Nohema Graber was an ‘inspirational’ leader of Latino community. After her death, her mantra of ‘you can do it’ lives on.


By Andrea May Sahouri, Des Moines Register

FAIRFIELD — Just before her violent death, Nohema Graber shared her life’s philosophy and tradition.

“We know we’re all going to die,” the 66-year-old teacher told a Fairfield Ledger reporter on Nov. 1. “It’s our way of laughing at death.”


She was at the Fairfield Public Library for a celebration of Día de los Muertos, or “Day of the Dead,” as she laughed at death.

On Nov. 2, the second day of Día de los Muertos, Graber was killed. The next day, her body was found in a park she loved. On Nov. 4, two 16-year-old Fairfield High students were charged with her murder.

Graber  — a Mexican immigrant and Fairfield High School Spanish teacher — was proud of her Mexican roots and worked to share her culture and build a stronger Latino community, her friends say.


Her death has devastated the Fairfield community and Graber’s family. Graber’s daughter described her as an angel full of warmth and love. Her son said she had vowed to smile at everyone she encountered. Her students said she was passionate about teaching.

And members of Fairfield’s small but growing Latino community remember Graber as a humble leader with undeniable influence.

“There are not many people who really give hope … who truly inspire others,” Elizabeth Goytia, a longtime friend of Graber and fellow Latina, told the Des Moines Register. “Nohema was that person.”


Like Graber, Goytia immigrated to Fairfield from Mexico. Goytia was from northern Mexico, and Graber from the south. They shared their traditions. 

Fairfield’s Latino community isn’t large, but Graber made it feel whole, said Goytia, 33.

Latinos made up 2.6% of Fairfield’s population in 2000, according to U.S. Census data. In 2010, that number increased to 3.6%, and by 2020 to 5.4%. Meanwhile, since 2000, the total population of Fairfield slowly decreased to about 9,400 people by 2020, census data shows.

In Fairfield schools, 80 Latino children were enrolled for the 2010-2011 school year, according to data from the Iowa Department of Education. During the 2020-2021 school year, that number had grown to 122.

Nearby Ottumwa — with a larger Latino population, in part due to the JBS meatpacking plant — paved the way for Fairfield to grow a Latino community of its own. Farming, manufacturing and construction brought opportunities to Fairfield and surrounding areas, community members said. Then the Maharishi International University opened in the city, providing more opportunities.

Now, its downtown boasts at least three Latino-owned businesses: Cafe Paradiso, Hazel Moon Cafe, and Aranda’s Mexican Restaurant. Just down the street from downtown, there’s La Hacienda, another Mexican restaurant.

Graber’s leadership expanded as Latino community grew

Graber was a young mother of two — soon three — in 1992 when she arrived in Fairfield, her husband’s hometown, which was markedly unlike the cosmopolitan Mexican city where she grew up.

At that time, few other Latinos were in town. Many in the community told the Register they could count the Latinos with two hands.

“It was painful to move to one of the whitest states in the country. I truly learned the difference between ignorance and bigotry,” said Monserrat Iniguez, 34, a daughter of Mexican immigrants. She moved to Fairfield from California in 2011.

Iniguez moved to Des Moines after four years in Fairfield and just moved back in February.

Noting a stronger Latino presence now in Fairfield, “I don’t feel uncomfortable like I did before,” Iniguez said, sitting in Hazel Moon Cafe. “It’s really nice to see people that look like me, to see the community having a deeper appreciation of our culture.”

Graber’s leadership grew hand in hand with Fairfield’s Latino population.

A faithful Catholic, Graber became active in St. Mary’s Catholic Church, eventually attending mass daily. At a vigil for Graber on Tuesday, church members spoke of Graber’s gentle soul, her giving heart and beautiful mind, and her ability to bring together people from different cultures to worship.

The Rev. Nick Adam of St. Mary’s Catholic Church spoke of Graber’s devotion. She always led with light, he said.

Before her death, Graber would be seen at every Latino family function — quinceaneras, birthday parties, baptisms and other gatherings. She danced the cumbia or bachata, Goytia said, and her eyes would sparkle. Her loud laugh and smile would be contagious.

