"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."