In the book Denison, Iowa: Searching For the Soul of America Through the Secrets of a Midwestern Town, Dale Maharidge describes how, over the past fifteen years, Mexican immigration to Iowa has changed the small town of Denison (population 7,000) until it’s now somewhere between 30 and 50 percent Latino. Denison is where a boxcar with eleven Mexican immigrants suffocated inside was discovered in 2002.
Maharidge lived in Denison for a year. He depicts a town in which immigration has led to both integration and embrace on the one hand, and discrimination and occasional violence on the other.
Maharidge contrasts the experience of the Mexicans with those of the Germans in Denison during World War I. English-only laws were passed in Iowa to prevent German from being spoken and German-language newspapers were attacked. The citizens of Denison were forced to buy war bonds and to sign loyalty oaths. The threat of the “German menace” was on many, perhaps most, lips.
In 1918, the elite in Denison was British and the working class was largely German. Luis Bravo, one of the leaders of Denison’s Mexican community, describes the very different situation today:
“In Los Angeles, all the people doing lawns, yard work, they are Latino. Here you see the whites doing the garden work. You work with the white people. You make the same wages. You live in the same kind of houses. You have two different colors in the same position.”
“At best, wages would forever be substandard,” Maharidge writes. “Plant employees live a hand-to-mouth existence. A sense of this can be found in the statistics from Denison’s elementary school: 65.2% of the 743 students got reduced-price or free lunches under the federal program for low income families. A majority of these kids were white.”
Tom Hogan, the sheriff of Crawford County (Denison is the county seat), says: “They weren’t coming here. But they ended up here. As I stared into that grain car that day, I thought, there are no borders…we are all the same.”
“It’s real easy to be a racist,” Hogan continued. “They’re racist out of fear. It’s a fear of jobs. They see Hispanics competing with them. They’re not unfounded fears. But they don’t look at the real threat. They don’t see corporate greed being the reason.”
Maharidge responds: “All this sounded very left wing to a New York and California ear. But I learned Tom is conservative in many ways. He wasn’t talking this way as a liberal. Tom is deeply religious, a member of Zion Lutheran Church, and he came to these conclusions based on his abiding Christian beliefs.”
While Hogan emphasized the very real racism that is present in Denison, Maharidge’s book actually paints a different picture, one in which the racism is countered by growing acceptance, sometimes even love. It can be as simple as seventeen employees of the Hy-Vee Supermarket signing up for Spanish lessons. Or the way the entire town polarized when Luis Bravo was denied a city construction contract for which he was the low bidder. This led to a bitter struggle and ultimately Bravo got the contract.
While the Mexicans in Denison were often criticized for not wanting to learn the language, the reality was that many of them, after working overtime shifts in a meatpacking plant, went to take English language classes at night. Their unpaid teacher, Georgia Hoffer, said: “I like this class so much. Thank you—one thousand thank yous. It is an honor to help you, to work teaching you English. I am so glad you are in the United States… You are our future—the future of Denison, Iowa.”