Iowa’s right-wing representative Steve King, a Kiron Republican who was recently dubbed “Congressman Melonhead” for his off-the-cuff comments on immigration, is a man who speaks his mind. It’s safe to say that, regardless of politics and platforms, King is fearless in his convictions and makes no apologies to those he offends. Whether you find his opinions refreshing or asinine, you must admit, the man stands for what he believes. That is especially true with regard to immigration in this country. It may not be necessary to repeat one of King’s most recent and most infamous quotes, but just in case you missed it, regarding Mexicans crossing the Texas border, King said: “For every one who’s a valedictorian, there’s another 100 out there that weigh 130 pounds, and they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.”
Obviously King’s opinion is his own. He says it’s based on experience in the field. But is it fair to say the majority of Mexican immigrants are drug-toting criminals contaminating our country?
Many Des Moines Latino families have proven to make good use of the resources and opportunities afforded their immigrant ancestors. The Richard and Antonia Mosqueda family have operated a Tasty Taco restaurant for decades and were involved in the creation of the League of United Latin American Citizens of Iowa (LULAC) councils in Des Moines and eastern Iowa. Raul and Josephina Hernandez founded Raul’s Restaurant in Des Moines, which is now run by their daugher and son-in-law in West Des Moines. That’s merely a few of hundreds.
Another is local realtor Joe Enriquez Henry, who is also the state director of the Iowa LULAC and recently announced his candidacy for Iowa House District 33. He grew up listening to stories from his grandmother about the old days, when his grandparents immigrated to Valley Junction for work.
“A lot of people don’t know that Valley Junction was once a Latino district,” said Henry, who is a lifelong resident of Des Moines’ south side. His grandfather, Joe Enriquez, was one of the original Mexicans who immigrated to Valley Junction to work at the Iowa Portland Cement Company, now known as the Monarch Cement Company, on Park Avenue.
“Most the men from back then have died off, so only the women are still around to tell the stories,” said Henry. “My grandpa first came up here with his wife to work there. They lived across the street — where the soccer fields are now — in these company homes, which helped the company to keep the wages down. The houses were just one-room shacks with a kitchen and beds. They were made of wood and had a dirt floor, no foundation.”
Henry’s grandmother lived in the shacks with their children (six kids in all), while his grandpa put in long hours across the street at the cement factory.
“They were making the cement that would be used to pave most of the roads and sidewalks in Des Moines,” Henry said. “Just like almost everything else, the city’s infrastructure was based on work done by minorities.”
But he never got to know his grandpa well. Joe Enriquez died young when Henry was about 7 years old. He was in his 50s when black lung disease took its toll after years of breathing the cement dust into his lungs. Like many of the cement factory and coal workers of those days, Enriquez never lived to be what is considered “senior citizen” age today.
“Nowadays, they make the workers in jobs like that wear masks so they don’t breath the dust into their lungs, but back then they just used scarves or handkerchiefs, if anything at all,” Henry explained.
Even with the formation of unions in the 1930s and ’40s, which brought up both safety conditions and wages for immigrant workers in Iowa, Henry said, many Latinos still worked high-risk jobs. Even today, as some accuse them of “coming here and taking all the jobs,” one could argue many of the jobs they take are ones no one else wants.
What jobs are “the Mexicans” taking?
In Iowa, Latinos are represented in a wide variety of occupations: about 12,000 are food preparation- and serving-related occupations; 8,000 work in offices and administrative support; 7,000 in the construction and extraction occupations; 7,000 are in education, training and healthcare; 1,800 in farming, fishing and forestry occupations; and 9,000 in management and professional occupations. But most of them, 16,759 to be exact, continue to work in the production, transportation and materials fields, according to the State Data Center of Iowa. In 2009 the State Data Center of Iowa reported that more than 30 percent of Iowa’s Latinos worked in these occupations.
Yet about 30 percent of the Latino households are considered to be at or below the poverty rate in Iowa (in 2010), compared to only 12.6 percent statewide. Compare the per capita income of Latinos to the state as a whole: $12,394 to $24,883, in 2010. About half.
Are Latinos really taking over?
Despite their economic status, one could argue that Latinos may very well be on their way to “taking over” Iowa’s population. The State Data Center of Iowa reported last year that almost 160,000 Iowa residents are Latino — that’s 5.2 percent of the state’s total population, and the majority (about 60 percent) were born in the United States.
Without planting an editorial flag on one side or the other of the immigration debate, it’s a current topic, especially in lieu of the upcoming Iowa Latino Heritage Festival. Des Moines alone is home to many cultures celebrated in the form of festivals, including the St. Patrick’s Day events that pay homage to the Irish, Oktoberfest, which salutes our German descendants, Italian-American Heritage Festival, as an ode to the deep Italian roots of so many locals and CelebrAsian Festival, with love for all things Asian.
