For over nine years, José Madera has been working with the Academic Advancement Program (AAP), a campus-wide academic support program deeply committed to the retention of all students and enrichment of their academic experience at UW-Madison. As assistant dean and assistant director of the AAP, Madera provides direct services to students as an academic advisor while also making discretionary decisions regarding the interpretation and implementation of L&S academic and curriculum policies.
“This is part of the whole students academic affairs unit which deals with career advising, academic policy, and enrichment opportunities for students,” Madera tells The Madison Times in an interview at Jade Mountain Cafe on Madison's near east side. “The College of Letters and Science is the largest college at the University of Wisconsin… about 16,000-22,000 are part of the College of Letters and Science both undergraduate and graduate. As such, it's not easy to navigate.”
The College of Letters and Science offers the largest amount of majors and certificates, too. “We are the ones who basically provide you with the tools and understanding of how to get from your first year to graduation,” Madera says. “We help you to maneuver through the system and help you to understand how the system works.”
Madera was once one of those students that he now helps. Born and raised in Santa Isabel, a city in south-central Puerto Rico not far from Ponce, Madera holds a bachelor's of science degree in chemistry from the University of Puerto Rico-Cayey. “I was very involved in student organizations back in college at UPR-Cayey, and by default I got involved in student government,” he remembers. “I represented my campus unit in the board of regents. That allowed me to develop a broader understanding of what a university system is all about.”
Madera came to Madison in 1989 to pursue his master's degree without knowing a single soul in Wisconsin. “The fact that I didn't know anybody here, was a reason for me to get involved in different things,” Madera says.
He hooked up with other Puerto Rican grads and undergrads and soon became involved in what was called the Minority Coalition. “In the early ‘90s, that was a coalition of students coming from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds that was very instrumental in participating and drafting the Holley Report — the first diversity report ever accepted,” Madera says.
The Minority Coalition was extremely effective. “I would soon get a job in the grad school working as an assistant for the McNair Scholars Program and from there I really started to really understand the fabric of the university,” Madera says.
He was also pursuing his master's of science in water resources management from UW-Madison where he also pursued doctoral studies in soil science. He didn't quite finish. “I just ran out of money,” Madera says. “There wasn't money coming into the lab and when you are doing research in the lab, you are very dependent on money coming in. I was working with a highly specialized analysis for pesticides in groundwater. I wasn't quite able to finish. I was ABD [all but dissertation] — I pretty much conducted all the research.”
Madera still continues carrying out his commitment to providing a safe, healthy, and amiable environment to all students while professionally addressing their concerns and needs.
“I did finish up my McNair Scholars Program and I became what they call a 'Baby Dean' with the academic policy group of L&S,” Madera says. “I was the first director of the diversity education program that was a collaborative effort between the multicultural student coalition and the dean of students. That gave me more administrative experience.”
Today, Madera uses his own experiences as a minority in a strange land going through the hard sciences to be able to help students at UW. “I can understand what they are going through, the challenges that they face and the tribulations that they go through,” he says. “Everybody brings their own backgrounds and their own challenges. We're always challenging the students and letting them know that they can do it.
“I love the conversations that I have with the students,” Madera adds. “I love trying to understand them better and trying to make them realize that there are many opportunities there for them and that there are options.”
By day, Madera is an assistant dean in the College of Letters & Science, but that is only part of her persona. At night and in his spare time, he is part of MadiSalsa, one of Madison's most popular musical groups who are dedicated to bringing the diversity of Latin music to the Midwest.
“In Puerto Rico, everybody is born with some type of musical and rhythm gene that eventually pops out,” smiles Madera. “You will be like, 'Wow. I didn't know I had it' and you suddenly start dancing and following the beat.”
Madera used to perform in choirs both in his hometown of Santa Isabel and at college. “I was a tenor and that helped me develop a little bit of how to perform in public,” he says. “My science education also helped me because I had to present papers and data in public. I had to get up in front of people and I became very comfortable doing that.”
