Chilean Immigrant Brings His Passion for Bikes to Madison

It was on the sidewalk, after the party, that Pepe Barros and Fiona Weeks really struck up a conversation — the only guests to have arrived on two wheels. This was in Santiago, Barros’ home. “We became very good friends,” he says.

Barros, who has bachelor’s and professional degrees in industrial engineering from the University of Chile, was working with the Ministry of Education to develop a social-emotional skills curriculum called Learning by Failing. Weeks, an American college student, was in Chile on exchange. Four years later, the pair married, and settled in Milwaukee, her hometown, to further her career in the United States.

It took seven months for Barros’ work permit to come through, during which time he turned his passion for bicycling — and his energy — to volunteering. “Bikes always represented freedom to me,” says Barros, who taught bicycle repair and led community rides in Milwaukee through Vulture Space and the Urban Ecology Center. “I started biking to school when I was 11. I biked to college, to work. I never bought a car.” By the time Barros received his work authorization, Wisconsin Bike Fed was eager to hire him.

When, just a year later, the state offered his wife an epidemiologist position in Madison, Barros, once again, had to start over. Now it is Madisonians who can benefit. Barros has launched Down with Bikes, a service that teaches people how to repair their own bicycles and provides valet bike parking at community events. He works at Free Bikes for Kids, repairing donated bikes for children, and with advocacy groups JUST Bikes Coalition, Wisconsin Bike Fed, and Madison Bikes. And he is co-founding an educational business, called Trusten, to develop a play-based curriculum similar to his Chilean work.

People are so welcoming here that I feel confident enough to start something to support the community.

“People are so welcoming here that I feel confident enough to start something to support the community,” Barros says.

“What I enjoy the most is to give kids and youth more and better opportunities to grow healthy, smart, and strong,” he says. “And I appreciate that Madison and the Wisconsin Bike Fed let me do it, what I love doing.”

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