Stories to inspire

Marshalltown leaders speak at Iowa Latino Day on the Hill

T-R PHOTOS BY ADAM SODDERS ABOVE: Marshalltown resident and former U.S. Special Ambassador to Latin America Carlos Portes was among the main speakers at the first Iowa Latino Day on the Hill event Thursday at the State Capitol Building in Des Moines. He described his journey as a boy from Cuba to Florida to Marshalltown, and encouraged the youth in attendance to follow their dreams. BELOW: About 30 students from Marshalltown Schools attended the event. The group consisted of Miller Middle School and Marshalltown High School students, all part of the district’s Al Éxito Latino-focused student organization.

DES MOINES — Cheers erupted from the second floor rotunda of the Iowa State Capitol Building Thursday as the first Iowa Latino Day on the Hill brought speakers sharing their stories.

“There is a great deal of power in storytelling,” said former U.S. Special Ambassador to Latin America and Marshalltown resident Carlos Portes, one of the event’s main speakers.

He took the audience sitting and standing in the rotunda through his journey from Cuba to the United States as a boy; he told the story to inspire the many young Latino students in attendance.

“In 1960, when Cuba was taken over by the Castro brothers, they passed a constitutional amendment that basically said that any child 10 years of age or older was now going to be property of the government and not the parents,” Portes said. “The Catholic Church created a program to see how they could help try to get some of these children out of Cuba.”

That program was dubbed Operation Peter Pan. Portes alluded to the operation’s namesake during his speech.

“For that Peter Pan boy, or those Peter Pan girls, you have to dream,” he said. “Never, absolutely never, take your eyes off those dreams.”

Portes also spoke about how he organized a Lions Club in New York after his biological parents moved to the state. He described how me met future president Jimmy Carter through the organization, and his service as the campaign’s coordinator for minority affairs and his eventual post as special ambassador.

“From there, it was about opening doors, it was about making a difference,” Portes said. “It was about doing the advocacy work that we all need to do as community members; volunteering is extremely important because of the people you meet and the satisfaction that you get.”

He encouraged the young Latinos in attendance to create and follow their dreams.

Among those young people at the Day on the Hill were 30 Marshalltown High School and Miller Middle School students. They were part of the district’s Al Éxito student organization.

“I think it’s going to be a good experience, to be able to learn things and talk to legislators,” said MHS senior Rosa Yanez. “I’m feeling pretty confident about it.”

Younger students also said they were excited about the opportunity.

“I’ve only been around the capitol, but I’ve never actually been in to talk to legislators,” said Miller eighth-grader Álvaro Martínez. “I feel it’s very important for us, I feel like we should be here, and the legislators should listen to us.”

Fellow eighth-grader Kiara Juarez also said she had never been to the capitol building before.

“It makes me really feel like I have an important role in society and that we all have something to say,” she said. “I care a lot about education, making sure all Latinos and all people have an opportunity to go to college and have a career.”

State House Minority Leader Rep. Mark Smith, D-Marshalltown, also shared some remarks during the program. The story he told had to do with Marshalltown’s recent immigration history.

“I moved to Marshall County in the fall of 1986 to work in the community mental health center there,” he said, adding it was a time of tribulation for Marshalltown, with rifts between laborers and employers in the community. “People in the community were taking sides; it was an ugly time to move to a beautiful community.”

It wasn’t long before new faces began appearing in town.

“What we saw after that is that, gradually, there started to be more and more people in our community whose first language was Spanish,” Smith said. “This kind of came without preparation in our community.”

He recalled hearing comments about the new residents “stealing jobs,” among other divisive language. However, he said much has changed in the last few decades.

“[Former] Gov. Tom Vilsack found some money to do $50,000 grants to various communities in Iowa, to become more welcoming and to reach out and address new Iowans,” Smith said, adding that event took place around the year 2000. “What happened over the following years is that … many people of Latino heritage became involved in all levels of our community.”

He added that Marshalltown “now reflects the faces of Iowa.”

Other speakers at the event included Gov. Kim Reynolds, state Sen. Matt McCoy, Iowa Department of Human Rights Director San Wong and more.


Contact Adam Sodders at (641) 753-6611 or