Being Bicultural Helped These Latinas Build Their Businesses

Photos by Anthony Arroyo/Hola Iowa

By Christina Fernández-Morrow, Hola Iowa

Reyna Immerfall, Photo by Anthony Arroyo/Hola Iowa

Latinas have been building Iowa since the early 1900’s. Most of them held on to traditions and values they passed on to their children. Today, there are thousands of Latinas who were born in Iowa, to parents who were also born in Iowa.  While some have adapted more to English than Spanish, their cultural habits still shape their identity as Latinas. Reyna Immerfall and Alicia Peña rely on their biculturalism to grow their businesses and serve their communities.

Immerfall, a State Farm agent in Ankeny comes from a long line of Latinas who have made their mark on Iowa. Her Tía, Lena Robison, born and raised in Iowa, founded Latinos Unidos of Iowa. Immerfall grew up seeped in traditions like tamaladas where her mom, grandmother, aunts, and cousins gathered to make tamales for the holidays. “I don’t look Latina, and I don’t speak much Spanish” she says. “But once people get to know me, they get it; yea, she’s Latina.” Her business is a family affair, much like many milestones in her culture. “The belief my family had in me when I started was huge,” says Immerfall of her first year as an insurance agent. She opened her office in 2020, right before the world shut down. “My marketing plan hit the fan,” she says. Luckily, her team, including her nephew who had just graduated from college, worked together to get the word out about her agency. “It really was the family business I always dreamed of,” she says of her staff who dedicated hours during the pandemic to help Latino families access food through Knock and Drop of Iowa.


While she admits that no one really says they want to be an insurance agent when they grow up, her experience in the industry showed her that Latinos are highly under-insured. She decided to open her office in Ankeny because there was no one there serving her community. “Once we put an insurance plan in place to protect you, you can have fun and enjoy life.” Her business motto of Heart, Head and Humor, values she grew up with, guide her business. “It’s all about people. If it’s not meaningful to you, it won’t be meaningful to your customer.” That love of service, keen business sense, and being able to laugh has helped Immerfall through the ups and downs of owning a business and trying to balance life. She lost her nephew and dad after opening, and while her heart was broken, she had to keep working and keep her team going. “The name on the door is mine. If the bills don’t get paid State Farm doesn’t step in to save me.” Her office is not a franchise. State Farm agents are independent business owners who exclusively sell State Farm products and services. They are solely responsible for launching and maintaining their business. Today, she is thankful she had her business to distract her during those hard times and looks back on her rough start with fondness. “I’ll never forget our first winter. We were trying everything to get people through the door. We held a hot cocoa bar, and we all wore Christmas elf onesies. A snowstorm hit and no one was coming in. We looked out the window and saw a car hit the median and get stuck in the snow. My team and I ran out to help the family get out of the car and out of the cold. Four elves coming to the rescue!” These memories are what help Immerfall remember why she sacrifices; because it’s part of who she is and how she was raised, helping others. “I want a place where our community can come and talk to someone who understands them. Being able to help my community in my business is a point of pride for me.”

Alicia Peña, Photo by Anthony Arroyo/Hola Iowa

Alicia Peña, a licensed mental health counselor also takes pride in using her Latinidad to help patients feel welcome. Her family has deep roots in the Quad Cities, but she set down roots in Central Iowa. That’s what influenced the name of her practice, Tree of Life Therapy and Counseling Services, LLC. “Healing starts at the roots. It’s a native idea that healing starts from deep within. It considers the past, where you came from.” Peña came from a Mexican American father and German American mom. Life at home was rough due to alcoholism so she went out on her own at sixteen. She bounced around various low-paying jobs before taking classes to get her GED and thinking more seriously about her future. She moved to Colorado and became a real estate agent’s assistant. After having her son, she wanted to raise him closer to family, so she moved to Des Moines where several of her family members were living. With the support of her family, she went back to school, more focused than ever and caught the attention of the founder of VOC Rehab, an agency that works with individuals with disabilities. “He challenged me and pushed me.” Guided by his mentorship, Peña got a grant to Drake University, where at 37 years old she was the first college graduate in her family. “It was difficult, but I did it for my son, so he wouldn’t be another statistic.”

It was a long road going from jobs that paid her seven dollars an hour, to getting her Master of Science in Counseling. “Books are knowledge, but professionalism is, too,” she says of the hours she spent learning from other therapists how to run a therapy practice. Today, 90% of her patients are Latinas. “I don’t speak Spanish, but it doesn’t matter. I understand them. They feel safe in my office to talk about how racism has affected them.”


When she talks to aspiring counselors at her alma mater, she is passionate about removing barriers. “If you’re going to be a therapist and don’t take Medicaid, you’re not a real therapist. I’ve been there and I know the stereotypes and they’re not true.” Having taken a nontraditional route to opening her office, she can relate to her patients on many levels. That is what drives her to offer specialized therapy  options. As a trained EMDR consultant, she teaches what she preaches and wants more Latinas to go into mental health services. “There’s not enough of us in the field and it is so needed.” EMDR is a therapy technique that briefly focuses on a traumatic memory while simultaneously experiencing the bilateral stimulation of eye movements. “It treats trauma that gets trapped in our bodies,” explains Peña. Her own trauma motivated her to use it to treat her patients. “I don’t take it for granted what I’ve been through, what I get to do today. I love what I do and get referrals all the time. I help other women who start as victims become survivors and learn to thrive.” Although Peña will be 64 at the time of this publication, she has no desire to slow down. “I always want to educate the Latino community on becoming therapists and getting therapy.” She encourages people to keep showing up for themselves, as she learned to do on her road to becoming an entrepreneur. “I worked through my fears, my imposter syndrome in therapy. When those thoughts came up, I had to reframe them. No, I’m not believing that today.” 

JEFAS Magazine is a collaboration of writers, photographers, social media managers, editors, translators, and designers from across Illinois, Iowa and the Midwest – all of whom are Latinx. It is the first magazine created by the Latinx community, for the Latinx community that focuses on how they are boosting the economy, giving back, and filling the gap between what is needed and what is available in the state. 


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