Courier Staff Writer
More press about Ottumwa could be good for the town.
“I think it’ll be interesting to see what [NBC’s The Today Show] puts on television,” said Dale Uehling, former mayor of Ottumwa and one of the founders of the town’s Diversity Network. “They seemed to approach it in a positive way, so it is my hope [we’ll see Ottumwa in a positive light]. The Wall Street Journal article that ran a few months ago was very positive.”
Uehling was one of at least four people interviewed by The Today Show staff about Ottumwa and Wapello County’s growth in diversity: The U.S. Census in 2010 said the county had the highest growth in Hispanic population of any county in the United States. The increase was approximately 1,000 percent over about 20 years.
“It’s the idea that we have a Latino population here that started with less than 1 percent, and now it’s over 10 percent,” Uehling said about the questions he was asked.
“They were here for two full days,” said Mary Ann Reiter, talking about the crew and producer/reporter who interviewed her. “And I spoke with her about six times over the previous [few] weeks. They were a very congenial group. My impression is it’s going to be a very positive story, and will air April 11.”
Ramon Lopez, owner of the Cerro Grande market on East Main Street, said the courteous TV crew came to his store.
“Last week,” he said when asked about the crew. “They didn’t [interview] me, they just took video.”
Reiter said the crew visited several Latino-owned businesses in Ottumwa — and ate in multiple restaurants.
“The reason they talked to me was a program [my husband] Peter and I have participated in,” Reiter said.
Diversity Network members in Ottumwa take an annual trip to Latin America. Reiter has been on five trips to Mexico and Guatemala.
“It’s not about taking a vacation, it’s about learning what drives people to pack up their home and move to Ottumwa,” she said. “We visited families in their homes, had meals with them, they were very personal visits.”
NBC called her after filming.
“The [Today Show] called and wanted me to send photos of this specific family in Guatemala,” she said.
“What they talked to me about,” said Uehling, “was the fact that the Latino population is spread out throughout the community.”
Reiter recalled that when Excel was adding an extra shift, and started recruiting, first in Texas and California, Uehling and the Diversity Network made a decision.
“The thing that Dale did very consciously was to avoid a ghetto-type situation,” she said. “The school district worked very hard on that, the health department, the city worked very hard on that.”
Yes, there are pockets of Latino people in Wapello County, but in general, there is a geographic openness, too.
Uehling told The Today Show that some of that happened naturally.
“One factor,” he said, “was that available housing was scattered across the community, too.”
That allowed various schools across the city to have Hispanic students, with some schools having a large Latino population, and others having a smaller Latino population.
Uehling said in the 1990s, he and the Diversity Network wanted to be welcoming and helpful. He spoke to other communities that had increases in Hispanic-American and immigrant populations. They found interpreters, taught newcomers about our laws and helped integrate them into the community.
But, pointed out Reiter, Uehling wasn’t just doing that for the benefit of the new workers. There were fewer problems in Ottumwa than in some communities that had not been proactive about helping new people integrate.
“It made the transition easier for them, but it also made the transition easier for the community,” said Reiter, “and that was a conscious decision.”
“Now,” said Uehling, “in businesses around Ottumwa, you can go into a bank or anything, and see a Latino person working there.”