SPECIAL REPORT: Education blends cultures in Iowa's first 'minority majority' town

West Liberty was the state's first Hispanic majority in the 2010 Census. The town's diversity continues to grow each year since, and residents attribute that success to a community-wide commitment to education.

Undisputed tension on immigration issues exists across party lines throughout the nation, including Iowa. However, in the last ten years, one rural Eastern Iowa city continues to prove diversity can thrive.

West Liberty was the state's first Hispanic majority in the 2010 Census. The town's diversity continues to grow each year since, and residents attribute that success to a community-wide commitment to education.

Residents, like El Patio employee Crystal Fernandez, said they cannot picture a day without using Spanish in and around West Liberty.

"Most people call using Spanish. They assume that calling a Spanish restaurant, you need to know Spanish," she said. "So, I say 'El Patio' and it sounds like more of a Spanish accent. And then like tables is usually a mix of both [Spanish and English]."

This cultural mix is intertwined in almost every corner of the city. From the sounds of bachata music blasting through cars, imported Mexican candies and produce throughout the city's main market, to the decorations, books, and classrooms within the school district.

"That was really heartwarming for me as a superintendent to see that actually in action," said Joe Potts, West Liberty School District Superintendent.

"West liberty is very unique in a sense because it's more than 50% Hispanic," said Ed Moreno, President of LULAC West Liberty Council 310.

For nearly a decade, West Liberty continues to have a Hispanic majority population.

"I think since the millenileum, we've really had a coming out of more of a representation of our community," said Cara McFerren, West Liberty City Council Member.

McFerren is a fourth-generation Mexican-American in West Liberty, and is the first female Hispanic resident to be on the city's council.

"I want other women in the same demographic to also feel empowered that they can do that too," she said.

As the town hopes to highlight the community's value of diversity by improving representation through leadership, there are still residents worried about the impact of today's political climate.

"I think we feel the ripple effect. Absolutely. At least on a human level," said McFerren.

"I think you can find political tension almost anywhere," said High School Principal Brenda Arthur-Miller.

However, Arthur-miller said this is not the case in her district.

As the city with the Iowa's first dual language program, learning two languages is as cherished as learning how to walk.

"If someone was speaking another language, you might take a double take, where that doesn't happen here. It's very natural," she said.

Nearly 20 years old, this program evolved from its first kindergarten classroom back in 1998, to serving students K-12 in a variety of classes taught in both English and Spanish.

"There's been a waiting list for that, just for kids to get in because it's it's on demand. Like a lot of people want to be in it," said Fernandez.

Kindergarten Dual Language Teacher Alicia Herman said non-native English and English speaking children seamlessly come together in her classroom.

"Each and every one of those kiddos in my class know that they matter, and they are part of the class and that the class wouldn't be the same without them," she said. "I think that's a mindset that carries beyond our classroom and into the community...and into places of work, and places of business, and across the board."

However, it's not just teaching students a new language that builds bridges over time for city residents. It's a city-wide effort to create programs that make every member of the community feel at home.

"We're taking classes to learn how to pass the citizenship test," said resident Omar Cardozo.

English tutor Michael Aregon-Jacques said this new citizenship course to help residents participate in the naturalization process, and it levels the playing field among all residents.

This brand new citizenship course also emphasizes education.

"We do have a handful of students who are recent residents who are just trying to gain their citizenship as soon as they can," said Aregon-Jacques.

Ruth Alvarado, a mother of three children in the dual language program said she's learning to keep up with her children language skills.

"Every time I keep learning more and more, especially for them because i know I need the language," said Alvarado.

It is the same message Rojjilo Roman and Omar Cardozo emphasize in learning to pass their citizenship: to make their children proud.

"I wouldn't want to have my residency taken away and have to go back to my country," said Cardozo. "They are very happy I'm progressing in my studies."

To these residents, old and new, it is the warm welcome they feel from these types of programs that prove to them West Liberty is a place they can permanently call home.

"Oh. it's a privilege to have that," she said.

Organizers of West Liberty's citizenship course are seeking future grant funding to continue to pay for people to take the test to become naturalized citizens. Classes take place every Thursday at the city's elementary school, where residents learning English and preparing for the exam can sit down with local volunteers and ask for help.

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