Los Janesvilleros: How Paul Ryan's hometown embodies a changing America

PHOTO: Jose Manuel, a Mexican immigrant to Janesville, built a successful business that sells products from home to fellow immigrants. He?s conflicted about who to vote for.

Janesville has always been the heart of the Midwest to me. I grew up hearing wholesome stories about the small Wisconsin city from a proud native -- my mother Cathy.After school, my mom and her classmates, many of them farmers’ kids, would drink pop at an old-fashioned soda fountain store when it was warm outside, or skate on the frozen Rock River when it was cold. It was "that kind of place," as Paul Ryan would say.

Last night, Janesville’s hometown hero accepted the Republican Vice-Presidential nomination, and put the quaint city and its politics in the national spotlight during his much-anticipated address to the Republican National Convention. In his speech, Ryan blamed Obama for failing to save a GM plant which provided many jobs to Janesville's residents, after the President vowed during his campaign that the plant would remain open for "another hundred years." Critics say it would have been impossible for Obama to save the plant, because it closed under Bush's presidency in 2008, before Obama ever took office.

But, Ryan mostly painted a rosy picture of the city during his speech. He conveyed that Janesville was an honest Midwestern town, where things mostly stay the same.

“I live on the same block where I grew up. We belong to the same parish where I was baptized.  Janesville is that kind of place,” Ryan said.  

But, not everything stays the same in Janesville. Small family farms are less common as agro-industry takes over, and the Rock River doesn’t freeze over anymore as Wisconsin winters have gotten warmer, my mom says.  Driving into Janesville yesterday, my mother stopped to show me that old soda counter where girls would go to “flirt with the boys”  after class, and we noticed yet another change. Where the old shop used to be, we found a Fiesta Mexicana grocery store that sold pig's ears, rosary beads, and Virgen de Guadalupe candles. The town, almost entirely white 15 years ago, has seen a recent influx in Latinos.

Mexican votive candles on the shelves of a store marketed towards Janesville's immigrants.

Reflecting a greater trend across the Midwest and across the nation, Rock County’s Hispanic population grew to about 8 percent of the total population by 2010, according to the Census bureau. Agricultural work in the area has drawn undocumented immigrants into the small city, meaning Census counts are likely lower than the actual Latino population.

The Latino population isn’t yet large enough to change the electoral votes in the state. But, for me, a hybrid product of Latin American migration to Wisconsin (my father immigrated to Milwaukee from Buenos Aires), it’s clear that issues important to Latinos have had a significant effect on small Midwestern towns. In the last decade, Hispanic population growth has occurred disproportionately in rural areas, making immigration an issue that hits close to home for many non-Latinos in tightly knit communities like Janesville.

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