline that he applied to professional baseball to training and motivating clients. In 2015 he and his wife created “Soul Fitness,” the business platform from which he offers training, coaching, and group fitness classes in English and Spanish. He was named “Best Personal Trainer in Jefferson County” in a recent poll taken by the Daily Union newspaper.
José said he’s pleased to work in profession that improves people’s lives. “I think a lot of people need that motivation,” he said. “They need someone to push them in the right way. You gotta discipline your body and discipline your mind.”
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Ana: Achieving citizenship
Ana earned her citizenship in 2016, and the moment was one of the proudest of her life. Following extensive preparation, she had demonstrated her knowledge of American history, government, and current events during an in-person exam.
Because she married a US citizen, she had been eligible to apply for citizenship for years, but she had postponed submitting her application because she was worried about failing the test. But when her husband was diagnosed with cancer, she felt a sudden sense of urgency: if anything were to happen to him, she would have more rights and protections as a citizen than as a resident.
Over the course of a few months, Ana filed her paperwork, had her fingerprints taken, and started studying for the test in earnest. “I was in my car with the CD every day,” she said, referring to an audio book that came with a printed study guide for the exam. “Even my little kid knew the answers.” She passed the test and was sworn in as a citizen soon afterward.
The accomplishment boosted her confidence and strengthened her resolve. “I’m proud of myself,” she said. “From then I started putting more in myself.”
Now that she has gained her citizenship, Ana wants to continue her education. Her GED certificate from Mexico isn’t valid in the United States, so she hopes to start working on her GED and someday even go to college. “My expectation is to continue my dreams,” she said. “For some reason they stopped. Now I have two kids and a job. My husband helps me a lot at home, but I want to continue my dreams.”
She also wants to advocate for undocumented immigrants so they can achieve financial independence. “When you come to another country, it’s not easy,” she said. “Coming to a different country with no language at all, no money, and saying ‘I can do this job. I want that opportunity.’ I think they [immigrants] should get that opportunity. Everybody working together can make this country better.”
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Modesto: Faith in the future
Living in Fort Atkinson is quite literally the answer to Modesto’s prayers. “All the time we would think about our kids and how we wanted to raise them in a different place,” he said. “We’d pray, ‘God, please open the door.’ We prayed for seven years.”
Through connections with friends and family, he was eventually offered the opportunity to build a Spanish-speaking congregation at the First United Methodist Church in downtown Fort Atkinson. “I felt something so special in me,” he said of the moment he was offered the job. “My answer in the moment was, ‘We need to think about it, and pray,’ but inside was a huge YES.”
He and his wife, Arelis, had no problem acquiring visas, and they traveled to Fort Atkinson to look for a home and get to work at the church. But it took the government nine months to approve the paperwork for their children, who had stayed behind with their grandparents. Arelis returned to the Dominican Republic because she couldn’t endure the separation, but Modesto had to stay and work. Those nine months were some of the most difficult of his life. “It was hard for me,” he said. “New job, without my wife, without my kids. Behind the house there was a cornfield and sometimes I would walk in the cornfield, to pray and cry.”
Eventually they were reunited, and now the family is growing: Modesto and Arelis recently welcomed their third child. His Spanish-speaking congregation is growing, too, from a single family at the time he was hired to 80 members and youth today. Services are lively, with stirring orations, live music, singing, and heartfelt hugs.
Modesto says he feels blessed to live here, and one of his primary goals is to encourage his congregation to acknowledge and share their blessings, as well: “This is a big goal for me. I tell them, ‘You can be a volunteer, too. There’s a ripple effect, like a stone in the water.’”
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Edmund: Escaping economic uncertainty
Ed graduated from college in Manila with an accounting degree in the early 1970s, at around the same time as Ferdinand Marcos, the president of the Philippines, declared martial law. Despite ongoing civil unrest, the country’s economy actually grew and foreign investment started pouring in. Over the following years, Ed worked for a couple of large international firms, including Lloyds Bank International of London. He also got married and he and his wife, Alice, had two daughters, Rhona and Nova.
Despite his success, Ed felt uneasy about the country’s future. “Two things brought me to the US,” he said. “Number one was the political and economic situation. It was very unsteady. The other was that I wanted my daughters to be educated in the United States.”
His older brother, Edgardo, had left the Philippines in the late 1960s to join a radiology practice at the hospital in Fort Atkinson. After their mother’s death in 1979, Ed’s brother invited him to visit Fort Atkinson, and the next year Ed and Alice decided to move. His other siblings also emigrated and settled around the U.S. and Canada.
Ed’s brother sponsored the family and offered Ed a scholarship to pursue his Master’s degree in accounting at the UW-Whitewater. Ed earned his Master’s and later accepted a job at Fort Community Credit Union, where he worked full-time until his retirement. Over the years he rose through the ranks and served as Vice President / Chief Financial Officer until his retirement in 2015.
He isn’t completely retired, though: he still keeps the books for his daughter, Nova, who has owned and managed Crimson Salon and Spa for more than ten years. His other daughter, Rhona, is a teacher at St. Joseph School. They both graduated from Fort Atkinson High School and earned business administration degrees from the UW-Whitewater.
Ed said that Fort Atkinson has been a great place for his family to live and work. “I’m really happy that we stayed here in this town,” he said.
