The best weather to grow peppers is at 80 degrees in the daytime and no less than 55 in the evening. Texas was, and remains, a great place for peppers.
Martin Perez knows this because was born and raised in Michoacan, Mexico, and came to work in the Texas pepper fields in 1987.
He would pick peppers in the morning and then found work washing dishes in a restaurant after long days in the fields. Life wasn’t easy, but he was able to make money.
Perez was lucky; he came to the United States at a time when we had a president who was interested in the economy and was also compassionate toward immigrants. President Ronald Reagan decided to use his executive power to grant amnesty to almost 3 million people living in the shadows.
According to one of the lead authors of the bill, former Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson, “The President knew that it was not right for people to be abused.” He also said: “Anybody who’s here illegally is going to be abused in some way, either financially or physically. They have no rights.”
Thanks to that amnesty, Perez was able to obtain legal papers. Now it was on him; he would do everything possible to be a productive member of society and contribute to this great nation.
Later on, Perez moved to Des Moines looking for more opportunities. He worked in the fields picking apples for a few months, then worked in a meat packing company where he met his wife.
“In the 1990s, it was hard to find Latinos here. If I was walking in the street and saw another Latino, I would follow him or her and introduce myself to that individual. It felt so good to see another person like you,” said Perez.
After they married, Perez and his wife worked in different restaurants doing almost everything — washing dishes, cleaning, making pizza and cooking. In 2005, a friend of Perez living in Kansas City gave the couple an idea that would make them their own bosses — open a Paleteria [ice cream shop].
“I didn’t think it was going to work since it is so cold here, but I thought that I had to give it a try,” Perez said.
He rented a small place behind a beauty salon in what is known as the “Latino Corridor” on East Grand Avenue.
He remembers how hard it was for them to open a business without speaking English and not knowing how to navigate the different systems necessary to work Des Moines’ food service industry. There were many times when Perez and his wife were ready to shut down their Paleteria. They were losing money and had two daughters to support.
“You need to be patient and not give up, because many times you doubt your decision of taking the risk,” Perez said, reflecting on the difficult times.
In 2009, they had an opportunity to move to a new, larger space in the middle of the Latino Corridor — the busiest Latino business service area in Des Moines. In their new location, they not only sell ice cream treats, “paletas” [cream and water-based popsicles of a variety not found in the area], but now they offer fresh fruit, fruit juices and delicious Mexican food.
His younger daughter, Isabel Contreras, 26, graduated from Dowling High School and earned her Associates Degree in photography. She now helps her parents in the business. As a young Latina growing up in Des Moines, she is fully aware of the contributions of immigrants like her family.
From tax revenue to vibrant food offerings for all to enjoy in the city, Latino and immigrant business owners are a driving force from small cities to the greater Des Moines area.
In recent years, the anti-immigrant rhetoric and immigration laws have taken a toll on this highly entrepreneurial community. Contreras remembered that when Donald Trump won the presidency, people stopped going out and their businesses weren’t as busy.
“Members of our community would stop by and would talk about being afraid,” said Contreras. “Every time there are news of some anti-immigration law passing it affects the economy, it affects businesses in general because Latinos quit going out.
“Because I see what affects my community, I’m interested in getting involved and helping. That’s why I became a board member of ‘Al Exito.'”
Al Exito is a nonprofit organization working to motivate and prepare middle school Latinx students for post-high school education and support the potential for their economic security, civic engagement, and a stable family life.
As we ended our time with the Perez family, they added that since anti-immigrant messaging became the norm, they don’t have the same sense of safety. They can tell how some people changed their demeanor toward them. They said they can feel it when they go to a store and people stare at them.
Although Martin and Isabel always vote, they have never participated in the caucuses, and they recognize that they don’t know too much about it. Martin said he likes Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. On the other hand, Isabel leans more toward former Secretary Julian Castro, Sen. Kamala Harris, and Sen. Bernie Sanders.
For both, it is important to elect a president who supports immigration reform, equal pay and health care.
They care deeply about the community. They want to see it thrive the same way they have. Every time someone asks for help with fundraising or food, they try to give their support.
“We’re here to work hard, not to steal from anybody,” Perez said.
By Claudia Thrane