Cox News Service, January 16, 2004
DES MOINES, Iowa _ Four blocks from this city’s ornate Capitol dome, a Mexican market offers an assortment of tortillas, pinatas and 27 kinds of beans. Another block down, a Spanish-language soap opera plays on TV as patrons wait for a hair cut at “Salon de Belleza Secreto.”
The Hispanic population in Iowa has more than doubled in the past ten years and political observers predict it will eventually change the political landscape of the state.
If energized, the community could make a difference in a tight race, like the one shaping up for Monday’s first-in-the-nation Democratic presidential caucus. But some Latinos in Iowa are divided among different candidates and many _ including recent immigrants _ are not engaged in the political world.
Victor Flores, who owns the conveniently-located “Tienda Mexicana,” has lived in the United States since he was a child. In Iowa, he first worked at what people here call “la matanza” or “the killing,” chopping up pigs in a large factory farm. He also worked in construction, as a janitor, and eventually bought two stores.
Unlike the large supermarkets in Des Moines, the tienda offers Mexican colas of different flavors, phone cards with pictures of bullfighters on them, plastic figurines of Jesus with a backdrop of sea shells, and several pocket-sized books on how to learn English, including “English for workers” and “English for American citizenship.”
Flores said the market opened more than a decade ago to serve the growing Latino community. Such Hispanic-owned small businesses are peppered around Des Moines, including butcher shops, clothing stores, photography studios and restaurants.
When asked what political candidate he favors, Flores smiles as he mops the floor while supervising renovations at his store, where he employs many relatives.
“To be sincere, I am not interested in politics,” he said. “I am busy with my two stores and I just want to take care of my family.”
According to the U.S. Census, Iowa had 82,473 Hispanics in 2000, about 2.8 percent of the state’s population. But most people believe that number is low because of an undercount of minority residents, especially illegal immigrants. In addition, more Latinos have arrived in the past three years and Hispanics are the state’s largest minority.
Many have come to Iowa from big cities like Chicago and Los Angeles, looking for a more peaceful lifestyle and a healthier environment for their children, who were sometimes exposed to gangs and violence in larger urban areas.
There is no official data on how many Hispanics vote in the important Iowa caucuses, which weigh heavily in picking the nation’s presidential candidates.
The Hispanic population is much younger than the white population in Iowa, however, which means that Latinos will become a greater percent of the voting population as time goes by, said Francisco Hernandez, a political novice who was hired four months ago to be Iowa Democratic Party’s first-ever coordinator for Hispanic outreach.
Joe Henry, who managed a successful campaign for the current Democratic mayor of Des Moines, has been trying to tabulate the number of Hispanic voters in the state by comparing different databases.
He has identified 20,000 registered voters, which he said is likely an undercount because many Latinos, like himself, do not have Hispanic surnames, which are used in most of the calculations. He predicts that Latino Democrats will constitute at least 5 percent of the vote in Monday’s caucus.
“We will be there, based upon our numbers,” he said.
Henry, whose grandfather came from Mexico to Iowa in 1917, is a real estate agent and hopes to eventually run for the state legislature.
Increasing the number of elected Latino officials will energize the community, he said.
“Four years from now, in the next presidential campaign, we will be mobilized.”
When asked about crucial issues, Henry echoes themes that most Latinos in Iowa talk about _ job security and education.
“We’re always the last ones hired and the first ones fired,” said Henry, who wishes the Democratic candidates would talk more about protecting affirmative action.
In addition, Henry said he wants schools to increase bilingual education for all students.
“If we were in Europe, our kids would be learning several different languages,” he said. “Spanish should be required.”
Tomasa Fonseca, a 37-year-old mother of three, lives in Marshalltown, a small city in Central Iowa where thousands of Latinos work at a giant pork processing factory.
Fonseca worked for eight years cutting up pigs on the assembly line. But the working conditions deteriorated so badly _ including a constant demand for greater output and a shrinking, nearly unbearable work space _ that she chose to take a pay cut and find another job at an elementary school.
