Viva Columbus Junction

Teenagers and educators from Columbus Junction, Iowa, who are committed to helping Hispanic immigrants adapt to life in Iowa, are featured. This program aired in 2004.


Hello, I'm Morgan Halgren. Thanks for joining us for another edition of Living in Iowa.

Morgan: The town of Columbus Junction is quite familiar with the challenges of helping non-English speakers become part of a community. Last year the number of Hispanic students in its small school district surpassed the number of Anglo students. But thanks in part to a dedicated group of educators, many Latino students in Columbus Junction are making a successful transition to their newfound home.

As you enter the city limits of Columbus Junction, it looks likes typical small-town Iowa. But as you turn onto Main Street, it looks more like small-town Mexico. Columbus Junction is a unique community, where the Hispanic population makes up nearly 40 percent of its 2,000 residents. Nearly all of the Hispanic families moved here from either Mexico and Central America or Texas and California to take jobs at Tyson's Louisa County pork plant. Tyson acquired the former IBP plant in 2001 and now employs 1,300 people from the area, making it the county's largest employer. Approximately 75 percent of the workers are Hispanic and typically earn between $9 and $12 an hour. As a result, Latinos now make up the majority population in the Columbus Junction school district. Araceli Vasquez and Maria Gomez are a couple of high school students whose families moved here from neighboring states in Mexico. Araceli came from Josefino de Allende, Jalisco, two and a half years ago. And Maria moved from Juventino Rosas in the state of Guanajuato just 18 months ago. When they arrived in Columbus Junction after making the 2,000-mile journey, they spoke almost no English and were faced with the challenge of adapting to school in a new country with new rules and a new language.

Araceli: When you move, you have to start again. You have to start at zero. And sometimes it's really difficult because you have, like, another opinion or you have your beliefs, your values, your religion. You know, you have everything—your language—the language is the most difficult thing.

Maria: I wanted to study here in the United States. Sometimes you have more opportunities here to go to your study. And so that was kind of the decision that I was…okay, let's do it. But it was horrible because I have my little sisters. And they love me. And I love them, so it was so hard to leave them in Mexico.

Morgan: Araceli and Maria are on the honor roll, members of the national honor society, and participate in several extracurricular activities. They are on target to be the first members of their families to graduate from high school.

Araceli: My schedule is: I have to wake, like, 5:45 in the morning to get ready to come to practice—track practice, because i'm in track. So we have to run in the morning. And then we have to take a shower and dress and get ready to come to school. I'm in soccer so I have to get ready to go to practice. And we go to practice. And then after practice I have to go to work in La Reyna Mexican restaurant. Then when I finish the work, I have to go home and do my homework, take a shower, and talk on the phone and sleep. And another day is the same thing.

Morgan: The girls are motivated to succeed in school, but they also acknowledge the help of many educators and people in the community who have helped them learn to speak English. Kelly Moen is a first-year teacher and in charge of the secondary ESL, or English as a Second Language, program.

Kelly: Students that I work with are either brand new to the country, and so they don't speak any English, or they've been here for a couple of years and they're still developing their language skills. Some other ESL strategies that I use are a lot of drawing. I like to do drawing because I find that the students, they just love to draw. That's not uncommon for any type of kid, I'm sure. But I think for English as a Second Language students especially, it's a really good medium for them to express themselves because it's universal.

Morgan: To be a certified ESL instructor, it is not necessary to be fluent in another language. While Kelly is learning to speak Spanish—
Kelly: My Spanish is getting better. It's not where I would like it to be.

Morgan: She relies heavily on her two bilingual teaching assistants, Socci Moncivais and Ruben Zuniga, to work with new non-English speaking students.

Ruben: I'm here at school by 8:00. I leave at 3:25 from here, and I get to Iowa City about 4:30. By 5:00 I start my job in the O.R.S., in operating rooms. And I get home about 2:15, 2:30 in the morning. And I still have to watch a little bit of TV and kind of wind down. By the time I get to bed, it's 3:30 or 4:00. And I'm up by 7:00, 7:15 again every day. I've been doing two full-time jobs since '97. And my wife keeps telling me it's time to quit one job. And I just can't, because I love my job here with the kids. And I love my job in the operating rooms.

Morgan: Senior high principal, John Lawrence, acknowledges the unique educational challenges presented by the predominately Hispanic student population.

John: This is the first year that district-wide there are more Latino students than Anglo students. So you know, technically the Aglo students now are the minority student in the district. Things that you never think about coming here—then you see the Latino population. First was just the language barrier, dealing with parents. They come in and having to speak Spanish. As you're sitting in a parent meeting with a student and a parent, you have to talk so long, let the interpreter—the translator do their work and then listen for the response. One of the things I learned is that while you're doing that, it's so easy to talk to…like if Ruben is translating, it's easy to talk to Rubin and not talk to the parent. And that's insulting to the parent—you would want the principal to talk directly to you—and to learn that.

Morgan: In 2002 the Iowa English Language Reaffirmation Act established English as the official language of all state government proceedings and documents.

Rich: As far as people wanting Iowa to have an official language, I'm surely bothered by that. I think that by doing that, we send a strong message that Iowa is unwelcoming to people of diversity. The people who do not speak English in this community know clearly what language is the language that you need to know to get ahead.

Morgan: Last year the Columbus Junction school district was recognized as an outstanding educational organization at the Latino/Latina Leadership Awards Conference for its efforts to embrace and reach out to its Latino community.

Rich: I think Columbus Junction would be a nice example of some community that was beginning to have an influx of a different culture, beginning to have diversity, to come and see what kind of scaffolding is needed in a community so that the people can have success. We've learned that working together and trying to understand each other better, trying to find the strengths, that we can have a better, stronger community.

Morgan: As the Latino population continues to increase in Iowa, more communities like Columbus Junction are likely to emerge.

Kelly: Communities like Columbus Junction I think are unique in Iowa, but I think they're becoming more and more common. And I think it's wonderful, because especially in northern Iowa where I'm from…I don't want to speak for everyone, but where I'm from, we are not a largely diverse community. And coming here to a community like Columbus, it's very different. But I think it's so great because it's a treasure.

Morgan: As for Araceli and Maria, their plans for the future include college and eventually entering professions where they can help other immigrants find their way in their new home and learn to speak their new language.

Araceli: First I want to finish high school with the best grades. And then I want to go to UNI, University of Northern Iowa, which is located in Cedar Falls. And I plan to one day be a social worker. And I want to get my double major, my major in psychology and my minor in Spanish. And then I want to get my doctorate degree.

Maria: I want to keep studying. And my plans are to go to college and to do something good with my life, to be somebody who is going to be able to help other people. That's like my dream since I was a girl five years old.

Living in Iowa