A Midwest welcome
In one northwest Iowa county, Hispanic immigrants have discovered friendly neighbors and a place to call home
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SIOUX CENTER, Iowa—Olivia’s Bakery is one of several immigrant-owned businesses on North Main Avenue in Sioux Center, Iowa. The Mexican bakery sits two doors down from a clothing shop run by a woman whose Dutch ancestry goes back generations. Around the corner sits Las Palmas, a Mexican grocery, and across the street, the Netherlands Reformed Congregation building. Behind the block looms a grain elevator.
Longtime residents say they knew few non-Dutch children when they attended school several decades ago. Now, more than 1,000 of Sioux Center’s 7,400 residents are Hispanic, attracted originally by meatpacking jobs. Many have started small businesses. Their children go to public schools. Local officials are creating new programs. Some churches and individual Christians are trying to make “Love your neighbor” more than words.
As a new wave of immigrants from Guatemala arrives, the 150-year-old northwest Iowa town is adding cultural depth. Dutch residents still are happy to explain the meaning of their surnames, where their families lived in the Netherlands, and the exact year their ancestors arrived in America. Sioux Center and nearby Orange City still host small Christian colleges with Reformed roots. The county still produces more beef, pork, and eggs than any other county in the state. But Orange City, which since 1936 has hosted a Tulip Festival where families don traditional Dutch dress and wooden shoes, added a “Festival Latino” in 2012.
ACROSS THE STREET from the Sioux Center city office, and next door to the Mexican grocery, bilingual receptionists at the Promise Community Health Center welcomed patients and a visiting group of 16 eighth-graders from Sioux Center Middle School. The students were there to make a presentation to local citizens about the lack of affordable housing in town. After the presentation, they chattered in the hallway outside the conference room. Both Dutch and Hispanic kids say they like Sioux Center—it’s calm, quiet, and safe.
The next morning, around 30 students from the school—most of them Hispanic boys—bowled at Sioux Center’s Dordt College. As bowling balls thumped and air hockey pucks chinked, Alex Sanchez, a serious-faced eighth-grader with a wide smile, spoke of how students tend to stay “in our own groups, just being nice. We should be more than that.” He wishes for more activities with Anglo students and said sports help students get to know each other.
Hoping to build empathy, the public school English department last year assigned all eighth-grade students Enrique’s Journey, the story of a teenage migrant’s trip from Honduras to the United States. The book prompted Hispanic classmates to talk about their own immigration experiences. Students at Sioux Center Christian School are less likely to have Hispanic classmates: Of the school’s 260 families, only around a half-dozen are Hispanic.
On this day, Ruben Morgado bowled with Samantha Meeuwsen, an athletic blonde. Morgado grinned and high-fived others when they bowled well. Morgado and Meeuwsen also play together on a recreational coed eighth-grade soccer team.
COLORFUL foil-shingled piñatas dangle from the ceiling and white-tailed deer heads hang on the walls at Las Palmas, the Mexican grocery store. Herminia Peña answers the phone in Spanish, checks customers out, and shows off the Mexican, Vietnamese, and Iraqi currency displayed under the counter. Though Las Palmas faces stiff competition from Walmart, its meat market and superior avocados draw customers.
Most Hispanic immigrants in Sioux County work in agriculture, construction, and meat processing. Others, like Peña and her husband, own small businesses. The couple opened the grocery 17 years ago after moving to Sioux Center from California. Peña sees Iowa as a good place to raise kids: no gangs, helpful police, and nice people—maybe because they’re very religious. She likes the public schools, too. All her children and now her five grandchildren have attended.
Mi Lupita, a Mexican restaurant, sits on the northern edge of town. Nearby, a large sign advertises Van Bruggen-Wesselink Insurance Agency. In the restaurant’s dimly lit dining room, three TVs play a Spanish soap opera. Two Hispanic women chat quietly in the corner while three more talk at the bar. Erik Marquez, a young employee with a grin revealing braces, brings out English menus and advises his favorite soda selection.
Marquez came to Sioux Center two years ago. The 27-year-old misses corn ice cream and his family, which still lives in Mexico. Currently studying robotics and animation at a local technical college, Marquez aspires to a master’s in aerospace. First, he will need to pass the TOEFL exam.
Like the patrons of Mi Lupita, nearly all of the customers at Olivia’s Bakery are Hispanic. Fresh breads and brightly decorated pastries fill bins along the wall. Baker Apolonia Marquez points out the jalapeño cheddar bread and jam-covered sweet breads called “yo-yos” as favorites. A few blocks down the road, the town’s tiny mall houses Casey’s Bakery, a Dutch establishment serving almond patty pastries and windmill cookies. Dutch paraphernalia, including Crocs shaped like Dutch shoes, crowds the shelves.
BY MIDMORNING on a Thursday, Promise Community Health Center’s waiting room is filling with patients. A young Hispanic girl in a turquoise hoodie swings her feet as she reads a picture book aloud to the woman sitting next to her. Nearly 80 percent of the clinic’s almost 3,900 patients are uninsured or receive Medicaid. Many of those are immigrants.
Though a study ranked Sioux County first in the state on health measures, it also showed 41 percent of Hispanic children live below the poverty line. Promise Executive Director Nancy Dykstra used to work with Hispanic moms as a public health nurse. That experience led to the founding of Promise in 2008. Since then it has earned Federally Qualified Health Clinic (FQHC) status and offers income-based, sliding-fee-scale dental, vision, behavioral health, and maternity care, in addition to routine medical services.
