DES MOINES, Iowa—If Juan Rodriguez had to clean a university library to make a living, he was going to get a little more out of it.
Rodriguez moved from Colombia to the Chicago area early in 2003, and found his way to Des Moines later that year. The former computer engineer worked the 3 a.m. shift as a janitor at Drake University so that he could spend his off hours reading and learning English. "It was kind of hard moving from an office position to cleaning," he says with a timid smile. "But I didn't want to go back. I'm going to work hard here and see if I could do my best."
Just four years later, Rodriguez started his own insurance agency, and he would later buy a radio station, open a Mexican restaurant, acquire an events center, and launch a magazine. He is now considered one of most successful Latino businessmen in Des Moines.
Rodriguez provides essential support and tools for a rapidly growing Latino population that makes up 12 percent of Iowa's capital city residents. His insurance agency provides coverage for immigrants with foreign driver's licenses, his restaurants employ dozens of people, and his Spanish-language magazine and radio programs educate a community often unaware of their rights or resources. And he's setting up roots here, inviting his family to join him in this unusual Hispanic oasis in the heartland.
"People who came to work in construction now want to open a business, and they need more information," he says in his insurance office on East Grand Avenue, a few blocks from the State Capitol. "I use my resources to invest in the community."
The community has revitalized many of the neighborhoods in the east and south parts of Des Moines through purchasing and rehabilitating homes, and launching small businesses along Southeast 14th Street, East Grand Avenue, Indianola Avenue, and Army Post Road. Many Latino newcomers moved into areas already abandoned by white residents. They took over empty commercial shops and buildings, spared bankers who were trying to sell those buildings, and opened supermarkets, restaurants, and clothing stores where Latinos could go and speak their native tongue. It's not too different from what's happening in the rest of the state.
In many ways, Latinos saved Iowa. For years, young people left small towns to find education and employment opportunities in bigger cities. As the remaining residents of those small towns aged, tax bases deteriorated and infrastructures crumbled. Add the farm crisis of the 1980s, and the death of Small Town Iowa seemed imminent. That is, until the Latino revolution hit the state. Latinos moved to these small towns for jobs in manufacturing or meatpacking plants. They stayed to raise families, open small businesses, and become part of the community. Now there are places like West Liberty (pop. 3,730) that are majority Latino, and other small towns like Columbus Junction, Denison, and Storm Lake that are approaching that 50-percent mark.
"We're here to stay."
Over the past decade, the Latino population in Iowa grew by 104 percent. It is projected to triple by 2040, from 169,000 to about 421,000. The median age of Iowa's Latinos is around 22, compared with 38 for the rest of the state, which only adds to their population growth. And in Des Moines, Latinos make up 23 percent of students in public schools.
Joe Henry, the Iowa state director of the League of United Latin American Citizens, sees a Latino population with a strong sense of community, whose labor and tax dollars will build a new Iowa. His family has seen Des Moines' transformation; Henry's grandfather was part of the first wave of Latinos to come to Des Moines in 1917 after the Mexican Revolution.
"We're here to stay," Henry says. "We are the only growing population. The baby boomers are retiring. The majority community is not increasing at the same rate as us. You need to embrace us, because we are going to be here and take care of you down the road."
The growth of the Latino community has not come without some pushback. New cultures mean unfamiliarity. New businesses can mean new practices. When there weren't yet enough restaurants to serve the growing community, Latino restaurant owners had to get creative. That didn't sit well with some of their neighbors. "When the business community tried to establish itself, we've got a number of complaints that we weren't doing it the right way," Henry says. "When some of the restaurants started with taco stands, there was an outcry from some of the city council members that we weren't following the proper city codes, which to me was a form of discrimination."
And while nearly one-quarter of public-school children are Latino, employment in Des Moines public schools doesn't match that percentage. There have been only two Latino principals in the district's history, and neither currently works in the school system. The same can be said for city employment, as well, though top officials, including the mayor, say they are making strong efforts to diversify city government.
But above all, immigration remains a top concern. Memories of Postville, when officials in 2008 raided a slaughterhouse and meatpacking plant in the northeast Iowa town and arrested 400 undocumented immigrants, still weigh heavy on people's minds here.
Alejandro Alfaro-Santiz, a pastor at Las Americas, a Spanish-speaking community within Trinity United Methodist Church, says many undocumented members of his church worry that a simple traffic stop could mean deportation. "It's really appalling," says Alfaro-Santiz, who moved to Iowa four years ago. "It's really hard living in a constant state of fear, not knowing if when you come back at night you're going to see your loved ones."
This is why leaders like Rodriguez are so crucial for the future of the Latino community in Iowa. The slogan of his magazine reads, "Porque Nuestra Comunidad Merece Estar Bien Informada," or "Because our Community Deserves to be Well Informed." Information can help Latinos grow their community, and help Iowans know that they are here to stay.
National Journal recently visited Des Moines to see how an increasingly diverse population—a majority of public-school students are now minorities—and booming economic development have changed this once-sleepy town. This article is part of a Next America series about the reality of 21st-century Iowa.
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.