A Salvadoran immigrant has made a home in Des Moines for 26 years. Now, her visa program may be ending


By Andrea May Sahouri, Des Moines Register

Maura Francisca Merino has planted deep roots in Des Moines. Her home here reminds her of her native El Salvador, both boasting rich, fertile soil and bountiful crops of corn.

“I love Iowa.” That was the first thing she said to me. Her face was glowing, her smile warm with pride.


I met Merino, 53, at her east side restaurant, El Buen Sabor Latino, in early September with an interpreter. She opened up to me about her life — the shortened version, she said, or else she could go on for days — and the 26 years she’s called Des Moines home.

But after all she’s done to make this city her home, a potential change in visa status for many Salvadorans poses the threat of deportation.

In this city, 2,700 miles away from El Salvador, she and her husband watched her four children grow, inch by inch, she said. They fled gang violence in El Salvador so their children could have a better life in America.


And it’s in Des Moines where she became a grandmother to four beautiful grandchildren.

But making a home in Des Moines wasn’t easy, and neither was leaving her family in El Salvador.

“I’m amazed I am here,” Merino told me.


When she moved to Iowa, communication, and finding community, was difficult.

She recalled a time during her first years in Iowa when she found a Hispanic grocery store in Marshalltown, where she worked at a meatpacking plant. She described the discovery as the “gates of heaven opening” for her.

Eventually, though, as Des Moines’ Hispanic and Latino population grew, so did her roots. She’s created a community of El Salvadorans, Mexicans, Guatemalans, Hondurans, Cubans, Venezuelans and more.

They inspire her, she said. And they make her laugh.

To her community, Merino has become a beacon for those newly immigrating to the Des Moines metro. She’s helped dozens find homes and jobs, making sure her growing community is comfortable, she said.


People often stop into her restaurant for advice, and she’ll teach the lessons she’s learned while making a home out of Des Moines.

“I love serving my people … it can feel isolating at first, moving to a place far from home,” she said. She wishes she could do more.

“We’re just doing our best, the community. We come from the heart. We work hard.”

She’s always been a hard worker, she said, and isn’t one to give up. Family is her motivation; it’s everything to her.

Merino wants to be a role model for her grandchildren, an example that immigrants can succeed and find a home in America if they work hard and honorably, she said.

She looked back at all she’s accomplished — saving money during her days at the meatpacking plant and the 18 years she packaged and installed windows for Renewal by Andersen; moving out of the family’s small, north side home and into a larger one to fit her growing family; becoming a business owner in 2018.

She took in all of it, then began to cry softly.

“It’s hard to know how far you can go,” she said, especially immigrants like Merino and her family, who are under Temporary Protected Status visas. It’s a status granted by the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, such as when conditions in a country are unsafe for its nationals’ return. The Department moved to end TPS status for Salvadorans, but a court injunction has blocked that action. Court proceedings continue, however.

With looming expiration dates and no clear pathway to citizenship for TPS visa holders, Merino and her family are left waiting for the day they may have to leave home — again.


“Citizenship is what I dream of the most,” she said. It’s the final step in truly making Des Moines her home.

“If I can stay here forever, I will.”

If you’re looking for ways to support Iowa’s Hispanic and Latino communities during Hispanic Heritage Month, which ends Oct. 15, you can catch Merino at her restaurant at 1130 E. Ninth St.

As always, she’ll be nurturing her community, watching its own roots grow deeper into Des Moines, just as hers did.

Andrea Sahouri covers social justice for the Des Moines Register. As the daughter of Palestinian immigrants, she has watched her parents sacrifice everything for her and her brother to have a better life here in America. She sees that same love and sacrifice in Merino. Andrea can be contacted at [email protected], on Twitter @andreamsahouri, or by phone 515-284-8247.

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