October 26, 2023
When Joe Gonzalez arrived in Des Moines by train in 1957, the America welcoming him was a lot different than if he had arrived today.
At that point, it was much easier for people like his family, who emigrated from Mexico, to come to the country. Joe, his mother, and his two brothers rode the train into the Court Avenue depot to meet his father, who had already been living in Iowa.
But far fewer people of Latino descent had made the same trip as the Gonzalez family. At five years old, Joe already realized he wouldn’t see many people who looked, acted, and spoke like him and his family. The United States Census didn’t even list “Hispanic” or “Latino” as an option to choose until 1960.
“I realized how big the opportunity was that was given to me and how my mother and father sacrificed to get us here,” Joe said.
Joe felt a deep sense of responsibility to ensure that his parents’ sacrifice would not be in vain. He decided that if he could build a life of hard work and service, he could give back to the community that welcomed him and provided a safe place for his family to live.
His service would go above and beyond what he had imagined as he spent his career helping Latino people find safety in Des Moines, providing opportunities to celebrate the diversity in our community, and ensuring every person, no matter where they came from, felt welcomed and included in the place they call home.
While most of his peers only had to focus on doing well in school and staying up-to-date on the latest clothing trends, Joe’s childhood mirrored that of many immigrant children: translating for his Spanish-speaking parents, navigating the systems of an unfamiliar country, and learning how to live within two cultures.
“You wanted to be American so bad,” Joe said. “It’s good to learn the English language, but you can begin to lose your culture when you want to be Americanized. Because there were so few Latinos when I moved here, we wanted to blend in and be completely American.”
By the time he arrived at high school, Joe was thoughtfully considering how he could shape his future.
“I went to Des Moines Technical High School because I wanted to learn a trade as a way to contribute and give back,” he said. While there, he took a criminal justice class that changed the course of his future. He decided to pursue police work.
Coincidentally, right after Joe graduated from high school, the Des Moines Police Department opened a police cadet program aimed at hiring more women and people of color. Joe applied and began his long career in law enforcement.
He would eventually serve on the force for 42 years. As he worked the streets, he started to see how cultural differences made it difficult for some populations to feel safe and protected by the police.
“It became clear that there was a gap between the Latino community and the police department,” Joe said. “In many countries, people are used to dealing with corruption within the police. They don’t see the police as really helping with problems.”
Around 2000, he received an opportunity to proactively change that relationship between his community and his place of employment. Former Assistant Chief William McCarthy noticed the disconnect between the Latino community and the police department. He asked Joe if he’d be interested in heading a community outreach program that would operate in neighborhoods with large populations of Latino people.
He soon found that a deep lack of trust was preventing these relationships from developing. Undocumented residents wouldn’t call the police when they experienced a crime for fear of deportation. In other instances, many couldn’t shake the impression of corrupt police from their home countries and worried interacting with the police would lead to being prosecuted for crimes they did not commit.
Joe began going door to door to introduce himself to his community. Seeing a police officer that looked like them and spoke their language allowed the folks he met with to feel safer in their community, knowing someone would be around to guide and educate them about how their new country operated. They learned they could call the police if they were being victimized without needing documentation, and police were able to deter crime more efficiently.
Joe slowly but surely became a staple of the community. People knew to call him when they ran into issues, and he ensured culturally appropriate services were available.
The program wasn’t only serving community members — Joe was able to reconnect with his Mexican culture as well.
“Language is a perishable trait, and if you don’t use it, you lose it,” he said. “I was speaking a lot of broken Spanish at first. But I started gaining more and more of it back. I got to the point where I was speaking Spanish for over 50% of my day, and sometimes that would get up to 75%. It was all from working with people in the community.”
An accident in 2013 caused Joe to retire from police work. His dedication to valuing his culture and his work supporting his community had already laid the groundwork for his next career adventure.
“When I was on the police department, I never lost an opportunity to introduce myself to different people within the Hispanic community,” he said. “I had introduced myself to JoAnn Mackey at the Division of Latino Affairs. Within a year of that, she decided she wanted to start a Latino festival.”
JoAnn believed the biggest city in Iowa needed to have a festival celebrating Latino culture. Then Governor Vilsack let her launch one in 2002, and she created Latino Resources Inc., the nonprofit umbrella that organizes the Iowa Latino Heritage Festival. Joe served on the Board of Directors.
JoAnn was considering retirement around the same time Joe’s police career ended. He took over as Executive Director of Latino Resources Inc. and has been serving in that position ever since.
The Latino Heritage Festival is an annual celebration held in downtown Des Moines that features food, music, and entertainment from Latin American countries. As the Latino population has grown more than 110% since the festival first began, it’s an important space for community members to honor and celebrate their heritage.
“We are such a diverse community, and it gives our folks an opportunity to celebrate their cultures and what they’re about,” Joe said. “We’re able to show what Latino people contribute to our country.”
From food vendors to community resources to lively dancing, festival organizers hope to represent as many countries in Central and South America as possible. People from nearly every Latin American country live in the Central Iowa region, and Joe hopes the festival helps them to hold on to their cultures in ways he wasn’t able to as a child.
“Many Latino immigrants feel like there’s not that many people like me from my country,” Joe said. “The festival brings everybody out so they know that they aren’t alone here. When you celebrate your own culture, you stop feeling like all you do is work or have to live in the shadows. It builds pride.”