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Yesenia: Working her way up
Yesenia was 16 years old when she boarded a city bus in her home city of Mante, in the northern Mexican state of Tamaulipas, and sat in an open seat next to a young man. Little did she know that her decision to take that seat would start a chain reaction that would eventually lead to her moving nearly 2,000 miles north to Wisconsin.
She struck up a conversation with the man, who was visiting his hometown after moving to the United States, and the pair soon fell in love. But he was only visiting friends and family in Mante temporarily; he and his brother were U.S. citizens and had been living and working in Wisconsin for several years. He needed to go back to work. “For four years we had a romance,” Yesenia said. “I saw him like three times a year, when he came to Mexico for vacation, and then we married.”
After their marriage in 1995, Yesenia moved with him to Fort Atkinson. They stayed at his brother’s apartment for about a month, and then they moved into a place of their own. He worked at the Jones Dairy Farm and she got a job at the Tyson Foods plant in Jefferson, though she disliked the work. The couple saved up and eventually purchased a duplex in Fort Atkinson, living on the ground floor and renting out the apartment above to help pay down their mortgage. Seven years later they purchased the home where they still live today.
Yesenia worked at Tyson until the plant closed in 2016, and then she took advantage of the opportunity to earn her Commercial Driver’s License. She currently works as a truck driver for John’s Disposal Service in Whitewater. Their daughter graduated from Madison College and is currently working as a translator at Premier Bank, and she wants to pursue a career in criminal justice.
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Chou and Nao: Finding peace after years of war
Chou and Nao were Lao refugees whose relocation to the United States was sponsored by Trinity Lutheran Church in Fort Atkinson. They arrived on a cold day in March 1976 and church members provided them with warm clothes, a job for Chou, and a place to live.
“Most Americans don’t know about the secret war in Laos,” Chou said. “They know only about the Vietnam war; they don’t know the secret war. The American government, the CIA, came over and they were asking Laotian government to help the U.S. The government said no, but General Pao said the Hmong people would help.”
Chou served in the CIA-supported army led by Hmong general Vang Pao for 15 years, from 1960 until 1975, rising to the rank of captain. The U.S. government’s overarching goal was to drive communist forces from southeast Asia, and Chou helped protect the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a vital supply line that ran through Laos between North Vietnam and South Vietnam.
The U.S. ultimately failed in its effort; Saigon fell at the end of April 1975 and soon afterward communist soldiers captured General Pao’s headquarters, winning the war in Laos as well.
The war was over, Chou’s side had lost, and he feared for his safety. “The communists took over on May 15,” he said. “People said, ‘Whoever served the US government, you have to find a way to go. They’re going to arrest you; they’re going to take you away.’” He and Nao and their four children fled to Thailand by bus, taxi, and finally a boat across the Mekong River. They were housed at the Nam Phong Military Camp and later at Ban Vinai Refugee Camp.
In March of 1976, after nearly a year of traveling, living in refugee camps, and applying for amnesty, the family was abruptly presented with a opportunity. “They came with three buses to pick up the people,” he said. “They had a microphone and they were yelling loud, ‘Who’s gonna go to the US? If you’re ready, don’t take anything, just come out. Go to the parking lot and go to the US!’”
After the family’s arrival in Fort Atkinson, Chou had a week to rest before starting a job at Nasco. He and Nao would eventually have nine children and he became a citizen in 1982. He worked at the Purina plant in Jefferson until his retirement, and later he and Nao bought nine acres of land outside town and built a home there. Now they’re frequent vendors at the Fort Atkinson Farmers Market on Saturday mornings, selling a variety of herbs and vegetables from their large garden.
“I’m very happy to be here,” Chou said. “Quiet, peace, and freedom.”
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The Faces You Don’t See
A note from the photographer
Sadly, the women who inspired this exhibition could not be featured in it. My friends B. and N. are sisters who moved to the United States from the Mexican state of Oaxaca nearly twenty years ago. They moved here because they were tired of the lack of reliable drinking water in their homes, disillusioned by corrupt politicians, and frustrated by an economic system in which there seemed to be no honest way to get ahead. They saw America’s promise and they wanted it for themselves, and they wanted it so badly that they left their homes, crossed the border, and made their way north to Wisconsin.
Like the other Fort Atkinson residents in this exhibition, they have built good lives here. They’re beloved wives and mothers and friends. They’re long-term employees of area businesses. They have homes and Individual Tax Identification Numbers and they pay taxes.
This space honors them and their commitment to a creating a better future for their families.
I also hope it inspires "established” residents to reach out to someone who might be new in town, to ask them to sit together at a ballgame or invite them to movie night. I know from personal experience that a small act of kindness can go a long way! Our family lived abroad for a couple of years and one morning at school drop-off time, the mother of one of my daughter’s classmates slipped me a note inviting me to out to tea. I held onto that note like a lifeline and it sparked a friendship that endures to this day.
While this exhibit reveals our connections to the past, it also brings our present time into clear focus. There’s never been a moment quite like this, and we’re making history right now through the way we see and respond to our neighbors.
Thanks for being here.
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Want to share your story?
This is an ongoing project with another exhibition planned for May 2020. Please use the form below to get in touch.
I'm also willing to consider commissions to work on similar projects in other nearby communities.
Thanks and I look forward to talking with you!