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Hispanics help revive heartland town in Iowa

April 12, 2013 at 10:26 AM ET

Video: Back in the 1990s, Ottumwa, Iowa, was in a population decline when a meat processing plant began recruiting Latino workers. Now the city is 11 percent Latino, reflecting an overall demographic shift across the U.S. NBC’s Natalie Morales reports.

In 1980, just 200 Hispanics lived in Ottumwa, Iowa. Today, the heartland town has come to mirror the increased diversity around the country, as Hispanics now account for 11% of the population of the small town of nearly 25,000.

Originally drawn by blue-collar jobs and opportunities for better lives, Latino immigrants migrated to this quiet town during the 1990s and played a key role in reversing its population and economic decline.

I think Hispanics are part of the mix of the revival of Ottumwa,” Himar Hernandez, one of the community’s first Hispanics, told TODAY's Natalie Morales in a segment that aired Friday.

“They were new so they were bringing new ideas, and new perspectives, and it got everybody energized with the thinking that there's hope for Ottumwa,” he said.

Hernandez came to the town as an exchange student from Spain in 1993. After marrying his high school sweetheart, he returned to build a life there. He now works for the Iowa State University Extension and Outreach as a community and economic development specialist who helps Latinos learn the business skills necessary to fulfill the American dream.

Jose Rodas, who came to Ottumwa to work for Cargill, a meat processing plant that began recruiting Latino workers long ago to help meet growing workforce needs.

Recently, Rodas also opened his own tortilla shop, one of 25 new businesses owned by Latinos in the town.

“They’ve become business owners, they bought homes and are really becoming part of the community,” said former Ottumwa mayor, Dale Uehling.

Elsa Urrutea, who grew up homeless in El Salvador, worked numerous jobs in this Iowa town before eventually owning her own bakery.

I feel homey,” she said. “I don't know what else to say but I'm happy here.”

The 57-year-old U.S. citizen raised four children in Ottumwa, including a son now serving in the Army. I tell them, ‘I brought you to this country to be somebody. I want you to have what I didn't have in my country,’" she said.

Urrutea’s children are among a generation of Latinos that have filled Ottumwa schools, where one in every five students is Hispanic.

“Just having the diversity in our classrooms has given our students great insight into the world,” said Davis Eidahl, superintendent of the Ottumwa Community Schools.

The learning continues outside of school, too, thanks to a program operated by Mary Ann Reiter. She helps organize trips from Ottumwa to Guatemala and Mexico so that residents can learn more about the cultural background of their neighbors.

“Our favorite immersion trip, I think, is the first time we went to Guatemala because we were connected with a family in Antigua, Guatemala, that had relatives here who we knew from church,” she said. “We were welcomed as if we were family members.”

Dana Warnecke, an Ottumwa school principle, said all the changes have proved to be blessing for the community.

“It has just been a good thing for Ottumwa,” she said. “The cultural diversity has helped us all.”

TODAY'sVivian Felcontributed to this report.

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