Written by Nathaniel Otjen (B.A. University of Iowa, 2016)
As Iowa’s earliest barrios sprung into being along the Mississippi River in the Quad Cities, Mexican immigrants in Iowa City created this town’s first Mexican neighborhood. The barrio developed along the railroad tracks near the freight depot and stockyards that were located between South Dodge Street and South Van Buren Street. It quickly spread east and west to encompass roughly a four-block area. During the two-decade lifetime of this community, barrio residents raised families and formed lasting relationships with one another.
The first Mexicans to live in Iowa City arrived in 1917 to work for the local railroad company. The Chicago Rock Island and Pacific Railway recruited several single men to work as section laborers on the tracks that ran east-west through Iowa City. Like other railroad companies in Iowa during this time, they provided boxcars for these newcomers to live in. The first boxcars were clustered just several yards north and south of the railroad tracks near the freight depot and stockyards. During the barrio’s formative years, reporters at the Iowa City Daily Citizen newspaper chronicled regular incidents of gambling and fighting. It would have been a noisy and dangerous place to live and work.
In an attempt to curb the violence that characterized this boxcar barrio, the Chicago Rock Island and Pacific Railway soon began hiring Mexican men with young families. The first families moved to Iowa City in 1921 and, like the single men who preceded them, lived in boxcars beside the railroad tracks. These boxcar homes were located just south of the tracks and just east of the South Dodge Street viaduct. Articles describing the dangers of this barrio soon disappeared entirely from the Daily Citizen.
While the Mexican families helped temper the violent and masculinist milieu that previously defined this place, they posed new challenges for the railroad company. Citing concerns about the safety of children who played near the railroad tracks, the company moved several families a few hundred feet west into small, one-room wooden buildings that have been described as “garage-like structures” and “shanties” by the families who used to live in these dwellings. These structures lacked electricity and running water, and were equipped with a single kerosene lamp for light and a wood stove for heat. From the early 1930s to 1936, at least five Mexican families lived in these wooden homes in the area that is now Oak Grove Park.
Physical labor defined life in this barrio throughout the early to mid-1930s. Mothers sewed, knitted, cooked, cleaned, and washed laundry while looking after their children. Fathers collected water, cut wood for the stove, and worked on the railroad. Collectively, families brought food to the homeless folks who gathered under the Dodge Street viaduct.
The barrio finally disbanded in 1936 when the Chicago Rock Island and Pacific Railway compelled these Mexican families to relocate. Worried about the impoverished appearance of this neighborhood and frustrated with the barrage of complaints issued by Iowa Citians, the railroad company destroyed many of the boxcars and wooden shanties that had previously been homes. The Mexican families were forced to rent homes in the immediate area. They encountered discrimination from Anglo landlords and struggled to find suitable housing. This relocation abruptly dissolved Iowa City’s first barrio.
In 1928, the family of María Cano Martinez moved to Iowa City and lived in the boxcar neighborhood on Dodge Street. Her father worked on a section crew with the Rock Island Railroad. In 1975, María became the first director and first full-time interpreter for the University of Iowa Hospital & Clinics (UIHC) Interpreter Services program. Her brother Vincent Cano wrote a memoir, "Leno and María: A Success Story," describing the history and experiences of the Cano family. It is preserved in the Iowa Women's Archives.