How immigration has changed one rural Iowa community for the better
Maggie Reyes shepherds six food pantry volunteers into a huddle and snaps pictures on her smartphone. Sherri Nelson, one of her volunteers, hurries out of Reyes’ viewfinder and tries to look busy. She isn’t the only one.
“Mr. Matasovsky escaped,” Reyes laughs, referring to one of the other volunteers. “He hates pictures.” But her Mexican sister-in-law, two Venezuelans, a Cuban, and two Caucasians all smile for the camera.
That photo offers a perfect picture of Storm Lake, the most diverse city in Iowa. With a Hispanic population topping 40 percent and growing, it’s not a stereotypical Midwestern town. Mexican restaurants and Asian markets line Main Street. The annual Fourth of July parade boasts floats celebrating various countries, combined with American patriotic flair. While newcomers don’t always have an easy time settling in, the city increasingly defies mainstream expectations for rapid demographic shifts.
Iowa’s agricultural and food processing sectors have drawn immigrants for decades. Most came from Europe until World War I, when war tensions limited immigration and desperate Iowan manufacturers looked south of the border for labor. In Iowa: The Middle Land, author Dorothy Schwieder chronicled the war’s impact: From 1910 to 1920, the number of first-generation Mexican immigrants quintupled. Between 2010 and 2020, the Hispanic population doubled and now totals over 6 percent of the state’s population.
Many immigrants come to Storm Lake for jobs at manufacturing plants. But they often decide to raise their families here after finding safe neighborhoods, welcoming churches, and good schools.
Maggie Reyes, 45, runs food pantries twice a week at Upper Des Moines Opportunity, a nonprofit working to ease the effects of poverty. Its shelves are stocked with donations from local grocery stores. Most of the visitors today are Hispanic, but others come from Micronesia and Asia. Some Caucasians come, too. The visitors pick their way through the narrow office building hallway with empty bags and boxes, passing those returning from the pantry at the end of the hall with their boxes full. Many of them are waiting for work permits from the government, and rely on the pantry for daily sustenance.
Reyes relies on volunteers to help with daily operations. Daikel Gonzalez, young and athletic, hurries to take bags from a woman who is carrying three.
“You see the muscles he has,” Reyes says. Gonzalez grins and flexes.
Gonzalez helps at Upper Des Moines Opportunity’s food pantries because he wants to give back—he’s benefiting from the food donations just as much as the rest. He arrived in Storm Lake from Cuba in January 2022. Until he gets permission to work legally, he hunts down odd jobs for cash to pay his bills.
Gonzalez speaks almost no English, so Reyes translates: “It’s a beautiful town,” Gonzalez says in Spanish. “Very quiet, very nice.”
Fabiana Ruiz, another food pantry volunteer, just finished 6th grade at Storm Lake Middle School and enjoys the town’s peaceful atmosphere. She and her family fled Venezuela’s hyperinflation and violence years ago, ending up in Mexico, where she still felt unsafe.
“If you go outside to play, people can try to catch you, and … you know, …” Ruiz struggles for words, “… bad things.”
In Storm Lake, Ruiz doesn’t live in fear. Despite its rapid population growth, the town’s crime rates have decreased, an abnormal phenomenon according to researchers. The number of adult arrests dropped by half between 2010 and 2020.
Maggie Reyes (center) poses with her daughter (left) and friends at a taco food truck in Storm Lake.Photo by Clara York
GRACIE VRIEZE, 55, has lived in Storm Lake for 35 years. She served as the city’s first bilingual Community Service Officer for most of that time but retired in early January. When she and her husband Terry arrived shortly after their wedding, only two other Hispanics lived in the city.
Vrieze considered herself a bridge between the Spanish-speaking community and the white culture. Once, she sat in a patrol car and calmly related commands in Spanish to a man hiding in a house with weapons, surrounded by police. “Get out of the house,” Vrieze said in Spanish over a megaphone. “Put your weapon down. Get on the ground.” She’d never been needed for such a volatile situation before, and she never saw one again in Storm Lake. She helped with arrests and one Secret Service counterfeit bust, but much of her work influenced the community more quietly.
