Nearly one in 10 Council Bluffs residents is Latino, but many of them still feel invisible.
A slowly building grass-roots effort aims to replace that feeling with empowerment. Members of the “Comite Fuerza y Unión” — strength and unity committee — hope to gain the knowledge they need to advocate for themselves and become leaders in Council Bluffs.
The effort is led by the University of Nebraska at Omaha's Office of Latino/Latin American Studies, which started the committee after its study last year found a need to develop Latino leadership.
“This is a very vulnerable population that can't always have their rights be heard and observed,” said Lourdes Gouveia, director of UNO's Latino studies office.
The best way to address that problem, Gouveia said, is to build leaders within the Bluffs' Latino community.
Through a grant from the Iowa West Foundation, the UNO office hired a community organizer to conduct workshops to educate people about basic rights and services: whom to call if your garbage isn't getting picked up, where to file housing discrimination complaints, and how to interact with the police.
Organizer Claudia Lucero-Mead recruited participants from those workshops and area churches to join the committee, now about a dozen strong and looking to grow.
They gather once or twice a month, either at a member's house or at the office of Centro Latino, a social services organization. They meet at night, when its members have clocked out for the day, sipping coffee and eating pastries while their children play and watch movies.
Lucero-Mead, who was a community organizer in Chicago before joining UNO's Office of Latino/Latin American Studies last year, said members are enthused and eager to do more.
“While we are helping them in this process of developing their leadership skills, this is going to be a hands-on experience,” Lucero-Mead said.
Members plan to spend some weekends passing out fliers at supermarkets and stores, letting other residents know about the committee. They have been brainstorming questions for the police chief, who they hope to meet with to create more mutual understanding.
The grass-roots effort grew out of “Invisible & Voiceless: Latinos in Council Bluffs, Iowa.” The report, produced last year by Gouveia's office, found recognition among the city's leaders that employers rely on the immigrant workforce and that immigrants often work two or three times as hard for the same pay as others.
There are few, if any, Spanish speakers in local government, or Spanish-language GED classes nearby, though the school system employs an interpreter. Interactions with the rest of Council Bluffs are peaceful, Latino residents say, but superficial, because they live separate lives.
Many Latinos said they wanted to play a role in the broader community, where they make up almost 9 percent of the population and about 15 percent of students in its schools. Study participants also recognized they need better English skills and more understanding of their rights.
And the residents told researchers that for undocumented immigrants, many who came to Council Bluffs for work in the food-processing plants, meatpacking factories or casinos, speaking up about bad landlords, bad employers or interaction with police is too dangerous.
Council Bluffs Police Chief Ralph O'Donnell said he hasn't heard any complaints about interaction between his officers and Latinos, and he's looking forward to starting a dialogue if there are issues he can address.
“They are the largest-growing population in the city of Council Bluffs and they are members of this community,” O'Donnell said. “We want to work with them.”
Sofia Sandoval, director of the Centro Latino office, spends most of her time helping clients with basic needs such as setting up doctor appointments and helping find child care or other services. But she hears often from residents who struggle with housing, saying potential landlords fear renting to them.
“Unless you know your rights, people will take advantage of you, whether you're documented or not,” Sandoval said.
One recent evening, LuceroMead led a discussion of leadership: What qualities do leaders have? What are some ways you already show leadership with families and friends? What are some problems you could help fix in your own neighborhoods?
Sabrina Escamilla worries about the future of her husband, who is undocumented, and fears that even a traffic stop could send him back to Mexico. They come together to committee meetings.
“I want to see what I can do to help my family, and maybe others who need that help, too,” Escamilla said.
Those are the reasons that Guadalupe comes, too, and already she feels she is helping. Guadalupe, who asked that her last name be withheld because she's undocumented, volunteers with her church. Since word got out there that she's part of the UNO committee, other congregants have been coming to her for help when they need to explain something to their children's teachers or when the police pull them over.
She speaks some English, so with the teachers, she can help. For the police, she still needs to know more.
“I like to help,” she said. “I recognize that's a lot of work. I am not scared about that.”