A Look At Iowa's First Majority Hispanic Town Census figures show the Hispanic population in the largely white state of Iowa, while only 5 percent, has almost doubled since 2000. In tiny West Liberty, the mayor says half the local businesses are probably Hispanic-owned. The town's dual language program in schools is also attracting residents from nearby cities.
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A Look At Iowa's First Majority Hispanic Town

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A Look At Iowa's First Majority Hispanic Town

A Look At Iowa's First Majority Hispanic Town

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

We're going to spend some time now with America's largest minority - Latinos. Their numbers jumped in the last census and are growing fast. Sociologist Ruben Rumbaut has been studying thousands of children of immigrants since the 1990s.

PROFESSOR RUBEN RUMBAUT: The population growth of Hispanics has been stunning. That population was estimated to be about four million in 1950. It is over 50 million today. And it is about 16 percent or so of the total U.S. population, but it is expected to reach 25 percent of the total U.S. population in less than two decades.

INSKEEP: So the growth remains huge. Now, these days most of that growth comes not from immigration but from Hispanics born in the United States. And these young Latinos are growing up immersed in two worlds.

RUMBAUT: To be bicultural, to be bilingual, means to feel comfortable in two cultural worlds; to feel comfortable and proficient in two languages, to be able to dance salsa, to be able to enjoy TV programs, movies, songs on the radio and song that touch on many different genres. The U.S. American culture is a multi-layer construction made up of the contributions of many people over many, many decades. So the Hispanic or Latino contribution will be one more that will be layered upon that.

MONTAGNE: This morning, we begin a series called Two Languages, Many Voices about bicultural Latinos and their impact on education, entertainment, religion, technology and the workplace. We begin in a small town in Iowa called West Liberty.

INSKEEP: Iowa's Hispanic population has almost doubled in the last decade. Latinos still make up only 5 percent of the state, but West Liberty is the first Iowa city with a Hispanic majority. NPR's David Schaper reports.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Downtown West Liberty, Iowa is quintessentially Midwestern American. It's both quaint and historic with reddish brick buildings lining brick-paved streets.

MAYOR CHAD THOMAS: What we're coming up to is Third Street.

SCHAPER: Walking past the bank, the renovated theater, a hair salon, restaurants and shops, Mayor Chad Thomas says West Liberty is thriving. And he says about half of the businesses downtown are Hispanic owned.

THOMAS: If you didn't have the Hispanic population here in town, yeah, we would be much more like a lot of the smaller towns and there would be a lot more store fronts that were empty, and...

SCHAPER: Next to Paul Revere's Pizza on Third Street in West Liberty is Tienda La Luna. Next to the American Legion Hall is the popular Acapulco Mexican Bakery, among others. And many of these Hispanic businesses are not new. Mayor Thomas says this growing eastern Iowa town of 3,700 has had a significant Hispanic population for decades.

THOMAS: I mean, we're very unique in that, you know, there's folks in this community in the Hispanic community that are here on their fifth, sixth generation.

SCHAPER: Fifty-two percent of West Liberty residents identified themselves as Hispanic or Latino in the 2010 census, up from just over 40 percent in 2000. The first surge in Latino immigrants arrived in the 1930s to fill jobs in what was then a Louis Rich turkey processing plant.

That plant, now West Liberty Foods, is still a draw for immigrants, but the bulk of the recent increase in the Hispanic population in West Liberty is in the growing, established families. Many of the recent newcomers to West Liberty are those like Mayor Thomas, who moved here with his wife 11 years ago seeking a quiet, friendly small town, and diversity.

THOMAS: A big factor for us, since we were thinking about kids, was the dual-language school program. So, you know, the thought of our children being able to go through the school system and come out speaking Spanish relatively fluently...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

GROUP: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

SCHAPER: The dual language program in West Liberty's schools was the first of its kind in the state. These fourth graders learn all their subjects in both Spanish and English. West Liberty elementary principal Nancy Gardner says the program is voluntary, with half of the spots reserved for kids who speak English primarily at home, half for those who speak Spanish.

NANCY GARDNER: And in the end, all the students then- become bilingual, bi-literate and bicultural.

SCHAPER: The dual language program is now in its 14th year, and is so successful it has a waiting list and is now a model for other Iowa school districts.

Parent Martha Rodriguez says the program helps the younger generation hold onto their culture, while giving them a competitive advantage. In addition, Rodriguez says her kids are able to build cross-cultural friendships.

MARTHA RODRIGUEZ: My kids have always been doing good with either both Anglo and Hispanic kids. They hang around with both.

SCHAPER: Was it that way when you were young?

RODRIGUEZ: No. It was completely different when I was young.


SCHAPER: The 42-year old Rodriguez immigrated to West Liberty from Mexico when she was 10. And says back then, she and other Hispanics felt more isolated and segregated in West Liberty, especially those who didn't speak English well. But Rodriguez and others say those tensions, for the most part, are history.

JOSE ZACARIAS: We don't have the conflicts we used to have in the past.

SCHAPER: Jose Zacarias moved to West Liberty from Mexico in 1984 and took a job in the turkey processing plant.


SCHAPER: As soon as he learned enough English, he found work elsewhere. But he sunk his roots in this close-knit small town, saved his money and 20 years ago, bought this old farmhouse on a couple of acres on the outskirts of town.

ZACARIAS: As you can see, this is a very quiet place and nice. Before they built it, the school; that was about eight years ago, this was heaven.

SCHAPER: Zacarias raised three boys here. Two are off at college, the third working full time, and if that's how you measure success, he says he's done OK.

Like others here, Zacarias says at a time when Hispanics elsewhere around the country face an anti-immigrant backlash, it's refreshing that the small town of West Liberty is clearly trying to embrace and celebrate it's diversity.

David Schaper, NPR News.

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