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Ames, Iowa, home to Iowa State University, a land-grant institution, is an unlikely place to begin the history of Latinos in Iowa. Perhaps this could be said about Iowa in general. Nonetheless, Ames is the home to two remarkable representations of Latino history that illustrate the migration of Latino culture and people to the state of Iowa. The first, located in the main post office in Ames, is a 18′ x 6′ oil on canvas mural titled Evolution of Corn, by Lowell Houser, a student of Grant Wood’s who painted the mural in the 1930s. Maize (corn) originated in Mexico 9,000 years ago, became a main staple for almost all indigenous groups, and had profound religious significance. It did not reach the region of Iowa until late in the first millennium C.E. The mural by Houser prominently depicts a Mayan Indian harvesting corn; and in the foreground is the Mayan corn god holding the hieroglyph for corn in its hand. Although it was not his intent, Houser in depicting the migration, legacy, and importance of corn to Iowa may have been the first to illustrate the history of Latinos in that state with his representation of Mayan history and their contributions to the development of agriculture, while simultaneously depicting the indigenous roots of Latinos. What is not well known is that some of the descendants of the Mayans, the Mexicans, made a similar migration north, albeit thousands of years later.1

The second representation is located in the heart of the Iowa State University (ISU) campus. Just off the central mall area is a totem-like fiberglass and urethane statue standing approximately ten feet. This statue depicts a Latino man carrying his wife on his shoulders, and carefully bundled within the wife’s rebozo (shawl) is an infant. At the base of the image is an inscription that partially reads Border Crossing: Cruzando el Rio Bravo (Border Crossing: Crossing the Rio Bravo; the Mexican name for the Rio Grande is actually Rio Bravo del Norte). Originally, Luis Jimenez created this spectacular artwork in 1989 to honor the millions of Latinos who immigrated to the United States, including his father and grandmother, who came undocumented in 1924. Iowa State University invited Jimenez to campus in March 1999 to celebrate the resiliency of his family. What began as a temporary public art installation became a permanent fixture when the university reached an agreement to purchase the sculpture in 2000. The dedication and purchase of this art coincided with the establishment of the Latino Studies Program at Iowa State University and the release of census data indicating that the Latino population in Iowa had grown extensively. The objective of this entry is to illustrate the permanent presence since the mid-nineteenth century of Latinos in Iowa and their contributions to the development of the state.


In the contemporary period Latinos represent the largest minority group in the nation. The origins of Latinos can be traced throughout the world, but the majority is from Mexico, Central America, South America, the Caribbean, and southern Europe. The release of the 2000 U.S. census revealed a Latino population growing substantially and reaching beyond the traditional zone of the American Southwest. Nationally, between 1990 and 2000 the Latino population grew an astonishing 54 percent. Although the Latino diaspora is now more diverse than it was in the past, Latinos of Mexican origin remain the largest group. And during those same years Latinos of Mexican descent recorded the highest population increase among Latinos, at 52.9 percent, or from 13.5 million to 20.6 million. Nonetheless, nationwide other Latino groups experienced a significant increase in their populations, especially those from Central America.

The 2006 U.S. census update revealed continued growth with an overall Latino population approaching 45 million. Although Mexicans remain demographically dominant, representing over 64 percent of all Latinos, immigration from El Salvador, Guatemala, Colombia, and Dominican Republic have statistically shown dramatic growth. Puerto Ricans (3,985,058) and Cubans (1,517,028) remain the second- and third-largest Latino groups in the United States. The current state population of Iowa is approximately 2,982,085, and it is 93 percent white (U.S. Census Bureau). Overall, Iowa is ethnically one of the least diverse states in the nation, has one of the slowest growth patterns, and has consistently lost people to other regions for the past three decades. One exception has been the growth of the Latino population.

Brief Background

The region that is now Iowa was quite diverse in the past. Iowa was inhabited by indigenous tribes including the Ioways, Sauks, Meskwakis, Sioux, Potawatomis, Otos, and Missouris long before the arrival of Europeans. Some sources indicate that the first Whites to travel in 1673 in what eventually became Iowa were French explorers. A critical mass of white settlers would not arrive until the Federal Government purchased, conquered, or appropriated by treaty land that belonged to the local Indians. Having been previously claimed by the French and the Spanish, Iowa was acquired through the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. Officially, 1833 is considered the year in which the first white settlers arrived in Iowa. And in 1838 the U.S. Congress created the Iowa Territory.

By the 1840s the last remaining Indians were removed from their ancestral lands, allowing for the arrival of additional white settlers. Without Indians and with a critical mass of European Americans, the Iowa Territory petitioned for statehood, receiving it in 1846. The state of Iowa became a receiving state for large numbers of European migrants who arrived in the second half of the nineteenth century. This first wave of European migrants was mainly composed of English and German nationals; the second wave, in the early twentieth century, included Swedes, Danes, Dutch, and Italians. The African

American population also began to arrive in Iowa in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, primarily to work in the coal mines.

Early Latino Settlers: Colonial Period to 1800s

There are many historical moments in which Latinos or their descendants explored, occupied, or settled in what is now Iowa. Perhaps the first Latino in the region was the Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto, who was the first European to see and explore the Mississippi in the early sixteenth century. De Soto’s exploration of the Mississippi may have taken him north to the outer boundaries of Iowa. Maybe Manuel Lisa, owner-operator of a 1780s fur-trapping business who married a Sioux Indian, was the first Latino resident in what became Iowa. If Lisa did exist, then in 1803 he became one of the first U.S. citizens in Iowa.

During the period in which Spain controlled the region (1762-1801), it issued three land grants. However, the grants went to Spanish subjects of French ancestry. Nineteenth-century Mexican cowboys (vaqueros) also reached the southern and eastern boundaries of Iowa with the cattle drives into Nebraska. The 1850 U.S. census recorded 16 residents from Mexico and one from South America. It has been noted that when the railroad arrived in Muscatine in 1855, Mexicans helped build it, and a handful actually remained as permanent members of the community. In 1856 Iowa conducted a county-by-county census and found the following: one Venezuelan living in Butler County, one Mexican in Clinton County; one South American in Dubuque County, eight South Americans in Iowa City, and one Chilean in Marion County.

The Iowa census of 1895 recorded an overall Latino population of 30 individuals; however, it is likely many more resided in the region, but census remunerators may have undercounted the Latino population. In the late 1890s one of the first Latino colonias (colonies) emerged in Fort Madison, as a result of the recruitment efforts by the Santa Fe Railroad. Lastly, Iowa made a permanent connection to Mexico by naming two of its counties, Cerro Gordo and Buena Vista, in honor of U.S. victories over the Mexican army during the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848.

The Spanish presence in Iowa is well known and well documented. Yet, the Spanish explorers left no long-term settlements. In their turn, the vaqueros and railroad workers were, by and large, transient until the late nineteenth century. Thus, Latinos in Iowa did not emerge as a significant and permanent population until the early twentieth century. Nevertheless, it is important to recognize and acknowledge the Spanish influence in the region as well as a small Mexican presence in Iowa starting in the mid-nineteenth century. The larger and more permanent movement of Latinos into Iowa began in the first and second decades of the twentieth century.

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