Edith Barco, a restaurant owner in Central Iowa, knows a thing or two about sticking with a dream. Barco, an El Salvadorian immigrant, originally came to the United States in the late 1990s, taking a job—like many of Iowa’s immigrants—in one of the state’s meatpacking plants. But her real passion was not processing food, but actually cooking it. Within a few years, she’d started selling tacos and pupusas from a truck in her backyard; she also began a bustling delivery business, taking her warm, home cooked meals to workplaces and corporate lunches. “People were really going crazy for her food,” says her nephew, Leo Esquivel. So in 2009, at the urging of customers, she decided to start her own restaurant—El Buen Gusto, a popular Salvadorian café that serves hundreds of people a week in the small town of Perry, Iowa.
Barco’s story isn’t an uncommon one. The city of Perry, 40 miles northwest of Des Moines, was once a bustling railroad town. When the last of the city’s railroads closed in 1980, however, and meatpacking plants began scaling back as well, the town began to suffer real economic decline. But an influx of immigrants beginning around 1990 helped the city start to regain its footing. Today, a series of Hispanic businesses dot Second Street downtown, a feat that’s helped Perry avoid becoming the sort of economic ghost town some had once feared it could become. About a third of the town’s population today is Hispanic. “Immigrants have made a huge economic contribution to our community,” says Jay Pattee, the city’s mayor, “Few people want to think about what it would be like here without them.”
As immigrants have become more established in this town of almost 9,000, they’ve also created jobs. Esquivel, who immigrated from El Salvador as a teen, says his aunt’s restaurant gave him a vital career opportunity. He works there today as a manager and business partner, serving up popular dishes like camarones a la crema. “My dream was always to have my own business,” Esquivel says, “So when she told me about her restaurant, I said I would be thrilled to come along and help her.” Esquivel says El Buen Gusto today provides employment to multiple members of his extended family—something that gives him pride. He also sees a bright future for himself and his family in the Iowa heartland. “We are happy with the community here,” Esquivel says, “We’ve gotten a great response to our work.”