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How one small Midwest town has turned immigration into positive change

In parts of the Midwest, floods of immigrants are reshaping the culture. The influx is presenting challenges, but some towns have made strides toward striking a balance between old and new.

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    Students take part in an English-Spanish dual-language program in West Liberty, Iowa. The classes are more popular than those only in English.
    RICHARD MERTENS
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It’s Thursday morning, and in one classroom fifth-graders cluster in small groups, studying mathematics. Only today it’s matematicas, and everyone is speaking Spanish.

Ten-year-old Joshua Perez stares at a whiteboard, confronting the mysteries of place value. One classmate, a girl with long brown hair and a stern gaze, points to a row of numbers and empty boxes.

Donde pone los centenas?” she asks, her precise Spanish betraying a strong Iowa accent. “Where do the hundreds go?”

Joshua hesitates, then reaches up and scrawls a blue C in the hundreds box. “Si,” the girl says. “Muy bien.”

Here at West Liberty Elementary School, mathematics is about more than numbers and shapes. It’s a blending of two languages, two cultures, and two very different groups of people that have come to inhabit this small town in rural Iowa. Like scores of rural communities across the Midwest and Great Plains, West Liberty has been transformed in the past several decades by an influx of newcomers, most of them Latinos who came to work in the big turkey processing plant that sits just beyond the downtown.

In Willmar, Minn., a multicultural business center has been helping local immigrants start businesses by offering microloans and advice on how to file taxes or figure a payroll. Local leaders in Storm Lake, Iowa, started a bilingual health center to help poor and underserved residents – often immigrants. And officials in Monmouth, Ill., worked with a political class at the local college to study best practices in 34 towns across the Midwest that had meatpacking plants and large immigrant populations.

But West Liberty has gone further than most towns toward turning an influx of immigrants – that most American of phenomena – from a potential problem to a source of possibility. There have been challenges. Some people simply left town as Spanish became an unofficial second language, and differences persist. But today, interest in the city schools’ dual-language program is so high – among both Anglos and Latinos – that there is a waiting list. Indeed, for many, becoming the first majority-Hispanic town in Iowa is looking more like cultural addition than subtraction.

Making Spanish equal to English in the schools is just one of the ways that West Liberty (pop. 3,736) has accommodated its Hispanic residents. Similar efforts can be found at City Hall, in the police department, and at a range of businesses and civic institutions. At the annual Muscatine County Fair parade, the biggest event of the year in West Liberty, taco and egg roll concessions join the Rotary Club’s popular turkey leg stand, while the horses of Mexican cowboys, the vaqueros, close out the show.

“It’s been a good change over the years,” says Mike Duytschaver, a 37-year resident and president of the local school board.

Anglo residents have a strong incentive to welcome immigrants. Many residents say immigrants have helped the town avoid the fate of many rural communities, with their dwindling populations and dying downtowns.

West Liberty’s remarkable resolve

But what makes West Liberty remarkable is that its efforts have taken place in a state that has been profoundly ambivalent about immigrants. In the 1970s, Iowa took in many refugees from Southeast Asia. But unlike some neighboring states, including Minnesota, Nebraska, and Illinois, Iowa has refused to adopt policies to make life easier for the many immigrants here illegally, such as allowing them to pay in-state tuition at state universities or get a driver’s license.

In West Liberty, “it’s not perfect, but most people are committed to working together to be inclusive and to improve the quality of life for Latinos and other immigrant groups,” says Sal Valadez, a union organizer who lives here. “I think we’re doing a lot better job than other places.”

The dual-language program starts in kindergarten, with students learning half their subjects, including math and language arts, in both English and Spanish. The program, which is voluntary, has attracted more and more students each year and is now more popular than the regular English-only classes. 

It wasn’t always this way. It took three referendums before the measure finally passed. Afterward, some families left. “They didn’t want their kids speaking Spanish,” says Conrad Gregg, a longtime resident and member of the West Liberty Heritage Foundation. 

That was 17 years ago. Today, families move to West Liberty to enroll their kids in the program. Anglo parents like it because they want their kids to learn a second language. Hispanic parents like it because they don’t want their kids to forget where they came from. When school officials raise questions about the program – it’s expensive, and some worry that it draws resources away from the rest of the curriculum – parents pack school board meetings to defend it.

‘Are you real police?’

