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Transcript: Response and Recovery: Maria Ramos


Ali Noorani [00:00:11] This week what we’re talking about is the pandemic recovery and what it looks like in the most diverse town in Iowa.


Maria Ramos [00:00:24] We are very unique and united community. A lot of people think that we are just a town full of all these different people with all these different issues and challenges. But I think Storm Lake has been able to work together to be united in many different things.


Ali Noorani [00:00:45] From the National Immigration Forum, I’m Ali Noorani, and this is Only in America.


Ali Noorani [00:01:00] You know, with vaccination efforts across the country showing steady progress, there is a collective feeling of cautious hope and relief poking its way across the United States. But as we’ve discussed on previous episodes, of Only in America, barriers to access and trust have complicated the rollout for immigrant populations. So ensuring safe, equitable vaccination campaigns is a challenge for communities across the country. But look, the rollout for an immigrant in New York City can look quite different than it does for one in small town Iowa. In small but diverse communities, how do local leaders educate and support their residents? What can they do to establish trust with those who are too often left out of the discussion? As we’ve said before, we’re only as safe as our most vulnerable community members. Recovering from the pandemic will require small towns and major cities alike to invest in education and equitable access for their immigrant communities and in the longer term, promoting leadership that’s more representative of the community at large. So what does this look like in practice? Today, we’re taking a trip to one of my favorite places, small town Iowa, to find out.


Underwriting [00:02:35] Support for the National Immigration Forum comes from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, supporting innovations in education, democratic engagement and strengthening international peace and security and from Humanity United. When humanity is united, we can bring a powerful force for human dignity.


Ali Noorani [00:03:00] My  guess this week is Maria Ramos. Maria is a city council member in Storm Lake, Iowa. A significant share of storm lakes. Approximately 11,000 residents are immigrants, many of whom work at the town’s Tyson meatpacking plants. Storm Lake has one of the most diverse populations in Iowa, and it’s gained national attention for the ways its immigrant community have kept it thriving, while other towns in the state have suffered from population decline. And while immigration has clearly been a success story for Storm Lake, the diversity in language, culture and lived experience creates unique challenges for a small town pandemic response. As a first generation immigrant and city leader, Maria has seen firsthand how the community has struggled and how it has come together to support one another. We spoke about Storm Lake’s pandemic response, how she’s working to educate her constituents and what she wants to see from community leaders.


Ali Noorani [00:03:52] First of all, Maria, thank you so much for joining, I really, really appreciate this. Thank you.


Maria Ramos [00:03:56] You’re welcome. Thank you for having me.


Ali Noorani [00:03:58] Tell me about a Storm Lake, Iowa where you live and where you are a city councilor, but even before that. Tell me how you got to Storm Lake.


Maria Ramos [00:04:06] Storm Lake, Iowa is a very small rural community. You know, it has grown a lot in the past few years. We think we’re about 14,000 in population, but we want to know into the census comes out, right? So, I believe the last census was about 10,000, but we are way past that. I came to Storm Lake in 1991. And how did I get here? The meatpacking plant, I will say, friends of family were basically invited to come and and work here at the Tyson, which was IVP at that time. And we’ve been here since then. My husband continues to work for what is Tyson now in the Turkey plant. And I am working at a community health center as a human resources manager for the last 12 years and this month.


Ali Noorani [00:05:01] And so a couple of years ago, you decided to to run for office. Tell me what led to that decision to run for city council?


Maria Ramos [00:05:07] I’ve been involved in the community in many different ways, volunteering in different organizations, and one of them is Salud, which is that multicultural health coalition. And I will say that my leadership skills were known through that organization, I will say. One time I said that Salud was kind of like – like I was a child Salud, persay. Because Salud is all about empowering and encouraging connections with community members and collaboration. And one of the things that we really focus on is empowering leaders, local leaders, to hold positions within the city. And that’s how I came about. I was pushed, encouraged, empowered, I will say. So, I decided to run for city council because I just felt that I could do more than what I was doing, and I have never had an agenda with the city persay. But more than anything, my goal has always been to serve my community in and more than anything, to empower others to do so as well, and to empower others to participate in the decision making of those things that impact everyone. So just trying to make them understand the importance of that. And and that’s why I decided to run.


