Maria Monreal-Cameron, trailblazing leader in Milwaukee’s Hispanic community, dies at 75

Maria Monreal-Cameron’s presence demanded attention. She got work done, and she did it with enthusiasm and grace. 

Monreal-Cameron, the former president and chief executive officer of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Wisconsin and a trailblazer in Milwaukee’s Latino community, died Monday.

She had been diagnosed with cancer seven months ago, and recently had been in home hospice care. She was 75.

“Maria was an amazing leader who transformed the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce into a civic powerhouse through her dynamic personality,” said Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. “She created opportunities for countless individuals through her determination and passion.” 

In the 24 years that Monreal-Cameron served as president and CEO of the Hispanic Chamber, beginning in 1989, she raised the visibility not just of the organization but of the whole Latino community. She built what had been a small operation in a social, political and business force. She opened doors for Latino small business owners and paved the way for the next generation of Latino leaders. And she made use of a strong network of political connections — although she was known for getting along with people of all political stripes. 

“She knew that was good for the Hispanic Chamber,” longtime friend Lynn Sprangers said. “The chamber needed friends from all places, and Maria was good at working all those different relationships.”

She retired in 2013 with dozens of local, state and national awards for her work. 

“There are no words to describe the many contributions Maria made to our Latino community,” said Darryl Morin, national president of Forward Latino. “She took a fledgling chamber of commerce and under her leadership it became a national model for excellence. Her very legacy will live on through her children and the countless businesses and individuals she helped throughout her lifetime of service to others.”

Maria Monreal-Cameron: Past president and CEO for the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Wisconsin and community leader. Monreal-Cameron was born and raised in Milwaukee.

Monreal-Cameron was the first girl — after seven boys — of 13 children born to Mexican immigrant parents. Her parents, who had no formal education, were adamant about their kids doing well in school. 

“They were expected to do really well in American History and civics,” said her daughter Rebecca Cameron Valcq. 

She graduated from St. Joan Antida High School in 1963 and was accepted into the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, but at the time, her parents needed her to work at the family restaurant. In 2007, she was awarded an honorary doctorate from Cardinal Stritch University.

Cameron Valcq said her mother’s tenacity and mission to elevate the Hispanic community came from her parents, who early on instilled a sense of pride in her Mexican heritage while also highlighting the importance of her American birthright. 

She married Edward Cameron, an attorney, and the couple had four children: Scott, Kim, Mike and Rebecca. Her husband died in 2011.

“That was the love of her life, Cameron Valcq said. “Anybody who remembers them, remembers them always holding hands and being next to each other.”

Cameron Valcq was 14 when her mother joined the chamber. 

“I just remember her really diving in and going in with a mission to do as much as she could to help the community,” she said. “She has a tireless personality. She never stops working and she doesn’t take no for an answer. She went in with a mindset of ‘I’m going to make things better.’”

Monreal-Cameron always wanted a place where small business owners and entrepreneurs could gather and have access to tools that would help their business grow.

Under her leadership the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Wisconsin was awarded the Regional Chamber of the Year by the United States Hispanic Chamber for 14 consecutive years, from 1996 to 2009. 

In 2005, she spearheaded the creation of a new $2.1 million Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Wisconsin headquarters in Milwaukee’s south side. 

“When you think of that time, people didn’t know that Hispanics lived in Milwaukee,” Cameron Valcq said. 

Cameron Valcq remembers her mother saying: “You know, yes, there are a number of Hispanic-owned businesses that are in the food industry. But our Hispanic people know a heck of a lot more than just tacos. And we are engineers, we are journalists, we are attorneys, we are politicians, we are religious leaders. We are involved in every single aspect of society.”

Thelma Sias, a former vice president of We Energies, met Monreal-Cameron about 30 years ago. 

“I would think it would be difficult for anyone to have lived in the city of Milwaukee, and not know Maria,” Sias said. “Because she made herself available to everyone. … She was the leader who both led and followed the guidance of other people. And she gave everything she had for the betterment of all of us, not just the Hispanic community, but for all of us.”

Sias remembered a combative public discussion with the Public Works Commission about 10 years ago. While voicing her opinion, Monreal-Cameron was interrupted. 

“She said: ‘No, I’ve sat here and I’ve listened to your views and your opinions. Now it is my turn,’” Sias recalled. 

The room got quiet and attendees began clapping. 

“She was always conscious of other people’s space.”

Sias admired the way that Monreal-Cameron was able to demand respect in a room, while simultaneously lifting others. 

“And if anyone was asked about summarizing her legacy, it would be the woman who always carried herself with dignity and respect, but always was looking for how to pass the baton of leadership to the next generation,” Sias said. 

Sprangers remembers Monreal-Cameron fondly as a force to be reckoned with. 

“She didn’t know any barriers,” Sprangers said. And if they were there, she just sort of busted through them In her own way. She was a force for good, but don’t get in her way.”

When Sprangers worked for the Milwaukee Brewers, Monreal-Cameron continually reminded her that they needed to add a chorizo to the famous in-game Sausage Race to celebrate Latino contributions to the game of baseball and to acknowledge the Brewers’ growing Latino fan base. 

“She, of course, did not give up, regularly inquiring when we would see the mascot addition,” Sprangers said. “In 2006, when the club announced the addition of a racing chorizo, Maria sat in the front row at the news conference — with a big smile — as we heartily acknowledged her role and her persistence in making this happen.” 

On Tuesday, as word spread of her death, people spoke of her help in growing Mexican Fiesta, her service on dozens of boards and committees, her commitment to particular causes, and her ability to get people to sit down together and reach agreement. 

“Maria had a particular passion for providing supportive services to victims of domestic violence within the Hispanic community,” UMOS president and CEO Lupe Martinez wrote in a statement. “She spoke publicly about the lack of bilingual supportive services and legal assistance due to language barriers.”

The Milwaukee Common Council issued a joint statement that said, in part: “She was a giant in Milwaukee’s Latino community, leading the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce for 24 years, and never forgetting her first mission which was to make sure that those for whom she spoke had a seat at the table and a voice in the larger community. And she did all this with a warmth, basic decency, and deep compassion that made many think of her as another mother.”

Her daughter, who is chairperson of the Public Service Commission, said: “To know my mom was to love my mom. It was impossible to sit in a room with her and talk with her not feel like she knew you her entire life because she had this way of connecting with people that I’ve never seen before.

“She’s magnetic. People want to be around her … I’ve often said that being around her is like basking in the sun. You just feel this warmth and this brightness.”

Her funeral will be Friday. Visitation will be from 10 a.m. to 12:15 p.m., followed by Mass at 12:30 p.m., at St. Robert Catholic Church in Shorewood. There will be a private interment following Mass.