Rafael and Deya
Rafael and Deya

Rafael Acevedo still remembers the day he arrived in Milwaukee. He was four, and his family had just immigrated from Puerto Rico. “It was intimidating,” he said. “We couldn’t talk to anyone. We couldn’t even talk to our teachers at school.”

The family struggled. Acevedo’s father worked as a sweeper to support his family until he found better-paying work as a machine operator.

While his father worked, Acevedo taught himself English by watching TV and hanging out with English-speaking classmates. By the time he reached high school, he had almost forgotten Spanish altogether. “I had to take a high school Spanish class just to keep up,” he said.

During a recent late afternoon at his home on Booth Street, Acevedo, now 57, sat at his dining room table, wearing a Puerto Rican flag t-shirt and khaki shorts, surrounded by family — including his wife Deya, who was busy preparing food, and two of his six grandchildren. He talked about how his experiences growing up as a Puerto Rican immigrant changed his life — and inspired him to become a bilingual teacher.

His childhood was filled with mentors — a police captain who devoted his life to helping the community and two volunteers who, without speaking any Spanish, came into Acevedo’s East Side neighborhood and organized sports teams, field trips and after-school activities for the neighborhood kids. “They took us to baseball games, to Holy Hill,” he said. “They took us to places we couldn’t even think about.”

When he graduated from Lincoln High School, he decided to become a police officer. But, Acevedo, who stands a little over five-feet, quickly came up against an unexpected obstacle. “In my day, you had to be a certain height,” he said. “I was not qualified. That was the biggest disappointment in my life.”

Instead, he worked at a tannery, got married, and had children. When the Park East freeway was built in the 1970s, he was forced to leave the East Side, along with many other Latino immigrants, and moved to Riverwest. More than two decades later, the experience still frustrates him.

“We were outnumbered,” he said. “We couldn’t defend ourselves. We just kept getting moved around. Today we have [Latino] lawyers, judges, teachers, and police officers. Back then, we didn’t have anyone.”

When he moved to Riverwest, he noticed that the neighborhood children needed something to do, just like he did growing up across the river. “I saw a lot of need,” he said. “I became a mentor to them.” He started coaching Little League, tutoring kids after-school, and working for the Milwaukee Public Schools Recreational Department.

After a few years, the Rec. Department offered to help pay his way through UWM. He jumped at the opportunity. He received his teaching certificate in 1991, and went to work as a bilingual teacher — a job he has held, at various neighborhood schools, ever since.

“It’s important for kids to learn English, but they can’t forget their culture,” he said. “And it’s good for the English-speaking kids to learn Spanish. It works both ways.”

Looking at a picture of one of his classes at Forest Home Avenue Elementary School, where he now teaches second grade, he said, “I just love kids. They’ve always been my number one.”

Over the years, he has become a strong advocate for more youth activities in Riverwest, and a well-known community member. Right now, he said there is a serious lack of activities for young people. “These kids need things that were taken from them years ago,” he said. “Camping, Little League, after-school programs, social centers.”

He said a lot of his students are attracted to drugs and gangs because there’s nothing else for them to do. The problem requires the effort of the entire community, he said. “We need to get people involved in working with young people,” he added. “We need more parents involved with their kids.”

He hopes to have more time to organize activities when he retires in a few years; but first, he plans to return to UWM to get a master’s in education. He said he’s getting the degree for one reason — “so my kids can see that. They say, ‘If dad can do it, I can do it.’ It’s never too late.”

He also hopes to begin work on a book about the history of the East Side, and how that area has changed over the past 50 years. “A lot of poor families lived on the East Side,” he said. “If you see it today, it’s an area where there’s nothing but wealth.”

After living in Riverwest for 36 years, he said he can’t imagine living anywhere else. “It’s this sense,” he said. “You get it from Holton Street to all the way down here. It’s a sense of community.” Besides, he added, “I’ve seen the kids all grow up. All the kids I taught. I see them around the neighborhood, and they’re grown up and having their own kids. It feels good to see that.”

Do you know someone who lives in Riverwest or who has had an impact on our neighborhood? We want your suggestions for unsung heroes, quirky characters, and interesting people for our “Neighbor Spotlight” feature. Call 265-7278 or send ideas to editor@riverwestcurrents.org.