By CHUCK OFFENBURGER
JEFFERSON, Iowa, Dec. 30, 2021 – In five days around Christmas, I sat down and talked at length with eight members of the tiny Latino community here in Greene County, and those interviews produced one of the best gifts I’ve had in a long time.
That gift is hope.
It’s what brought them all here, and what can attract many more newcomers if we invite them and genuinely welcome them.
Teresa Brown and Gil Lepe at Casa de Oro restaurant, in Jefferson, which is decorated with original artwork and furniture that reflects the Latino heritage, specifically the heritage of Gil’s native Jalisco province in west central Mexico.
Meet my panel of experts on Latino life:
–Gil Lepe, 47, and his partner in life and business Teresa Brown. Gil was born in Mexico, came to the U.S. 37 years ago, was raised in Seattle, then moved to Iowa 20 years ago. Teresa, of Dutch and Irish heritage, is a life-long resident of Greene County, a graduate of East Greene High School, and for 30 years now a special education teacher in the Greene County Community School District. They are probably the most widely-known members of the local Latino community because of their seemingly constant presence at their very popular Casa de Oro restaurant, which opened in Jefferson in 2008. Other members of the extended Lepe family run Casa de Oro restaurants in Perry, Creston, Red Oak, and Chariton and used to have them in Adel and Harlan.
–Mary Nieto, 49, born in California, Mexican heritage, married, three children, starting her fourth year at Greene County Medical Center, where she is director of human resources. She is a graduate of the international program at California State University at Dominguez Hills, and that school sent her to study in both Mexico and France.
–Luis Velazco, 19, born in Marshalltown, son of a mother from El Salvador and father from Mexico, a 2021 graduate of Greene County High School, where he and his younger brother Jose Velazco have been soccer stars, now a freshman at Central College in Pella, where he is studying engineering and playing soccer.
–Maribel Hernandez, 30, born in Mexico, married with a young daughter, a graduate of Perry High School in 2010 who continued her studies at Des Moines Area Community College, graduated at Iowa State University, worked in nursing along the way and now has been teaching Spanish for four years at Greene County High School, where she is also the assistant coach of the girls soccer team.
–Jaime Gonzalez, 26, a native of El Salvador who moved to the U.S. with his parents in 2004, is now divorced but the doting father of a young son who visits here regularly and spends much of his summers here. He graduated from Storm Lake High School. He has now worked two years on the farm of Mike and Kathy Bravard, northeast of Jefferson, and dreams of having his own small farm here.
I’ll introduce two other participants in our interviews in a moment.
Mary Nieto, the native Californian of Mexican heritage who is human resources director at Greene County Medical Center.
But let me draw some quick conclusions about what I learned – and these are my numbers and no one else’s:
–Give us 250 more Latino families headed by people like the eight I’ve questioned, and our county’s population would grow by 1,000 or more – more than a 10 percent bump up from the 8,950 we have now. All seven of our incorporated towns would be growing. The critical workforce shortages that almost all our major employers are facing would ease. Declining enrollment in our two public school systems would be history.
–Give us 500 more such families, and a total population increase of 2,000 or more, an increase of more than 20 percent, and our major employers would all be adding shifts. We likely would be building a couple new elementary schools. We’d have a couple dozen new family-owned specialty shops opening in our revived business districts. There’d be new construction in all our towns, including the three unincorporated villages. We’d be renovating and enlarging all our parks.
This would be a more lively, fun, prosperous place to live, work and play. And stories about the economic miracle of Greene County, Iowa, would be told across the nation and around the world.
How’s that for hope?
The eight people from our Latino community all gave me testimonials about how much they like being here now. They say what they enjoy most about Greene County are the same things that have attracted people here forever. It’s clean, safe, friendly, all services are close by, there’s plenty of room for living, there’s an emphasis on family life, we have a variety of churches, our schools and hospital are good, and there’s plenty of economic opportunity with varied industries and agriculture.
They all know their Latino culture can indeed drive the level of fantastic growth that I’ve described. They’ve seen it happen – and even lived it – in other small Iowa communities where the Latino population has been welcomed and encouraged. And they believe it can happen right here.
Maribel Hernandez, a Spanish teacher at Greene County High School and assistant coach on the girls soccer team.
But it’ll be different here. In other small towns with rapidly growing Latino populations, the economic drivers have primarily been meatpacking and farmwork. Here it’ll be manufacturing, farmwork, entertainment, hospitality and retail.
Are you ready to grow?
The officers, board and member firms of the Greene County Development Corporation certainly are. That’s why they’ve launched a “diversity project” (we’re still working on a name with more zip) to recruit and welcome Latino newcomers here.
