Speaker Discusses Changes in Heartland's Cultural Landscape

The growing Latino population in the Great Plains town of Perry, Iowa represents a microcosm of Midwestern demographic change, Drake University Professor Jody Swilky told more than 100 students at the opening event of the 2008 Jan Term Speaker Series.

Polls show immigration as a top voter concern in the 2008 presidential campaign, particularly among registered Republicans. Swilky said the issue is becoming prominent in states that had virtually no Latino population as recently as 1990 - including Iowa, which cast votes for presidential nominees on Jan. 3.

"Iowa is not very diverse; it's either the third or fourth whitest state in the nation at 93 percent," he noted. "But during the last 15 years, Latinos have been moving to Midwestern states like Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri and Illinois."

In Perry, the town Swilky chronicled in his 2006 documentary "Little Salsa on the Prairie," the Latino community grew by 153 percent during the 1990s, drawn to the town primarily by meatpacking jobs.

As these workers moved in from California, Texas and Mexico, Perry went from being less than 1 percent Latino to 25 percent in 10 years, part of a trend affecting several Iowa communities.

"In many towns across Iowa, the Latino population has grown by over 1,000 percent in the past decade," Swilky said.

In his film, Swilky examined the consequences of the rapid ethnic diversification on the small town's culture, including efforts by whites and Latinos to bridge the cultural divide in schools, neighborhoods and churches.

"This is a film about people in a small town trying to live their lives, and people like that are often forgotten these days," said Graham Foust, director of Saint Mary's MFA Program in Creative Writing, who introduced Swilky.

The Jan Term Speaker Series continues throughout the month, along with other Jan Term events
that include looks at the Los Alamos atomic research lab, rebuilding efforts in Afghanistan, multi-cultural dancing, a global warming symposium and eco-fair and a panel discussion on the future of education in California during the opening of the Kalmanovitz School of Education.

-- John Grennan
Office of College Communications