As a young Mexican immigrant, Filiberto Murguia forged across the Rio
Grande River to find a better life here, and he spent most of his years working
to improve conditions for others in Milwaukee's Hispanic community.
For 33 years, he served as the executive director of the Council for the Spanish Speaking, or Centro Hispano, the city's oldest Latino social service agency.
Through hard work and persistence, he built the agency into a vital community resource by providing educational programs from Head Start to an alternative high school, classes for adults and social services.
As the leader of a nonprofit, he was a pioneer in developing low-income housing for the elderly, often battling discrimination from neighbors who weren't welcoming to Latinos.
Murguia died Tuesday at the Aurora VNA Zilber Family Hospice in Wauwatosa of liver cancer. He was 82.
"I credit the things we are doing at the United Community Center today with the opportunity and credibility that he gave to Hispanics by putting them on the map," said Ricardo Diaz, executive director of the UCC, a longtime friend and colleague.
"I'm proud to stand on his shoulders. It's a sad day for Milwaukee and a sad day for the Hispanic community."
South side Ald. Jose Perez said: "He was synonymous with the Centro Hispano. He was a great leader in our community where the center meant so much."
Perez said Murguia knew him and his family for years. Cousins and family members learned English at the Centro Hispano and finished their GEDs there. Some family members met and married there, he said.
To Mayor Tom Barrett, he was a good neighbor in the 1990s when both lived on N. Avondale Blvd. on Milwaukee's west side.
"He made great contributions to the community," Barrett said, noting Murguia was a member of the city's Housing Authority and worked to promote civil rights.
"Everything he did was to try to create opportunity for people," he said. "I saw him as a wonderful family man."
Barrett said he attended the 50th wedding anniversary in April of Murguia and his wife, Carmen.
Murguia family members from across the country and Mexico had gathered for the anniversary celebration, said Tony Baez, now the president and CEO of Centro Hispano and a longtime friend.
Those attending included Murguia's niece, Janet, now the president and CEO of the National Council of La Raza, the nation's largest Hispanic civil rights and advocacy organization.
"All of the family is very close and they are all very successful," Baez said.
One of 13 children born in the state of Michoacan, Mexico, Murguia first crossed the Rio Grande at age 18 and went to work on a cotton farm in Texas. He was caught and promptly returned to Mexico. He waited and came to Milwaukee in 1953, this time with the papers of one of his brothers, Ramon, who lived in the U.S. and was a citizen.
But three months later, "Ramon" was drafted. So Murguia spent 16 months in the U.S. Army in Korea.
"I learned to speak Korean before I could speak English," he used to joke.
Once out of the Army, he married Carmen, whose father ran a boarding house on the south side. He worked in tanneries, foundries and meat-packing plants, sometimes holding down two jobs to support his family of five children.
When his children attended the Head Start program at Centro Hispano, he became an active parent. In time, he went to work at the center, where he spent a total of 37 years, most as executive director.
He attended the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and received a bachelor's degree in community education and later a master's in the foundations of education. He became a citizen in 1968.
As the director of Centro Hispano, Murguia had to fight for resources to build and sustain the agency, recalled Baez and Diaz.
He fought to get money from the United Way.
He helped start the gradual redevelopment of National Ave. by moving the agency from a storefront on S. 6th St. to a beautifully renovated first-class facility at 614 W. National Ave.
He put together complicated land and financing deals to build federally financed low-cost housing for seniors, probably one of the first nonprofits to do so, said Diaz.
A soft-spoken man with a mild personality, he was described as strong-willed, a risk-taker and a fighter. "When he believed in something, he stood for it and fought for it and people respected him for that," said Diaz.
While Murguia spent many hours working, his community efforts went beyond the job, said his son, Raymond, of New York City. "He was never hesitant to help get someone a job, give them money, fix their car or whatever. It was a big list."
From his father, he said, he learned to appreciate his Mexican heritage and culture. "He was a very proud American, but he never forgot his past," he said.
"He was a man of integrity who lived with great dignity and left us with a beautiful legacy to live up to," said his daughter, Carmen Alicia, a poet and activist.
"The two biggest things he stressed to us as children was education and faith in God," she said.
Baez said he visited with Murguia last week. "He called his grandchildren together and told them that they had to go to church on Sundays and go to college," he said.
In addition to his wife, Carmen, and his children Carmen Alicia and Raymond, survivors include two other daughters, Christina Franz of Menomonee Falls and Catherine Gonzalez of Milwaukee. A son, David, is deceased. He also is survived by three sisters, Elvira, Maria and Alicia.
Services will be Monday at Mother of Good Counsel Parish, 6924 W. Lisbon Ave. Visitation will be from 9 to 11 a.m. Mass will follow. Burial will be at Mount Olivet Cemetery, 3801 W. Morgan Ave. The family requests contributions to the Council for the Spanish Speaking, 614 W. National Ave., Milwaukee, WI 53204.
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