You can read an earlier story announcing that project by clicking right here.
To direct this initiative for the next three years, GCDC is hiring Carlos Arguello, 37, a native of Nicaragua who grew up in our neighbor town of Carroll, graduated from the University of Northern Iowa, has worked internationally 13 years for John Deere, and is now heading his own consulting company from a base in the Des Moines suburb of Grimes.
And GCDC asked me to be a chairperson for a steering committee that will coordinate support for the initiative from across Greene County – from businesses, organizations, churches, schools, clubs, and individuals.
In January, we will begin having a series of town meetings in all our communities. Arguello, banker Sid Jones who is GCDC president, GCDC executive director Ken Paxton, other members of the GCDC board and steering committee, and I will be coming to explain the diversity project, answer questions and solicit ideas and support from all Greene Countians. We’ll announce the dates, locations and times of those town meetings soon.
Luis Velazco, a Greene County High School graduate who is now a freshman at Central College in Pella, was born in the U.S. to a mother from El Salvador and a father from Mexico. His talent at soccer made him one of the most popular high school students in the county. His younger brother Jose is now a junior at GCHS.
We hope you’re seeing Latino newcomers joining our workforce yet this winter, probably first as commuters but eventually as permanent residents – renters and homeowners alike. You’ll see a lot of new construction and renovations of housing.
To begin preparing for all of that, Arguello and I asked the people from our current Latino community to talk about their experiences here and their culture. We also asked for their assessment of this project, their ideas for making it successful, their cautions and their advice on how to proceed.
“When GCDC first reached out to us at the medical center with this idea, I loved it,” said Mary Nieto, the medical center HR director. “I stepped right up and told our CEO that I’d really like to participate in this. I’m trained as a recruiter, and I will be able to use my Spanish. How else can I help? What can I do to help?”
Luis Velazco, the college student, said he found the plan “pretty exciting, especially bringing more Latinos here. I think about when I was growing up in the schools around here, I was often the only Latino kid so I always stood out and that can be difficult. With more people from different backgrounds, you make friends, you learn from other cultures and that is so worth it.”
Maribel Hernandez, the Spanish teacher, said “it sounds like a challenge, but it will be good for education here.” The “English Language Learners” program will certainly need to be expanded as the Latino student population grows. But a more multi-cultural approach to education will help prepare all our students for success in today’s global economy.
Jaime Gonzalez says simply, “I love this place. The people are great. Other Latinos will love it, too. It’s small, but that makes it easy to get around. I love having the Community Center, the bowling alley, and I really am excited about them building the new Early Learning Center. When my son was here last summer, he went there and it was really good for him.”
Another important assessment of the GCDC idea — one I really wanted — came from Eddie Diaz, 42, a longtime friend of mine in Perry. He grew up there as the community was really diversifying. He served 6 ½ years in the U.S. Marines, graduated from Iowa State University, earned his master’s degree at Drake, then taught in the Des Moines Public Schools, at Perry High School, served as principal two years at St. Patrick Catholic School in Perry, and is now director of the DMACC center there. He was recently elected to the Perry school board, and said his hands are so full he can’t be much involved in Greene County’s new project but did endorse it.
“Cool project,” Diaz said, of the general idea of recruiting and welcoming Latinos. “This is needed. It’s definitely needed in Jefferson and Greene County. First of all, it is going to happen with or without this plan because the Latino population is growing everywhere in Iowa. It might as well happen here with a good plan.”
Jaime Gonzalez, a native of El Salvador who grew up in Storm Lake, proudly shows off his John Deere tractor cap from Van Wall Equipment. He works now on the farm of the Bravard family northeast of Jefferson and dreams of eventually having his own small farm. He’s worked with hogs, generally in confinement operations, the past dozen years. “I enjoy all animals and I especially like pigs,” Gonzalez said. “They tease you a little bit. When you get to know them, they’re like, ‘What are you doing here, buddy?’ Some are real goofballs. I’ll call up my son, who is 6, and FaceTime with the little pigs, and he loves seeing them.”
From all my panelists, here’s a list of things Greene County should at least be considering, to prepare:
–Start now on more new housing, especially apartments and starter homes – in all our communities. In fact, GCDC’s Ken Paxton says the first new apartments should be built in Scranton and Paton because of the need for them by manufacturing employees there.
–Sooner rather than later, recruit a Latino-owned boutique grocery store, preferably operating on the square in Jefferson. My panelists assure me it will be as popular with the native white population as it will be with Latino newcomers.
