Notes from West Liberty, Iowa

July 8, 2011

(View an in-depth look at scenes from Iowa and New Hampshire in a downloadable pdf format here and a look ahead to the primaries here)

#1

West Liberty is Iowa’s first Hispanic-majority city. Fifty-two percent of the people in this town of about 3,700 are Hispanic, according to the latest U.S. Census. It’s a number that would be impressive in any state. But it’s especially noteworthy in Iowa, an overwhelmingly white corner of the America Heartland where just 5 percent of the population statewide is Hispanic.

The town, located between Davenport and Iowa City, has long had a sizable and growing Hispanic population. The reason? The major employer here is West Liberty Foods, a 260,000-square-foot food processing plant that employs about 850 workers.

The big product the plant cranks out is turkey. Each year, about 5 million live birds go in end of the West Liberty Foods plant and come out the other as about 200 million pounds of processed turkey product of one kind or another, some of it actually recognizable.

Slaughtering, gutting, dismembering, processing and packing the big birds is dirty, difficult and dangerous work. The lines where the workers slice, saw, claw and carve the turkeys move at a fast clip. Fifty-one birds are killed every minute, according to plant manager Tom Alberti, meaning 51 birds a minute move down the line.

The pace rarely slows. The work is repetitive. The pay is not all that great.

So, not surprisingly, it’s not work that most native-born Americans are willing to do. So for years, the company has relied on immigrants, especially Mexicans, to put turkey – that most American bird, according to Ben Franklin – on our national table. A random name check of workers on the factory floor on a recent Thursday morning found a Vanesa Zapeda, a Damien Morales, a David Hernandez, a Gonzalez Cruz, a Concepcion Guzman, an Alma Alvarado and a Juan Martinez.

Over the years, the Hispanic population of West Liberty has risen steadily. And while the hard work translates into high employee turnover, many of the immigrants, like Miguel and Maria Rivas, make it a lifelong career and stay.

The Rivases have worked at the plant for four decades now. Every afternoon, when their shifts end, they drive home to the little five-acre farm near Atalissa, Iowa they bought with their plant wages, where they grow corn and chilies in a setting the artist — and Iowa native — Grant Wood would have recognized and painted and called … “Hispanic-American Gothic.”

#2

Jose Zacarias came to West Liberty, Iowa in the early 1980s to work in the town’s packing plant. He spoke no English. After 10 years processing food, and mastering English, he quit and moved on. Today, he’s a middle manager at a plant in Iowa City, about 20 miles west of town. But he comes home every night to the farmhouse he owns on two acres on the edge of West Liberty. He’s happiest here, he says, and has no plans to live anywhere else.

“My experience is that this is a wonderful state,” he said.

“When I came in 1984, I was practically deaf and mute because I couldn’t speak, I couldn’t understand. But I got the tools, in this case, English. My neighbors – and the whole town – are extremely friendly. There are, of course, some culture clashes. People going by with the music – boom, boom, boom, boom, boom – and driving very fast. But overall, it’s a wonderful state for immigrants, for families.

“My family asks me how I can put up with five months of terrible winter. I tell them, it’s the price to pay for a beautiful summer. It’s a wonderful place. This house has never been locked since I bought it 20 years ago. We don’t have a key. And we leave our cars out there with the keys in them. Good neighborhood. Good friends.

“There are a lot of people who moved from Iowa City or the surrounding areas to this town because of the diversity, because the school system has a bilingual program. My neighbor, Jack, is seven. He’s a blond-haired, blue-eyed kid, and he and I can have a conversation in Spanish.”

#3

Darel Sterner was born in Muscatine County, Iowa 80 years ago. He grew up in Atalissa, married a girl from a nearby farm and then settled down and raised a family with her in West Liberty, where he went to work as a barber.

For more than 40 years, Sterner cut hair on the corner of Third and Spencer in downtown West Liberty, just a few blocks from the food plant that became the city’s largest employer. And when he finally shut his downtown shop in 1995, he moved his equipment into the basement of his home a few blocks away and just kept cutting.

“I was going to retire but 16 years later I’m still working four days a week,” he said. “I don’t know what I’d do if I quit.”

His wife, Donna, was cool at first to the idea of the basement barbershop, fearing he’d be underfoot all the time. But she quickly seized on a solution. “I close the door upstairs every now and then and just don’t let him out,” she said.

