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American Dreamers


On the eve of the Fourth of July, in front of the Iowa State Capitol and thousands of patriotic fans, Los Paranderos opened the Des Moines Symphony’s annual Yankee Doodle Pops concert. In both Spanish and English, Michael Nuñez sang the band’s song “Immigrant.”

“Mi hermano! Yo vine a trabajar, Yo no vine a robar.” (My brother, I come to work. I don’t come to steal.)

It was an instructional moment in how American culture views the immigrant. Consider the difference between those lyrics and Bob Dylan’s “I Pity the Poor Immigrant” or Led Zeppelin‘s “Immigrant Song.” Dylan’s immigrant “uses all his power to do evil but in the end is always left so alone. That man who with his fingers cheats and who lies with every breath.” Led Zeppelin’s comes like a Viking boat to rape and pillage.

The Los Paranderos concert also provided an update to the state of the state of Iowa. A large portion of the audience that night consisted of immigrants who cheered and danced when the band sang “Te canto con sabor. Yo no vine a sufrir, yo vine a survivor.” (I sing to you with zest. I did not come to suffer. I came to survive.)

In reference to a famous Mark Twain quote, historian Shirley Fong-Torres said, “Immigration is the new weather. Everybody talks about it, but no one does anything about it.” That seems particularly true lately. Both George W. Bush and Barack Obama have tried to encourage immigration reforms. In both cases Congresses balked, even when both houses were controlled by the presidents’ parties.

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That’s not been the case historically. After some one million people immigrated to America between 1600 and 1790, Congress passed the 1790 Act, which restricted immigration to “free white people.” That would not be extended to blacks until the Civil War nor to Asians for another hundred years. The Homestead Act of 1862, passed to encourage railroad expansion, led to a huge increase in immigration to the U.S., which peaked in 1907.

The Emergency Quota Act of 1921 and the 1924 Act both restricted the immigration of southern and eastern Europeans, particularly Italians, Jews and Slavs. That sadly prevented huge numbers of refugees from Nazi oppression from finding sanctuary in the U.S. The Mexican Repatriation Program of 1929 and Operation Wetback (you read that correctly) of 1950 would force emigration of Latinos out of the U.S.

The Hart Cellar Act of 1965 sparked increased immigration from non-European nations. However, its same-size-fits-all per country quotas reduced the legal immigration opportunities for people in the main immigrating nations — Mexico, Philippines, India and China. That led to more illegal immigration. The Immigration Act of 1990 and the North American Free Trade Agreement of 1994 quickly increased immigration by 40 percent, which led to President Clinton’s Immigration Reform Commission reducing legal immigration and thus encouraging more illegal immigration. The creation of the Department of Homeland Security would lead to aggressive deportations including Iowa’s horrific Postville Raid in 2008, where “justice” was symbolically meted out in Waterloo’s National Cattle Congress barn.

America is not the only country feeling the stress of increased immigration. In fact, we no longer lead the world in the percentage of annual immigrants compared to population. Most European Union nations outpace us now, despite the intentions of their politicians. Late last month, United Kingdom Prime Minister David Cameron admitted that his pledge to reduce immigration was going backwards. His critics then accused him of using the decapitation of journalist James Foley, by a U.K. national, to restrict and cancel visas and passports.

We are all immigrants

Since so much recent legislation has created unintended consequences, resistance to new laws is understandable. Doing nothing, though, is not working. Perhaps the most helpful thing that multicultural bands like Los Paranderos do is change perceptions about immigrants — not as outsiders but as smiling builders of a better tomorrow, for themselves and also for their new homeland.

Rosa Martinez’ s tamales are the cornerstone of her restaurant.

Rosa Martinez’ s tamales are the cornerstone of her restaurant.

After all, America is literally a country of immigrants. In Iowa, that applies to so called “Native Americans.” The Meskwaki left Canada in the early 16th century after fighting the French so effectively that King Louis XV commanded their complete extermination. After the Black Hawk War of 1832, the U.S. seized all their lands in the upper Mississippi Valley through one-sided treaties. They were ordered to a reservation in Kansas in 1842, but some remained in Iowa.

