February 11, 2011 | WCF Courier | Original Article

Census shows Latino boom in Iowa

WATERLOO, Iowa --- When Laura De Gomez moved to Waterloo from Mexico in the late 1990s, she had to drive two hours to find familiar food and culture.

"It used to be, when I arrived, just a few of us," De Gomez said about the Latino population. Things have changed in Waterloo with an influx of other immigrants and numbers released in the 2010 census Thursday reflect that.

The census shows the Hispanic and Latino population in Waterloo more than doubled --- from 1,806 to 3,827 --- since 2000.

Gomez, owner of Salsa restaurant and Rodeo Moda y Mas retail store, moved here after she began visiting Iowa to see her father, who worked in Columbus Junction. Her father moved to Iowa for work, and she found the state inviting.

"Iowa is very embracing," she said.

Jobs have been the main draw for Latinos and Hispanics, said Michele Devlin, a University of Northern Iowa professor and director of the Iowa center on health disparities. Agriculture processing jobs have drawn thousands of workers from Mexico and other Latin American countries over the last two decades.

De Gomez pointed to the Tyson plant in Waterloo as an example, but noted recent economic hard times have brought Latino and Hispanic people from California. The cost of living in the Iowa is also a draw.

"Sometimes there will be people who come here on contract and they see it's more affordable to live here and they stay," De Gomez said.

Having an established Latino and Hispanic community can encourage temporary workers to make the area a permanent home, she added.

"I think it's like any group," she said. "Anytime you go to a place and you find your language, food and clothes, you feel more comfortable."

The larger, more established communities also means more influence for Latinos, Devlin said.

"I think it will contribute to them being able to have more voice," she said, adding communities will have to continue to address barriers members of the Hispanic and Latino communities. Providing resources or interpretation services are a couple examples, she said.

Cedar Falls also saw an increase in Latino and Hispanic population by about 400 people to 771.

The increase follows the state-wide trend in which the Latino and Hispanic population jumped more than 83 percent from 82,473 in 2000 to 151,544 in 2010.

"We are now at the point where we literally have thousands within a community," Devlin said. "It's reaching a critical mass."