Natives Among Us

When I was growing up in San Diego in the ’80s (I acknowledge I am dating myself, but hey, 30 is the new 20) a certain bumper sticker began to appear on rear windows and bumpers on cars all over the city. It resembled California’s license plate at the time basic blue background and gold lettering that read: “California Native.”licenseplate

I remember sitting in the passenger’s seat of my mom’s 1971 VW bus (I was native to that) and wondering about what it meant to be “native.” The details of my pre-teenage mind’s processes are blurry, though I can imagine thinking of Native Americans, since in the third grade I wrote an in-depth report about the Cherokee, and how they made necklaces out of fingertips.

As a native Californian, I never thought about life outside California. My only trip outside the state before my senior year in high school was to a place called Denver, where it snowed and my ears popped when I got off the airplane. (After that, my purview widened, and I even crossed the Atlantic.) But looking back and thinking about those bumper stickers, I wonder if it was the native Californian’s answer to the sprawl that was creeping into our fair state. The secret of California had been set loose. Migrants from every direction came to settle on our turf. Maybe these bumper stickers were the assertions of our flag in the sand, of our right to our dominion, of our right to trespass.

So, when I noticed a rash of similar bumper stickers mounted to car windows and bumpers in my current state of residence, Iowa, I wondered about what it meant to be an Iowa native and why the surreptitious rise in Iowa pride? Comparing current iowa_stickerevents in Iowa to the time of the “California Native” bumper sticker of my youth, I can come up with two reasons, though I must disclose that this is not a scientifically-backed research.

1) Immigration.

The topic has been hot for a few years now, especially following a meatpacking plant raid that found hundreds of illegal immigrants mostly from Mexico working and living in remote towns. Iowa has historically been a white—of northern European descent—populace. Much of the state was agrarian, and lived in small towns. It was typical, small-town America. Home of apple pie, Fourth of July parades and all that kitschy stuff you find in the “Americana” genus. There has been an increase in Latino and refugee immigration in the last few decades that has changed the way Iowa looks, even in rural areas. Not everyone is happy about it.

In Des Moines, for example, the largest city in the state with about 400,000 people, there are solid populations of Asians, Africans, Latinos, Bosnians and Middle Easterners—many of whom are Iraqi refugees. While these populations don’t necessarily blend together, they do exist within the city limits, and have created a more metropolitan feel in certain respects.

2) Changing landscape

There is, however, a backlash that has been going on. People often fear change. They fear the “urbanization” of Iowa, and a recession from the strong Protestant ethos of hard work and fortitude. Iowa has recently been reclassified as an urban state. An interesting fact, given that the majority of the state’s land is tied up in corn and soybean production. But more people in Iowa live in urban areas than rural. Here’s a quote from a 2002 story in the Des Moines Register:

“We are two Iowans—one living in Des Moines inner city, the other living on a six-generation family farm—who believe strongly that rural and urban Iowa share a common destiny. Those who insist the two are locked in struggle fail to see that the best future for Iowa builds on the historic strengths of both our cities and farming communities.”

The article continues to note the rapid erosion of farmland—cornfields that are transformed overnight into suburban housing and strip malls, and farmers who can no longer afford to raise crops on their family’s farmland. This topic is for another day, but the point is that Iowa is in a situation similar to that of California’s circa 1982. The population is urbanizing. Sprawl is creeping in. Waterways and the air are being polluted. Traffic congestion is mounting. And people are coming in from elsewhere.

But, like Californians, who often have a myopic view of life outside the state, Iowans have a sense of pride in their home state. People who are raised here and choose to leave after high school or college often find themselves returning to Iowa to raise their children. I, similarly, would like to return to California to raise my children. But I know that if and when I return to California, children in tow, I will not find it the same as when I left. It is more crowded, more expensive and dirtier. And the schools…not so good.

Iowa natives returning to the mother ship will also find their state changed. More people, more buildings, fewer cornfields, and deteriorating infrastructure. The schools are still good though, and the land is still cheap. And with the influx of immigration there is more diversity and “culture” in the way of street festivals, music and food.

Whatever the case, California has dramatically transformed since the 1980s, and Iowa is following suit. While I don’t believe Iowa will explode into a megalopolis like Los Angeles or the San Francisco Bay Area, I do wonder if government planners can acknowledge the growth and respond to it in sustainable, evironmentally sensitive ways. An article in the Register on Sunday discussed the idea of a light rail system to ease the commuter burden into downtown Des Moines. A great idea. Just  like BART, in the Bay Area was a good idea, and was shot down by residents of the Peninsula. Ever seen the traffic on 101 during weekday rush hour?

This California native hopes that Iowa natives take a hard look at the transformation of their state and stand up to ensure that quality of life and of the environment does not suffer.

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