Iowa town translates its diverse population into a majority Latino city council

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The West Liberty City Council from left to right: Jose Zacarias, Dana Dominguez, Mayor Katherine McCullough, Omar Martinez and Cara McFerren. (City council member Diane Beranek not pictured.) Photo by Tar Macias / Hola Iowa
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By Kassidy Arena, Iowa Public Radio

When people drive into Iowa’s first majority Latino city, the first thing they’ll see is a building with an enormous mural. It declares ‘you belong here,’ on the left. ‘Tú perteneces aquí in Spanish on the right.

Two-term city councilman Jose Zacarias meets his old friend Tar Macias outside about a block away. They chat about the history of the town as they make their way up the street bundled in hats, jackets and gloves. Macias has been delivering his bilingual newspaper Hola America / Hola Iowa to the town for about 20 years.

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“Okay this is Main Street,” Zacarias gestures to the long pathway of businesses.

Macias points to a building, “The coffee shop we were at, correct me if I’m wrong, this used to be a pharmacy?”

Zacarias answers yes without delay.

They talk about the job market and how other businesses in the town have changed over time, until they reach the colorful mural. It’s on the side of a building Zacarias owns. One day, a teacher and her students asked him if they could paint something on the wall in their free time. Again, without delay, he said yes.

“And the message is the right message. It’s in English, it’s in Spanish. This is who we are, you know? Now Anglo people are talking about we are no longer two communities living in the same place, we are growing into one,” Zacarias explains.

Jose Zacarias (left) shows his long-time friend Tar Macias the mural on the side of his building. Macias has been delivering his bilingual newspaper to the town for about 20 years. The two men talk about how the city has changed over that time.
Photo by Kassidy Arena / IPR News

About ten years ago, West Liberty became Iowa’s first majority Hispanic city. The eastern Iowa town is one of thousands of majority-minority rural communities in the U.S. It’s not the first challenge to the concept of a homogenous white rural America — in fact, in 2020, nearly a quarter of rural Americans were people of color, and the numbers are growing.

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But in Iowa, West Liberty, with 4,000 residents, is the only town to now have a majority Latino city council.

“I’ve seen the diversity shift a lot in West Liberty. One: when it became a Latino majority town, of course, that was a big shift. But also you see people from other places like Central America, like from Puerto Rico, making West Liberty their home. So you’ve seen also, that diversity among the Latino community,” Macias says.

This is exactly the kind of town the Center for Rural Innovation (CORI) has been focusing on. The nonprofit promotes economic prosperity and diverse leadership throughout rural America. Executive Director Matt Dunne says he has seen rural America’s progress all over the country, both in representation and economic development. He emphasizes both of the concepts need to exist in order for a small town to see success.

“One of the things that we’ve spent a lot of time on over the last several years, is making sure that the country knows that rural America is not white America, that the diversity of people in rural places is part of its vibrancy and its potential,” he says. “What I think it also shows is that anyone who thinks that rural America is just going to stay exactly the same has another thing coming. Change is happening, we’re seeing it happen across the country.”

CORI started off with one town in its network, and it’s working toward having 50 by next year.

And political change often starts with a cultural shift, according to Father Guillermo Treviño. He started his ministry in West Liberty a little over a year and a half ago. He says as the town becomes more accepting of Latino culture, it provides a good role model for Latinos to become involved.

“I think that helps a lot for and I think that accepting of all these things, you know, all these Latino-owned businesses, seeing Latinos in positions of power as the new city council that gets sworn in… So all those things I think it reflects the community and it’s not a bad thing,” he adds.

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Father Guillermo Treviño hosts sermons both in Spanish and in English, as well as St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in West Liberty and at a church in Columbus Junction.
Photo by Kassidy Arena / IPR News

Jose Zacarias has been in West Liberty for decades after emigrating from Mexico. He first came for a job in the town’s meatpacking plant. Over time, he’s watched the Latino community blossom: watching residents become citizens, then voters, and finally political candidates. But it hasn’t always been an easy transition.

“The work that comes behind being a minority majority now, which is political education. How do you translate those numbers into political action?” he had asked himself.

He explains how for some Latinos, it’s almost like having to decide between two identities. If they choose American over their country of origin, he says, it’s almost like a betrayal. But he urges Latinos to remember that’s not the case. He says Latinos can combine their identities.

“Part of the reason, from the Latino perspective, is we are here to create opportunity for the people coming behind us. And to make it to grow with everybody else, all we need is a level field,” he says.

Zacarias says he finds that political success comes with grassroots organizing. For years, he’s encouraged fellow Latinos to take the next step to run for office. Now, after November’s election, four of the five council seats are held by Latino residents.

New councilperson Omar Martinez showed up a little early before his first meeting this month. He decided to run for city council after his father became the first person in West Liberty to die of COVID-19. He thinks his city is really starting to come together because, he says, he received votes from people of all backgrounds and ethnicities in the city, not just Hispanic people.

“And I think they like that. They like to see our background and what we can do, and you know, what our thoughts and plans are for the future. It is not just for our Latin people, but it’s for a community in whole,” he says. “You got to make it be known that the more united we are, the better it is for the city, and the better it is going to be for the growth.”

New councilperson Omar Martinez showed up a little early before his first meeting this month. He decided to run for city council after his father became the first person in West Liberty to die of COVID-19.
Photo Tar Macias / Hola Iowa

Despite seeing that growth in West Liberty, Latinos remain underrepresented in city governments all across the country. In the Iowa Statehouse, there is currently one Latino representative, who is the first to serve in the state.

Newly-elected West Liberty city council woman Dana Dominguez isn’t surprised. Zacarias had encouraged her to run, but political engagement isn’t entirely new to her. Her tía, or aunt, was one of the first Latinas on city council in another town in Illinois. And her father was the first Latino police officer in West Liberty.

Dominguez’s family came here from Mexico and she says many immigrants find obstacles to gaining political power. Many work exhausting physical jobs, have busy family lives and in some cases, difficult immigration status.

“I was privileged enough to have that and not have to go through that journey before going to counsel, you know, so I think there’s a lot of barriers in the way honestly, but I’m glad that we’re here now. Hopefully, it encourages other people to run in the future,” she says.

She adds she wishes West Liberty’s city council could have reflected the demographics of the city sooner.

Schools in Iowa have studied West Liberty as a model for dual language programs. And last year West Liberty started a high school mariachi band, with other schools following suit.

Tar Macias, who has been covering the news from West Liberty’s Latinos in Spanish and English, says he’s looking forward to how else the city can inspire others.

“I believe West Liberty, and this is my own opinion, it could be a role model for other cities, on how to approach the changes in demographics. I think they have embraced the Latino community,” he says. “I believe them doing that outreach, that embracing of that culture, makes the city a lot stronger. And makes them a lot better [able] to adapt to the changing demographics that are going to happen over the next 15, 20 years.”

As West Liberty government celebrates its diversity, other small towns across the country may see it as a model for promoting a new type of political engagement.

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