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Thursday, May 5, 2016

Hispanics change face of small-city business

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

City leaders thought the teal blue paint at La Magdalena, a Mexican grocery on lower Main Street, was too bright, too loud. The building's wooden siding seemed out of place amid its red brick neighbors.

"It looked too much like Mexico. But then, they said, 'Maybe that's OK,'" said Christine Feagan, director of Hispanic Ministries at St. Mary's Catholic Church. "I think they started to realize these people were a part of their community, that the economy depends on them. And these businesses were something they could identify with."

The town's Hispanic population has risen by 300 percent over the past decade, many of them Mexican immigrants drawn by the Swift & Co. meatpacking plant, where 97 percent of the 2,200 workers are Hispanic. Hispanics now comprise about 20 percent of the town's 30,000 population.

In the past five years, about 25 new Hispanic-owned businesses have opened in previously boarded up commercial spaces in Marshalltown, breathing new life into a small-town economy gasping since the farm crisis of the 1980s.

But with this growth comes growing pains.

Mayor Floyd Harthund said businesses sometimes open without informing the city. Some entrepreneurs, including some seamstresses, caterers and hairdressers, work at home in violation of city ordinances.

"The problem is there's no zoning in Mexico, and there's a distrust of the Mexican government because of corruption that has carried over," Harthund said. "But we have zoning, for instance, that says you can't operate a business in an area that's zoned residential. We have rules and regulations."

The mayor said it has been difficult to get Hispanics to come to City Hall to discuss their business plans, but it's impossible for the city to ignore violations after they occur.

Such conflicting notions can cause tension, said Luisa Ortega, who runs two businesses in Marshalltown.

"They want to see your business proposal, and your five-year plan," she said of city officials. "But we say, we know our people and we know what will work."

In the case of La Magdalena, the issue was resolved at a hearing between store owner Jose Angel Regalado, his attorney, city staff, the Chamber of Commerce and an interpreter.

"They told me, 'You can't do this. You can't paint your building this color, it doesn't fit in with our downtown,'" said store owner Jose Angel Regalado. "I bought this building. I fixed it up. I couldn't understand. I didn't know I had to get permission to paint my own building."

Regalado worked nine years at the local meat processing plant before saving up enough money to start a business. He was shocked by the summons from the city.

"This was all very new to me," Regalado said. "I see now there's a lot of things to learn."

Several years ago, Marshalltown officials turned to Storm Lake educators, media and local government for help in learning to deal with Hispaic immigration. As more Hispanic families settle in Marshalltown, their community has become more stable. A growing number of immigrants are applying for permanent residency and there's a growing interest in learning English, Feagan said.

The surrounding community also has grown more accepting, although there's a long way to go, Feagan said.

"I think a lot of people have this attitude that you're here because we are letting you be here. So the Hispanics never really feel wanted, which is why I think they haven't bought into the idea that 'This is our community,'" Feagan said.

Ramon and Jose Lopez, like many others in town, crossed the border illegally more than 20 years ago. Ramon, the older of the two, came first and then sent for his 12-year-old brother, Jose. They have since earnes American citizenship.

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