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Julian Barrientos
March 10, 2020

Celebrating CEE @ 150: With passion, integrity and excellence, alum Julian Barrientos honored the Wisconsin Idea

Written By: Staff

If you are familiar with Wisconsin, there is a good chance you are familiar with the work of Julian Barrientos. During his 40-year career as a structural engineer, Julian designed more than 500 bridges. As president and CEO of Barrientos & Associates, Inc., he also had a hand in the design of the Kohl Center, Miller Park, and the Monona Terrace.

Julian at the Port of Houston
Julian Barrientos at the Port of Houston upon his arrival to the United States via ship.

Julian never let a challenge stand in his way, and that perseverance set him on a course for success. Julian grew up Oruro, Bolivia, and vowed to become a civil engineer at just 14 years old after a dam failure threatened his community’s existence. His quest to become an engineer led him to graduate from Oruro Technical University in civil engineering. Shortly after, he was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to Purdue University.

As a young man from a close-knit family, it was a tough decision for him to leave home. With little knowledge of the English language and just enough money to cover his trip, Julian left for the United States. Like many students, he struggled to balance work, home and college life. To overcome the language barrier, he studied five days a week and translated his textbooks with the help of his peers.

An interview with the Wisconsin Department of Transportation led to a job offer and Julian moved to Madison. An incentive program through the DOT provided him the opportunity to attend graduate classes at UW-Madison, where he completed his master’s degree. After 10 years with the DOT, Julian left to start his own consulting firm, Barrientos & Associates, in 1972.

As an entrepreneur, Julian seized the opportunity to give back to the community and his profession. He mentored hundreds of engineers, helping them launch successful careers, and he frequently gave motivational speeches to professional and cultural organizations. He also co-founded Centro Hispano of Dane County, a non-profit organization dedicated to empowering Latinx youth and families through bilingual programs and services.

Julian Barrientos working at Barrientos & Associates
Julian Barrientos working at Barrientos & Associates in 1982, surrounded by key employees of the company.

In 1999, the UW-Madison College of Engineering presented Julian with its Distinguished Service Award, honoring his career and achievements. Other accolades include the Dane County Small Business Award, Hispanic Business Journal Entrepreneur of the Year, and Madison Magazine “100 Most Influential Madisonians.”

Today, Julian’s son Norman leads the firm, which is the only Hispanic-owned architectural engineering firm in Wisconsin. Julian retired in 2004 and passed away in March 2015, but his legacy lives on in the lives of those he inspired and mentored. In honor of the 150th anniversary of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, we caught up with Norman to learn more about his father. Here are his responses to some of our questions:

How would you describe your father?

He was very energetic and happy person. He had a huge personality and lots of charisma. He liked to make people laugh and get to know them. In terms of his employees and friends, he was very encouraging. He challenged people to try harder, aim higher, and succeed. Helping people was part of his nature, and he enjoyed the mentorship role.

Do you recall what he enjoyed about his time at UW-Madison?

He enjoyed campus life and revered the professors very much, especially Chuck Salmon. When he formed his own company he would retain them from time to time to do work for him as consultants.

Julian Barrientos at Purdue University
Julian Barrientos at Purdue University in the 1950s.

Reflecting on Julian’s career, was there project that he was particularly proud of?

Yes, definitely—the Appleton Memorial Bridge over the Fox River. It’s a major urban thoroughfare that leads right into downtown. To get the project, Julian literally camped out overnight to observe the bridge. Realizing it was about to fail and needed repairs, he took his concerns to the Public Works Department and waited until someone would meet with him. He was awarded the design contract based on his observation and readiness to help the city. That project really helped the company grow and build a good reputation.

Did Julian share any words of wisdom or advice with you?

He was steeped in Victorian literature and styles of writing, so he would say things like, “Set your sights on a mountain top and reach for the summit.” Throughout my architectural career, he would write things like that to me. He encouraged me to keep an eye on my professional objectives, to finish my education, and to be the professional that I could be.

What was something unique or unknown about Julian?

There weren’t many people of Latin heritage in Madison when I grew up and Julian was early in his career. He faced stereotyping and some stereotypical reactions, but he didn’t see his Latino background as a liability or something to hide. If people gave him a hard time, he took the high road.