An Iowa immigrant experience

Beginning in the final decades of the last century, West Liberty, Iowa, gained a certain amount of national notoriety as the first majority Hispanic town in the state. A lot of those media reports are idealistic in their tone, portraying the town as an example of how disparate cultures can work together. Left unsaid was the fact that while the population was multi-cultural, the power structure of the town remained firmly in white hands. (That finally changed last year, as West Liberty became the first town in Iowa with a majority Latino city council.)

Chuy Renteria grew up in West Liberty as the youngest son of first-generation Mexican-Americans, and he knows the truth is both simpler and more complex than those drive-by media stories. His memoir, We Heard It When We Were Young (2021) is bracingly honest about the racism he and his friends (both Hispanic and Laotian) experienced, as well as some of the things they did as youngsters that were less than wholesome. He writes honestly about the conflicts and tensions within his own family, and the awkwardness he felt because his father spoke little English and Chuy spoke little Spanish.

He never tries to make excuses or justify the things that he did, but it’s clear that they have caused him some ongoing emotional baggage that he still carries.

There are two questions I ruminate on in my passing age. One is whether I had a “good” childhood. Which is such a complicated question for anyone, but for us growing up the way we did in West Lib, it’s all compounded. We had a unique, celebratory, maddening, surreal, horrific childhood — often all at once.

The other question is whether or not I am a good person. Writing it here brings up a spark of anxiety, because I want to excuse all the bad things I’ve done. I want to scream out about all the horrible things that have happened to me. I want to convey what it was like to be a little kid and have a grown up call me a “wetback” and a “spic”. But in that same breath I need to also scream out about Eric {a friend who was treated poorly by the rest of their group}. It would be easy to let the incriminating stuff fall by the wayside, to paint this picture of utopia in small-town form. Or to color ourselves as forever victims. We were the scrappy kids fighting against boredom and racists. … But that’s not the whole truth, right? We were also fighting against innocence. We were fighting against ourselves. And in that fight we hurt a lot of people

I really appreciated the opportunity to learn more about a lived experience that exists right down the highway from where I live, especially the ways that there is no universal “minority experience” here or probably anywhere. I know better than to think I now understand all first-generation immigrants because I know what a group of Hispanic kids experienced in 1990s Iowa. But knowing what you don’t know is the first step toward true understanding.

The way that Chuy found his way back to himself, so to speak, was his participation in high school and beyond in the break dancing scene. I felt like I learned quite a bit more than I needed to about the intricacies of break dancing moves and competitions, but at the same time it gave me the sense of how completely he immersed himself into that culture, and that ways it helped him focus on what his future could be.

I’ll finish by saying that I was unhappily surprised by some pretty sloppy editing throughout, especially considering the book was published by the University of Iowa Press. I wish Chuy had been better served by his editor and publisher, which could have helped his story have even more impact. But even in its imperfect state, it still delivers an emotional payoff that will stay with me for a long time.

Published by Julia

I learned to read before I started kindergarten, and I haven't stopped yet.

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