Ali Noorani [00:06:30] So, you decided to run, you’re in office, and then just about a year ago or a little less than a year ago, as you’re representing and serving the community covid-19 hits. Go back to when you first realized that this was going to be serious. What was going through your mind?


Maria Ramos [00:06:46] I think that obviously, you know, I had many different plans, many different ideas when I started the city council and how to get community involvement in the many different things. And then, you know, we started hearing about covid and it didn’t really hit me until obviously I started to see the numbers increasing in here in the community. And when I really thought, oh, my God, you know, it is really a serious thing and is when Tyson started to get impacted. And and also because we know that most of our immigrants and everyone that comes here from another state usually are to work at Tyson and knowing how confined they work and how they work with each other. It was so scary to know how that was going to impact everyone and their families.


Ali Noorani [00:07:36] So it was done kind of in those early days to help the community understand that this is what the risk is?


Maria Ramos [00:07:42] A lot of community members, along with with local health centers and even the city, was highly encouraging everyone to social distance, wear the mask and communication with Tyson to ensure that they were doing everything they could to protect their employees was also a part of it. And I think that that has helped a lot.


Ali Noorani [00:08:05] Yeah. How do you think that this was different in a small town of14,000 people like Storm Lake? Where there are challenges that you think were unique to Storm Lake when the pandemic hit?


Maria Ramos [00:08:16] Not so much a challenge.I will say a challenge- it’s always a challenge anywhere. But I think here, with a small community, everybody knows each other. If you are part of a coalition or are volunteering somewhere, you know someone that is either managing, working or a Tyson or another place in the community. So that’s the good thing about that, that you can always have the partnership, the communication, that discussion in regards to what are we going to do to ensure the protection of our community members and what are we going to do to come together to make sure that the safety of everyone in the community? The challenge has always been language barriers. We are such a small community, but we’re so diverse and we have so many languages here that it is so hard to have the educational materials and all the languages. It’s also really hard to communicate to certain individuals in regards to, you know, whatever it is that we’re trying to to convey or communicate with them. So that has always been a challenge for not just Covid, but for many educational opportunities in general for our community.


Ali Noorani [00:09:31] What do you think your role as a city councilor, not just only as a city councilor, but as a community leader and a Latina? People could say, OK, I know Maria, because, you know, not only because I know maybe her friends or family, but she’s one of us. How did that help?


Maria Ramos [00:09:47] I think it helps a lot. I mean, it is obviously a big responsibility to feel that you are not so much that you’re representing a certain group, but that people think that they can come to you for many different things. So it is definitely a weight on my shoulders to always think that. So I always feel that I need to take a step further of whatever it is either to educate or just come forward and come up with an idea and share with someone that will benefit my community in general. In regards to covid, you know, as soon as I had my shot, my Covid shot, I automatically posted on Facebook and talked to people that I know. And and soon after that, I started getting messages and started getting calls. How do you feel? What you think about it? All those things. And I think that that’s my goal. My goal is to start a conversation and not that I know everything, but encourage and try to convey that information that I know or refer them to someone that knows that information. But at the end of the day, my goal is to put it out there and to start a conversation. And and like I always say, just plant the seed so something can grow from there.


Ali Noorani [00:11:02] As we’re starting to talk about the facts and hopefully it moves across the country. What are the questions that people are coming to you with?


Maria Ramos [00:11:08] There is so many questions. What are some of the side effects there that you could get it? How did you feel? Know, I’m hearing this and I’m hearing that. I’m hearing from social media. I’m hearing from TV that this could happen. You know what if I decide to go ahead and maybe you didn’t have a reaction, but what if I do? And some of the other concern has been, well, I’m a caretaker, I’m a caregiver for my spouse or my child that is sick. What if I end up having a bad reaction and being in the hospital sick for a few days, who’s going to take care of the person that I’m caring for? Some of the other concerns have been, what if I get sicker then if I would have if I had gotten covid, you know? And those are a lot of the things that I feel that we need more education on, because obviously I started the conversation, but a lot of times I can’t end it because I don’t even know the answers. And I think that a lot of people don’t know the answer, you know. And to say, no, you’re not going to get a reaction, it’s okay, it’s safe. I can’t do that. So, you know, my ultimate goal is to encourage and let them know what my experience is and hoping that that will help them make the best decision for them.