The overall integration effort, meanwhile, remains a work in progress. When Lawrence McNaul became police chief in 2013, he discovered that none of West Liberty’s six officers lived in town, and only one spoke Spanish. This is typical of towns with large Hispanic populations. There was a “trust gap,” says Mr. McNaul, who recently became city manager.

So McNaul asked his officers to recruit some local people. “I was told, ‘Good luck,’ ” he says. “I wouldn’t find any.”

He found four – part-time officers who will likely be first in line when a full-time job opens. Three are Hispanic; two are women. One is Pamela Romero, who came from Mexico when she was 9. She spoke no English. Today, at 36, she works as a secretary at the elementary school while she finishes her year-long police training course, mostly on weekends.

Some of her fellow Latinos are surprised when they see her in uniform.

“Most of them know me,” she says. “They say, ‘Oh, are you real police?’ ”

She is. Recently she was able to interpret when she and an English-speaking officer responded to the report of a domestic dispute and found that the woman spoke only Spanish. “I want to help the community,” she says. “I want them to really know that the police department is trying its best to understand them, to speak their own language.”

McNaul is trying to make similar changes in other departments. He wants to post notices in Spanish and hire more bilingual employees. The idea seems to be working, he says. People are minding their dogs better now that the town has hired a Hispanic animal-control officer, he says. And for the first time, visitors to the water department can discuss a leaky pipe in Spanish.

Meanwhile, Anglo-owned businesses are learning how to do business with Hispanic customers. Larry Miller, a co-owner of Fred’s Feed and Supply, says he studied Spanish in high school but “not enough for it to stick.” Still, he finds ways to communicate with customers who don’t speak English, at times resorting to pantomime. Sometimes, he concedes, “you hear disparaging remarks” about local Latinos. But mostly people get along.

“The Spanish have sort of assimilated to us, and we’ve assimilated to them,” says Mr. Miller, who likes to lunch on ham and jalapeño sandwiches from the Mexican bakery up the street.

Few businesses have adapted to the town’s immigrant community as well as Jeff’s Market, an independent grocery at the edge of the downtown. The store was struggling when Aaron Thoma bought it in 2006, and Mr. Thoma resolved to cater more to Latinos. He hired Latino workers and began stocking food that Latino families wanted, including jalapeños, cactus, several varieties of green onions, and “tons of cilantro.”

He had a lot to learn, he says. But he was willing to do it. New Hispanic hires were indispensable; they not only brought new customers, they taught Thoma new ways of doing business.

“It’s not an easy change to make,” he says. “It took me a while to gain the trust of the population in town to feel that this is an OK place for Latinos to shop.” Some businesses are doing this better than others, he says.

From dropouts to pre-med

In the schools, language hasn’t been the only issue. When Mike Gunn took over as soccer coach at the high school eight years ago, there was a high dropout rate among Latino boys. Mr. Gunn, who is also a high school science teacher, began asking eighth-grade teachers which boys were most at risk of dropping out. He started the West Liberty Soccer Club and made sure that these boys joined. Today, the West Liberty Soccer Club has 250 players from elementary school age to high-schoolers. Some of Gunn’s former players are at universities in engineering and pre-med programs. Most go to college. Everyone graduates.

“Soccer provided an incentive to achieve in school that was just enough to make the difference for many young men,” he says.

One sign of change in West Liberty is the rise of one of its newest town councilors, Jose Zacarias. Mr. Zacarias is a short, stocky, outgoing man who arrived in West Liberty 31 years ago from Mexico. He had a law degree but no visa. Like many immigrants in the country illegally, he found a job cutting up turkeys at the processing plant, slicing one to a pile of bones in less than a minute.

Zacarias eventually married an American. (They have since divorced.) He bought property, including an old farmhouse on the edge of town. He joined the school board. Two years ago, he became the third Hispanic ever elected to the town council here.

“The problem with Hispanics is how to get them enthusiastic about political and community things,” Zacarias says. “In our culture, we don’t have anything like volunteering. When I try to explain to my friends that you are doing this city council thing for nothing, they can’t believe it.”

Zacarias, at least, seems at home here. Whether fist-bumping fifth-graders at the elementary school – “I know their families,” he says – or  just strolling through the downtown, he seems to know just about everyone, and everyone seems to know him. 

“With a lot of limitations,” he says, “I think you can call this a success.”

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