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Arts & Life

Iowa artist Chuy Renteria writes about the impact of small town racism on his childhood

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Hao Zhou
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Jesus "Chuy" Renteria

Chuy Renteria grew up in West Liberty — Iowa's first majority Hispanic town. It's a thriving community that has gotten a lot of attention over the years for embracing its diversity.

Renteria experienced the evolution of this community growing up, and he shares the stories of West Liberty and what it was like to be a first generation Mexican-American in small-town Iowa in the 1990s in his memoir "We Heard It When We Were Young." The book is published by University of Iowa Press. Charity Nebbe spoke with Renteria on Talk of Iowa.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Nebbe: "I want to talk a little bit about the town of West Liberty because this is a personal story. There are so many personal elements to this story, but the town of West Liberty plays a really big role, of course, in your development and how you grew up. Tell me a little bit about when your parents came and what was going on in the community then."

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ill. Zoë Woodworth
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Renteria: "It was such an interesting process to to unpack. This whole book has been a really intense reflection of not only my childhood, but the town that I grew up in. It also mirrors a lot of other communities in Iowa like Columbus Junction, Postville, Mount Pleasant, where they had these immigrant populations come because of meat processing plants that set up. West Liberty actually had, I learned it through research in this process of this book, a tomato canning plant. I forget when the tomato canning plant first got up, but that eventually shifted to turkey processing in the 50s or 60s. Not too long after that, there was a big influx of immigrants. Mainly, immigrants from northern Mexico, like my parents, that came through in the late 60s and early 70s. There is also a contingent in the 70s and 80s of refugees from Southeast Asia. So I grew up with lots of Mexicans, lots of white friends and also lots of Asian friends."

There's this wonderful moment in the book where you talk about taking a field trip from school to the turkey plant and touring the turkey plant. The tour guide was trying to make it fun for you that day, although I can imagine that there were probably some traumatic moments in a turkey plant for some pretty young kids, but at the end of the tour he breaks character and he just talks to you about how difficult it is to work there and how you don't want to do it. Tell me about that moment.

"When it happened, I knew that it was something not normal, or wasn't a normal interaction for an adult to kind of 'Wizard of Oz' style, like, pull back the veil and talk to us, like, real talk style. That plant is the lifeblood of the town in lot of ways. It's a complicated issue because I've had discussions, while I've been doing readings, with people talking to me about it because I still very much understand the importance of that place. I have family that still work there, and so I have to understand that it is a very integral part of our community. But it's also really hard. It's a hard job. It's a hard life to live. And there's this issue of our parents trying to give a better life to their kids. But what happens if their kids work in the same plant that they do? Is there not validity in that? A lot of it has to be kind of a lot of soul searching for myself and making sure that I am looking at things fairly as well. Because there is validity in working in plants like that, and I don't want to give that off, that impression. At the same time, this person felt the need to tell a bunch of kids like, 'Hey, this is hard. If you have the chance, work somewhere else, you know, use your education.' And he was very, very heartfelt when he talked to us about that."

Racism was really a fact of daily life for you growing up in West Liberty, wasn't it?

"It definitely it was. It's this unpacking that I had to do when talking about my town because now that I'm older, a lot of the narrative is celebration. Looking back, I had to pass through these kind of everyday encounters or these encounters that I had on the playground or at school or, you know, outside of my house.

There were many, many moments where you heard racist epithets or even were physically threatened because of racism. But that first story about just walking along the sidewalk in West Liberty is just so devastating. Can you tell us what happened?

"So I was around 10 years old and I was walking from school back home. At the time, the way that the schools were set up, I had to walk past the high school. It's one of those traumatic experiences where I can't really remember before or after. I just remember the moment. And it's right when I jump into in the very beginning of the book where there is this high schooler and his girlfriend behind me in the high school. They were just hurling racial epithets. Just slurs. Just really, really nasty things to this, you know, 10-year-old boy just trying to walk home. Yeah. He was going off and I was looking back and the girl said, 'You can stop .Like, he's only a boy.' And he replied, 'No ... that's when that's when they need to hear it. They need to hear it young.' And in this book, it's an answer to that as a reply to that. Yeah, we did hear that when we were young. The reverberations of that are still manifesting itself in my psyche to this day — some 30 years, or 25 years later."

I think what makes that story even more devastating is that here you are, a 10-year-old boy, and you've just had this terrible emotional, confusing and, abusive experience. And you didn't tell anybody about it, at least not right away. Why do you think you didn't tell anyone?

"I think it was this: knowing that nobody could really do anything about it. Like, that's kind of the most devastating thing about it. My family was probably going through similar interactions at work, in daily life. It was such a wild west of a society, of a community, and not just West Liberty. It was just this really insidious thing that I knew that you just have to internalize, which is heartbreaking to admit and heartbreaking to think about. I always knew I wanted to talk about that experience and to really talk about all of the experiences in the book because I think it was this kind of an unraveling of these traumatic experiences."