West Liberty has changed a lot during Sterner’s lifetime. Today, the town of about 3,700 is Iowa’s only majority Hispanic city, according to the U.S. Census. That’s just fine with him. “I cut hair for some of them,” he said. “They’re good customers.”

Sterner won’t take appointments. Period. Here’s why. “If somebody comes in and you’re not busy,” he said, “but you make him wait because you got a guy with an appointment coming in five minutes, he’s mad. “But if you go ahead start him, and the guy with the appointment comes in, then he’s half mad. So I just take them as they come.”

#4

Dirt track racing remains a popular summer spectator sport in many parts of rural America. At West Liberty Raceway in West Liberty, Iowa, the season runs from April to September.

It’s loud. It’s smelly. And everybody comes away covered head to toe with a thin film of grime.

Larry Miller, 51, maintains the half-mile track at West Liberty Raceway and helps manage traffic in the chaotic infield during the weekly races. It’s a part-time job he’s performed on weekends for 11 years now, one that supplements the income he earns at his day job, maintaining a small network of video games at two dozen bars in Iowa City, Cedar Rapids and the smaller towns in between.

“I get 40 to 45 hours in doing that during the week,” he said. “But it’s one of those schedules where you don’t have to be at a certain spot at a certain time. As long as I get in and collect the money and maintain the machines sometime during the week, the boss is happy. It’s just the two of us.”

The economic downturn of 2007 took a big bite out of both businesses, Miller said. And two years into the recovery, neither one has really bounced back completely.

Back before the recession, the weekly races in West Liberty would draw 1,200 spectators on an average night and “on a good night, 1,500. Now it’s down to 400, 500 people most nights,” Miller said.

“But you know even in my real job, the amusement side of stuff, we’ve seen the decline. People save their money to go to the bar and drink. But they don’t play the games like they used to… The bar owners, they’re hurting, too. They’ll tell me, ‘It’s been a down week this week, Larry. There’s not going to be much in there.’”

Miller estimates he drives about 500 miles a week servicing the games, a route that has become more expensive to run as gasoline prices have spiked in recent months.

“I’m spending quite a bit more on gas,” he said. “Yup, that’s for sure.”

#5

Arturo Ortiz, who owns La Paz Market, a combination restaurant and Mexican grocery store on the main strip in West Liberty, Iowa voted for President Barack Obama in 2008 and expects he’ll “probably vote for him again” next year despite Obama’s failure to deliver comprehensive immigration reform – a hot issue in town.

Jose Zacarias agrees. In 2008, Hispanics in West Liberty were enthusiastic backers of Obama and his victory in Iowa over Hillary Clinton in the state’s caucuses was critical in allowing him to win other battleground states and to go on and capture the Democratic nomination for president.

Zacarias acknowledges that Obama confronted a number of crises during his first term that made tackling immigration reform difficult. “Two wars, the economy crashing, dealing with Wall Street, reforming healthcare,” he said. “He had a lot fires to put out.”

But the takeover of the U.S. House of Representatives in last year’s midterm elections have made immigration reform unlikely any time soon and makes him wonder if it will ever come.

In 2008, Zacarias was an enthusiastic supporter of Obama, hosting parties in downtown West Liberty to build support among Hispanic voters. Obama’s subsequent track record has dimmed some of his enthusiasm – but won’t stop Zacarias from supporting Obama again in 2012 and urging other local Hispanics to follow suit.

“The passion that was there is not there now,” he said. “But I also know that in a two-party system, our choices are very limited. The way we say it in Spanish is, ‘Out of two evils, the lesser evil.’ No, I’m not as enthusiastic as before. But yes, I will campaign and work with the Obama campaign because the Republicans have moved way, way, way to the right.”

Ortiz expresses frustration with people in the United States who criticize the Mexicans who have moved to this country to work and improve their lives and the lives of their families.

“The people who come here just want to make money,” he said. “They pay taxes, They’re not criminals. We file our taxes, too.”

#6

Donny Daufeldt and his three sons run a big turkey growing operation on the outskirts of West Liberty, Iowa.

The 65-year-old says he raises 200,000 turkeys each year, which he feeds with corn he grows on the 1,000 acres he farms around his turkey sheds. But as many as 15 percent of the birds die during the four months they’re confined to the massive sheds where they live their short lives before heading to the slaughterhouse — – some of the structures are nearly the length of three U.S. football fields.

