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Iowa town adjusts to tide of Latino immigrants

Hispanics have established themselves in smaller cities and towns across the Midwest, drawn by what demographers say has been high employment rates and conservative values. One such place is Marshalltown, Iowa.
/ Source: Reuters

Even deep in the Midwest, far from the Mexican border, communities like Marshalltown, Iowa, will feel the impact of a nationwide economic boycott planned by immigrant groups on Monday.

“I think a number of services will be shut down because of the lack of labor that day. Of course the whole point of this is to demonstrate to people throughout Iowa the growing importance of this population to our economy,” said Mark Grey, an anthropologist at the University of Northern Iowa.

In Marshalltown in central Iowa near Des Moines, Mexican-owned El Vaquero western wear is a few doors down from a mainstay like Barb’s Boutique, evidence immigrants are rejuvenating this once-shrinking town of 26,000 people.

Hispanic-owned retailers and restaurants have sprung up in the shadows of the Swift & Co. meatpacking plant, the town’s largest employer and one of several plants across the Midwest serving as magnets for immigrants.

Hispanics have established themselves in smaller cities and towns across the Midwest, drawn to the region by what demographers say has been high employment rates and conservative values favoring families.

Polls show most Iowans believe immigrants “take jobs other Iowans don’t want,” such as cutting and packaging meat where hard work, not education or English proficiency, is required.

Spanish is taught along with English at a Marshalltown elementary school, where two-thirds of the students are the sons and daughters of Mexican immigrants.

Language instructor Tomasa Fonseca said she will not join Monday’s protest in what has been billed nationally as a day without immigrants.

“I expect a regular day in Marshalltown,” said Fonseca, 38, who immigrated from Mexico in 1993.

Acclimating “New Iowans”
A university-run program called “New Iowans” aims to acclimate Hispanic immigrants to predominantly white rural Iowa, Grey said. Iowa’s Hispanic population ballooned by 150 percent between 1990 and 2000 to 2.8 percent of its 3 million people.

“We’ve seen more entrepreneurship out of the Hispanic community,” said Republican state Sen. Larry McKibben.

“We have Main Street retail businesses that have started in the past five years so you’re seeing a transition from people who simply work for somebody else when they came here.”

A pipeline opened a decade ago between Marshalltown and Villachuato, a poor village in Michoacan state in west central Mexico. It has changed the character of both.

Former Mayor Floyd Harthun led city leaders on trips to Villachuato to learn about Marshalltown’s newest residents.

“We wanted to find out what was driving these people to a foreign land,” Harthun said.

Villachuato was very poor, Harthun said, and the major concern was the loss of their young people. Marshalltown launched a campaign to persuade Mexican workers who had been migrating back and forth to stay in Iowa.

Working at inclusion
“We’ve worked really hard at including these people in Marshalltown,” Harthun said. “We had just gone through quite a change. We went from a relatively small minority population of 1 or 2 percent to nearly 20 percent in a relatively short period of time.”

Marshalltown Police Chief Lon Walker said Hispanics do not commit a disproportionate share of crimes but cultureal differences pose challenges.

Unable to recruit Hispanics, Walker’s department relies on a translation service and a dozen bilingual residents. In one recent case, no one was willing to come forward to tell what they knew about the traffic death of an illegal immigrant, Walker said.

County official Gordie Johnson, who runs a restaurant, said the Hispanic influx has not caused government outlays to rise, though his own business suffered.

“I used to draw, for a customer base, from the whole (town) of 30,000. Now I draw from 20,000 because I get very, very, very few Spanish customers. It’s not good or bad. I’m just saying.”