Organizing the Latinx Community in Iowa Feels Like Coming Home

Iowa for Warren
7 min readOct 17, 2019

By Stephanie Medina, Iowa for Warren Latinx Constituency Coordinator

I feel a sense of familiarity as I travel across this state and hear the stories of Latinx Iowans.

It’s the familiarity of a warm hug from a 90+ year old womxn, holding my hand and telling me about her father and the racism he encountered when he immigrated to the United States in the 1930's.

It’s the familiarity of a precocious little girl and her mother at a Latinx Heritage Festival in Southwest Iowa. The girl asked me, “Is Elizabeth running for president?,” and when I responded yes, she pulled her mother over, telling her, “Mami, platica con ella, debes de aprender de Elizabeth” before turning back to me to say, “My mom can vote this year.”

It’s the familiarity of a community leader sharing her story of being one of the first Latinas to attend her university. “It wasn’t about being the first,” she told me. “It was about getting an education. Everything else came second.”

It’s the familiarity of a father of four who earned his Ph.D. in Mexico but now works as a laborer in Iowa in order to secure a better future for his children.

It’s the familiarity of home.

That’s what organizing the Latinx community in Iowa feels like. It feels like coming home.

My friend and colleague Lorenza captures a sense of it when she talks of driving across miles of state highways only to happen upon a little Latinx corner store on a small-town square, or a pupuseria sandwiched between a thrift shop and a Casey’s.

Living and organizing in Iowa is the ongoing discovery of the memories of your mother, your abuelito, your childhood best friend in the stories of the thousands of Latinx folk living here.

My name is Stephanie Medina, and I’m the Latinx Constituency Coordinator for Elizabeth Warren’s campaign in Iowa. From the moment I arrived in late June, I’ve been dedicated to engaging the Latinx community of Iowa.

Latinx people represent one of the fastest growing communities in Iowa. Since 2000, the population has grown by more than 130 percent and is projected to grow nearly double its current size by 2050. Latinx families have the highest concentration of preschoolers amongst any other racial or ethnic group in Iowa, and more than 75 percent of Iowa Latinx families have children under the age of 18.

We’re entrepreneurs, owning nearly 5,000 small businesses, infusing money into our local economies and creating jobs in our communities.

But we also have our fair share of challenges. The Latinx community has some of the highest rates of unemployment, poverty and uninsured/underinsured in the state.

And, of course, the difficulties, uncertainties and perils of our broken immigration system loom large for Latinx Iowans. While it’s not the only issue facing our communities, it’s the one I hear about the most. Whether it’s at a roundtable in Cedar Rapids, a festival in Council Bluffs or on the doors in the heart of Des Moines, Latinx families in Iowa are anxious about immigration — because it’s so personal for many of us.

I grew up in the Midwest and have seen first-hand the honor and the pains of growing up in an immigrant family. My parents arrived in the United States in the 1980's and 90's. I was their first child, born in the suburbs of Chicago, and marking my childhood by the milestones of my mother’s immigration court appointments.

Elizabeth’s plans for big, structural change are not just policies, they’re stories of how America should be — stories that recognize and validate my lived experience and the experiences of the Iowans I meet everyday. They’re plans for everyone, not just the ever-shrinking slice at the top. They are plans for the Latinx community of Iowa, from Denison to Storm Lake, Cedar Rapids to West Liberty and everywhere in between.

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Each year, Americans observe National Latinx Heritage Month from September 15 to October 15 by celebrating the history, culture and contribution of Americans whose ancestors came from Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America.

During Latinx Heritage Month, I traveled across the state, making my car a mobile organizing HQ with a couple chairs, a table, bags of candy, a box full of campaign materials and a whiteboard.

At the top of the whiteboard, I wrote, “What issues matter to you? ¿Que asuntos le importan a usted?”

In an era in which a stranger knocking on your door can feel life-threatening, the whiteboard was an attempt to make politics accessible to the Latinx community. It was a friendly welcome to our Warren team: What issues matter to you? What keeps you going each day? What do you think about on your way home?

At every stop, Latinx families came up to share their answers. Sometimes the interaction was little more than a quick hello and a high-five. Sometimes it led to a short introduction. Other times, though, the answer on the white board sparked a 20-minute conversation about life-threatening health diagnoses and rising health care premiums.

On the whiteboard, Latinx voters shared their deepest concerns, and more than once I found myself blinking back tears over another heart-wrenching story. It was in these moments, though, that I could share Elizabeth’s story:

  • A young girl growing up in Oklahoma, watching her mother save the family home.
  • A single mother, struggling to make ends meet.
  • A young professional embarking on her life’s work to discover why families go broke.
  • An advocate creating the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to return billions of dollars to families robbed by predatory banking and lending practices.
  • A senator passing legislation helping those on the ragged edge of the middle-class build their American Dream.
  • The presidential candidate with a plan for everything.

Elizabeth’s story resonates with the Latinx community because it’s one of triumph in spite of obstacles. It’s about taking a chance on life and doing what’s best for your family. It’s about fighting for what’s right and necessary.

My travels during Latinx Heritage Month built on a summer’s worth of outreach and relationship-building. Organizing means meeting folks where they are and connecting on the issues they really care about. I met folks in their churches, at their restaurants, and at the local library. We brought Spanish literature and policy plans to share Elizabeth’s story and crayons and coloring pages for the little ones.

We got creative and had fun. Our summer fellow, Jennifer, who knocked on doors in Perry, organized her way into some help, ensuring she was having quality conversations with everyone in English and Spanish.

Vivienne, our Marshall County organizer, learned that folks in Marshalltown, a community where more than 70 languages are spoken in the school district, cared about immigration and rural issues, so she organized a unique opportunity to talk about the intersecting issues.

Jose, one of our organizers in Crawford County, which has one of the densest Latinx populations in the state, holds Spanish-only roundtables to learn from the community and talk about the caucus process.

We change our government and our leaders when we change who we talk to and what we talk about. Young Latinx folks in Iowa are making their voices heard. Elizabeth’s college affordability plan would cancel student loan debt for more than 83 percent of Latinx borrowing households.

As Latinx Heritage Month came to an end, I wondered how we could bring it all together — how we could tie together our activism and organization from Orange City to West Liberty. The answer was a Latinx Day of Action: one day to amplify our work and concentrate our impact.

We knocked on doors, we called Spanish-speaking voters on the phone, we organized a craft night for Day of the Dead, we held salsa dancing class, we made tamales, and we talked over nachos.

Whether we were discussing the wealth gap or environmental injustice, we learned that Elizabeth has a plan for that. Elizabeth’s plan for entrepreneurs of color will provide new opportunities for creating jobs and uplifting the voices of Latinx entrepreneurs. Her environmental justice plan makes sure communities of color have a clear voice in restoring neighborhoods destroyed by pollution.

It’s moments like these — in these rooms and in these one-on-one interactions — where I feel I’m paying tribute to the dreams and sacrifices of our parents. Day by day and one by one, we’re making big, structural change for ourselves, for our families, and for an America that works for everyone.

This place feels so familiar and this work, even when it’s hard, feels so rewarding and meaningful because of the people I’ve met and the change we’re making together. We’re meeting people where the are and sharing our stories in their home language because we’re building a movement — one that will make life better for my generation, the generations that preceded me and those to come.

Stephanie Medina is the Iowa Latinx Constituency Coordinator for the Elizabeth Warren campaign.

To join the fight, text LUCHA to 24477

Click here for a schedule of Warren events near you.

Follow Stephanie on Twitter at @stephanixmedina.

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Iowa for Warren

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