Hispanic History

The lives of Latinos living in Iowa in the 1920s are featured. Originally aired in 2002.


Hispanic History
The incredible surge in Spanish speaking immigrants to our state is getting a lot of attention these days, but what many Iowans don't realize is that there were whole communities of Mexican railroad and factory workers in the Quad Cities area as far back as the early 1900s. Our colleague, Lorenzo Sandoval, traveled to eastern Iowa to hear some former residents of those neighborhoods reminisce.

Lorenzo: In Bettendorf, in that one-mile stretch of Mississippi River shoreline, there was once a little community known as Holy City. Its early residents were Mexican workers who had been recruited by the Bettendorf Company to work in its foundry. These workers and their families had escaped the chaos and terror of the Mexican revolution of the early 1900s to replace the American workers who'd gone off to fight in World War I.

Pete: In those days if you went into a town with a lot of smoke, you knew there was going to be a job.

Lorenzo: Pete's father and uncle followed the trail of smoke that led to the Quad City area and later returned to their home in Mexico to recruit more workers for the labor-starved foundries of the Bettendorf Company. Next to the giant smokestacks along the railroad tracks company owners, the Bettendorfs, created a rent-free area for their workers--with small cottages, apartments, and boxcars.

Ernest: I was born in a boxcar. There was no electricity. We used kerosene lamps. For heat we used a coal burning stove. In the wintertime it got really cold and everybody huddled around that stove in one room.

Lorenzo: Windows in the boxcars were cutouts with cardboard for glass. A communal water pump and several outhouses served as bathroom facilities. Explanations for the name "Holy City" include the area was blessed by a priest, there were many men named Jesus and...

Ganzo: On account of the road being so rough all the time--potholes here, potholes there.

Lorenzo: Winters were extremely rough for these former Southerners. To stoke their stoves, kids scavenged coal that fell or was knocked off passing railcars.

Ganzo: when the cop caught us stealing coal, he took my wheelbarrow. He didn't take the coal, he just took my wheelbarrow.

Lorenzo: Despite many hardships, the children of Holy City remember a time of community spirit and close friendships.

Pete: We were the richest kids in the world because the family was together. My dad would teach us Spanish one night, and then next night it was music.

Lorenzo: Manuel, Pete's father, taught the whole neighborhood to play instruments. Pete said that a church made from two boxcars located just across the river was originally his father's rehearsal hall. Concerts in the park were a welcome diversion from the work of everyday life.

Pete: Everybody had a garden. For me it was chickens. There were some that had goats for milk.

Ernest: My dad raised goats. The nanny goat he traded for a Model-T. I remember my older brothers was teaching him how to drive, but he ran it into a cornfield. My dad was very short, and he couldn't hardly see above the windshield.

Anthony: They always said that the reason my wife married me was because I lived in the suburbs in the cottages. You know, we didn't have much as a kid growing up there. We say we had country club style living. We could go swimming down the river anytime we wanted to.

Lorenzo: On the west end of Davenport, between the tracks and the river, was another small Mexican community called Cook's Point, which was the only address necessary to get your mail. Like Holy City, Cook's Point families lived without electricity and indoor plumbing.

Henry: Those that lived on the shore side, they had houseboats. And the only time they had trouble was when the water would come up, because it wasn't a very worthy houseboat.

Lorenzo: At the annual Cook's Point reunion, many original residents, like Juanita Ramirez and her daughter Pauline, searched for friends and relatives in the early photographs. Pauline actually seems a bit proud of the fact that she was born in a boxcar.

Pauline: I loved it. I loved Cook's Point.

Lorenzo: Whatho was enjoyable about it for you?

Pauline: Well, everybody knew everybody. You never had to lock your doors. On Sundays the young boys would play ball, and everybody could go out there and watch them.

Lorenzo: Sam Vasquez was the bat boy for the Mexican Aces baseball team.

Sam: They won the city championship. Somehow or other, somebody was looking out for them poor little Mexican kids.

Lorenzo: Several of the most senior former residents of Cook's Point were honored at the reunion, including 89-year-old Fannie Lopez, who raised 12 children. There was a clear division of labor between these Mexican-American men and women during the 1920s, '30s and '40s. Men worked in the factories or for the railroad, and wives like Fannie worked at home, cooking, cleaning, and taking care of the children.

Fannie: It was just a thing that had to be done. It never bothered me. My children kept me home. They didn't give me no time to think about anything.

Lorenzo: Are you happy to see a lot of the people here though?

Fannie: Oh, yes. I'm always glad to see my friends. Ganzo, we went to the same school. He was a bad boy, always pulling my braids in school.

Lorenzo: This is my mom and dad, Lorenzo Sandoval, Beatriz Sandoval. Mom, tell us a little bit about what papa used to say about life in Holy City.

Beatriz: My dad used to tell us that he enjoyed a lot seeing my mom play the piano. And he sits by the window trying to read a paper, at the same time looking outside to see who was listening to my mom playing the piano.

Lorenzo, Sr.: I knew that I was born in a boxcar, but I didn't know that they were numbered on my certificate and it was number 29.

Lorenzo: Stories of a simpler life in another era surfaced at the reunion.

Henry: If you wanted to see a girl, the best chance was seeing her at school or maybe at church. And if you really wanted to take her out, you'd sneak out with her. "Are you going to the show?" "Yeah." "Well, take your little brother or your little sister with you."

Lorenzo: At the reunion, stories of life eventually led to stories about death. Wakes for the deceased lasted several days and were held in the homes.

Sam: And then the men would go out in the front of the house and they'd have their little whiskey bottle and they'd pass that around, you know. On the inside, why, the women and children, I guess, would have hot chocolate.

Lorenzo: The catholic religion has always been very important to Holy City and Cook's Point families. And in keeping with that tradition, Mass was held at the reunion.

Rita: If there was a baptism, whoever was the godparent threw these little pennies on the floor after the baptism. Oh, we kids would just rush on the floor and try to grab as many as we could. We thought, "Oh, so and so is going to have a baptism. Mom, are you going to go?"

Lorenzo: Rita Quijas Navarro said that it was her mother's strong faith that got them through the worst of times.

Rita: It was very, very, very hard. My father lived there a very short time with us, and he returned to Mexico. He never came back. So he left my mother with six kids, and she raised all of us. Just poor, poor, poor.

Lorenzo: Rita's sad story reminds us that not everyone remembers Cook's Point fondly. Sam Vasquez sums it up for most.

Sam: Poor as we were and poor as most of the neighborhood was, we still enjoyed life.

Lorenzo: You've heard stories about people who were born here, who lived here, and who hated to leave Cook's Point in 1952 when their homes were demolished. In spite of the demise of this and other cherished barrios, their vibrance and color still live on in the memories of their former residents.

Living in Iowa

Iowa PBS, 2007


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