“The physical pain and the stress will kill you,” she said.
The situation forced Fonseca to become active in her community. She helped establish “Latinos en Accion,” a branch of Citizens for Community Improvement, a grassroots organization of neighbors who unite to identify and solve problems.
Fonseca said illegal immigrant families _ some who have lived and worked in Marshalltown up to 15 years _ should be given a chance to become citizens.
Other Hispanics, including second or third-generation Americans, say immigration is important, but so are a host of other issues related to being Americans, including college scholarships, holding failing schools accountable, access to employment and lack of Latino appointments in government, said Miguel Amaya, a professor of English at Iowa State University and president of the state’s humanities council.
Amaya also said that experience counts in the Democratic race.
For example, Sen. John Kerry from Massachusetts represents a state with more than 400,000 Latinos and headed a Democratic Hispanic task force in Congress.
“He’s initiated and proposed legislation on behalf of Latinos. There is a long-standing history with him,” Amaya said.
Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, on the contrary, comes from a state with almost no minorities.
“I’m certain (the reach-out to Latinos) is largely the efforts of a staffer, it can’t be his experience,” Amaya said.
Dean’s lack of experience working with minorities has become an issue in the campaign. At a debate earlier this month which focused on African-American and Hispanic issues, Dean was forced to admit he had no minorities in his Vermont cabinet.
Despite the statement, however, Dean appears to be reaching Iowa Latinos.
Ignacio Ramirez, 47, co-owner of “La Favorita,” which sells everything from Spanish-language videos to first communion dresses, said he is voting for “El Senor Dean” because the candidate is reaching out to Latinos in Spanish and he opposes the war in Iraq, which Ramirez feels is a waste of money.
“It is very important to me that they accept our language so they can understand the needs of our people,” said Ramirez, who has Dean’s bilingual brochures on his store counter. The Dean campaign has also advertised in one of several Spanish-language weekly newspapers in Des Moines and created “Latinos for Dean,” a letter-writing campaign to reach Hispanic voters.
Steffen Schmidt, a political science professor at Iowa State University for 23 years, said that until recently, the Democrats running for the presidential nomination have paid less attention this year to Iowa Latinos than they have in elections past.
“I don’t think the Democrats or the Republican have done a good job at all in reaching out to the communities. It’s always remarkable to me,” said Schmidt, one of the first Latinos at the university. “They don’t seem to know how to do it.”
Political experts predicted that Hispanic votes would be split in Monday’s caucuses between Dean, Kerry, Rep. Dick Gephardt and Rep. Dennis Kucinich.
The increasing number of Latinos in Iowa has also resulted in some backlash.
Despite major objections from the Hispanic community, the state’s Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack signed a law in 2002 making English the state’s official language.
Although the measure had exemptions, it was considered by many a slap in the face for Iowa’s Latinos.
In addition, a political advertisement being broadcast by local television stations in Des Moines has caused anger in the Hispanic community.
It shows a white punching bag with a face on it, representing Iowa’s workers. The bag gets repeatedly punched by a hand as a narrator charges that foreign workers have taken jobs from Iowans and urges voters to tell candidates to oppose amnesty for illegal immigrants.
Amaya called the advertisement “visual and oral hate speech” clearly geared towards Iowa’s Latinos.
The advertisement, paid for by a group outside of Iowa that favors a reduction in immigration, was denounced by local labor leaders.
Despite these controversial issues, some Latinos in Iowa said that they work too much to be interested in politics.
Ciro Reyes, a 43-year-old illegal immigrant from Mexico, said he works two eight-hour shifts almost every day _ one cleaning offices and another in construction.
“Of all the states I’ve lived, I like Iowa the best,” he said. “But I don’t really get involved in politics. I just want to work.”
Jose Guadalupe, a 20-year-old who works in landscaping, shared the sentiment.
“If I worried about political things all day, I would die of hunger,” he said.