These cultures collide in central Iowa due to a history of immigration. Most came in pursuit of a “dream,” which really means they needed jobs and hoped for land. Henry’s maternal grandparents, for example, came to Iowa from Mexico in 1917 and eventually raised a family in Valley Junction, as did many Mexican immigrants. While the Historic Valley Junction District in West Des Moines is famous for its rich history, few know of its influence in rounding out Des Moines’ current Hispanic population.
The railroad and Interstate 35 acted as pipelines from Mexico to Valley Junction bringing all that the labor plants, like the cement company, would need to operate. Today an estimated 160,000 Latinos make up Iowa’s total population, making people of Latino origin the state’s largest race or ethnic minority. From 2000 to 2011, Iowa saw a 91.6 percent increase in its Latino population — that’s an insurgence of more than 75,000 people from south of the border, according to the State Data Center of Iowa. Today more than 34,000 Latinos make up Polk County’s population alone.
Statistically, they’re a young population, too. The median age of Iowa’s Latino population in 2010 was about 22 years old. The median age for the entire state is 38. Of the nearly 30,000 Latino families now residing in Iowa, about 71 percent have children under the age of 18, compared to 44 percent for the state of Iowa. In fact, Latinos have a higher concentration of preschoolers among their population than any other race or ethnic group. So it’s no wonder why the state has seen a 192 percent increase in Latino enrollment in Iowa schools from over the last 12 years, according to the Department of Education.
So while not all of the Latinos coming to America are of valedictorian status, as Rep. King pointed out, few people are. In fact, only one out of every graduating class can typically claim that title. But what about their cartoon-like cantaloupe calves? If they’re not scholars, does that mean they’re drug traffickers?
Mexican drug traffickers?
Iowa Department of Corrections spokesman Fred Scaletta deals in facts. Unlike Rep. King, he does not let his mouth run away with his opinions — so much, in fact, it seems he has no opinion at all. Just facts. With regard to King’s claims, here is what Scaletta can verify:
According to the Department of Corrections’ Iowa Prison Population Forecast (FY2011-FY2021), the percentage of Latino (as well as Native American and Asian) inmates in Iowa prisons has been on a steady increase: from only 3 percent in 1991 to 7.5 percent in 2001 and 9.3 in 2011. Hispanics are more often imprisoned for drug crimes, drunk driving and crimes against persons rather than in property or public order offenses, the forecast report states.
“The big change in population is expected among Latino inmates, as Iowa’s Latino population is expected to rise dramatically in the coming years,” states the report. If the Latino prison population rises to the same extent as is projected in the general population, Iowa can expect an increase from 586 Latino inmates in 2011 to about 1,152 by the end of 2021.
With an increase in population comes an increase in crime for any demographic, which is the case for Latinos. Except, unlike domestic offenders, those who are not of legal status face deportation after doing their time in a U.S. prison, Scaletta said.
“If somebody comes into our prison system, and if he or she is not born in U.S., then we send a notice to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and they decide if they want to file a detainer for deportation,” Scaletta explained. “They will spend their prison time with us, then, when they are released, at some point a judge decides whether or not to deport them.”
Before the Steve Kings of the world — and especially of Iowa — start freaking out about the Hispanics “taking over” Iowa jobs, schools and prison systems, it would be wise to learn more about them. Many Iowans do. In fact, the annual local Latino Heritage Festival sees more than 20,000 attendees every year, there to learn about and enjoy the culture, from its food, music and dance, to its language, its people and history.
A celebration of heritage
Now in its 11th year in Des Moines, the Iowa Latino Heritage Festival returns this weekend, Sept. 7 from 10 a.m to 11 p.m. and Sept. 8, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., to the downtown Des Moines bridges on Locust and Walnut streets, which will be shut down for dancers, vendors and artists to show off their stuff during the Latino Heritage Festival, “the only festival of its magnitude in the state of Iowa,” according to festival organizer, JoAnn Mackey.
“The purpose of this event is to provide the community with an opportunity to experience traditional and contemporary Latin American culture through the presentation of performing and visual arts, educational workshops and authentic cuisine,” Mackey explained.
But the festival is so much more than food, and it’s more than just Mexico. In fact, 22 Latino countries, from as north as Mexico to as far south as Chile and Argentina, will be represented at the festival, making it a fantastic learning opportunity for all. Each country will have its own booth that will highlight the different dialects, landscapes, daily living and dances that are unique to that region.
Men, women and children dressed in vibrant garb will proudly demonstrate the dances of their origins, some from as far back as the Aztecs, while salsa and mariachi bands, as well as some Latino rock, will perform on the Simon Estes Amphitheater each day.
Tickets are $5 for adults and $1 for children ages 12 and younger. An area of the bridges have been dedicated to children’s activities such as hourly piñata whacking, inflatable rides and a drama “Lucha Libre” that demonstrates the power of good versus evil. For more information, visit: www.latinoheritagefestival.org.
“It will be a spectacle,” Mackey promised. CV