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Latinos Take Root in Midwest

A surge of migrants -- legal and illegal -- helps reinvigorate declining towns from Kansas to Minnesota. They are not universally welcomed.

October 24, 2002|Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writer

DENISON, Iowa -- From Mexico and beyond, they come month after month to this remote town on the windblown prairie -- some with visas and some with forged identities, some guided by smugglers and some drawn by loved ones.

They come to work in the meat-processing plants, earning up to $15 an hour killing pigs, pulling ribs, packing bacon. They come for a chance at a prosperous future.

In coming, they also give towns like this one a shot at a brighter tomorrow.

Immigration, both legal and not, has turned Denison -- population 7,300 -- into an unlikely boom town.

And not only Denison. Across the Midwest, a dozen or so small communities and several larger towns are drawing enough Latino immigrants to defy the bleak demographic trends that have been draining rural America.

In almost every farm town with a meatpacking plant, migrant workers arriving in just the last few years have fueled astounding growth. The out-of-the-way community of Madison, Neb., has grown 11% in the past decade to almost 2,400 as its Latino population surged sixfold to more than 800.

Worthington, Minn., expanded 13% to more than 11,000 people as nearly 2,000 immigrants put down roots. On the far northeast fringe of Iowa, tiny Postville is madly building homes; the population there has swelled by 50% to more than 2,200 with the arrival of nearly 500 Latinos.

There are still many more Latinos in the Los Angeles region than in the entire Midwest (4.2 million compared to 3 million). But the Latino population in the heartland has nearly doubled in the last decade. One Kansas meatpacking town, Dodge City, is now about 40% Latino.

Civic leaders are often delighted, willing to work through the inevitable strains for a chance to keep their schools open, their playgrounds noisy, their Main Streets bustling.

"Immigration is what's keeping us alive," said Bill Wright, school superintendent in Denison.

For their part, most immigrants soon find a way to make the communities their own. They earn more money packing meat in Iowa than picking berries in California. That's what attracts them to small towns in the Corn Belt. But then they open their own restaurants, sell Mexican sweets from small bakeries, import pinatas and dried chiles to stock the shelves of the groceries they run.

They urge their friends in Mexico to give Iowa a try -- and pretty soon, it's home.

There may not be a Spanish-language radio station within tuning range. Or a single police officer she can communicate with, except in makeshift sign language. But 27-year-old Nadia Castanela finds it comfortable in Denison. She works here slicing pork eight hours a day, six days a week. "It's a quiet town where we can live in peace," she said.

"I like it here," echoes Jose Ramon Regalado, 25, who works in a meatpacking plant in Marshalltown in central Iowa. He went home for a visit a few years ago and found he had more friends in Iowa than in Mexico. "There were only four or five guys left in my village," he says.

Midwesterners are often unsure whether to embrace the new arrivals as saviors for bringing life back to fast-emptying towns -- or fear them as outsiders who will change the community's character.

Nowhere is that tension more acute than in Iowa, where demographers for years have been warning that, without immigration, desolation looms.

The state's population is shrinking and aging. Sixty percent of Iowa's college graduates leave the state. The rural birthrate is low -- in places, less than half the state average. At least 40% of Iowa's cities lost population in the 1990s.

Against that backdrop, Denison presents a striking contrast. New homes are sold as soon as they're built; the mayor begs developers to work faster. A $1.2-million early childhood education center just opened. New soccer fields are in the works and the town is planning a skateboard park.

Denison's population rose 11% in the 1990s -- propelled almost entirely by immigrants drawn by the three meat-processing plants. A decade ago, Latinos made up just 2% of the population. Today the official figure is 17%, and local officials say it may actually be double that. More than half of the children in this year's kindergarten class speak primarily Spanish.

"The packinghouses are our bread and butter. We rely on the Hispanics who work there to grow our community," said Sue Pitts, director of the Chamber of Commerce.

It's the same story in half a dozen other small communities across Iowa. In rural Tama, population 2,700, the Latino population has grown from a handful to 263 over the last decade. Mayor Richard Gibson warns that a housing shortage could develop. "It's a challenge that a lot of communities our size would like to have," he said.

Even cities big enough not to fear for their survival rely on Latino workers to keep their economies humming.

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