Feeling unwelcome in his hometown, our new columnist finds an unlikely haven for Latino immigrants in the Iowa heartland

It hit me in Muscatine, Iowa: My native Arizona has become the meanest patch of dirt in the Union.

Go ahead; accuse me of blaring sweeping perceptions about an entire community. That never stops any married, white-haired, pearly-toothed Republican man who licks pole on the down-low. So why should it stop me?

Anyhow, in this case, mean is as mean does.

Last fall, I spent three months crisscrossing America while performing in a national tour for a Tempe-based children's theater company. Our show went to towns big and small, brown and white, conservative and liberal, from the North to the South, hick to hip.

I loved my show. I played Tomás Rivera in a stage adaptation of a children's book that chronicles his life. Rivera was the first Latino chancellor at UC Riverside and an accomplished writer and scholar. He was also a campesino. He came from brown, Spanish-speaking immigrant parents who lugged the family across our great land to pick crops. Even though Rivera was born in the States, it seems people equate migrant workers with all things bad. And I must admit that I feared anti-immigrant backlash would spit venom on our cast at some point along the tour.

But that never happened.

In fact, during my travels, I learned that there is no place in the U.S. right now — including the South, which is peppered with the remains of black churches burned by racists — that treats people of color with such disdain as Arizona.

My home state had become the premier battleground for ugly.

Muscatine, incidentally, is a small town in Iowa unsurprisingly surrounded by farm fields and meatpacking plants. Heinz Ketchup bottles its magic sauce here. Mark Twain used to sit on the banks of the Mississippi and watch the sunsets near the town center. If this isn't the heartland of America, I don't know what is.

Admittedly, I was a bit scared of what I would find in Muscatine and other similar small, conservative Midwest towns, in terms of attitudes toward brown people.  

But the year is 2008, Marcos!  Why worry, silly?  Um, I'm brown in this Arizona town.

Who knew I would need to ponder pigmentation back home?

In Muscatine, Latino people find their way to farm and factory work. So do people from Liberia, Canada and Europe. Workers have migrated there for much more than 100 years. In fact, during the turn of the last century, there was a gold rush of sorts in Muscatine. People thought the pearl button industry would take off, and it kind of did.

Divers used to harvest the bounty of mussel shells from the banks of the Mississippi, and craftsmen would carve the pearl-esque interior into shirt buttons. You can imagine how long that industry lasted.

What remains, however, is a welcome mat of manners for workers still arriving to find jobs. Perhaps the most progressive example of this spirit sits on the fading main street in the Muscatine old town square. It's called The New Iowan Center.

It turns out you can find New Iowan Centers all across the state. The state of Iowa provides the funding. At these centers, all people — undocumented, brown, whatever — can find help with job searches, housing, and language classes. Iowans don't even stoop to name-calling.  The words "illegal" and "alien" are reserved for bank robbers and Martians.

A favorite eatery in the town is Restaurante Guadalajara, which closes every summer so the family can go cook for the campesinos in the fields. The New Iowan Center even helped the business get started.

Wow! Iowa likes brown people, and they all (brown and brown-challenged folks) live with each other, in spite of each other. That's not to say there isn't fear or dislike, but those base emotions are balanced with healthy doses of good neighborly cheer and gratitude toward workers who keep the state's main industries afloat.

Fast forward to the end of the tour. I got home in time for the holidays and to see the start of the employer-sanctions law. Pride is watching your home state stoop to a new level of fugly.

Let's sing: "My country 'tis A-Z . . ."

It's where people essentially feel entitled to turn brown folk into indentured servants on one hand, while figuratively (not literally) tying them to legal lynch mob trees in the name of patriotism.

That's mean. That's mean. That's mean. And so goes the employer-sanctions law. According to the new rule of the land, businesses that knowingly hire undocumented workers are now breaking the law, as of the start of this year.

Look, I get it. We all want to fix our broken borders. None of us wants another 9/11. We want our laws to be respected.

That, I can honor. I respect the laws of our country. I don't like terrorists, and I do think we should deal with Arizona's unemployment rate that hovers dangerously close to the 5 percent national rate.

But why can't we be Muscatine? Why can't we have New Arizonan Centers? The day labor centers aren't enough. At best, those are nothing more than park ramadas where you might hold a barbecue on a Sunday afternoon. And at worst, they are nothing more than a place to hide my dirty brown brethren who might as well be on an auction block in the town square.

I take it back. Here in Arizona, we aren't mean. We are just melancholic and nostalgic for the '50s.

The 1850s.

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Marcos Najera
Contact: Marcos Najera