May 04, 2005

Moving to find new hope: A new version of an old story

Only wide swaths of knee-high grass for as far as the eye could see met them.

Upon picking a place to stake a claim, German and Scandinavian immigrants to Iowa usually found just enough wood along the creek to hobble together a cabin. But prairie chickens lived along the tree line, the cow could feed all day on tall grass, and the land ran flat, perfect for growing wheat.

And so Iowa's earliest pioneers began to break the land, turning over the black dirt to the sunshine, making a living in a new country where merchants and government officials often spoke a language they did not know. But out upon those open plains, there was opportunity.

And that meant hope.

• • •

The first time my bride-to-be and I crossed the length of Iowa was on our way to New Mexico for a new job. It was a 28-hour trip to Las Cruces, a town just a few miles from the Mexico-United States border.

Heading through the Plains, the world's dimensions shifted. We were used to Minneapolis skyscrapers and Wisconsin hills that soared 1,200 feet above sea level. As the land flattened, so did the silos into stout granaries. The sky grew big around us.

People still crisscross and head to Iowa to find their fortunes. The direction these years is not from the east or north, though, but the southwest.

During the past 50 years, Iowa's Hispanic population has exploded, growing to more than 60,000 today.

Only Germans - at 115,000 between 1850 and 1900 -arrived at a faster rate and in larger numbers. In Johnson County alone there are more than 2,700 Latinos, nearly twice the number as a decade ago.

The majority come from Mexico.

And they hold untapped wealth. Indeed, during the 2000 presidential primary, candidate George W. Bush released a 60-second Spanish-language radio spot in Iowa aimed at Hispanic voters.

• • •

Like immigrants decades before them, Hispanics ventured to Iowa because they dreamed of something better. Many entered through the Southwest hoping to make enough money so they could return to Mexico and start a small business.

But just as happened 150 years when Welsh immigrants thought they'd earn enough money in mining to make them rich men upon returning to Britain, most Hispanics discovered the United States offered more than better wages. Both groups stayed.

"I find this town, Des Moines, and I said this is the town that I need for my family," Guadalajara-born Jesus Aguayo told The Des Moines Register a couple of years ago. Today, he is an Amer-ican citizen and his daughters attend college.

When William Parker in 1848 built Story County's first cabin, it measured a mere 12 by 14 feet and had neither roof nor floor. Years later, he wrote in a letter of how a year or two he built a better home. "I have now two hundred and thirty acres of land," he added, "all fenced except eleven acres."

• • •

I'd been led to the Southwest by a college friend living in El Paso, Texas, during the recession of the early 1990s. "Send out a couple of resumes," Mark said. "They're desperate down here for people with your skills. And you'll love it in the desert - it's totally alien to the Midwest."

So I sent out a couple of resumes.

A week later on Thursday, I received a call from a man with a thick Spanish accent from New Mexico. He offered to do an interview on the phone. We talked for 45 minutes. He asked if I could start Tuesday.

And so my wife-to-be and I packed a moving van and headed for where the streets have no name.

• • •

For many Hispanics settling in Iowa, language is the greatest barrier. Unlike pioneer times when students learned English by force, schools offer ESL programs to ease the transition. Though beneficial, such classes rarely orient kids toward college.

The children of immigrants always bridge two cultures: At home, they speak Spanish, but at work, in the supermarket, at school, English dominates; in Mexico and with their parents, the world moves at a slower pace, one of "manana," but in the United States, the clock's fast pace rules; south of the border, Monday is Cinco de Mayo, commemorating the 1862 defeat of French invaders, but on the Plains it is a marketing ploy of Tex-Mex restaurants.

So it also was in the desert Southwest - where as much as 65 percent of the population has Mexican roots - this split between two cultures, trying to mix, trying to preserve heritages yet giving up some of the old ways, all so that the future will remain bright.

Our first weekend in New Mexico, Mark took us across the Rio Grande into Juarez. Here was a Third World country less than an afternoon's drive from my home. We watched Mexicans ferry across the river, rowing from dilapidated plaster buildings toward glass skyscrapers that reflected sunlight. Upon reaching the American shore, they scrambled to blend into the cityscape, too many of them for the Border Patrol to capture.

Those who are caught and returned to Mexico usually try again, Mark said.

• • •

I wonder if any of those people we'd seen that day ever made it Iowa. My wife and I eventually did, though New Mexico with its purple mountains rising out of the yellow desert floor was a gorgeous place to live. But Iowa City held the lure of better wages, better hours, better educational institutions - better opportunities.

If any of the Mexicans were successful, they're probably doing what my father did as a young man to save up enough money so he could buy his own farm: working in a meatpacking plant. Hispanics and Asians now dominate the labor forces of Midwestern meatpacking.

It's an industry, ironically, that has come full circle, starting in the early 1900s as an entry-level job for immigrants, rising to a high-wage industrial job for the native-born such as my father, and becoming in the last decade an immigrant job once again.

Today, though, the immigrant to Iowa looks out upon cornfields instead of prairie grass, and very little of the land remains unturned.

But there still is opportunity.

And that means hope.

(originally published May 4, 2003)

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