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.Cristina Costantini/Univision News
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.

Dave Warren, the owner of Dave’s ACE Hardware stores in Rock County and an ardent Ryan supporter on most issues, says that he’d like to see politicians come up with a better solution for Hispanic immigrants who want to work in the area legally.

“For the most part, I’m a pretty conservative guy, but since this issue is hitting home with me, I do have some empathy,” said Warren, who was born in Janesville but now lives in the neighboring town of Milton.

When I spoke with Warren, he was waiting for a phone call from the immigration attorney representing a friend who was apprehended while trying to cross the border back into the United States a few months prior. Warren said he hadn’t realized his friend -- who left three children and a wife in Janesville -- didn’t have papers.

“I’m not condoning the people who come here illegally, but we just want him to be safe,” Warren said.

So what do Latinos in Ryan’s hometown think about him during an election where the Hispanic vote is so important?

The “Janesvilleros” I spoke with were surprisingly consistent: we like Ryan, but dislike his immigration policy, they told me.

For some, that sentiment meant they were voting for President Obama, but others said they’d vote for Romney and Ryan in hopes that the economy would improve under the Ryan Budget.

Salvador Hernandez, 30, came to Janesville in 2010 from Illinois to start a Mexican restaurant called Hacienda Real. He says, like many Latinos, he voted for Obama in 2008 because of his promises to comprehensively reform immigration and create jobs. But, after moving away from the President’s home state because it was “bad for businesses,” Hernandez says he’s now voting for Romney and Ryan, despite their immigration platform.

“Right now, jobs are more important. And Obama is going to kill small businesses,” Hernandez said.

Still others, like Iván, 27, who moved to Janesville from Mexico to find work, says he can’t get passed the harsh immigration rhetoric during the Republican primaries to support Romney’s ticket. He noted that Congressman Ryan voted against the DREAM Act, a measure which the overwhelming majority of Latinos supported.

“Obama promised many things, and didn’t deliver to the Hispanic community. But he has provided something for the DREAMers, so that will help,” Iván said in Spanish, in reference to the administration’s deferred action policy.

Elvira Ruiz de Marko, 33, is a staunch Ryan supporter who came to Wisconsin from Peru when she was 14 years old. De Marko says Paul Ryan’s emphasis on personal responsibility and his plan for balancing the budget are appealing to her. It also doesn’t hurt that he’s a Jansville guy, she says. 

“Everyone loves him. I’ve never heard anyone say anything bad about him as a person,” De Marko noted.

But, de Marko was once an undocumented immigrant, and feels Republicans have mishandled the immigration question. De Marko was placed on a waiting list for legal status for nearly a decade, and overstayed her tourist visa due to political violence committed against her father in Peru. Now a U.S. citizen, de Marko will vote for Ryan in November, despite her reservations about his immigration platform. De Marko’s father Oswaldo Tovar, 74, became a U.S. citizen two months ago and will be voting for Obama.

“I guess our votes will be cancelling each other out,” de Marko joked.

Tovar is voting for Obama because he favors Obama’s emphasis on social services that benefit many Latinos, including his healthcare law.

Hispanic advocacy group NCLR says that the Ryan Budget will be devastating to Latinos, who are the most uninsured ethnic group in the country. Furthermore, the NCLR argues that the VP’s budget would further hurt the Latino unemployment rate --  which is two points higher than the national average, at 10 percent -- by cutting funding to workforce development programs which largely benefit Hispanics.

Still, some Janesvilleros remain undecided about who will be best for them and for their community.

Jose Manuel, the owner of the Fiesta Mexicana grocery store, moved to the city 9 years ago from Mexico City in search of a mejor estilo de vida or a better way of life. He’s built a lucrative business by selling products to Janesville’s new immigrants that remind them of home. Dried chile peppers, soccer jerseys, and pan dulce line the aisles of the small store. When asked if he’d support Romney because of his Janesville-born running mate, Manuel said he still had more thinking to do on the question.

“I like him [Paul Ryan] a lot, so it’s a very tough question,” Manuel said. “If he’d put together something that makes sense for us too, he’d have a lot more Latinos with him.”