Thursday, July 08, 2004

City native reflects on immigration - - The Times Republican

City native reflects on immigration - - The Times Republican
City native reflects on immigration


Editor's Note: This is the article written by Marshalltown native C.J. Bacino that appeared in "Fringe" Magazine. Bacino is currently working on a documentary on immigration to Marshalltown.

In his 1929 autobiographical novel, Look Homeward Angel, Thomas Wolfe wrote of his search and desire for comfort, peace, ease and reassurance. He ultimately surmised one of the most quotable statements of twentieth-century literature: "You can never go home again."

The angel Wolfe referred to was more concrete than ethereal. "For six years it had stood on the porch, weathering. It held a stone lily delicately in one hand. The other hand was lifted in benediction."

I left my hometown in 1988 to go to college in Chicago. This year, at age thirty-four - and like so many others before me - I too attempted to go home. Not because I had to. Not to spend time with my aging parents. Certainly not for a vacation. I went home specifically to test Thomas Wolfe's notion. The stone angel with its funereal lily-of-the-past in one hand and hope for the future in the other was the perfect metaphor.

Home for me is Marshalltown, Iowa. Located in the middle of the state, Marshalltown has a population of about 25,000 and was established in the mid 1800s. Like most medium-sized towns in the Midwest, Marshalltown tracks its roots to the railroad and is supported on an economy of agriculturally-related businesses and manufacturing. The stereotypical Main Street with its American Flag-draped street lights runs by the Courthouse Square. In the summertime, Marhalltonians bring their lawn chairs and mosquito repellent to the square to hear the municipal band play all of the great Sousa marches.

Growing up in Marshalltown, I always felt safe. I spent my nights playing hide-and-go-seek with the neighborhood kids until my dad whistled from our front door for my return. In the summer, we spent our days swimming at the public pool in Riverview Park or riding our bikes along brick sidewalks under giant Iowa oak trees. You didn't dare do anything wrong because your mom would certainly hear about it in church or worse - you'd be "written up" in the local newspaper, The Times-Republican.

Marshalltown has always prided itself on its schools. From Mrs. Devolder in the first grade to Mrs. Mitchell in high school (Iowa's Teacher of the Year in 1997 and fourth nationally), I always had great teachers. As students, there were few differences between us. Except for the occasional son of a doctor or daughter of a lawyer, we were all pretty much from the same economic background: middle class. We all spoke the same language. And we were all white.

But something happened to Marshalltown in 1991. The local packing house was having difficulty finding labor for what were becoming increasingly undesirable jobs. The result was an influx of Mexican immigrants. The first wave took Marshalltown by surprise. They were mostly single men, sometimes living with as many as fifteen in one house. Because of a variety of shifts, they were coming and going at all hours of the day and night. They parked their cars on their front lawns. They chased women. They loved to drink. Mother Marshalltown's proud banner of conservative morality was beginning to tear.

As the years passed, the demographics of the Mexican inhabitants began to change. "Hispanic Origin" citizenship swelled to between fifteen and twenty percent of the total population. Cavorting single men were replaced by families with traditional family values. The Mexican population at the packing house grew to an estimated ninety percent, with a total payroll of nearly $60 million. Many workers were promoted. Others left the packing house and found work in manufacturing or opened businesses of their own, including several stores and restaurants on Main Street. All along, the unemployment rate remained below three percent, the overall crime rate never significantly increased, and overall property values never declined. In fact, they increased substantially.

But the haze of resistance and ultimate fear of an integrating culture still hovered over Marshalltown. "Mexican go home!" wasn't shouted as much as it was whispered. To understand, one must be able to communicate. The language barrier remains a premier obstacle.

In addition to viewing Spanish as an important part of their cultural heritage, all of the Mexican immigrants I spoke with noted the importance of learning English in order to be successful anywhere in America. Marshalltown, in its typical Midwestern "help thy neighbor" fashion, has responded with a variety of programs.

St. Mary's Catholic Church offers classes in English as does Iowa Valley Continuing Education. The programs at Iowa Valley include several levels of English as a Second Language as well as vocational training in areas such as electrical engineering. Childcare is provided and all of these courses are offered for free, minus the cost of books. The classes are open to all citizens of Marshalltown, regardless of race. The program at Iowa Valley is obviously successful; almost 1,000 adult students passed through the doors last year.

Perhaps the most significant change is happening at my alma mater, Woodbury Elementary School. A full-fledged bilingual program has been established where students are taught the same curriculum in English and Spanish. Standardized test scores are increasingly in line, an amazing accomplishment for tests the U.S. Government requires be given in English. In truth, the program is so successful that there is talk of extending it through middle school and several white families in Marshalltown are now on a waiting list to have their children bused to Woodbury in order to become dual language educated. What was once the least desirable elementary school in Marshalltown has become the crown jewel in an already premier school district.

