Let's Talk Human Rights Blog - June 2018

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    In this month's "Let's Talk Human Rights" blog:

    • We Must Ask Ourselves: What Does it Mean to be Iowan? by Bailey Matlock
    • June is Immigrant Heritage Month

    We Must Ask Ourselves: 

    What Does it Mean to be Iowan?

    Growing up in Indianola, Iowa, a town mostly homogeneous in demographics, lent me three distinct identities which closely aligned with others around me - being white, Christian, and a middle class citizen. From my understanding my parents were descendants of Great Britain and Canada, but beyond that I can’t be sure. My mother grew up in Stuart, Iowa and stayed there a majority of her life; however my father’s agnostic, nuclear family moved around quite a bit until he finally settled in Iowa after receiving his M.D. My mother grew up with five sisters and was supported by her father’s income (he was a farmer), which meant that they did not have much. My mother’s family was considered poor but still gave abundantly to their community and church due to their Christian faith. My parents met, married in the church, and moved to Indianola, Iowa to pursue my father’s career and my mother’s master’s degree in education. My parents were fortunate to work hard so that by the time they had me they could afford a nice home with a few acres of land in the country where I began to grow.

    I spent my entire adolescence in Indianola - attending an all-white elementary, middle school and high school - that was until two students from Guadalajara, Mexico enrolled at the high school my sophomore year. The life my parent’s created for us was advantageous enough to provide our family with travel opportunities to many different places allowing me to experience a variety of cultures and people. But, being completely honest, the first time I saw the two in the hall I was caught off guard. For 12 years I had gone to school with kids that only looked like me. I never had to ask what made me, my parents, or my family different from my classmates. I never had to ask myself or those around me what it meant to be a white, middle-class Christian from Indianola, because (for the noticeable majority) everyone else fell into that same demographic. 

    Luckily for me, the two befriended me and we became quick friends. Soon our friendship evolved into many nights spent at the Ruiz household - eating Mama Monica’s homemade gorditas, loudly debating whose caballo in their stable was the best, and testing my mediocre high school Spanish skills. Each night was filled with laughter, unity, and a sense of family which I was missing greatly at home for a multitude of different reasons. I am extremely lucky for the love and cultural teachings I learned in those years at the Ruiz household, but not everyone in Indianola, Iowa became friends quickly with the Ruiz kids. I soon found out that Amairani and Mateo were treated very differently by teachers and other students that went to our school.

    I was outraged and had forgotten my initial thoughts of the Ruiz kids because I now viewed the two as my friends instead of them not being a part of the heterogeneous norm in Indianola, Iowa. Amairani and Mateo were treated inferior to other students since English was not their first language, even though they were perfectly fluent; and were placed in classes that insulted their intelligence levels. Luckily, the two were resilient and advanced ahead of a majority of the native speakers in English classes, took college credit courses, and both began taking other foreign languages courses making them trilingual. While the two handled these turbulent situations with a brave face, I did not. I often found myself having to hold my tongue in front of my friends and teachers as to not cause a scene.

    Amairani and I frequently had conversations about why she didn’t speak out against our friends who called her ‘beaner’, ‘mexi’, and other racial slurs or against professors who anytime wanted knowledge about a foreign country deferred to her and Mateo. Since Amairani had immigrated to the United States this had become her daily norm. While it was hurtful to her and her family, what choice did they really have? Every single day they had to navigate what it meant to be not part of the Indianola demographic majority. I can only imagine how exhausting it must have been for her to explain to every ‘friend’ how degrading those terms made her feel and how ostracizing it could be to explain that she was not the expert on every Latin American country just because she is Latina.

    Through these tough experiences and conversations Amairani became and still is my best friend, which was good because junior year came around and I needed her. The second week into my junior year my mother was diagnosed with T-Cell Lymphoma Leukemia, an extremely rare blood cancer. My mother was my idol, my best friend, realistically my only parent since my father worked a lot. The more I was forced to confront the reality that my mother would not always be there, the more I struggled and questioned my identity. What did it mean to be white, if it made my best friend feel uncomfortable? What did it mean to have faith in the midst of my biggest tragedy? What did it mean to live a middle class life if it meant I never saw my father due to his busy work schedule? While I contemplated these things, my mother received various forms of treatment, but her cancer finally overcame her in the summer after my first year at Drake University.

    After the death of my Mother the only thing I could think to do was go back to the normalcy of the friends I knew and the community that I was comfortable in. I talked to Amairani daily but unfortunately for me, due to financial constraints, Amairani ended up going to a community college in Cedar Rapids where I saw her very sparingly. I completed the fall semester of my sophomore year and decided to run away from my problems, all the way to Spain where I was fortunate enough to study abroad. I knew that my Spanish skills were alright from my many hours of practice at the Ruiz household, but until arriving in Spain, I could not have prepared for what it would be like to live as a noticeable minority.


    I always thought of myself as an individual in Indianola - unique in my own sense. But, to have physical characteristics so different from everyone around you is as unnerving as it is eye-opening. Spanish men and woman characteristically have dark complexions, brown hair, and brown eyes. Many refer to themselves as Moreno, which means “dark” in Spanish. I am a very tall, pale-white woman with blonde curly hair and bright green eyes, not exactly the main demographic of Spain - which meant that I stuck out. Older women on the street would stare at me and mutter “gringa” under their breaths as I walked past. Men would come up to me on the street and act with bold predatory behavior, whether the intention was to intimidate me or not, it succeeded in doing so. Other people would ask me for money saying that since I was white and from the United States, I must be rich. I felt incredibly uncomfortable and understood a little bit more about the pain that was inflicted on Amairani and Mateo daily in Iowa.

    Due to our geographic location in the Midwest and clear lines of segregation, the social significance of being white had never been a previous thought of mine. I knew that Amairani and Mateo’s ethnic culture was different from mine, but I did not understand the significance that belonging to your ethnic group gives you until I wasn’t among all white people. I felt alone, out of place, and didn’t understand the stereotypes that some of the Spanish people I encountered had against me.

    So now that I am back in the states I have decided to speak up in conversations regarding immigrants in Iowa because it is important to do so. Having difficult conversations surrounding identity, inclusion and diversity with one another to reduce the pain inflicted on immigrants and my friends is beneficial because while the community of Indianola may never have had the intention of excluding the Ruiz family, it succeeded in doing so. 

    So we must ask ourselves, Iowa, what does it mean to be Iowan? And what kind of person are you going to be to others?              

    Written by Bailey Matlock, Intern, Office of Asian and Pacific Islander Affairs

    (NOTE: Some names and details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.)

    June is Immigrant Heritage Month

    Iowa's immigrants are part of what makes the state of Iowa the great state that it is. Our individual stories make us unique, but also part of a broader, fuller picture of what it means to be an Iowan. Immigrants are parents, employees, leaders, entrepreneurs, neighbors, teachers, students...we want to hear everyone's story.

    Watch our Facebook and Twitter pages throughout the month of June for our #IowasImmigrants series.


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