New Iowans: Latinos

What Does "Latino" Mean?

"Latino" is a term used in the United States for people who were born in Central or South America or who are descendants of people born in those regions. Latino immigrants come from many countries including Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Puerto Rico, Peru, Argentina, Colombia, Brazil and Venezuela. Although they share a similar language, typically Spanish or Portuguese, Latino immigrants have many different cultural backgrounds and personal experiences. Newcomers include manual workers and college educated professionals, urban residents and farmers, men, women and children, the very young and the elderly.

In 1910 there were only 590 Latino immigrants in the entire state of Iowa. By 1920 this number had increased to more than 2,500. Mostly from Mexico, these immigrants worked as farm laborers and others worked in railroad yards, particularly in West Des Moines.

By 2000 Latino immigration increased dramatically throughout the rural Midwest. In the 1990s the Latino population grew by 153 percent to 83,000. By 2000 Latinos became the state’s largest minority group, representing nearly two percent of the Iowa population.


Almost three-fourths of new Latino immigrants come from Mexico, and most of these come from a few states located in west central Mexico. Extremely low wages, poor working conditions and lack of economic opportunities in Mexico are all reasons Mexicans migrate to the United States. Mexican immigration to the United States has occurred for several generations, but the permanent settling of Mexican immigrants in Iowa is a recent phenomenon. The expansion of meatpacking facilities all over Iowa since the late 1980s has attracted Mexican immigrant wage laborers. In 2000, 70 percent of the production workers at the Swift and Company plant in Marshalltown were Latinos.

Although many immigrants who work in meatpacking facilities are poor, working class individuals, Mexican production workers at the IBP plant near Sioux City included a veterinarian, a lawyer and a university professor in 2003. These highly skilled individuals and many others like them cannot work in their own professions because they lack an expertise in English, they must acquire additional training or education in the United States, or in some cases they arrived without the proper immigration or refugee documentation.

The relationship between these immigrants and their hometowns in Mexico remains strong, especially among first generation newcomers. Direct phone communication, the availability of Spanish language media and the proximity of Mexico to the United States means that immigrants are often in daily contact with family, friends and neighbors back home. Annual trips back and forth across the border are not uncommon. Latino newcomers in Iowa often provide crucial financial assistance to their families, communities and churches back in Mexico.

Central America

Some Latino newcomers are political refugees who fled from Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador during the revolutionary conflicts that occurred in these countries from the late 1970s through the early 1990s. The largest group of refugees is from Guatemala, and many of them live in the Sioux City area.

Southwestern United States

In some cases Iowa’s Latino newcomers were born and raised in Texas or California, or lived in these states for many years before they moved to Iowa to find work and a more tranquil life. In contrast to places like Los Angeles, Iowa towns are perceived to offer greater security and provide a healthier environment for families. Language barriers, the cold weather and a completely different social and cultural situation make adjustments difficult even for Latinos born in the United States.

Celebrating Latino Heritage

Nearly half of Iowa’s Hispanic residents live in Polk, Woodbury and Scott Counties, although smaller communities exist across the state. Various celebrations of Mexican heritage are part of the yearly calendar in Iowa today. Cinco de Mayo celebrations are held in Sioux City, Des Moines and Iowa City.


  • Grey Ph.D, Mark A., Woodrick, Ph.D., Anne C., Yehieli, D.P.H., Michele, Hoelscher, James. The New Iowans, A Companion Book to the PBS Miniseries “The New Americans”, Iowa Center for Immigrant Leadership and Integration, University of Northern Iowa (2003).