Ali Noorani [00:12:22] And are there questions that come from the community around immigration status or are people afraid because of their status?


Maria Ramos [00:12:28] Yeah, there has been actually a couple that have said, wow, is it free? And what kind of information is going to be collected? It just reminds me of when I was helping with the census and the complete count committee. It was the same questions. What kind of information is going to be collected coming from the government? So my information will be given out to someone that it has received the Covid and how is that going to be used? So there is quite a bit of that fear still, just like it was when I was asking them to give me the information for census so.


Ali Noorani [00:13:03] They probably look at you say, oh no, here comes the councilor. She’s got all kinds of questions. What about other leaders kind of within the city? You know, what’s the role of the mayor or the police chief and others in terms of helping people feel comfortable getting the vaccine or even just learning about the vaccine?


Maria Ramos [00:13:20] I think we are taking all the same type of role. We are very limited in what we can do in regards to obviously like the allocation of a number of other things that are coming through. And most of it is through public health and the state and all of that. But in regards to local efforts, the local hospital, the police department, the sheriff, they’re all posting on social media when their employees get their immunization and then they kind of give a little encouragement on the post and stuff like that. So that’s pretty much what we are doing right now, we’re not really taking on a big responsibility to say we’re going to target this many, we’re going to- we don’t really have a specific plan other than try our best to just encourage the general community.


Ali Noorani [00:14:11] Do you feel like the community has been brought closer together or kind of pushed apart by covid?


Maria Ramos [00:14:17] I think it has come together because all those that were affected are still getting family members getting sick and all that. The community, especially, especially that Latino community, they have come so close to figuring out who is sick to, how can we can help them have a fund raiser event? And a lot of those fundraising events, they have become very clever in regards to how they will do those. They are doing raffels through Facebook. They’re doing just different fundraisers. And to identify they don’t really identify the person that they helping, but just in general to help someone in need. And so among the community, they identify who has a sick person, you know, and they help them that way. So I think that is actually has community members have come closer.


Ali Noorani [00:15:13] And what’s the role of the churches in the community getting through all of this?


Maria Ramos [00:15:17] They are trying to do a lot of the same thing, of getting information out there. And in general terms, that I know they don’t really have a specific role or, you know, obviously I haven’t talked to them. So I am not really sure what their plan is, but what I have seen is also they have also done a lot of social media events and things like that


Ali Noorani [00:15:40] For people who don’t live in small town Iowa what do you think are our biggest misconception is what don’t we understand about Storm Lake?


Maria Ramos [00:15:48] I think that a lot of the things that they don’t understand is that we are a very unique and united community. A lot of people think that we are just a town full of all these different people with all these different issues and challenges, and that I was just have more problems than than solutions and things like that. But I think is that the other way. I think that Storm really has been able to work together, to be united in many different things. You know, you have seen I don’t know if you have seen or noticed that we have many, like food banks, food distributions, and, you know, the community comes together to to volunteer for those, you know, without having to sign a paper saying, I’m going to help you every week or every month. They just show up and they just come together and I think that’s a good representation of what our community is, and so you will go see this food distribution, and you will see, young, medium, age, older, you know, all different, I call it a very colorful event because, you know, that’s how Storm Lake is a very colorful city and I love it.


Ali Noorani [00:17:02] Yeah so, you see the pictures of people needing food assistance. It’s so- it’s so tragic. Is the need growing in Storm Lake?


Maria Ramos [00:17:13] I wouldn’t say that it’s growing. I think that, you know, definitely the need is there. I think that we are trying to focus on having them be sustainable versus, you know, and just trying to see what what the need is and try to help that way with a plan that one day that family is going to help another family. So, know, I think that we’re moving into that direction and I think that we’re going to get there.


Ali Noorani [00:17:40] So let’s say, you know, we’re having this conversation in two years. Where do you think Storm Lake is in two years?


