Heartland Hispanics Bolstering Local Economies

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IOWA -- More than 50 million Latinos live in the United States but not necessarily where we traditionally expect. In the Midwest, Hispanics are not only propping up declining populations, they're helping to bolster local economies.

Antonio Sosa is one example. His parents brought him to the States from Mexico when he was a young boy. In 2007, he became a citizen along with his father.

Originally, his parents worked factory jobs for large agribusiness companies. Today, Sosa runs New York Dollar, a small grocery store his parents own in eastern Iowa.

Boosting Local Economies

"When you're new to a business industry you kind of have to figure out yourself how to run it," Sosa said, adding that he's constantly trying to keep up with what his customers want and how best to serve them.

As a result, the grocery store now offers a variety of services in addition to food products.

"There's some people who actually come here, they've asked for a little help on translation on some things. We can cash checks, fax papers," he said.

Sosa's store serves a booming Hispanic population in tiny West Liberty, Iowa, 25 minutes east of Iowa City. With a majority Hispanic population, this community of close to 4,000 represents a new wave of Midwest diversity.

Many Latinos in Iowa originally came for jobs in agribusiness, like Sosa's parents. Now many are also starting businesses of their own and helping local economies across the state.

Jeff Schott consults with towns all over Iowa as director of the University of Iowa's Institute of Public Affairs. He said communities are wise to pick up on the trend.

"I would suggest to communities to look at this as an opportunity," he said. "Another issue that I hear all across the state of Iowa from employers that there is a real concern about, is work force, work force shortage."

Immigrants can help address that shortage, Schott said, noting that the 2010 census showed two-thirds of Iowa counties lost population since 2000. Schott said communities that welcome Hispanics and other immigrants reap economic dividends.

West Liberty Mayor Chad Thomas agreed.

"I think if we didn't have the Hispanic community here we'd have a lot more empty businesses downtown," he said.

Thriving with Diversity

The concept of Latinos helping to re-energize small towns is gaining momentum in Iowa. In a remote corner of the northwest part of the state, the city of Storm Lake is thriving, thanks in part to Latinos who make up one-third of the population.

Mark Prosser, director of public safety since 1989, said diversity has made a big difference.

"When you look at other rural communities that struggle to keep their schools open, that have to consolidate school districts, that struggle to keep heads on the beds in homes -- we have a housing shortage," Prosser said. "We have a growing school district."

Across the state, some families have moved to West Liberty because of its diversity. The West Liberty School District offers a dual language program for all grades. Students learn in Spanish for half the day and in English for half the day.

The Sasmazers are one family that moved to take advantage of the school program and diverse cultural experience they wanted for their children.

"They have friends from all backgrounds," mother Lynne Sasmazer said. "We hear them playing and sometimes they all switch to Spanish and speak to each other in Spanish, which is pretty amazing."

Pamela Romero is a Hispanic parent who speaks both languages and wanted her girls to learn both.

"It's really good because right now they are both reading English and Spanish," she said. "They are writing in English and Spanish, even the one in kindergarten."

Population Growth

In West Liberty more Hispanic children than Caucasian children attend school. These numbers are extreme for Iowa but reflect what's becoming a clear pattern - Hispanics contributing in a major way to the state's population growth.

The number of cities with a Hispanic population of 5 percent or more has doubled in the last 10 years. Latinos make up more than 5 percent of the state's total population right now and forecasters say they'll make up 12.7 percent of the population in 2040.

Latinos started migrating to Iowa in the 1980s when packing plants like Tyson Foods in Storm Lake started recruiting workers outside the state. Eventually these workers brought their families, bringing even more growth.

Now second and third generations are starting their own businesses, boosting the state's economy once again.

Agustin Quiroz works with his parents at their tortilla shop, Tortilleria El Norte, in West Liberty. He's also getting a technical degree in case the business doesn't make it.

But he said he prefers working with family.

"It's a pleasure actually 'cause I'm not working for someone else so it's a lot better," he said.

Fostering Better Relationships

Town leaders in communities with significant Latino populations are quick to point out that they're not bi-cultural utopias. Storm Lake has worked for decades figuring out how to best meet immigrant needs.

Today Prosser continues to work with focus groups, host neighborhood outreaches, and train city staff to understand the needs of immigrants and foster better relationships.

"Has it come with challenges? Absolutely," he said. "Are there issues that we still deal with with our diversity? Everyday. Do the positives outweigh the negatives? By far."

As for the future, Mayor Thomas said communities like West Liberty simply sit on the front edge of a national trend.

"I think 30 to 40 years from now we won't be that unique," he said.

In the meantime, young entrepreneurs like Quiroz and Sosa will work their dreams. Each have plans to expand and build their businesses.

"I just hope it gets better," Sosa said. "Who doesn't want to have their own family flourish?"

On one level it's simply the American dream playing out yet again. But this wave of diversity rolling through the Midwest carries enormous stakes both for the country's economy and a new understanding of what it means to be a melting pot.

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Heather Sells

Heather Sells

CBN News Reporter

Heather Sells enjoys reporting on a variety of issues for CBN News. Some of her recent stories have focused on religious liberties, technology, AIDS, overseas missions, domestic trafficking, and politics.  Follow Heather on Twitter @SellsHeather and "like" her at Facebook.com/HeatherSellsCBNNews.