New Sausage Spices Up Race For Hispanic Baseball Fans

Oscar Avila, Chicago Tribune, July 31, 2006

Milwaukee—If it is possible for a sausage to strut, this one was.

A 9-foot-high chorizo, with its goatee, sombrero and bandana, raised its arms in triumph Saturday night as it made its debut in the “Sausage Race,” a diversion during Milwaukee Brewers baseball games that features four mascots–a hot dog, a Polish sausage, a bratwurst and an Italian sausage.

From Section 204, dozens of Hispanic fans chanted: “Cho-ri-zo! Cho-ri-zo!” A few snapped photos on cell phones. Francisco Verduzco, wearing a straw sombrero and a green Mexican League baseball jersey to mark the team-sponsored Hispanic night, said he finally felt like a real Wisconsin resident.

“It was time they had the chorizo, no? It’s hard to explain, but I feel proud of it,” said Verduzco, 42, a factory worker from Oostburg, Wis.

Wisconsin has experienced an infusion of Latino immigrants, putting a new face on a region where the legacy of German immigrants remains strong. Now that the chorizo known as El Picante will be a regular Sausage Race participant, both communities can find common ground in the sports exploits of encased meat.

Shift in population growth

The state’s Hispanic population increased 23 percent from 2000 to 2004. From 1990 to 2000, Wisconsin’s population of immigrants born in Latin America tripled to about 66,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

In recent years, Milwaukee has elected a Latino state representative, hosted a National Council of La Raza convention and watched vibrant Mexican neighborhoods grow south of downtown.

Sensing the buying potential of Hispanic consumers, Klement’s Sausage, the Milwaukee company that sponsors the sausage races, will use the mascot to promote its new chorizo product.

Unlike his German, Polish, Italian and all-American competitors, El Picante’s origins are a bit ambiguous, the product of marketing gurus trying for pan-Latino appeal. The edible chorizo has different variations–the Spanish version is harder and less spicy than the Mexican, for example.

El Picante is decked out in a sombrero, the stereotypical hat of Mexico.

But an official “biography” of El Picante includes “undercooked paella” as one of his “turnoffs” and says his favorite hangouts include tapas bars, indicating he is from Spain. He wears a guayabera, a comfortable dress shirt common in Cuba and other Caribbean nations.

In the early 1970s, Hispanic rights activists succeeded in killing off the Frito Bandito, a gunslinging, mustachioed, sombrero-wearing character used to peddle corn chips.

But marketing consultant Nancy Hernandez said she hasn’t heard any grumblings about El Picante. Hernandez, whose firm ABRAZO was hired by the Brewers, said much of the city’s mainstream Hispanic leadership pushed for the chorizo character.

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While the chorizo took the field in his sombrero, across town thousands of Milwaukee residents were donning their lederhosen for the city’s annual German Fest along Lake Michigan.

Although the German presence still lives in musical groups, restaurants and social clubs, the fest is increasingly a tribute to Milwaukee’s past. From 1990 to 2000, the state’s German-born population declined by 8 percent. Most participants in a festival parade were at least in their 50s.

Les Lund, a retired firefighter and member of the Liederkranz musical group that sings traditional German songs, said many of his comrades don’t even speak German. A few have no German ancestry at all, but the group is happy to claim them anyway because it is so tough to replace members who die.

Giving way to new tradition

“It used to be that Germans got off the boat and the first thing they wanted to know was where the singing groups were,” said Lund, 68, the grandson of German immigrants from Plymouth, Wis. “Those people aren’t coming anymore. It’s a struggle.”

For now, it is Mexicans who are coming to Wisconsin. Some say the changes are harmful, especially because the growth includes illegal immigrants.

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Ah, the race.

The chorizo broke out of the blocks well but, perhaps because of inexperience, found himself bottled up in the pack and unable to catch up. That allowed the bratwurst to break the tape first, followed by the Italian sausage. The chorizo finished third.

The fans in Section 204 unleashed a storm of boos after the race ended. But their hearts weren’t in it. The boos almost instantly gave way to laughter and high-fives. They might have been disappointed that the chorizo lost, but they were happy he was in the game now.

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