STORM LAKE, Iowa | Linda Quintanilla delivered a commencement speech at Storm Lake High School nearly 22 years ago. She was 17 and one of two Hispanics in the SLHS Class of 1995.
Storm Lake's school district, which educated a total of 222 Hispanic children that year, now counts 1,375 Hispanics among its enrollment of 2,577 students, or 53.4 percent of the student body in a city where folks have built or added to schools several times in the past two decades. The hospital and colleges serving "The City Beautiful" have also expanded. Ten years ago, a $40 million lakeside resort, King's Pointe, opened on the northeast shore of the lake.
I'm sensitive, protective when it comes to Storm Lake, where three of my siblings went to school. I still have family members walking those halls. I have similar feelings for schools in cities like Denison, Sioux Center, Wakefield and South Sioux City, to name a few.
I thought of Quintanilla on Monday while digesting a sad tale from Forest City, Iowa, where, last Tuesday, a producer and an announcer for KIOW Radio in Forest City made racist comments about the names of Hispanic basketball players from Eagle Grove High School, a school similar to Storm Lake High.
Orrin Harris, a longtime sports announcer for KIOW, who was fired on Monday, has apologized. Producer Holly Jane Kusserow-Smidt was placed on paid administrative leave by officials with the Forest City Community School District, where she's a teacher. She was not working for the school district at the time she made her comments.
In the audio, one can hear the two banter over names of Hispanic or Latino origin that Harris may have to use. "As (President) Trump would say, go back where they came from," Harris said.
"Well, some would say that, yea," Kusserow-Smidt responded. "Some days I feel like that too."
Jess Toliver, superintendent of schools at Eagle Grove, told the Mason City Globe-Gazette that the situation was odd, given the fact that students were directly named in the broadcast, which didn't air on KIOW, but, rather, in an Internet stream from the game site.
"These kids have been here for a while," Toliver said. "They've been in sports for a while."
Quintanilla might have a story similar to other Hispanics in places like Eagle Grove, a meatpacking center in rural Iowa. She carried a white flag to school in El Salvador after her home country broke apart in civil war in 1988. She huddled in the bathroom with her family as guerilla forces, guns drawn, moved through their neighborhood.
Her father left El Salvador for California, seeking to find a place where he could work and raise his family in peace. He sent money home for two years before Linda's mother gathered their three children and left their home and possessions under the cover of darkness. Linda was 13 and had no chance to tell her friends goodbye.
The family stayed in Guatemala before passing illegally into the U.S., crossing at the border through an area where the wall had been lifted up. Once reunited, the family worked in California for five months before heading to Storm Lake, where they found work in turkey and pork production. Linda was a freshman and barely spoke a word of English when she entered Storm Lake High School.
Teachers found tutors for her during study hall and after school. Four years later, she delivered a graduation address, a speech that contained two sentences in Spanish, the rest in English. She received a standing ovation and cried.
So, I thought of Linda Quintanilla and the high schoolers like her, innocent student-athletes in Eagle Grove who've been thrust into the middle of a national story because of the racist remarks of two adults, who made sport of children, belittling their place in life. Belittling rural Iowa in the process.