Melting pot never boils


Editor’s Note: A version of this will be published by dsm magazine in Des Moines. It is good to marvel every now and then how well Storm Lake has adapted to waves of immigration.

Smoke and Mexican arias billow out our neighbor’s garage every Sunday morning as he prepares barbecue for a steady stream of cars that pull up for his fare. Another neighbor, a 75-year-old El Salvadoran grandfather, teaches his grandchildren how to work by raking leaves and planting a garden. Our other neighbor is a teenage Latin American Dreamer who was brought here illegally by her parents when she was six. She wants to go to college at Iowa State University. Her mother is a maid, her father a carpenter.

This is everyday life in Storm Lake, Iowa, (Census population 10,076, more likely 15,000 but nobody really knows) probably the most diverse city in the Midwest.

Here, adults speak about 30 languages or dialects, and 18 languages are commonly spoken in the schools. The public school district enrollment is 81% children of color.

From Latin America. Myanmar (formerly Burma), Samoa, Sudan, Micronesia and Brazil. And Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Mexican Mennonites who came here by way of Canada. And East LA and San Antonio and the South Side of Chicago.

This is the ultimate melting pot that never boils over.

It started with Gov. Bob Ray and the Iowa Cares program. After the Vietnam War, Iowa resettled thousands of Tai Dam refugees from camps in Thailand. In Storm Lake, IBP in 1980 had just reopened the old union Hygrade pork plant as a non-union plant with a core of Tai Dam workers. IBP turned the beef industry on its ear, and it did the same with its first pork plant in Storm Lake. It changed the community permanently.

Now owned by Tyson, the pork plant has tripled in employment from its Hygrade days to about 1,500 workers. The farm boys who used to man the plant were gone as rural areas drained population. IBP and Tyson turned to the southern border for labor. A direct conduit was established between Ayotlan, Jalisco, Mexico, (pop. 15,000) and Storm Lake. It is common to see vehicles rolling down the streets of this gorgeous community near Guadalajara with Buena Vista County license plates. Tyson also owns a turkey plant here that predominantly employs immigrants.

How did the lid not blow off?

First, the school district. It hired 135 teacher aides speaking every language available assisting 170 teachers. The district financed it using state and federal funds under a host of English and reading programs. Head Start was beefed up to get tots into school with their parents to learn English. A charter school was established to help high school students struggling with English get their diploma in five years and a jump on a college degree through Iowa Central Community College. These students are now welders, nurses, machinists and, yes, teachers in the Storm Lake School District.

Second, the police. The SLPD has been cited by think tanks as a national model of policing a diverse community. Public notices are printed in Lao, Spanish and English. Two non-commissioned community service officers — one Latina and one Tai Dam — serve as liaisons for 19 commissioned officers in immigrant communities. The department regularly schedules town meetings in immigrant apartment complexes and neighborhoods. They conduct focus groups on how to better serve these clusters. And they do not arrest undocumented immigrants unless they commit some crime other than entering the country illegally. That more than anything probably builds trust among people who could not trust government in their homeland. Police Chief Mark Prosser hopes to announce soon the hiring of a Latino native son as a commissioned police officer.

Third, Iowa neighbors. Iowa has a rich history of welcoming the stranger, from Prussians escaping conscription into war to St. Ansgar, or Waterloo welcoming Bosnians, or the Tai Dam people sponsored by Lakeside Presbyterian Church in Storm Lake when they first arrived — they still have an Asian Christmas party with Santa and egg rolls.

While 67 other rural Iowa counties are losing population every year, Buena Vista County is growing. Immigrant graduates are filling Lake Avenue’s retail sector with clothing stores, the best authentic foreign cuisine anywhere, custom groceries and car dealerships. Latinos and Asians are graduating from Buena Vista University every year and staking their claim next to the families who brought them here.

They are not so different from the Germans and Swedes who broke the sod here. It’s just a continuation of the Iowa story at an accelerated pace. Storm Lake grows more invigorating every day.