Last Friday I had the opportunity to give a series of talks about my film and immigration issues in Marshalltown, Iowa. My guide was Marshalltown-native Veronica Guevara, a college student who hosted my visit to the University of Iowa the day before. Many of Marshalltown’s residents and former residents—including Veronica’s parents (who are now citizens) and her aunt and uncle (who were deported in the 2006 Swift meatpacking plant raid)—were born in a small Mexican town called Villachuato, Michoacán. Incidentally, Villachuato is about an hour’s drive from where I filmed much of The Other Side of Immigration.
Marshalltown’s Hispanic and immigrant populations have increased significantly over the past two decades. According to data published by the Pew Hispanic Center, only 292 of the 38,276 people who lived in Marshall County, IA in 1990 were Hispanic. By 2010, the Hispanic population had increased to 7,017 while total population had grown by only 2,372 people. Looking at it from a different angle, Marshalltown’s Hispanic population grew by about 2300% between 1990 and 2010, while the non-Hispanic population shrunk by about 11.5%. In recent years, Asian immigrants (particularly Burmese refugees) have also settled in Marshalltown. So many immigrants have made Marshalltown home because there is work to be done, particularly in meatpacking. Meatpacking is one of many U.S. industries that has always depended on immigrants—read Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel The Jungle to see what I mean.
Like so many small towns in Middle America, Marshalltown’s population would be dwindling and aging without immigrants. Immigrant-owned businesses like Abarrotes Villachuato Tienda (translation: the Villachuato Grocery Store) have revitalized the downtown area and sell things like mango-and-chili flavored popsicles, piñatas, Mexican and Central American sweet bread, and other goods that you don’t usually find in places like Iowa. Mass at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in the center of town is now said in Spanish and English. Many people I spoke with agreed that immigration has enriched Marshalltown and made it more diverse.
Immigration hasn’t been without controversy, however. Although I didn’t witness any problems during my brief visit, I was told that some white residents of Marshalltown have been shocked by and resistant to the growth in the immigrant population. Some Hispanic residents claimed that in the past, the local police profiled them on the basis of race, but that this has been happening less and less since some Hispanics have joined the force over the past few years.
During my visit, I spoke with 2 groups of high school students and a group of adults at the Marshalltown Public Library. At the end of the day I met with 8 Spanish-speaking Hispanic residents and 7 English-speaking white residents at St. Mary’s Church. We talked for a couple hours about perspectives on life and immigration in Marshalltown. Although it was a friendly, open-minded group, it was amazing how the English-speakers and the Spanish-speakers automatically sat on separate sides of the room. Even people who came alone tended to sit on the side with people who looked more like them! It was uncanny, and we all noticed it halfway through the meeting. The conversation was slow and difficult at times because we had to constantly translate between English and Spanish so that everyone could understand. Our 2-hour meeting probably would have take a quarter of the time (or less) if we all spoke the same language!
The conversation was ultimately very productive. Everyone agreed that the language barrier is a big impediment to understanding one another in daily life. Being unable to speak to or understand someone can be an embarrassing experience. People often get very shy, hang their heads, and disengage when they can’t understand or communicate. These types of reactions create misunderstandings and confusion about one’s true feelings and intentions. Both the Spanish-speakers and English-speakers in Marshalltown who attended the meeting agreed that each group needs to do more to reach out to and include each other in an effort to reduce such misunderstandings. Harmony between immigrants and native-born citizens is a two-way street that requires the effort of both groups.
This was my first experience facilitating a conversation between Spanish-speakers and English-speakers. I thought it was really amazing and would like to be involved in more meetings like this. The folks who attended took the time to put aside stereotypes and get to know each other a little better. That’s a huge first step. I think there would be much less anti-immigrant sentiment and misunderstanding between immigrants and citizens if more communities and churches held bilingual discussions like the one we held in Marshalltown.
Understanding people who look different, speak a different language, and have different cultural practices isn’t always easy. But fundamentally, I think Marshalltown’s Hispanic and white residents are much more similar than they are different in terms of family values, work ethic, and religion. And I believe the gains in diversity and economic vitality will make Marshalltown a much stronger town and community in the long run.
Thanks to Veronica Guevara and everyone else who did so much to teach me about Marshalltown. I enjoyed meeting you and hope to return soon.
Watch this video by Photojournalist Brad Argo and Reporter Kerry Kavanaugh to learn more about the links between Marshalltown, Iowa and Villachuato, Mexico.