Maria Ramos [00:17:45] I can only hope. I hope that in Storm Lake will be a city that will have representation, which I think we are, of what every other city should be. That we see the representation of who we are as a community in many different levels and in many different ways. Obviously, the school board already showing some of that. City council is already showing some of that, but I want to see more. I want to see the different representation of all the little communities that we have within our city and in different places, you know, serving in different places within, whether it is our city or whether it is our schools. I would like to see more adopters. I would like to see other than just at Tyson, I want to be able to see every one represent who we really are in many different places and have the resources also with the representation of our community. An area where we can help everyone within the community and in a place where everyone can go and feel welcome and feel that the resources are there for them, regardless of who you are.


Ali Noorani [00:19:04] Yes, I was just going to actually ask for a little bit more about Salud, because I remember when I was there last year, I met with a lot of the folks who are part of Salud. Tell me a little bit more about what’s the organization doing kind of at this moment, but then also, again, kind of moving forward because it just it feels like it’s such an important part of the fabric there.


Maria Ramos [00:19:22] I think is important part of Storm Lake. I think that we were blessed when we founded this organization, and we are currently going through a restructuring change. We recently became a not-for-profit organization. We’re currently going through a whole strategic planning on what Salud was and what Salud is going to be in the future. We are hoping not to change much because Salud has been so organic in the past and it has worked very well. But I think that just moving forward is going to be for, say, more official in many different ways. And so we’re revamping a lot of things: the Facebook page, the website, and just in general, the way we collaborate with the community and what our goals will be for the next few years. And some of those are bringing and promoting leadership within our community. So I think that’s  going to be huge. And however, that may look like but I’m hopeful about it.


Ali Noorani [00:20:36] So one of the things I want to ask you about was what I’ve been there going through, you know, Main Street and the downtown area there, just the number of Latino businesses that have kind of really become a part of the community. How are those businesses, not just the Latino businesses, but just the business district itself, how is it doing in the context of covid?


Maria Ramos [00:20:57] I think there is obviously a few that are really struggling. In general, the Latino stores or, you know, Mexican stores, I call them, I think that as long as Tyson is running, they’re going to be doing great. I think that that’s the place where we get our stuff. And as long as we continue getting a paycheck, that’s what we’re going to get. Get our stuff, so, you know, our groceries. I remember when I first came to Storm Lake, I had to drive all the way to Omaha or to a city to get just simple things. And now I can just drive a couple of blocks and, you know, or even walk in the summer and get my stuff.


Ali Noorani [00:21:34] But you’re right. And we we should have talked about this earlier. But I mean, Storm Lake is a factory town, you know, Tyson…


Maria Ramos [00:21:38] Tyson has a big role in the community.


Ali Noorani [00:21:42] Yeah. So what gives you hope?


Maria Ramos [00:21:45] The new president gives me hope. The new administration gives me hope. Just in general, I am just a very hopeful person. And I but I will say, the new administration gives me hope.


Ali Noorani [00:22:00] Last question for you. The name of the podcast is Only in America. So just to finish this sentence: Only in America…


Maria Ramos [00:22:07] Only in America. Well, an immigrant that came to Strom Lake, Iowa from California gets to be on a podcast with you!


Ali Noorani [00:22:22] I’m going to go on the record and say this is not the highlight of your life.


Maria Ramos [00:22:33] Oh my god!


Ali Noorani [00:22:35] See nobody’s has ever given me that answer! Ah, you’re gonna make me blush. Well, thank you very, very much. You know, I should also thank you very much for the pazole recipe. Last time we were hanging out. Taught me how to make pazole. So I’ve done it once or twice since then and I-


Maria Ramos [00:22:49] ou definitely need to come back to Standlake and then we can cook something else.


Ali Noorani [00:22:54] Sounds very good. Thank you.


Ali Noorani [00:23:06] Maria Ramos is a city council member and good friend in a Storm Lake, Iowa. You can learn more about Maria at our website: And if you like what you hear, subscribe to Only in America, wherever you are listening to this episode. Only in America is produced and edited by Katie Lutz, Joanna Taylor and Becka Wall.  Our artwork and graphics are designed by Karla Lejah. I’m Ali Noorani. We’re going to be taking a break the next few weeks, but stay tuned for Next Only in America series this spring. In the meantime, hope your month is safe and healthy.

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