In the 1850s the divine music of chance intervened on the tribe’s, and Iowa’s, behalf. European settlers petitioned to allow them to remain in the state, and in 1856 new Iowa law permitted that. A year later, Gov. James Grimes decreed the Meskwaki could buy Iowa land.

“Who back then could imagine walking on the moon? Well selling land to Indians was like that, except in quirky Iowa. We wanted an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ location, so we bought 80 acres here along the river bottom,” explained tribal historian Jonathan Buffalo. “It could not have happened in 1847, or in 1867, but in 1857 the first Germans, Danes, Swedes and Norwegians were settling here. They did not speak English, and they needed us to teach them survival skills,” he said citing stories about Meskwakis helping the Europeans with midwifery, hunting and foraging.

“After the Civil War, the federal government had become all powerful. States could no longer make their own Indian policy. In 1867 Gov. Kirkwood was forced to close the gates but he allowed us to stay where we already were. And we already had this land,” Buffalo recalled.

So all Iowans are either immigrants or their descendents. Thank God, too. If it were not for the foods that immigrants brought here — beginning with the Meswaki’s corn — Iowa’s indigenous cuisine would provide nothing more than snails, fish, game, sunflowers, pine nuts, acorns, grasses and a few wild berries.

Unintended consequences

Iowa’s Mexican immigrants mirror national demographics with Michoacan, Jalisco, Guanajuato and Guererro providing their bulk. Restaurateur George Formaro says his French and Italian cafés are completely dependent upon line cooks from those states. Rosa Martinez, who owns La Rosa restaurant and rehabilitates real estate projects in Des Moines, explained how this might have been an unintended consequences of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Goizanne Esain Mullin and one of her adopted “babies.”

Goizanne Esain Mullin and one of her adopted “babies.”

“My family came from Gómez Farías in Michoacan,” she said, pointing to a photo of huge fields of flowers there. “The town used to grow its own corn and most everything else it needed. Then it became cheaper to buy corn from America and grow flowers to export. Then there were no jobs, and people left for America,” she said.

Corn is important to Martinez. She began selling her homemade tamales as a teenager in Des Moines parking lots, where long lines of pickups would form. Then she began selling her pan fried chicken in industrial parking lots. That led to her restaurant and a tamale business. She observed another irony influenced by trade agreements. “For years I would drive to Chicago each week to buy supplies, like corn husks, for my tamales. All the way from Des Moines I would see fields of corn, which were probably being exported to Mexico and then shipped back to Chicago.”

The dog whisperer

Goizanne Esain Mullin represents the contemporary phase of the Basque Diaspora. Her Basque father originally emigrated from Spain to Venezuela after most Basques ended up on the wrong side of the Spanish Revolution, and the repressive dictatorship that followed. Goizanne’s mother is Colombian. They met in Venezuela and moved to San Sebastian, the Spanish capitol of Basque country where Goizanne was born.

When she was 5, they immigrated to Venezuela where her father’s company trained workers for Shell and other corporations. Five years later, Goizanne immigrated to Colombia with her mother, after a divorce. When she graduated from high school, Goizanne and her mother immigrated to Denver, Colorado. “Mom thought that I needed to learn English to be successful. She had friends in Los Angeles and Denver but figured I would never learn English in L.A.,” Mullin recalls.

Goizanne started with a six-month student visa, thinking she would move to Spain next but she liked the challenge of learning English from scratch and going to school. She majored in graphic design and public relations at Denver Community College. Then she married musician Ryan Mullin of Des Moines, became a permanent resident, and graduated from Drake.

“My last year at Drake, our PR class did a project for the Animal Rescue League. It involved a lot of design work, so I had an advantage on others and won an internship and then a part-time job.

She worked mainly in graphic design there but when a Community Outreach job came up to run a Pets for Life program, the ARL wanted someone bilingual. She now goes door to door in challenging neighborhoods and offers aid — neutering, behavioral problems and vaccinations — to people with pets. The program has already reduced the numbers of strays in the ARL shelter.

She is also running her own graphic arts business, Red Panda, under the Toque umbrella. Her seven siblings live in Venezuela, Mexico and Spain.

The Music Man

Fernando Aveiga, an Ecuadorian immigrant who co-wrote the song “Immigrant” with Eddie Colón, sees a more cynical irony in U.S. immigration policy.

The daughters of Kun Tak Pak and Isun Pak.

