Barrios & Neighborhoods

In the early twentieth century, Mexicans settled in working-class neighborhoods (barrios) across Iowa.  They built communities in Des Moines in central Iowa, Council Bluffs in the west, and Fort Madison in the south.  In the northern part of the state, they settled in Sioux City, Manly, and Mason City. They lived in barrios in the Quad Cities region of the Mississippi River - in East Moline, Moline, Rock Island, and Silvis on the Illinois side, and in Davenport and Bettendorf on the Iowa side. By the 1920s, Mexicans had also settled in small enclaves in Iowa City, West Liberty, and Muscatine.  As this new generation of immigrants established communities and raised families, Iowa's Mexican population rose steadily from around 500 in 1910 to about 2,600 in 1925.

Ethnically concentrated neighborhoods were not unique to Mexicans. Earlier generations of immigrants to Iowa - whether Italians in Des Moines or Germans in Muscatine - had also lived in specific neighborhoods in concentrated numbers. Segregation was often the product of a desire to build ethnic community and preserve cultural traditions. But it could also become entrenched when a particular community found that obstacles to employment opportunities and upward mobility prevented them from moving into more affluent neighborhoods.

Segregated living conditions and limited employment opportunities reflect how, by the early twentieth century, Iowa employers and communities had racialized Mexicans as "other" and "non-white." Residents in barrio neighborhoods filled low-wage jobs with harsh working conditions and little opportunity for advancement.  They lived near and in railroad yards or on the outskirts of towns in areas close to rivers that flooded regularly, often adjacent to city dumps. Some lived in company housing and paid rent to their employers; others owned their own homes and paid land rent to landowners.

Faced with discrimination and austere living conditions, barrio residents developed a strong sense of community. Women often formed the backbone of tight-knit neighorhoods, supporting each other through difficult times and preserving customs and traditions from their homeland. They worked as primary caretakers and supplemented family incomes by taking in laundry and sewing, cooking, cultivating garden plots, and raising small livestock. Some assumed responsibilities as primary breadwinners when faced with the death, illness or abandonment of a spouse. Their employment opportunities were often limited to jobs in low-wage factories and hotels.