As a kid growing up in Rio Hondo, Texas, Ness Flores wanted to be a baseball player like his hero, the great Jackie Robinson.

And while he loved baseball, he ended up going to bat for something else over the course of his professional career – advocating for the rights and protections of migrant farmworkers as an attorney. 

Flores wasn’t familiar with any lawyers growing up. But what he did know was the struggles of migrant farmworkers. 

“I might not have known it or appreciated it at the time, but my whole life was pointed in that direction,” said Flores, 78, who has dedicated his career to providing advocacy, counsel, community service and legal assistance to Wisconsin’s migrant farmworkers, Spanish speaking and other marginalized populations. 

His parents, Barbara and Ismael, were migrant farmworkers. For the first decade of his life, Flores would join his family in the spring as they made their way from Texas to Wisconsin to work in a canning factory or a farm. 

“Apples, cherries, beans… you name it, I picked it,” recalled Flores. 

His family eventually relocated to a tiny town southwest of Sheboygan in 1954 when his dad got a job at the Kohler Company. The family moved to the city of Sheboygan in 1955 where Flores graduated from South High School in 1962. Flores graduated as student body president, co-captain of the football team and a member of the scholastic honor society.  His parents were one of the first Mexican families in the area and though they didn’t speak English well, they always contributed to the community in some way, Flores said. 

“My parents always taught me to care for the newcomers,” Flores said.

Flores drew inspiration from his family as he began his legal career. After initially starting in tax law, Flores later took a job with UMOS as its first migrant legal services attorney. While there, he helped launch its Migrant Legal Services Program, which still exists today as part of Legal Action of Wisconsin. In 1972, he joined in the march to Madison to call for better housing, pay and conditions for farmworkers. He became the executive director of the Governor’s Committee on Migrant Labor in 1974 and wrote and lobbied for the Wisconsin Migrant Labor Act the following year. After its passage, he became the first chair on the Wisconsin Council on Migrant Labor in 1976. 

“When I got appointed as (circuit court) judge in 1978, my mom said ‘Why can’t you hold on to a job? You are changing jobs every couple of years,” said Flores, who also has served as a private law practitioner, a legal services lawyer and a public defender. “I always looked at it as though I was attacking the problem from a different direction.” 

In addition to a half century in the legal profession, Flores also has spent a half century of service to the community. Among his many roles, he has served as a member of Waukesha’s Police and Fire Commission, a member of the Board of Regents of the UW System and a board member of Legal Action of Wisconsin and La Casa de Esperanza, among other nonprofits. 

Flores served two terms on the Greater Milwaukee Foundation’s Board and remains connected as a member of the Community Impact Committee, where he helps directs the Foundation’s grantmaking strategies toward achieving greater equity and inclusion in the region. He also served on the advisory group in 2016 that led to the creation of the Latino Statistical Portrait, a comprehensive study of Milwaukee’s Latino population that led to greater understanding locally of the significant role the community has in the future of the region.

While helping better the lives of migrant farmworkers has brought Flores great joy, so too has the fact that he has paved the way for other Latino lawyers. When Flores started his career, he was one of two Latino lawyers in Wisconsin. In 1978, he became the state’s first Latino circuit court judge. When he retired in 2012, one of his Spanish-speaking clients said, “Oh no! Who is going to take care of the Hispanic community now?” Now there are more than 100 Latino lawyers and the number continues to grow.

“They are all bright and anxious to help people,” said Flores, a founding member and past president of the Wisconsin Hispanic Lawyers Association. “That’s a prideful thing for me.”

 

Past President’s Leadership in Racial Equity and Social Justice award recipients

2021 civic award recipients

William C. Frye Award

Virgis and Angela Colbert

Frank Kirkpatrick Award

Mark Eppli

Doug Jansson Leadership Award

Carmen Pitre

President’s Leadership in Racial Equity and Social Justice Award

Ness Flores