Bertha Zamudio

by Jackie Reid-Dettloff, photograph by Melody R. Carranza

“The Mexican on Pierce Street.” Bertha Zamudio smiles at the title her friends gave her when she first moved to Riverwest.

From grade school in Mexico City to high school in Chicago to college in Racine to community organizing on Milwaukee’s south side, Bertha moved steadily northward for the first 23 years of her life. But when her first child was born, Bertha stopped moving. She settled in a little house on the 2900 block of North Pierce in 1976 and she has been here ever since.

Two life-long passions drew Bertha to this neighborhood.

The first was her search for healthy, unprocessed food. Way back in the early 1970s when she was living without a car on the south side, Bertha used to make the trip across the viaduct to shop at Outpost and Gordon Park Co-op at Locust and Bremen. “I have always tried to eat good, natural foods” she says, and she found what she was looking for in Riverwest.

Thirty years later she is still shopping at the corner of Locust and Bremen, only now it is to buy fresh produce from the Riverwest Gardeners’ Market on Sunday afternoons during the growing season. Buying produce in an openair market is what Bertha used to do in Mexico. When the Market shuts down for the winter, Bertha shops more at the Riverwest Coop, where she is a regular customer. “I’m really happy that we have another neighborhood co-op. I like that it’s small and still has a lot of good products. We all have to make choices about what and how we eat. I have practically become a vegetarian. I find that I simply cannot eat fast foods anymore. My kids all know that so they never even ask me anymore if I want something from McDonald’s.”

The other passion that brought Bertha to Riverwest was her belief in education. She wanted to live near the university. As one of 16 children, Bertha spent most of her childhood with an aunt who was a teacher in Mexico City. “I learned from my Auntie that you need to work hard and develop your mind.” When she came up to join her parents and siblings in Chicago at age 18, she spoke only Spanish. She enrolled as a senior in a Catholic girls’ high school so she could learn English. Within a year she was doing well enough to receive a scholarship to Dominican College in Racine. She studied there for two years.

In the summer of her sophomore year Bertha came up to Milwaukee to work with Hispanic youth on the south side. She did so well that she was nominated for a scholarship at UWM, where she studied off and on for more than twenty years. She shrugs her shoulders when she reflects on her long track record as a college student. For many years she had her hands full as a single mom of three children. “At first I was waiting for my kids to grow up and now I’m waiting for them to finish college. I am missing only a few more credits to graduate, but that’s OK. I am very happy.” Her daughter Xochitl has worked for years at Warner Cable; daughter Amada is finishing her BA at Marquette and plans to go to graduate school; son Bernardo graduated from high school in June and is studying at MATC. Bertha’s older grandson Ivory is in eighth grade; her younger grandson Jordan just began kindergarten.

College diploma or no, Bertha has spent most of her working life in schools. She started with MPS in the early years of La Escuela Fratney and works there to this day. At first she served as parent coordinator, which was a job that suited her politics very well. “ I think every school should be aware that the school is not just for the children but for the whole community.” For the past decade, she has served as teaching assistant in Fratney’s kindergarten; she also staffs the before- and after-school program at the school. Through her connections over the years at places like the Latin American Union for Civil Rights, the Catholic parishes of St. Francis and Our Lady of Divine Providence, Esperanza Unida, the Aurora Weir Center, and Outpost Natural Foods, Bertha is a natural at networking between the Spanishspeaking and English-speaking communities.

Lately, the work that most excites her is teaching adults at South Division High School. Four nights a week from 6 to 8, Bertha serves the needs of Spanishspeaking adults who want to learn English through a program called the Plaza Comunitaria. “I admire those students. They get up at 4 o’clock in the morning and they go to work. After work they go home and wash up and get something to eat and then they show up for class. They have children to raise and so much to do but still they come to classes at night. The mothers come and bring their children. Parents cannot do anything unless there is childcare provided, you know. Like I say, I admire my students very, very much.”

Probably Bertha admires her students because she knows firsthand what they have to deal with. From her own experience she knows what it takes to learn a new language and raise a family in a new country. When people ask her how she herself did it, she smiles. “I got by with a lot of help from my friends.”

Riverwest Currents online edition – November, 2006