“Humidity gets them as bad as heat,” Daufeldt said as he showed visitors one of the sheds, which was cooled by big fans and an indoor sprinkler system and gave the 19,000 immature turkeys inside what looked like plenty of room to trot.

“That’s the hardest part,” Daufeldt said. “You can have a flock that you don’t do a damned thing to and they go though that system and beat the average weight by two or three pounds. The next flock comes through and a bunch just say, ‘I think I’ll just sit here and croak today because I don’t feel like working that hard’ or I don’t know what it is. It tears you apart trying to figure it out. Genetics is a lot of it.

“Mortality’s a big thing. If you don’t like mortality, this business is not for you. It’s every day out here, whether you want to admit it or not. You will never be able to walk through this flock, no matter what time of day, and not pick up a dead bird.”

Daufeldt composts some of the dead birds. But he also has an incinerator he uses to dispose of younger, smaller birds that succumb before they make it to the slaughterhouse.

He got into the turkey business in the late 1980s, after working for the local electric company. He was sold on the idea by a fellow church member, who came by his house with the proposal one Saturday morning and made a two-hour pitch.

“I looked at it and I looked at it and I looked it all over and I just thought I’d done a great job of looking at it,” he said. “And I told the wife after he left, ‘You know, this might be my one chance to get out of the job, go into what to what we call farming’ – never understanding how big this project really was.

“When I finally made the deal, it was about two hours later, I was looking at the thing and I thought, ‘That’s not right. Those can’t be 800-foot sheds. Those are only 80-foot sheds. I called him up on the phone and I said, ‘Tim, I think you got a mistake here. It says 800-foot sheds,’ I said, ‘they’re only 80-foot sheds, aren’t they?’ And he said, ‘No. They’re 800-foot sheds.’ And I thought, ‘Holy s***.’”

#7

Carlos Rich, 33, works for Center for New Community, a Chicago-based immigration rights group. He’s based in Iowa, where he spends some of his time in the small town of West Liberty, working with immigrants employed at the turkey processing plant here.

The 850 workers on the plant’s payroll are not represented by a union – and Rich’s work is not designed to change that. Two efforts in recent years by the United Food and Commercial Workers union to organize the workers here under the UFCW banner were rejected by the workers. Rich, who was born in Guatemala but adopted at the age of 11 by a Kansas couple, works instead on a CNC project designed to improve the health of immigrant workers in the Midwest.

In West Liberty, that means teaching the unrepresented workers at West Liberty Foods how to engage their employer in a non-confrontational dialogue about health and safety issues at the meat-packing plant.

It’s not easy to get the workers to speak up. “If you’re an immigrant, and you complain, you’re often told, ‘There are a lot of other immigrants who need a job and we can get them in the door,” he said.

“That attitude inhibits workers from speaking up about ways that the line they’re working on can be improved in a way that might also improve their health.”

He says CNC has been successful, however, in getting some workers to begin these hard conversations with management in informal, non-adversarial meetings outside the workplace. CNC has also had representatives from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration do workshops with food workers to make sure they know their rights under the law.

The sessions give the immigrant workers added confidence that they can speak up about core health and environmental safety issues and be protected from retaliation.

“They learn from OSHA is that nobody should die or get hurt doing their job anywhere,” he said. “You have these rights. You don’t have to suffer as a worker.

“So then they feel they can tell the company, ‘We know it’s important for you to get these products. It’s important to us that we have our jobs. Why don’t we create a win-win situation where you have safe workers who are producing food?’ Companies become winners when workers are winners.”

In the four years he’s worked for CNC, Rich has never been inside the plant in West Liberty or in any of the other Iowa packing plants he covers, including a Tyson plant in Columbus Junction, where he lives.

“They know me,” he said. “I don’t know what they think about me. I don’t think I’m doing anything to harm them. I’m actually kind of doing their job for them.”

#8

West Liberty, Iowa has had a large and growing Hispanic population for decades now thanks to the immigrants – largely from Mexico – who have trekked to this remote town to work in its turkey processing plant. In 2010, Hispanics officially became the town’s majority, according to the U.S. Census, accounting for 52 percent of its 3,700 residents.

There are some whites here, of course, who will still grumble openly about the demographic changes that have transformed the town. And the attractive new subdivision that has popped up on the outskirts of West Liberty near the country club suggests some more affluent residents want to get away from the increasingly ethnic city center.

