West Liberty Is Nation's First Majority Hispanic Town
(This report is part of the Morning Edition series "2 Languages, Many Voices: Latinos In The U.S.," looking at the ways Latinos are changing — and being changed — by the U.S.)
One place the Hispanic population is growing is in the overwhelmingly white state of Iowa. The latest census figures show the Hispanic population, while only 5 percent of the state, has almost doubled since 2000.
And one small town — West Liberty — is the first in Iowa to have a majority Hispanic population.
Downtown West Liberty, Iowa, is quintessentially Midwestern American, both quaint and historic, with brick buildings lining brick streets. A typical stroll involves walking past the bank, a renovated theater, a hair salon, restaurants and stores.
West Liberty Mayor Chad Thomas says that unlike a lot of other small Midwestern towns that are dying, West Liberty is alive.
"I see a lot of businesses that are open, and not vacant storefronts," Thomas says. "Probably half of the businesses are Hispanic-owned."
Next to Paul Revere's Pizza on 3rd Street is Tienda La Luna, and next to the American Legion Hall is the popular Acapulco Mexican Bakery.
Now at 3,700 people and counting, the eastern Iowa town is growing and thriving, Thomas says.
"If you didn't have the Hispanic population here in town, yeah, we would be much more like a lot of smaller towns, and there would be a lot more storefronts that are empty," he says.
And unlike other parts of the Midwest that are attracting Latino immigrants, the Hispanic population in West Liberty is not new.
"I mean, we're very unique in that there's folks in this community, in the Hispanic community, that are here in their fifth and sixth generation," Thomas says.
In the 2000 census, West Liberty was already well over 40 percent Latino, and has been steadily growing for decades.
The first big surge in Latino immigrants arrived in the 1930s for jobs in what was then a Louis Rich turkey processing plant.
That plant, now called West Liberty Foods, is still a draw for some newcomers. But most of the recent increase in the Hispanic population comes from growing, established families who came for the Louis Rich jobs, stayed and planted roots in this quiet, safe and friendly small town.
Jose Zacarias is among them. The 56-year-old moved to West Liberty from Mexico in 1984, working first in the turkey processing plant, a job he said was dirty, grueling and dangerous. By learning English, he was able to get better factory jobs. They were farther away, but Zacarias continued living in West Liberty.
He bought a big old farmhouse on the outskirts of West Liberty 20 years ago and raised three boys there. He called it and the two acres around him "a quiet piece of heaven" — until the new high school was built nearby a few years ago.
He considers many Anglos among his closest friends, and says the white and Hispanic communities in West Liberty get along well. But he says it wasn't always this way.
"When I arrived here in '84, they told me that such and such businessman wouldn't allow it, like for instance, the bar owners, wouldn't allow Mexican customers there, or they despise them openly, or things like that," Zacarias says.
But Zacarias and others in West Liberty say such conflicts gradually faded away, especially as Hispanics became more economically integrated into the community, and as the schools better integrated the community's children.
The West Liberty school system has what was the first dual-language program in the state.
Students take all of their classes in both Spanish and English, switching from an English-language teacher in the morning to a Spanish-language teacher in the afternoon.
West Liberty Elementary School principal Nancy Gardner says the program is voluntary, with half of the spots reserved for kids who speak English primarily at home, and half for those who speak Spanish.
"And in the end, all the students then become bilingual, biliterate and bicultural," Gardner says.
The dual language program is now in its 14th year, and last spring graduated its first high school senior class of students who started as kindergartners.
The program is so successful, several Anglo families have moved to West Liberty from nearby Iowa City, Muscatine and other towns specifically to enroll their kids. The program, which now has a waiting list, is being duplicated in a handful of other Iowa school districts with growing Hispanic populations.
At a time when many communities around the country struggle with an anti-immigrant and anti-Latino backlash, West Liberty is embracing and celebrating its cultural diversity. But according to many here, including Zacarias, West Liberty is still not a bicultural utopia.
"What I'm saying is we don't have an integrated community," he says.
Zacarias, who was sworn in as a U.S. citizen only a few weeks ago, says this is especially true when it comes to civic involvement. For example, with local elections coming up next month, he says he recently attended a forum for school board candidates. About 30 or 40 people showed up, but he says he was the only Hispanic there. He says he is taking matters into his own hands by running for a seat on the West Liberty City Council.
"We need to get together with the Hispanics and say, we are no longer a minority, we have some responsibilities, and we need to get organized," he says. "We've run out of excuses. It's time to do some work."
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And I'm Renee Montagne.
We're going to spend some time now with America's largest minority - Latinos. Their numbers jumped in the last census and are growing fast. Sociologist Ruben Rumbaut has been studying thousands of children of immigrants since the 1990s.
PROFESSOR RUBEN RUMBAUT: The population growth of Hispanics has been stunning. That population was estimated to be about four million in 1950. It is over 50 million today. And it is about 16 percent or so of the total U.S. population, but it is expected to reach 25 percent of the total U.S. population in less than two decades.
