Campaigning to be re-elected as president in 1932, Herbert Hoover made a speech at the small town of West Liberty, Iowa, just a few miles from his birthplace in southeast Iowa. From the rear platform of his special train, he extolled life on the farm, particularly such delights of childhood as “the mud-lined swimming hole” and “sliding down hills on one’s tummy.”
These were not the delights of childhood for Chuy Renteria, the author of We Heard It When We Were Young (University of Iowa Press, 2021. 218 pp.) Growing up in the 1990s in West Liberty as a child of Mexican immigrants, he was more likely to be trying to start his father’s ancient lowrider or practicing break-dance moves in the local trailer park with Hispanic and Laotian buddies. Hoover’s nostalgia for rural innocence would not do in the town of today, where more than half the population of 3,900 are Hispanic or Latino and where residents are more likely to work at the meat-processing plant than down on the farm.
Renteria gives his readers a rich, complicated picture of that town. West Liberty has been hailed as an early and unlikely (for Iowa) amalgam of ethnicities, but Renteria deplores an embrace of the town’s diversity that focuses on its superficial attractions. Being content with what he calls “the three Fs: Food, Festivals and Fun” is “celebration before the battle is won” and “ignores our struggles and cultural dissonance.” His memoir puts those struggles front and center.
Some of them arise on the playground, where outright racism flares. Walking home from school as a 10-year-old, Renteria is subjected to horrific racial taunts and absorbs the message of hatred as “one of the great and horrible lessons of human nature.” Violence is all around him; he calls it normal and participates in it as “hoodlumizing,” smashing car windows and slashing tires. Sometimes it impacts his sense of self, sometimes defines his relations to others. For years he endures regular beatings by his older sister Nancy, and his memories of his parents’ fighting are seared on his brain. By the time he is a teenager he has friends who are dead or in jail.
Growing up in West Liberty is not uniformly bleak. While the diversity of West Liberty adds a layer of complexity to familiar coming-of-age agonies, it also fosters opportunities more often found in urban settings. When Renteria ventures into break dancing, it is with a Laotian boy outside of his “friend group.” He goes to work at the local Casey’s—one in a chain of convenience stores that is an Iowa institution—where he puts his special touch on taco pizzas. Teachers and other adults bridge ethnic chasms to connect with their charges.
Renteria is keenly observant of the dynamics of his town, particularly the stratifications of the young.
There were the vatos Nancy hung out with. Kids who thought they were, or actually were, gangbangers. There were the paisa kids like my cousin Tito who love the norteño music and culture of our parents and dressed up in cowboy boots and hats. Then there were the friend groups like ours. Mexicans who mixed with the white and Asian kids in town. We leaned into the small-town traditions, football and homecoming.
This quality of concise, but granular, attention to his social environment carries over as he describes his own behavior. He reflects on his attraction to break dancing and to the role it played in his maturation.
I suspect that breaking saved my life, that it saved me from my own worst impulses, from the path of destruction and loneliness I was going down. It provided an identity and an alternative to all the other endeavors in town that didn’t quite speak to me anymore: drinking, football, vandalism. They all drifted away when I started to break.
His discovery continues to engage him; he is still proud to be a b-boy, now teaching and performing at the University of Iowa.
Part of the considerable power of Renteria’s narrative is that it uses stories of youthful conflict and confusion to convey moral growth—through his friendships, his family loyalties, his commitment to his community. In this respect, it is like classic American novels that explore the immigrant child’s struggle for identity and agency—The House on Mango Street and Call It Sleep come to mind. Whether fiction or memoir, these stories remind us that in every era young people adapt, however painfully, to demographic transition.
In West Liberty this transition is proceeding apace. Just this month local election results determined that the city council will have a majority of Hispanic members, apparently a first for Iowa. Renteria now lives in Iowa City but comes home to visit his parents. Perhaps he will see this new political power as more significant in local development than childhood parades that featured “the three Fs in spades.”
Diana R. Gordon is a retired political science professor. She is the author of Village of Immigrants: Latinos in an Emerging America (2015, Rutgers University Press).