But overall , the rise of a Hispanic majority here seems not to have triggered the alarm that similar changes in other parts of the United States, like Arizona, has caused. “The community itself, the camaraderie between Anglos and Hispanics, is great,” said Oscar Garcia, 57, a former corrections officer in nearby Muscatine who now works with autistic children in West Liberty.

One measure of West Liberty’s acceptance of demographic changes is provided by the popularity of the  Dual Language Program in its public schools, which is offered from pre-kindergarten through the 12th grade. Students enrolled in the voluntary program, now in its 13th year, are taught in English half of every school day and in Spanish the other half.

The point of the program, according to administrators, is to make students bilingual, bi-literate and bicultural — and to make West Liberty a place where cultural assimilation is a two-way street and where immigrants feel valued, welcomed and understood.

(For a detailed overview of the program, check out this video produced by West Liberty: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UeuvFpQrqhM)

The program was the first of its kind in Iowa, though it has since been replicated in other towns in the state, including Sioux City. And it’s a competitive program. Students who don’t start it in kindergarten have to test in if they want to join later – proving a proficiency in their non-native language that gets harder and harder as the kids get older. So parents anxiously put their kids’ on the pre-kindergarten waiting list and cross their fingers — just like parents in New York do for that city’s most elite preschools.

In recent years, even as school budgets have come under pressure, West Liberty’s Dual Language Program has remained fully funded.

Just as remarkable, the program has encouraged a small influx of young, non-Hispanic families back into West Liberty, families led by parents like Richard Heath, 41, and Linley Heath, 36, who believe that fluency in more than one language can open opportunities for their three sons.

 

Five years ago, the Heaths, who were living in Iowa City, bought a house on Third Street in West Liberty and moved here just so that Carson, now 10, and Reynolds, now 7, could enroll in the program. Their friends thought they were nuts. But they have no regrets and say that when Wesley, now 2, is old enough for pre-kindergarten, they plan to put him in the Dual Language Program, too.

“When we first moved here, and I was waiting for Carson to get out of one of his classes,” Linley said, “a grandmother came up to me, asked me if I was new to town, and told me, ‘You know, what you’ve got to look for here is blah, blah, blah, blah, blah’ — you know, the Hispanic population.

“And I told her, ‘Well, you know actually that’s why we moved here.’ It was neat to turn and see her look at me and think, ‘Oh, really?’”

#9

Miguel and Maria Rivas live on a five-acre ranch outside West Liberty, Iowa. It is the latest in a series of properties the naturalized citizens have purchased in their adopted country. The pride they feel in it is obvious — and justified. It’s quite the spread.

The Rivases, both 69, have lived together in the United States for 47 years now and have worked inside the food processing plant in downtown West Liberty for nearly all them. When they started at the plant, which today slaughters about 5 million turkeys a year, they each made about $1.90 an hour.

They’re reluctant to say how much they make now, after more than 40 years on the job. But their daughters, Mari Pearson,  and Lorena Gingerich, are less circumspect. They say their dad earns $13 an hour today and that their mom makes $11.40 an hour.

Miguel and Maria both get health benefits through work. But Lorena says her parents don’t understand why they often still have to pay for healthcare. She said she doesn’t think West Liberty Foods does an adequate job explaining the benefits to the many workers, like her parents, with limited English skills.

Miguel and Maria became U.S. citizens in 1977. They also used their earnings from the plant to buy a house in West Liberty. They eventually paid it off and bought a rental property, which they fixed up themselves after their shifts ended at the plant.

With the money from the rental, they bought more rentals. Eventually, they purchased the ranch they live on now, outside Atalissa, Iowa, where they grow chilies and corn, among other things. “We’re very proud of what we’ve done.” Maria said.

She will celebrate her 41st year at the plant next month. She says she loves the camaraderie there and has no plans to retire. “As long as God let’s me work,” she said, “I’ll stay there.”

But more than 40 years in a slaughterhouse has taken its toll. Maria, her kids say, is mostly vegetarian now. And she doesn’t eat turkey. Mari, who also worked at the plant years for awhile, isn’t surprised.

“I remember when we were little, they would come home and we wouldn’t want to kiss them because of the smell,” said Mari.

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A future Yuma, Modesto, Visalia,… with so much opportunity that they have the highest unemployment rates in the country.

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