For example, Vrieze helped Spanish speakers interpret speeding tickets written in English and encouraged people to file domestic-abuse reports. She grew up in Mexico, where the police were corrupt and not well trusted. As she encouraged women to report abuse, arrests increased and the newspaper covered them. Word spread in Storm Lake that the police would help.
Current Chief of Police Chris Cole also emphasized the importance of building trust. Immigrants often don’t know what good policing looks like and, he said, “They fear what they don’t know.” The department holds regular activities like Coffee With a Cop, Taco With a Cop, and Snow Cone With a Cop. The police force now includes Hispanic, Vietnamese, and Hmong officers. “We like our officers to match our community,” Cole said.
Not everyone in Storm Lake shares Cole’s sentiment. Some would rather the community reflect a different demographic. A few years ago, Maggie Reyes took her lunch break at Envets, a bar next to her office where veterans share memories over drinks or tabletop games.
“Who is that girl?” she heard someone ask from a table of veterans. He was referring to her.
“She is the one that works at Upper Des Moines, where they give all of the free food to the lazy people,” a white-bearded veteran replied.
Reyes left her hamburger and fries and headed straight for them. “I don’t think that it’s a correct way to express upon my work,” she said. “If you want to come to my office, I can show you my beautiful work. And everybody is different. … I like to know the families and see the situation. If you want to come, you are welcome to come, so I can show you my beautiful work and explain to you.”
“Whatever,” the surly veteran said.
But he did come. Reyes showed him around and thanked him for his service. She discovered he needed food, too, but was too proud to ask.
“Sir, if you want to come, we can do it private,” she told him.
He came every week after that.
Reyes has met other people with negative things to say, like one, as Reyes referred to her, “beautiful, grumpy old lady” who berated her for speaking Spanish in public. But she still loves the community.
When Reyes’ brother takes her to Chicago, he tells her not to wave, smile, and chase down police officers to take selfies, like she does in Storm Lake. “It’s not like in your beautiful town,” he once told her.
Terry and Gracie Vrieze visit a coffee shop in Sioux City. Photo by Clara York
PEDRO LOPEZ pastors Spanish speakers at Grace Lutheran Church in Storm Lake. A 35-year veteran in missionary work, he also travels around Iowa to strengthen Hispanic churches. He said Storm Lake churches are uniquely welcoming to immigrants, offering activities and resources in many languages. His congregation offers English and Spanish services and classes, as well as workshops on immigration and how to find legal aid.
“Humanly speaking, it is a good place,” Lopez said. “There is a lot of employment. A lot of … social life.”
But the strength of the community hasn’t necessarily translated into robust churches. Storm Lake has many of the same challenges with secularism as the rest of the country. Lopez has noticed an increase of same-sex marriage and children born out of wedlock. In the busy working community, it’s also a struggle to get people to come to church and get involved. Also, the language barrier hinders congregational unity.
“You know what they say: that Sunday morning is the most segregated time of the week,” said Shelly Rock, executive director at The Bridge ministries. Her group’s mission is just what it sounds like—to bridge the gap between the church and Storm Lake’s youth. Rock prays for the younger generation to work together, despite the challenges.
Many immigrant children go to non-English church services with their parents, even though they might be most comfortable with English. The Bridge tells kids about Jesus in English. “For us to be able to help share the gospel from that perspective … can really help refresh their faith so they can really appreciate their parents’ church, but they’re also learning and growing in a language they feel comfortable with as well.”
Ofelia Rumbo and her husband bought their home in Storm Lake in 2016 when she was three months pregnant with their first child. The kitchen, with its open concept, allows her to cook traditional Mexican food while visiting with the numerous family members who have immigrated to Storm Lake as she did in 2000.
Rumbo didn’t know what to expect when she arrived, but she loves the opportunities her family has found. Her 6-year-old son spends half his school time learning in Spanish and the other half learning in English in a dual language program. She appreciates the Mexican grocery stores, and her work at Merrill Manufacturing Co. pays well.
Rumbo has high hopes for the town’s ability to create unity from diversity. “If we continue doing the things that we’re doing to bring the community together, and continue to take advantage of how beautiful diversity is, I think Storm Lake is gonna set up an example for the rest of the country.”