Iowa Latinos emerging as small, but potentially significant political force

There’s the annual county fair. Country music plays on most radio stations. The miles of cornfields seem to go on endlessly. The view of the open sky is virtually uninterrupted, except for the many silos. An occasional roadside store punctuates stretches of dirt roads.

But in this unmistakably rural state, proudly an emblem of the heartland, there have been changes – Virgen de Guadalupe processions, eateries that serve authentic Mexican food, annual Latino festivals and supermarket aisles filled with Goya products.

Latinos are a growing part of this farm state, still a relatively small part – about 5 percent – of its overall population, but now its largest minority group. Latinos are influencing life in the communities where they have reached significant numbers. In some places, such as West Liberty, they even have become the majority.

They comprise about 54 percent of West Liberty’s 3,768 residents, making it the first Iowa town with a Latino majority. Three other Iowa towns have since seen Latinos become the majority.

On the main door to West Liberty City Hall, the days of operation are listed in Spanish as well as English.

Inside, flyers about town services are available in both languages. Churches offer Spanish-language masses, and the school district has a hugely popular voluntary dual-language program that places all students – Latino and non-Latino – in Spanish and English classes beginning in kindergarten. Students take half their classes, such as math, in English as well as Spanish.

Latinos don’t just find West Liberty on a map and come. It’s chain migration.

- Gloria Zamora, West Liberty resident

Many of the Latinos living in this town trace their Iowa roots to parents and grandparents who came to the state to work on farms or meatpacking facilities.

As West Liberty Councilwoman Cara McFerren, the third Hispanic ever to sit on the municipal governing body, said of Latinos in Iowa, “It’s the silent diversity the nation doesn’t realize our state has.”

Growing political force

The state's Latino community is beginning to get attention as Iowa prepares to hold its caucus – the first presidential contest that can set the tone for the rest of primary season. Latino rights groups and voter-empowerment organizations look to its Hispanics as a fledgling political force.

National Latino organizations, such as the League of United Latin American Citizens, or LULAC, have launched efforts in Iowa to get Hispanics involved, particularly in the crucial caucus.

“There are 50,000 registered Latino voters in Iowa,” said Christian Ucles, political director for LULAC in Iowa. “If we can turn out 10,000, you can make a difference and help put a presidential candidate from 7th to 4th place.”

In 2012, 1,000 Hispanics turned out to caucus. LULAC hopes to increase that number ten-fold.

Many of West Liberty’s Latinos – echoing many in other parts of the state – say that Iowa reminds them, in several ways, of the down-home, farming life and slower pace of the places where they lived in Mexico.

“We all come for a better life,” said Gloria Zamora, who migrated from Mexico in 1979 at the urging of an uncle who touted Iowa’s simple, safe and quiet lifestyle and plentiful work.

“When I came, it was supposedly for only six months to learn English and go back,” said Zamora, who arrived with a student visa and now works in an insurance firm. “In Mexico, you need money and connections to get ahead. Here, it’s based more on merit, on your hard work. Latinos don’t just find West Liberty on a map and come. It’s chain migration.”

In a state that long has been mostly white and in many parts deeply conservative – this is the state that elected one of Congress’s most hard-line members, Steve King, known for his harsh rhetoric about immigrants – many Latinos say they have encountered few problems and generally feel accepted.

Some non-Latinos, in fact, moved to West Liberty because of its diversity and the dual-language program.

 “We have always wanted our children to be exposed to other cultures and diversity, and we found that here,” said West Liberty city manager Lawrence McNaul, who was the town’s police chief before becoming city manager in 2014. “We found this town to be an opportunity for our family to make a positive impact – not just with ourselves but the community.”

Demographic shift

Some of the older residents say that adjusting to the demographic shift has not always been easy for them.

“People felt overwhelmed, a little bitty town like West Liberty, we have lost hundreds of Caucasian families,” said Robert Cline, a long-time resident and the town historian. “We didn’t speak Spanish, we didn’t know anything about it. There was overcrowding. There were large numbers of students in the schools who didn’t speak English.”

Town officials credit Latinos with keeping its population from declining, and bringing vitality to the local economy. Many Latinos have opened businesses, ranging from restaurants to hair salons to auto repair shops. They also are doctors and lawyers and West Liberty just got its first Hispanic police officer, Pamela Romero, who is 36 and came to Iowa from Mexico when she was 9.

McFerren, the councilwoman, recently got elected to the City Council.

Her family, the Ponces, were one of the first to settle in the area around the turn of the last century, when her ancestors came to work on the railroad. Her grandfather, John Ponce, was the first Latino to graduate from West Liberty High School.

“He grew up here, married here and died here,” McFerren told Fox News Latino.

As more Latinos appeared in West Liberty, most of them to work in the town’s poultry plant, her grandfather invariably became the fixer, the point person for fellow immigrants trying to navigate their new town and new homeland, and for non-Latinos needing a bridge to the growing community.

Iowa’s Latinos say they – or their parents or grandparents – were happy to bypass the big, better-known Latino hubs of Miami, Los Angeles, Chicago and New York for the rural life found here.

“There was plenty of work. They could own land, farm that land and raise a family,” McFerren said about her family and others like them. “An extended family saved money, got a tiny house, maybe a four-room house, had parents, elders and children all living there. They grew a little corn, potatoes, had a barn with a pig, some chickens and a cow.”

Most Latinos in town have some tie to the poultry plant, now called West Liberty Foods, which boasts almost 2,000 employees and has expanded to other locations. Mainly, the work includes slicing meat – one of the company's big clients is Subway.

There has been a large amount of intermarriage. Children, say residents, provide a conduit between Latinos and non-Latinos to meet and form friendships, particularly through sports or school activities.

But bringing the two groups together can be a challenge, say those who have tried.

Father Dennis Martin, the retired pastor of a church here that had a Hispanic ministry, said it was hard at times to get Latino and non-Latino congregants together.

“Latinos would go one way, the others the other way,” he said. “It would be parallel but separate.”

But over time, Martin said, the congregation became a community.

“It never was ‘West Side Story,’” he said.

Getting Latinos in the state involved in politics is also a challenge, though one that community leaders all around the state are determined to defeat.

“The tradition in many countries in Latin America is not to vote because nothing changes,” said school board member and former West Liberty Councilman Jose Zacarias, who came to Iowa from Mexico more than 25 years ago. “Once you’re here, you understand the importance of exercising your right.”

For her part, McFerren has set out to encourage Latinos to get involved in the town’s civic and political activities.

In December, a group of Latinos asked her to speak to them about how town government works. “They wanted to know how the council candidates would represent them, their interests,” she said.

“I would like Latinos to get involved,” she said. “They have as much right as everyone else. I want to impress upon them that getting involved makes a difference. They have a right to have a voice.”

Elizabeth Llorente is Senior Reporter for FoxNews.com, and can be reached at Elizabeth.Llorente@Foxnews.com. Follow her on Twitter @Liz_Llorente.