2022 Excellence in Social Justice Reporting, Single Story finalist

Rising Up in the Heartland: Latino workers fight for pandemic relief

About the Project

COVID-19 hammered essential workers across the United States. After long struggles to regain their health, marginalized and undocumented Latino workers in rural Iowa took on a bold new challenge in 2022: demanding a share of the pandemic relief funds that have excluded them.

The beginning of 2022 was a turning point for Iowa’s Latino community. Despite the growing number of immigrant Latino community in rural towns, many of these longtime residents are speaking out for the first time as activists.

“Rising up in the Heartland” follows a movement called Escucha Mi Voz (Hear My Voice) that began in Iowa City and spread to rural communities like Columbus Junction and West Liberty. In these two towns just 25 miles apart, Latino workers — including undocumented workers — are campaigning for funds for that have excluded them from federal benefits like unemployment and stimulus checks.

As part of President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), $350 billion is being distributed to state and local governments across the United States. There are few restrictions on how these coronavirus relief funds can be used. Escucha Mi Voz is asking municipalities in Iowa to steer a portion of these funds to excluded workers.

Columbus Junction is 36% Spanish-speaking. All city council members are White. West Liberty has a dual-language public school program, a high school mariachi band and a majority-Latino city council. Both towns are home to meatpacking plants, one of Iowa’s top industries and one that relies on a minority and immigrant workforce. COVID-19 spread quickly in cramped working environments in many of these plants, causing surges of infections that likely spread throughout the local communities.

The film follows four community members demanding relief funds for themselves, their families and their peers. Told through snapshots of their daily lives, the story puts labor into sharp focus. We witness what it takes for workers to wake up before dawn for multiple shifts in healthcare; the emotional aftermath and anxiety of cleaning hotel floors for COVID patients while trying to avoid the virus; running a bustling restaurant while battling fatigue from long COVID; and what it feels like to lose steady income during a pandemic.

‘Rising up in the Heartland’ reveals starkly different receptions of the community activism from the two city councils. It shows how small town politics intersect directly in tiny rural communities, and how power plays out in the way diversity is or is not represented in local government.

Escucha Mi Voz helped win one-time payments of $1,400 in Iowa City and its county, Johnson County, for some workers. But these payments will be distributed through a lottery-style system that won’t prioritize those who didn’t get stimulus checks.

As Escucha Mi Voz campaigns for direct relief to excluded workers, the group is also training community organizers across rural Iowa to fight for other issues affecting the Hispanic community.