"A Little Salsa on the Prairie: The Changing Character of Perry, Iowa"
The complexion of once predominantly white Perry, Iowa, was changed dramatically in the early 1990s by an influx of Latino workers and their families from as far away as Texas, California, Mexico and Central America. How did the community respond? And how did these new arrivals, who came to labor in the packing plant, react to the landscape and culture?
Jody Swilky, professor of English at Drake University, and Kent Newman, an independent producer-director, have co-produced "A Little Salsa on the Prairie: The Changing Character of Perry, Iowa," a documentary that chronicles this culture change. Perry's Latino population went from 47 in 1990 to 1,873 in 2000, accounting for 24.5 percent of the total population. Perry is representative of many rural communities in the Midwest that experienced rapid ethnic diversification during the 1980s and 90s, primarily due to changes in the livestock and meat packing industry.
The film premieres in the Des Moines area at 5:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 22, at the Sierra Theater, 1618 22nd St., West Des Moines. The 55-minute film will be shown in English on one screen and in Spanish on another. Tickets, available at the door, are $2. Limited seating is available.
On Sunday, Oct., 15, the film had its premiere in Perry at the Grand Theater. "The premiere went well. We had a good-sized audience for the English show and a smaller one for the Latino show," said Newman, owner of Full Spectrum Productions and president of the Iowa Motion Picture Association.
The documentary also will be featured at the statewide Latino conference in Des Moines Oct. 27-28. It has been submitted to Iowa Public Television for broadcast and review by other PBS affiliates nationwide, and will be entered in numerous film festivals over the next year.
Exploring the past, present and future of Perry, the film begins with a historical examination of the city, particularly immigration, ethnicity and industry, including the rise and fall of the railroad and the emergence of meat packing as the major employer in the 1960s. It then looks at recent changes in the economy, society and physical environment that arose due to Latino immigration. In conclusion, the film documents a bilingual dialog process concerned with the city's future, especially immigration, community change and improving communication among diverse residents.
Latino newcomers found communication a challenge, the documentary illustrates. “I remember feeling afraid to answer the door or to answer the telephone because I was not able to speak the language,” Perry resident Rosa Morales de Gonzalez says.
Even Latinos who spoke English sometimes found themselves stereotyped by longtime townspeople.
“When I got here to Perry,” says resident Vivian de Gonzalez, “people would look at me and say, ‘You know, she's Spanish-speaking, she doesn't understand.’ But I did speak English, and I am an American. I've had to prove myself not only once, but twice — not only to my own people but to the Anglo population too.”
The rapid changes in the makeup of the community proved unsettling to some longtime residents as well.
"There was no hatred, not at all — but there was a lot of unknown," says longtime resident John Palmer, who has worked at the packing plant for 38 years.
The film was co-produced by Swilky and Newman with funding from Humanities Iowa, the Iowa Arts Council, Drake University, a family foundation, businesses in Perry and individual donors.