Madera developed his musical abilities while performing with groups specializing in Afro-Caribbean rhythms in a variety of cultural and classical events throughout the island, before coming to Madison where he became a founding member of Bentetú, the only musical group performing the traditional Puerto Rican rhythms “bomba” and “plena” at the time. Bentetú participated in many folk-music festivals and cultural celebrations throughout the Midwest.
In 1992, he became a founding member of MadiSalsa, a 10-piece Salsa/Latin jazz band which has consistently been voted one of Madison's favorite Latin bands the past two decades. For over 20 years, MadiSalsa has been a constant in Madison, devoted to preserving the musical traditions of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic. The ensemble performs many types of music from mambo and bolero to meringue and Latin jazz.
“I love singing and making noise and being on stage and making people happy,” says Madera, who has also worked as an accompanist at the UW-Madison’s Dance Department, specializing in Caribbean and African rhythms.
“But I also see it as an obligation for those who have never been exposed to Latin music…. maybe they remember [Santana's] “Oye Como Va” or [Ricky Martin's]“La Vida Loca” but they don't know too much. There's part of me that likes to educate others. I'm not in a classroom and I don't have a chalkboard, but this is another way that I can teach and show people about my music. I love to share that experience and to maybe introduce people to something they wouldn't have ordinarily heard.”
Through academics, music, and more, Madera always remains a proud Boricua. “When I am at an event, I can hear a Puerto Rican accent from across the room,” Madera smiles. “We have a pretty small population here in Madison, but I have met many other Puerto Ricans here.”Madera keeps his patria always in his mind with his cooking of traditional Puerto Rican dishes. Madera is a frequent participant (and winner) in the Alpha Kappa Alpha's Men Who Cook competition in Madison where he makes traditional Puerto Rican dishes.“I love rice and beans and to play around with different flavors to make a dish,” Madera says. “When I first had a burMger at the [UW Memorial Union] Ratskellar, they just threw the patty on the bun so I used to carry a small container of Adobo with me just to season things a little before I eat it.”
But for Madera, nothing beats the real thing.
“I love fresh fish … that's one of the best parts of living on an island,” Madera says. “Unfortunately, here in the Midwest, that poor little fish has been bouncing around in a truck for who knows how long.
“I don't have the wealth of resources to start a restaurant but I'm seriously considering it if I stick around here and get to retire here in Madison … that would be my next gig,” he adds.
Madera plans on sticking around for a long time in Madison with his wife, Kim Santiago, a two-time United States Olympic rower. On Aug. 12, the two celebrated their eighth anniversary. "She has inspired and motivated me so much throughout the years," Madera says. "She has been the perfect life companion and I would not have been able to accomplish most of my successes without her being there for me."
With his roots in Madison, Madera feels that it is very important to stay active in the Madison community. He is on the Overture Community Advisory Board and is a member of the board of directors for the Madison Children's Museum along with being a previous long-time member of the Madison Arts Commission.
“Right now, I'm also participating in the United Way's Born Learning Delegation,” he says. “I like to be involved in as many community things as I can. I think it's important. I like to serve. And people have told me that I've never had an opinion that I didn't like to share. I want others to know that everybody has something that they can contribute and you can always continue to learn.”
Basically, Madera wants to help others make the trek he has made to higher education and community involvement.
“I was basically raised by my two grandmothers who weren't even related to my family,” Madera remembers. “I went to public schools. I've had the privilege to go to college. That's what made me realize that — like Marlon Brando once said — I could be somebody …. I could be a contender. And the older I get, the more I love doing things that I haven't experienced before because I like to be challenged.
“Looking back, I was basically raised by the village. It takes a village to raise a child,” he adds. “At my work, I see that there is so much need out there and I want to be able to help everybody. The system can be so challenging that if you slip once you can continue slipping … it doesn't matter how grounded you feel. Every student faces a certain degree of risk. But students don't understand that because they think that they are Superman or Supergirl. Guess what? You were able to fly high in high school, but you came to UW-Madison where there is plenty of kryptonite around you. But I am your eyes to show you where that kryptonite is so you can avoid it…. so you can fly.”