Latino Boom in the Heartland

Sept. 25, 2005 — -- Iowa is know for its cornfields, its cattle and now -- at least in one town -- for its delicious enchiladas.

Welcome to Ottumwa, Iowa, where the Latino population has jumped over 170 percent in the past 4 years, a larger increase than any other county in the nation.

The town's incredible growth began when a Cargill meatpacking plant, the area's largest employer, expanded. Many of the new workers were Spanish speakers recruited from another area.

Ottumwa's historic downtown is now lined with Latino businesses. It may seem out of place, but this is a town that has decided to embrace its cultural diversity and refuses to call the newcomers "immigrants."

"We just call them new Iowans because they're new to Iowa, and they've come in and have jobs and are changing the face of our community," said Ottumwa Mayor Dale Uehling.

Uehling started a diversity task force and a work force center to help newcomers find English classes, jobs, and housing.

"We did not want Ottumwa to become segregated," he said. "We did not want a trailer ghetto with the Hispanics living isolated from the community."

Playing Soccer and Attending Mass

"One of the biggest issues that arose was soccer! And so that just went wild and it was wonderful!" said Sister Irene Munoz of St. Mary's Catholic Church of Ottumwa, about the sport popular in Latin culture.

Now most Sundays, Jose Baeza plays soccer in Ottumwa Park. His wife, Juanita, usually joins him after attending mass at historic St. Mary's.

The church has higher attendance for its Spanish language mass than its English service. That's something that would have been unheard of just a few years ago.

"They welcomed us and there was no questions asked," said Baeza's wife, Juanita.

"Ottumwa is a great place for Latinos to live in," she added.

Latino Population Boom

While it may seem strange to hear Latin music coming from the Iowa cornfields, this Latino population boom is not just a Midwest phenomenon.

Large Hispanic communities have sprung up where there were none just five or six years ago in southern states like North Carolina and Georgia. Perhaps the unlikeliest state experiencing a Latino population boom is Alaska.

"You're seeing places like Salt Lake City, places that have never been hubs of Latino immigrants, becoming large communities," said Sonya Tafoya, a research associate at the Pew Hispanic Center.

Growing Pains

As the burgeoning Latino population brings new business and growth to regions in need of an economic jump start, the changing of the cultural landscape in many areas does not always come without growing pains.

Younger Latinos and non-Latinos usually find it easy to assimilate, but the older generations often prefer to go their separate ways -- even in Ottumwa.

"A lot of the non-Hispanics would say, 'When are the Latinos coming to our mass?'" said Munoz. "And we would say, well, 'When are the non-Hispanics coming to ours?'"

Still, despite the differences, in this part of America's heartland, there is hope for a united future.