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Iowa town translates its diverse population into a majority Latino city council


People who live in small-town America know that small towns are often diverse. You'll find historic Black communities, immigrants, Native or Hispanic populations who've been around longer than the United States. And that reality has led to a political change in one town. Here's Iowa Public Radio's Kassidy Arena.

KASSIDY ARENA, BYLINE: The eastern Iowa city of West Liberty is one of thousands of majority-minority rural communities in the U.S. It's not the first to challenge the concept of a homogenous white rural U.S. In fact, in 2020, nearly a quarter of rural Americans were people of color, and the numbers are growing. But in Iowa, West Liberty - with 4,000 residents - is the only town to now have a majority Latino City Council.


ARENA: When you drive into Iowa's first majority Latino city, the first thing you'll see is a building with an enormous mural. It declares, you belong here, on the left; tu perteneces aqui, in Spanish, on the right. Two-term City Councilman Jose Zacarias is bundled in a jacket on a cold day, standing in front of the colorful mural.

JOSE ZACARIAS: And the message is the right message. It's in English; it's in Spanish. This is who we are, you know? Now people, Anglo people, are talking about - we are no longer two communities living in the same place; we are growing into one.

ARENA: This is exactly the kind of town the Center for Rural Innovation (ph) has been focusing on. The nonprofit promotes economic prosperity and diverse leadership throughout rural America. Director Matt Dunne says he sees it in rural America's makeup all across the country.

MATT DUNNE: One of the things that we've spent a lot of time on over the last several years is making sure that the country knows that rural America is not white America, that the diversity of people in rural places is part of its vibrancy and its potential.

ARENA: Jose Zacarias has been in West Liberty for decades after emigrating from Mexico. He first came here for a job in the town's meatpacking plant. Over time, he's watched the Latino community blossom, watching residents become citizens, then voters and, finally, political candidates. But it hasn't always been an easy transition.

ZACARIAS: The work that comes behind being a minority majority now, which is political education. How do you translate those numbers into political action?

ARENA: Zacarias says he finds that political success comes with grassroots organizing. For years, he's encouraged fellow Latinos to take the next step to run for office. Now, after November's election, 4 of the 5 City Council seats are held by Latino residents. That comes as Latinos remain underrepresented in city governments all across the country. Newly elected West Liberty City Councilwoman Dana Dominguez isn't surprised. Her family came here from Mexico, and she says many immigrants find obstacles to gaining political power. Many work exhausting, physical jobs, have busy family lives and, in some cases, difficult immigration status.

DANA DOMINGUEZ: I think there's a lot of barriers in the way, honestly. But I'm glad that we're here now. Hopefully, it encourages other people, too, to run in the future.

ARENA: Schools here now have a dual-language program, and last year, the city started a high school mariachi band.


ARENA: As West Liberty government celebrates its diversity, other small towns across the country may see it as a model for promoting a new type of political engagement.

For NPR News, I'm Kassidy Arena in West Liberty, Iowa.

(SOUNDBITE OF CITY OF THE SUN'S "IN THE BEGINNING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kassidy Arena
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