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University of Iowa News Release

May 11, 2006

(Photo: Diaz family, Fort Madison, Iowa; from the Iowa Women's Archives, University of Iowa Libraries)

UI Libraries Gathering Stories Of Iowa's Latino Immigrant History

Although Latinos have been a part of Iowa's population since the 19th century, nobody has ever bothered to write down their history.

"There have been so many Latinas who have lived and worked and raised their families here, who have really changed the state of Iowa, but we know so few of their stories," said Karen Mason, curator of the Iowa Women's Archives in the UI Libraries.

Mason hopes that the Mujeres Latinas project of the IWA will correct that. An oral history project, Mujeres Latinas is collecting stories and documents of Latinos, particularly women, who live in Iowa. Archives staff members have interviewed 38 people since the project started in 2004, some of whom came to Iowa from Mexico or the American Southwest, others whose families have been in Iowa for generations.

So far, the research has led to dozens of riveting stories, as well as boxes of family photographs, letters and other historical items.

"People in the community appreciate the importance we place on Latino history," said Rachel Carreón, a librarian who is working on the project. "I've been welcomed into so many homes and often made to feel like family."

Many of Iowa's Latino families can trace their Iowa roots to the first significant wave of immigration to the state in the early decades of the 20th century. Other families came to Iowa in later immigration surges in the 1930s, 1970s and 1990s, a wave that continues to the present time. The earliest immigrants came as railroad workers. The state's oldest Mexican community, in Fort Madison, formed when the Santa Fe railroad recruited workers in Texas and Mexico to work in its rail yard. One resident of Fort Madison gave the Archives an album with photos of El Cometa, the settlement along the river where residents lived in boxcars or in homes made of boxcar lumber.  Later, Mexican-Americans from Texas passed through Iowa each summer to work in the tomato and onion fields of southeast Iowa and the sugar beet and asparagus fields in the north central part of the state. Many migrant workers settled permanently in communities such as Mason City and Muscatine. By mid-century, Latinos were also working in meat-packing plants and a variety of other occupations.

In places like Fort Madison, where immigration began more than a century ago, many of the Mexican-American residents are third and fourth generation American citizens and the community has reflected their presence for many years. But immigration has changed the face of many other Iowa communities recently. Although they make up only 5 percent of Iowa's overall population, Latinos make up as much as 10 percent of the population of Sioux City and 30 percent in Marshalltown. Towns such as Columbus Junction and West Liberty have recently seen significant increases in their Latino populations. 

"When I walk through downtown Columbus Junction, the people, food, and language all remind me of home," said Carreón, a native of San Antonio, Texas.

Mason said the project is ongoing. IWA staff members have attended community events around the state and spoken to individuals and groups, encouraging them to donate materials and tell their stories.

"There's a real urgency to this because so many of these stories were never written down and we want to record them before it's too late," said Mason.

More information about Mujeres Latinas is available online at To participate in the project or to learn more, call the Iowa Women's Archives at (319) 335-5068 or email at

Part of the funding for Mujeres Latinas comes from a Year of Public Engagement grant. President David J. Skorton declared 2005-2006 the Year of Public Engagement, during which the University community is intensifying its efforts and sharpening its focus on engagement with the public at the local, state, national, and international levels. More information is online,

The project also received a 2004 Year of the Arts and Humanities grant from the President's Office and grants from the Iowa Historical Resources Development Program and the State Historical Society, Inc. 

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Service, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 371, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500.

MEDIA CONTACT: Tom Snee, 319-384-0010,