Meet the owner of a Mexican restaurant that's a destination for Iowa caucus candidates

The food industry has made owner Alfonso Medina politically active. After 2016, he wanted to know what would happen in Marshalltown, "a community of immigrants."
Image: Julian Castro Campaigns For Sen. Elizabeth Warren  In Iowa
Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro talks with La Carreta restaurant owner Alfonso Medina Jr. while campaigning on behalf of Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) Jan. 30, 2020 in Marshalltown, Iowa.Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

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By Miriam Arias

DES MOINES, Iowa — A Mexican restaurant in the heart of Marshalltown, Iowa, has become a destination for presidential candidates as they seek the state's Latino vote.

Owner Alfonso Medina's father, who left his home in Mexico in search of new opportunities, opened La Carreta Mexican Grill in 2000. The restaurant closed in 2014 but four years later, his son reopened it.

For Medina, the restaurant has been a way of bringing people from different cultures together. More than 90 percent of customers who eat there aren't Latino.

He adds that the first real connections immigrants in the state have made with Iowa's predominantly white residents have been through the opening of businesses such as restaurants.

"We enter their homes through food," Medina said.

The restaurant, known for its tasty burritos, is a stop for politicians trying to gain momentum before Monday's Iowa caucuses, the first in the nation.

Former Democratic candidate Julián Castro recently spoke with about 40 people here while campaigning for Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D- Mass. After trying his luck in the kitchen, he answered some questions about why he chose this place as part of his campaign route.

"It's important for the Latino community to participate in the caucus," said Castro, who announced his formal support for Warren in January after he dropped out of the race. "Latinos are growing in Iowa and could determine who wins."

Latinos represent 6 percent of the population in this state; there are about 200,000 Latinos in Iowa and 73,000 are eligible to vote. The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) was hoping to register at least 60,000 for the caucuses.

Medina will be one of the Latino caucus participants and he takes this electoral process very seriously. He has spoken with several presidential candidates — including former mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, and billionaire Tom Steyer — at the restaurant. A few months ago, he spoke with former candidate Beto O'Rourke in the same place and, more recently, he got a visit from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., while she campaigned for Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.

"Everyone has a good heart and good ideas," Medina said. His original vote would have been for Castro. “I saw myself reflected in him. He was not the most popular, but he would have represented us. "

Castro, the son of Mexican immigrants, was the only Latino candidate in the race. Medina was discouraged when Castro dropped out of the race at the beginning of the year, but was glad when Castro announced his support for Warren.

Medina says he shares Warren's vision regarding immigration as well as climate change, which Medina thinks is the most important issue facing the nation right now.

Food industry as a political driver

Medina believes that working in the food industry has been the driving force behind his participation and commitment to local politics. After the 2016 general election, he sent an email to community leaders to discuss the rhetoric and the immigration policies that President Donald Trump promised to enact.

"In less than 48 hours, I was sitting with the mayor at that time and the police chief," he said. "I wanted to ask what was going to happen" in Marshalltown, which is "a community of immigrants."

Medina's position as a business owner has given him an opportunity to discuss issues affecting his community. He said getting involved helps him feel represented.

This is not the case, however, for many other Latinos in Iowa.

"There were many occasions when I thought about leaving to other states with a larger number of Latinos," Dulce Escorcia, a Mexican student at Iowa State University, said. "But I'm still here." Over the years, she said, she's noticed more positive changes in the state.

Another student, Carolina Herrera, 20, said it's difficult for her to feel connected to any of the presidential candidates right now. "I like Julian Castro," she said, "but now I think I'm going to vote for Bernie Sanders, because he is the one who listens the most to Latinos."

While Medina gets ready to participate in Monday's caucuses, he continues to break down barriers and emphasize his community's contribution in different ways.

Customers at La Carreta leave with a special message written on their bill.

“Immigrants make the United States great," the message says. "They also cooked and served your food today."

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