The daughters of Kun Tak Pak and Isun Pak.

“I grew up in Quito, where my parents had a successful business, and also in Chone, Manabí, a humble region where they had grown up,” he said. “I learned two kinds of music: ‘Trova Cubano’ in the city, and the protest songs of the banana and cattle workers on the coast. I wanted to come to America because it is the center of all pop cultures.”

Aveiga pursued the channels available to him. He won a soccer scholarship to study at North Iowa Area Community College and applied for a student visa. After that he found work at Master Builders in Des Moines helping on main issues for Latino workers, like work safety and communications programs. For that he needed a work visa. When he wanted to pursue a Ph.D. at Iowa State, he had to get a new student visa. Then, in order to teach at DMACC, he needed a temporary work permit (green card) in order to begin the process that will hopefully lead to a permanent work visa and then to naturalization.

“Each time I needed to change my status, it cost thousands of dollars for fees and attorneys. Plus hundreds of hours in paperwork, because every agency in the bureaucracy has to separately be made aware of the changes. You always pay someone. There is a huge economy of legal immigration, just as there is of illegal immigration. Coupled with student loan debts, it becomes overwhelming. The government process is a wall, a symbolic one that is often harder to climb than the real ones that some politicians talk about. It sends a mixed message. On one hand it says we want you to come and work hard and pay taxes and build a new America. Then it makes it so much harder than need be to do that,” he explained.

Aveiga also sees a more promising irony in the status of America’s intermingled destiny with immigrants.

“The corporations are way ahead of the politicians and governments when it comes to understanding the positives and the future,” he said. “Home Depot committed 10 years ago to becoming a bilingual company because it was the smart thing to do for their future. Lots of companies have followed them.”

This month, Aveiga becomes a licensed realtor working for Coldwell Banker, one of those companies that envisions a positive bilingual future. They paid his fees, and he plans to help Latinos with construction skills buy houses they can improve to rent or resell. He’s said he’s excited about the new job but his music career is on a back burner until he gets out of debt.

The entrepreneurs

Soyong Newman believes that immigration was expedited for her family, large landowners and part of the royal family of Korea. Her father Kun Tak Pak was an air force officer, politician and businessman. Her mother Isun Pak gave him eight daughters and one son.

“Korea was a man’s world in the 1980s. Women were expected to study, get married and stay home raising children, completely dependent upon husbands. There was no middle class. My parents wanted their daughters to be independent and entrepreneurial. Dad said that in America, women have choices and freedom, as long as they take care of themselves. So we immigrated to Iowa. The process was not difficult, we all had to swear an oath to the South Korean government that we would never disrespect South Korea or America,” Newman explained.

The family moved to the Salem – Hillsboro area in southeast Iowa where they owned a farm, a grocery store, a café and a gas station.

“Rural America was shocking,” she said. “We came from a suburb of Seoul, and it was hard to adjust to wide-open spaces and needing a car to get anywhere. It was great when school started. We were the first colored people they had ever seen there, and everyone was so nice to us. I loved my sixth grade teacher, the best I ever had.”

When the girls became older, Kum Tak Pak decided they needed to move to Des Moines where there were more business opportunities for them.

“He traveled so much for business that it really helped to be close to an airport, too,” Newman recalled.

The family opened Des Moines’ first Asian buffet, Chopsticks, in Southridge Mall along with the family’s first salon. Soyong is the seventh sister and grew up working in her older sisters’ salons. Each sister would help the next sister open her own salon.

“We expect and encourage our younger sisters to do better than us. Each child, too,” she explained.

Today the sisters own six salons in the metro and more in Missouri. Abela, in Clive, is Soyong’s third. She gave one to an older sister when her life situation changed. The ladies own four different salons just in Valley West Mall.

“It works, each one is different, different prices and levels of luxury,” she said.

Soyong, well known for her sense of humor, says salons are suited to the Korean female personality.

“In Korea men must have a heavy mouth. They must be stoic. Only women can have loose mouths. Most of us do; it‘s our release,” she said laughing.

Her mother, who converted from Buddhism and became a Methodist deacon, died five years ago. Her father is in a nursing home in Perry where daughters visit daily.

“We are the realization of their American dream,” Soyong mused. CV

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