Graber would welcome new community members and would rally the community to support those in need, friends said.

If she noticed a student was hungry or didn’t have warm clothes for winter, she’d make sure that child was fed and warm, making phone calls to community members to ask for help and connecting those in need with resources, Goytia said.

“We are all part of the community. But there are people who are leaders. That was Nohema,” Patricia Solis, 44, who owns Aranda’s, told the Register.


“People are suffering, not just because of how she died, but who we lost — the kind of person she was,” Solis said.

‘We were lucky to have Nohema’ 

Goytia met Graber 10 years ago at a hospital after Goytia’s 2-year-old son, Abraham, was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Doctors said he wouldn’t make it.

Graber was already at the hospital praying for another Latino community member who was sick, Goytia said. Then Graber heard about Goytia’s son, and prayed for him at the hospital, too.

And when doctors said Abraham would survive but would be brain dead, Graber continued to pray.

Besides visiting hospitals, she would go to homes of community members who needed prayers, Goytia said.

“That’s just the kind of person Nohema is,” Goytia said. “She’ll drop everything to help others. She will always make the time.”

Goytia shared her comments at a vigil for Graber at Fairfield High School on Tuesday evening. Abraham, now 12 and in full recovery, was with her.

“To us, she’s family. We were lucky to have Nohema in our community.”

And in Graber’s nine years as a Fairfield High teacher, she mentored her students and taught them the importance of peace, love, acceptance and forgiveness, residents told the Register.

Graber made sure parents, especially Latino parents with language barriers, were notified and involved in their children’s events at school. She’d keep the parents up to date on their children’s progress and always offered to help after school, Goytia said.

“All the things she still wanted to do …” said 55-year-old Edith Cabrera, another longtime friend of Graber within Fairfield’s Latino community.

A Mexican ofrenda, or altar, honoring Graber is now on display in the center of Fairfield’s Public Library, where just last week Graber had honored the dead. There’s a portrait of Graber and some of her favorite things — an Our Lady of Guadalupe image, rose petal jam, Squrtz candies. 

‘We can’t lose what we have’

Graber came to leadership with a humble mantra:  “If I can do it, you can do it.”

She passed that on to many others as part of her vision for Fairfield’s Latino community: To have a stronger voice, to exercise more power, and to create future leaders.

She had just talked about that vision at a birthday party for Goytia’s mother in October.

The way others at the party nodded in agreement when Graber spoke, “she was inspirational. People followed her because they believed in her. They still do,” Goytia said.

The community will not be the same without their leader, Goytia said, but “we have to keep our community. We can’t lose what we have. We can’t lose our faith, our hope.”

There is still work to do, she said.

“We have to be better. We have to be stronger. We have to help each other,” Goytia said. “If she were here right now, she’d say, ‘Let’s keep walking, let’s help each other. Let’s forgive each other.'”

What is happening in the investigation?

In criminal complaints, police say they found Nohema Graber’s body Nov. 3 in Fairfield’s Chautauqua Park under a tarp, wheelbarrow and railroad ties. Detectives wrote that their preliminary investigation indicated Graber suffered “inflicted trauma to the head.”


Police allege two students at Fairfield High School — Willard Noble Chaiden Miller and Jeremy Everett Goodale, both 16 — are responsible for her death.

Both have been charged with first-degree homicide and first-degree conspiracy to commit homicide and will be charged as adults “based on the circumstances and their ages,” according to a police news release.

Investigators say an associate of the students provided information from social media exchanges that indicated one allegedly knew specifics of Graber’s disappearance and death — including the alleged involvement of the other, their motive to kill Graber, the planning and execution of the killing, and “deliberate attempts to conceal the crime.”

Since being charged, the students asked a judge to be released from custody without bail. A bond review hearing is set for Nov. 23.

Andrea Sahouri covers social justice for the Des Moines Register. She can be contacted at [email protected], on Twitter @andreamsahouri, or by phone 515-284-8247.

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