Story by Katie Ericson
English Department Chair and professor Jody Swilky received a National Endowment for the Humanities grant last summer for producing “A Little Salsa on the Prairie.” The documentary won a Professional Documentary Golden Eddy Award at the Cedar Rapids Independent Film Festival.
It has been screened over 40 times from New York to Guadalajara, Mexico, and shown on Iowa Public Television and DirecTV Documentaries.
“I expected it to have a very short life,” Swilky said. “But it started growing across the state.”
“A Little Salsa on the Prairie” looks at Perry, Iowa, a town of fewer than 8,000 people 40 miles northwest of Des Moines. In 1990, one percent of the town was Latino. By 2000, it had reached 26 percent.
Yet this rapid burst of immigration did not draw attention to the town. Instead, its historical projects did.
“What really got me interested was that I was told by people to go out to this hotel, but nobody had told me about the ethnic change. They’d only told me about the hotel,” Swilky said.
All this happened because of Roberta Green Ahmanson. She put millions of dollars into the renovation of the Hotel Pattee – a historical hotel in the center of Perry that had fallen into disrepair.
With Ahmanson’s help, the hotel became a major attraction, earning articles in the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune. Each room celebrated a different culture, fitting in with the theme of Perry, Iowa — a town of immigrants.
Swilky described the town as a kind of living research museum.
“It had program spaces in the main street of the town and archives and projects all connected to celebrating immigration and the immigrants who settled Iowa,” Swilky said.
Despite this love of immigration, nobody really talked about the immigrants. Most worked in the meat-packing industry with Tyson.
As Swilky met people from before and after the immigration surge between 1990 and 2000, he began to notice an underlying tension between the ethnicities of Perry.
Many of the older, Caucasian meat packers were not pleased with the rise of Latinos, but no decisive or aggressive action had ever been taken.
“Perry is a very compressed town,” Swilky said. “But the reason why Perry hasn’t had problems is because they have benign segregation.”
Latino shops sit just down the street from the historic hotel, but the two do not mingle. They are kept separate from one another and maintain their distance to maintain peace.
In his documentary, Swilky interviews many meat packers about this division and their feelings toward the other people of Perry.
Swilky is furthering his work with a book about the continued development of immigrants in Perry, Iowa. He said this is to help give a voice to those working in the meat-packing industry.
“So we can stop demonizing them (immigrants) and let their stories speak back to the larger discourse with the media and legislation and humanize it to a certain degree,” Swilky said.
Swilky said he began working on the book in 2011. He has no projected publication date but is hoping to finish the work relatively soon. Though his work with Perry has been long and taken much effort, Swilky believes it is worth it.
“The story continues so the manuscript continues the story goes on,” Swilky said.