–Begin classes in “cultural competency training” for all in the county who are interested, but especially potential employers. Part of this can be offering occasional classes in conversational Spanish for us all. We’ll need lots of translators, preferably happy ones. Meanwhile, GCDC will be coordinating worker training with its member businesses, the community colleges and Career Academy, and Iowa State University Extension Service.
–Facilitate passport, visa and guestworker applications and processing, both here in Greene County and perhaps in areas of Latino nations where we’ve learned people are aware of Iowa and interested in relocating here. This would be coordinated with state and federal officials, of course.
–Be ready to lobby our federal and state leadership for sensible, workable and comprehensive reform of our governments’ immigration policies.
–Accept that the two school districts, the Early Learning Center and other daycare providers will be key partners in this initiative, and be ready to provide more support for their language programs and other aspects of multi-cultural education.
Maribel Hernandez, who teaches Spanish at Greene County High School, told our group that Luis Velazco here “was one of my best students” — and got a proud smile out of him. He now is a freshman at Central College in Pella.
–Realize how diverse the Latinos themselves are. Carlos Arguello calls them “a big, diverse group and they are not all alike.” People from as many as 30 different countries are generally included when someone is referring to “Latino culture.” Arguello says “there are many different beliefs, different priorities, some of us don’t even speak Spanish.”
–We’ll probably need to provide regular public transportation, both to get here and also to get around here.
–Rapidly expand our soccer programs now – our successful high school programs, our youth program and we’ll need to start-up an adult program. The sooner we build a large facility for indoor soccer in the wintertime, the happier we’re all going to be. We’re told that 500 people from all over the area are now gathering in Carroll on Sundays for indoor soccer league play.
–Finally, don’t be afraid to engage any of my panelists with your own conversations and questions about their culture, their experiences, their goals. “I like to talk to people, as you can probably tell,” Jaime Gonzalez told me. “That’s how you make friends and learn from each other.”
And if all this starts to seem difficult, or too much, or un-doable, go get re-charged at Casa de Oro, the Jefferson restaurant where Gil Lepe presides.
Have you seen happier, harder-working employees anywhere around here?
Julian Lepe (left) and his father Gil at Casa de Oro restaurant in Jefferson. Julian, 19, was working while on Christmas vacation from the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He is in the UNO aviation program, studying to become a jet pilot.
How do they do it? What makes the place so busy and popular?
“Easy,” said Lepe. “You have to be nice to the customers. You have to treat people really good. You have to have good food. We do!”
He is the embodiment of the classic Latino entrepreneur.
One of 11 children of Mario and Carmen Lepe in the town of Cuautla, which is smaller than Jefferson, in the province of Jalisco, west and a little north of Mexico City. When his father began going back and forth to Seattle to work in restaurants and send money home to Carmen for the family, little Gil didn’t want him to go alone. So he rode the bus with him.
“I went to school until about the sixth grade,” he said. “Then in Seattle, I didn’t want to go to school any more. I only spoke Spanish then, and I was afraid the other kids would make fun of me. So I just worked, usually at the restaurants. I learn quick, so when they’d show me something to do, I could do it.”
The Lepe siblings began following the growing Latino migration to Iowa in the late 1990s, and started opening their Casa de Oro restaurants. In 2008, soon after Gil opened the new one in Jefferson, he was on the road constantly, running three of them – Perry, Harlan and here.
Now he’s only operating in Jefferson, but does so seven days a week. He has helped dozens of employees – Latino and white – get started in the restaurant business.
“It can get a little crazy in here,” Teresa said. “People are always asking Gil where he and I met, and he always says ‘in church,’ but the truth is it was right here in the restaurant. And he’s always talking about Mexico to the customers. They’ll start asking if it’s as dangerous as they hear about, and he’ll yell across the restaurant, ‘Teresa, are you scared to go to Mexico?’ I always yell back, ‘I’m ready to leave right now!’ ”
Gil and Teresa basically raised their kids together, or at the same time. Gil’s son Julian – namesake of the famous Mexican hamburger served at Casa de Oro – is now studying aviation at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and daughter Ashley just graduated with a bachelor degree in nursing. Teresa’s daughter Kyann is now a CPA and Gina is going to veterinary school.
Meanwhile, back in Cuautla in Jalisco, Gil has helped buy a small farm which his parents tend. They grow corn and garbanzo beans, and are raising 30 horses and more than 100 cows.
Gil and Teresa make at least yearly trips to Jalisco for its famous 9-day festival in July.
They have done a lot. They can teach us a lot. And they’re willing.
Carlos Arguello, a native of Nicaragua who grew up in Carroll, worked 13 years internationally with John Deere, now heads his own consulting companies and lives in Grimes. He is directing the “diversity project” for Greene County Development Corporation, which wants to grow and diversify the county’s workforce and population.
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