INSKEEP: So the growth remains huge. Now, these days most of that growth comes not from immigration but from Hispanics born in the United States. And these young Latinos are growing up immersed in two worlds.
RUMBAUT: To be bicultural, to be bilingual, means to feel comfortable in two cultural worlds; to feel comfortable and proficient in two languages, to be able to dance salsa, to be able to enjoy TV programs, movies, songs on the radio and song that touch on many different genres. The U.S. American culture is a multi-layer construction made up of the contributions of many people over many, many decades. So the Hispanic or Latino contribution will be one more that will be layered upon that.
MONTAGNE: This morning, we begin a series called Two Languages, Many Voices about bicultural Latinos and their impact on education, entertainment, religion, technology and the workplace. We begin in a small town in Iowa called West Liberty.
INSKEEP: Iowa's Hispanic population has almost doubled in the last decade. Latinos still make up only 5 percent of the state, but West Liberty is the first Iowa city with a Hispanic majority. NPR's David Schaper reports.
DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Downtown West Liberty, Iowa is quintessentially Midwestern American. It's both quaint and historic with reddish brick buildings lining brick-paved streets.
MAYOR CHAD THOMAS: What we're coming up to is Third Street.
SCHAPER: Walking past the bank, the renovated theater, a hair salon, restaurants and shops, Mayor Chad Thomas says West Liberty is thriving. And he says about half of the businesses downtown are Hispanic owned.
THOMAS: If you didn't have the Hispanic population here in town, yeah, we would be much more like a lot of the smaller towns and there would be a lot more store fronts that were empty, and...
SCHAPER: Next to Paul Revere's Pizza on Third Street in West Liberty is Tienda La Luna. Next to the American Legion Hall is the popular Acapulco Mexican Bakery, among others. And many of these Hispanic businesses are not new. Mayor Thomas says this growing eastern Iowa town of 3,700 has had a significant Hispanic population for decades.
THOMAS: I mean, we're very unique in that, you know, there's folks in this community in the Hispanic community that are here on their fifth, sixth generation.
SCHAPER: Fifty-two percent of West Liberty residents identified themselves as Hispanic or Latino in the 2010 census, up from just over 40 percent in 2000. The first surge in Latino immigrants arrived in the 1930s to fill jobs in what was then a Louis Rich turkey processing plant.
That plant, now West Liberty Foods, is still a draw for immigrants, but the bulk of the recent increase in the Hispanic population in West Liberty is in the growing, established families. Many of the recent newcomers to West Liberty are those like Mayor Thomas, who moved here with his wife 11 years ago seeking a quiet, friendly small town, and diversity.
THOMAS: A big factor for us, since we were thinking about kids, was the dual-language school program. So, you know, the thought of our children being able to go through the school system and come out speaking Spanish relatively fluently...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)
GROUP: (Foreign language spoken)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)
SCHAPER: The dual language program in West Liberty's schools was the first of its kind in the state. These fourth graders learn all their subjects in both Spanish and English. West Liberty elementary principal Nancy Gardner says the program is voluntary, with half of the spots reserved for kids who speak English primarily at home, half for those who speak Spanish.
NANCY GARDNER: And in the end, all the students then- become bilingual, bi-literate and bicultural.
SCHAPER: The dual language program is now in its 14th year, and is so successful it has a waiting list and is now a model for other Iowa school districts.
Parent Martha Rodriguez says the program helps the younger generation hold onto their culture, while giving them a competitive advantage. In addition, Rodriguez says her kids are able to build cross-cultural friendships.
MARTHA RODRIGUEZ: My kids have always been doing good with either both Anglo and Hispanic kids. They hang around with both.
SCHAPER: Was it that way when you were young?
RODRIGUEZ: No. It was completely different when I was young.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SCHAPER: The 42-year old Rodriguez immigrated to West Liberty from Mexico when she was 10. And says back then, she and other Hispanics felt more isolated and segregated in West Liberty, especially those who didn't speak English well. But Rodriguez and others say those tensions, for the most part, are history.
JOSE ZACARIAS: We don't have the conflicts we used to have in the past.
SCHAPER: Jose Zacarias moved to West Liberty from Mexico in 1984 and took a job in the turkey processing plant.
(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)
SCHAPER: As soon as he learned enough English, he found work elsewhere. But he sunk his roots in this close-knit small town, saved his money and 20 years ago, bought this old farmhouse on a couple of acres on the outskirts of town.
ZACARIAS: As you can see, this is a very quiet place and nice. Before they built it, the school; that was about eight years ago, this was heaven.
SCHAPER: Zacarias raised three boys here. Two are off at college, the third working full time, and if that's how you measure success, he says he's done OK.
Like others here, Zacarias says at a time when Hispanics elsewhere around the country face an anti-immigrant backlash, it's refreshing that the small town of West Liberty is clearly trying to embrace and celebrate it's diversity.
David Schaper, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.