By Jeff Hutton, Hola Iowa correspondent
MARSHALLTOWN – Like the roots of a corn stalk, Maria Gonzalez’ roots are firmly planted in Iowa.
Since she was a toddler, Iowa, and more specifically Marshalltown, has really only been the place Gonzalez has called home.
But since she arrived in the United States nearly 30 years ago, Gonzalez concedes she is still sometimes viewed as an outsider. That frustration, however, fuels her desire to share her story; and she is using her voice to convince her fellow Iowans, that she and many members of the Latino community are here to stay.
She was only 3 when she made her way to California from Mexico, along with her mother and a brother – all undocumented immigrants, all looking for a better way of life.
A cousin directed her mother to Marshalltown with promises of work and the family made their way to Iowa.
At age 3, Gonzalez did not understand what being undocumented meant, but she knew she was at some place different than her native Mexico when the family first encountered an Iowa winter.
“I still remember running out in the snow, and I thought ‘Oh my gosh, what is this?’” she laughed.
But the differences in climate was just the beginning.
Gonzalez was only one of a handful of Latino students in her Kindergarten class in the Marshalltown school district.
She did not know any English and there were really no bilingual staff members at that time in the district.
But the young Gonzalez quickly picked up the new language studying at school while continuing to improve upon her Spanish at home.
Intimidating to be for sure, but language wasn’t the only barrier.
Gonzalez was unfamiliar with traditional American customs.
“I just remember my first Halloween. I had no clue as to why I was dressed up,” she said.
But Gonzalez became acclimated with American customs, the language and other aspects of life in Marshalltown.
It wasn’t a completely smooth journey, but until her senior year in high school, Gonzalez was moving forward in life.
But in 2006, members of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement raided the local meatpacking plant. Dozens of immigrants were arrested, including her mother.
That’s when being undocumented became real.
“I never really thought about my status. I knew I was undocumented, but I never felt undocumented,” she said.
At 17, Gonzalez was left to take care of herself and her siblings, trying to find out what to do next. Her mother had been transported to Camp Dodge in Des Moines; Gonzalez’ future uncertain.
Her mother was eventually released and Gonzalez continued with her senior year at Marshalltown High School.
But opportunities were in doubt.
“It was bittersweet. I had accomplished something and I knew my mom was proud. But I knew she also was sad because there was no way for her to pay for college,” Gonzalez said.
At that time, there was little to no college financial assistance for undocumented immigrants.
She graduated in 2007, and began working, taking on jobs including waitressing for $2 an hour and other positions, just to help herself and the family.
Three years passed by when things took a positive turn.
In 2010, Gonzalez met her husband and they were wed. And then shortly thereafter, the Obama administration established the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program.
“DACA completely changed my life. I was able to drive, work full-time, and started looking for things in my career,” Gonzalez said.
She was able to secure a position with Mid-Iowa Community Action, Inc. (MICA), a social services organization in Marshalltown.
“With MICA, I knew I was able to help people,” Gonzalez said.
In the past 10 years, Gonzalez’ life has dramatically changed.
Along with her husband, they now have two children, and she became a permanent resident of the United States in 2019.
And for many in the Latino community, Gonzalez is a leader. She has become one of a handful of voices who will speak out on important issues, including DACA.
“My husband and I value our community,” she said. “Anything we can do to volunteer, to assist, we try to do. School, church, the House of Compassion, we want this to be a positive place.”
As an original member of Immigrant Allies, a local community organization that acts as a resource for immigrants in Marshalltown, Gonzalez is out front.
Although reluctant at first, Gonzalez knew that she needed to share her story with fellow Marshalltown residents, as well as with Iowans. She has been featured on local, statewide and even national news.
“We’re just trying to be as much help as possible to the community,” she said, noting that Marshalltown has moved in a positive direction toward acceptance and understanding.
“I definitely think we have grown and that people are more accepting.”
And with Immigrant Allies, “I have a platform to share my story about living in Iowa as a Latina.
“I think people are surprised when they hear about the struggles. They are like ‘Oh my gosh Maria, I never realized.’ My part is that I want to share my story with those people who are willing to listen.”
At age 3, Gonzalez said she could never have imagined the life she has now.
“Definitely coming to the United States was life changing for me. If it wasn’t for my mother, I wouldn’t have had the opportunities I have now.”
Gonzalez said sharing her story has becoming increasingly important since the Trump administration took over in 2017.
“I was very fearful for our community, but I felt like my story was powerful and I had been quiet too long,” she said.
Gonzalez does not like to label herself as an advocate or even an activist, despite some of the notoriety she has gained through sharing her story.
“But the more I shared my story, the more I realized I wasn’t alone.”
Gonzalez shies away from any acknowledgement that she is making a difference, but …
“It’s a weird feeling when people tell me I’m a leader. I’m grateful that people see me like that.”
Gonzalez is looking forward to her next chapter. She is working toward both her associates and bachelor’s degrees. Her husband is working toward becoming a reserve officer with the Marshalltown Police Department. And the couple is gearing up toward that day when their children will graduate from high school and eventually college.
And as to Latinos in Iowa, Gonzalez is hopeful that the future is just as bright.
“We want the community to grow, to grow in diversity,” she said. “With all diversity, we hope that acceptance will grow. We’re all proud to be Iowans and that’s what I’m hoping for our future.”