In addition to formal education, other advancements are being made to overcome the language barrier. It's not uncommon to see Spanish language signage in Marshalltown, including at white-owned retail establishments and restaurants. A special medical clinic has been established for Spanish speakers and the local hospital and emergency responders all provide interpreters.

The Chief of Police in Marshalltown has a particularly daunting challenge. Because of instances of corruption within local law enforcement agencies in Mexico, many immigrants arrive with a basic mistrust for the Marshalltown Police Department. One Mexican immigrant I spoke to told me a story of a friend-of-a-friend who was pulled over for "no other reason than being Mexican." The Chief of Police would very much like to eliminate even the perception of such an incident. In his own words, his primary goal is "to provide equal protection to all citizens, regardless of immigration status." He worries that some Mexican immigrants may not feel comfortable contacting the police in the event of an emergency. To this end, he is actively trying to recruit Spanish-speaking officers of Mexican origin. His office has also produced a Spanish language video, "Bienvenitos a Marshalltown," which explains common city procedures and ordinances. In Marshalltown, it's important to keep a mowed and uncluttered lawn. It's also important to know what to do in the event of a tornado. The video is free to anyone who wants a copy and is shown regularly at the packing house's new-hire orientation.

If all of this isn't beginning to speak of "the little city that could," Marshalltown recently sponsored a Hispanic Heritage Festival on - yes - the courthouse lawn. The event was heavily attended by both Hispanic and white citizens and the city is looking forward to making it an annual event.

Of course the true test of successful cultural integration does not lie in civic programs, but in the minds and hearts of the community's citizens.

Margie and Andy Andrews are an aging white couple who were born and raised in Iowa and have lived in Marshalltown for most of their lives. Andy retired from the Marshalltown Fire Department and now spends his days wearing overalls and "tinkering" in a shed attached to the back of his garage. Margie used to peddle samples at a local grocery store, enjoys a good piece of gossip and says "worsh" instead of "wash." Their four children have all grown up and left Marshalltown and they eagerly await every return visit. Their political views lean toward the far right and they're quick to criticize the city for any kind of "unnecessary" spending. They live in a neighborhood that was once entirely white. Today, it's heavily inhabited by Mexican immigrants.

Considering Margie and Andy's profile, many people quickly assume that the Andrews' must have a negative reaction to the subject of Mexican integration. When asked by acquaintances why they don't relocate to another, "more desirable neighborhood," Margie answers simply, "Because this is our home and we love it here."

Margie and Andy's next door neighbor, Sara Martinez, is a Mexican immigrant. Listening to the three of them talking on the Andrews' front porch about the begonia Sara gave Margie and Andy last year, it's clear to see that any negative assumptions made about the Andrews are undoubtedly false. When asked about racism, all three share the same sentiment: "There are good people and there are bad people. Race has nothing to do with it."

You could not say that the cultural integration of Mexican immigrants has been perfect or even easy for Marshalltown. Nor could you say that the integration has been successfully completed. Indeed, you couldn't make such statements about any community in America. Perhaps the reason is best explained by the President of Marshalltown's Chamber of Commerce: "We operate on a twenty-sixty-twenty theory. Twenty percent of the people are on board from the beginning. Sixty percent can be persuaded. Twenty percent will never go along." His statement refers to all of the racial groups in Marshalltown.

What you can say, however, is that Marshalltown has made more effort and progress in less than 15 years than most communities in America have made in over a hundred.

And so I consider Thomas Wolfe's angel with the past in one hand and the future in the other. And then I think about my own father who is the son of Sicilian immigrants. He grew up in the same impoverished neighborhood occupied by many of today's Mexican immigrants. His family faced the same misunderstandings and language barriers. Today, he resides in a more affluent location, drives a Cadillac, enjoys a high profile career and was once elected as President of the Kiwanis Club. When I think of the Mexican immigrants in Marshalltown, I have every reason to believe that their joumey - from past to future - will be the same.

As for the question of going home, I can only say that I partially agree with Thomas Wolfe. In my old neighborhood I saw two boys playing. One was white, the other Mexican. But there they were, riding their bikes under the giant Iowa oaks.

C.J. Bacino lives in Santa Fe. He is an Adjunct Professor at the University of New Mexico, former Diversity Consultant to New York Life Insurance, and is currently working on a documentary film about the Mexican immigration into Marshalltown, Iowa.


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