These things just built up for you for so many years. You did have incredibly strong bonds that you created with your friends, but that also gave you a lot of opportunity to really do dangerous things. The kind of things that some people might wave away with a 'boys will be boys' attitude. And yet you guys were really physically, emotionally in serious danger.

"Yeah, and it's such a trip to talk to younger folks, even from West Liberty now, because it's such a foreign like landscape. It was, in a lot of ways, this Wild West. And the thing I think you're alluding to is we started drinking. Maybe two years after that incident, right when we were like 11 or 12, is when we really started to explore that side of, for better or worse, small-town youth. There's a line that I repeat a couple of times where it's an adult who heard about one of our drinking escapades. He said, 'So what? They're boys and they will become men and men drink.' I think, unfortunately, it's something that transcends race and cultures and ethnicities in small towns. I even allude to that in the book. Depending on who you are, these stories they might not even be that big of a stretch. Some people might see it for the horror that is like 'Oh yeah, you know, that's the way it goes, like small town. What else is there to do?'

I want to talk a little bit about the relationship between you and your parents. You were sort of growing up in this no man's land where you weren't Mexican and you weren't fully American. And in some ways, and one of the things that is really striking is, of course, your parents spoke Spanish to each other. They spoke Spanish at home. And yet growing up, you really didn't become fully fluent in Spanish, which just seems so remarkable that there was that much of a disconnect between life at home and really your upbringing. How do you conceive of that when you think about it?

"It's a complicated issue, like so many things in the book, it's complicated. It's multifaceted because it has to do with more than just the language, It's your connection to your parents. It's what you revere and respect. I think when I was a child, I did not, as horrible as it is to say, revered and respected my parents the way that I should have. And so, you know, you have all these systemic pressures on young children to be, like, what's normal? What's normal is football and, you know, the American kind of way. And that's not to say that any Mexican my age who grew up in West Liberty [aren't] fluent and who are bilingual. But it's kind of, it seems like it's this very personal choice, which is a weird way to say, but I think it's a choice that very young folks make and it's still happening. It's still very complicated, like my nieces and nephews — one of them is very fluent in both English and Spanish, one of them chooses not to be. I think that's one of the things that is fascinating to people who grew up outside of first-generation families, but it's very universal. It's just this really complicated issue.

You found your personal salvation in a really surprising place in breakdancing. Tell me how that happened.

"If I were to tell you that in the late 90s there were hundreds of break dancers in Southeast Asia, would you believe me? It was this huge explosion. You know, some would say a fad of dancers between West Liberty, Iowa City, Muscatine, Davenport, all of these communities. There was tons of dancers, and I think there's a couple of reasons for it. One, it was just this natural progression and West Liberty was the Latin community and the Latinos. They would learn from their cousins when they would go on vacation. They would learn [something] like flares, windmills and they would come to West Liberty and they would show each other. It kind of just bubbled from that. The other big thing, which is significant, is in the late 90s was access to the internet. We could download 15 seconds QuickTime videos that took an hour or two to download and watch these clips of dancers from the East Coast or the West Coast. It changed the landscape. And yeah, I just started dancing in it. I'm not sure if it saved my life, but it definitely changed my life and I wouldn't be here. I wouldn't have written this book if it wasn't for finding myself and saying the dance is my own. It's not like my parents wanted me to be more Mexican. It's me and my friends in my garage making it up as we go — or at least that's what it felt like to us."

It also feels like there was something about dancing in particular that changed how you felt about yourself. Do you think that's true?

"Yeah, definitely. And it's because I've always considered myself an artist since I was like a toddler. There is a freedom to create and one of the things that I also found out in the process of writing this book is I was diagnosed with ADHD and that kind of like put a lot of things into focus of how I was struggling in school. I was a really smart kid, but I was getting like D's and F's in high school. Dance, especially break dancing, there's no rules. That meant there's a foundation and there's kind of a framework, but within that framework you can be whatever you want. And that spoke so much to me. You have validity in this dance."

What was the experience of writing this book like for you? Because you are so open and so vulnerable and you had to dig so deep to share these stories.

"I always knew that this was something that was so deeply personal and tragic in a way, but I knew that I could help other people. I intentionally set up this book to where dance could be my salvation. So writing the book was a trip because as I was finishing the book, the pandemic happened and we were quarantined like crazy. I remember thinking, this is such an interesting thing because I'm reliving and kind of going through all these traumatic experiences while the world is going through this collective traumatic experience. While doing so, I learned so much about myself. I started going to therapy. I started like really thinking about medication, all of these things that, especially for Latinos, for Mexican-American men to be even more specific, is so taboo. I looked at it as a way to say, 'Hey, if I can do this, maybe there are other folks that can see that this is a path they could go down and they can not just internalize it.' Because that's another thing, especially with Mexican-American families, we just internalized so much until it bursts out. And maybe there's another way to do it."