The Sioux Center Library is about a six-minute walk down Main Avenue from the health center. There, Ruth Mahaffi works as the library’s bilingual service director. Mahaffi began working at the library eight years ago when it had few Spanish-language resources. Then she used her broken Spanish to help library patrons who didn’t speak English. The soft-spoken brunette went on to double-major in Spanish and ESL at Dordt College.
The library hosts ESL classes, bilingual story times, and Spanish-language computer classes. English- and Spanish-language posters hang on the walls inside the brown brick library. As the staff prepared for a bilingual summer reading program, Mahaffi encouraged Hispanic families to sign up.
Mahaffi says sometimes she has to help new immigrants understand the function of a library. One day a little girl wanted to check out a book. Mahaffi told her she would need a library card, and the little girl went to ask her mother. Mahaffi could overhear the mother telling her daughter in Spanish: “I’m sorry, we don’t have the money.” After the librarian explained the cards were free and allowed holders to check out books, both mother and daughter signed up.
WITHIN the last few years, immigrants from Guatemala have begun moving into northwest Iowa, introducing new challenges. Though most have settled in Sioux Center, higher-priced and hard-to-find housing is driving some of the Guatemalans to Orange City and neighboring towns. Many speak Mam, an indigenous language, rather than Spanish.
For Ruth Mahaffi, that means working with new immigrants who are unable to read and don’t have a written form of their language. She finds herself speaking to children in Spanish, who then translate into Mam for their parents. On a recent call, Sioux Center Patrol Officer Jaymie Harper’s Spanish translator was unable to communicate with an indigenous language speaker.
Yet in many ways the challenges are the same: making people from an entirely different culture feel welcome in a place with a strong monocultural tradition. The strong Dutch culture permeates every part of Sioux Center life: Most stores and restaurants stay closed on Sundays. Lawns are neatly manicured, but no one mows on Sunday. Reformed churches of various stripes dot Main Avenue.
Hispanic immigrants have tried to adapt to those customs, community bridge-builder Bertha Martinez says. They maintain their yards, establish strict household rules for their kids, and stay quiet on Sundays—all so they don’t offend their new neighbors. But local bike shop owner Nathan Nykamp suggests Sioux Center is still like two towns because of its separate cultures. Lines may blur among the younger generations, but local nonprofit director Harold Heie wants the Hispanic and Dutch communities to move beyond simply coexisting: “Just living side by side is a very thin view of diversity.”
IN SIOUX CENTER two Reformed denominations—the Christian Reformed Church and the Reformed Church in America—saw in the late 1990s an influx of immigrants. They co-sponsored Spanish-language Bible studies to accommodate them. The original plan was to have Hispanics eventually make their way into one of the many English-language churches. That did not happen. Instead, Amistad Cristiana—a Spanish-language Reformed congregation—developed, drawing between 100 and 200 worshippers each Sunday.
Sometimes, Hispanic and Dutch neighbors develop close ties. Bertha Martinez emigrated from Mexico 29 years ago. When she arrived in Orange City, Iowa, she isolated herself in her home, afraid to interact with her Anglo neighbors because of the language barrier. She cried when her husband tried to coax her outside.
One summer day 15 years ago, a smiling Anglo woman approached her and later introduced Martinez to her friends. The ladies sat in each other’s living rooms. Now Martinez encourages her Hispanic friends to join her at citywide movie nights and picnics hosted by Trinity Reformed Church in Orange City. A Trinity group organizes community events like “Dinner for Eight,” inviting Hispanic and Anglo residents to the church to build relationships over meals.
Martinez is a member of Christ the King Catholic Church in Sioux Center because it “feels like home.” People share experiences, language, and jokes. While children may attend bilingual church programs, older immigrants prefer services in their native language, priest Father Douglas Klein explains. They crowd shoulder-to-shoulder at Spanish Mass and on Ash Wednesday overflowed outside the building, a converted flower shop.
And sometimes the bonds become deeply personal. Martha Draayer, born in Mexico, came to Iowa with her parents when she was 3 years old. Her visa expired right before 9/11, and the immigration process suddenly became a lot tougher. She remained in the country illegally, growing up in Hull, Iowa:
“Since I fit in so well, very few people knew about my status as undocumented. People just assumed I had papers, that I had a driver’s license.”
Martha attended Northwestern College in Orange City, and married a Dutch-American, Dan Draayer. In 2009, she traveled to Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to regularize her status. Because she was married to a U.S. citizen, she was potentially eligible for citizenship. Officials, though, turned her down because she had overstayed her visa—and they barred her from reapplying for 10 years.
Martha stayed in Mexico, completing her last semester of college by Skyping with her Northwestern professors. Dan, still in Iowa, pleaded for a hardship waiver for her. After 13 months she decided to return to Iowa illegally, figuring that if President Barack Obama changed any part of the immigration process, being in Mexico would make her ineligible.
Draayer’s uncle hired coyotes—one had a house decorated with skulls—to take her across the river. Her group was caught and, after time in a detention cell, she was back in Mexico. Later, she made the crossing successfully and in 2012 received protection under DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), providing her with temporary relief from deportation.
Now she is an early childhood special education teacher in Sioux Center and a leader of a group that assists Hispanic immigrants, meets with local law enforcement, and tries to bring these diverse communities together.
—The four authors are graduates of the World Journalism Institute college course
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