Everybody Knows Gracie Vrieze

Profile Text: Madeline Phaby

Gracie Vrieze, an interpreter for the Storm Lake Police Department, knows just about everyone in town. But she’s known some longer than others: she estimates she witnessed the births of about 40% of the city’s current population during her time volunteering as an interpreter in the Buena Vista Regional Medical Center’s obstetrics department.

“Now some of them are firemen, and now they look at me and they call me ‘Auntie Gracie,’” Vrieze said, “because in Mexico, you call them aunts, to the one that is with you when you’re born.”

The fact that Vrieze was present for the births of so many Hispanic Storm Lake residents is fitting, as she also witnessed the ‘birth’ of the city’s robust Latinx community. When she and her new husband, Terry, moved to Storm Lake from Arizona in 1988 to be closer to his parents, Vrieze was one of only a few Hispanics living there.

“When I first arrived here, there [were] actually only four of us – four Hispanics in the whole town,” she said. “And three of them were working at the [IBP] packing plant.”

Vrieze said she never faced any overt racism upon moving to Storm Lake despite the town being overwhelmingly white at the time, but she did notice cultural differences between her new home and Arizona, where the Hispanic population was much larger. For example, in Vrieze’s home state of Sonora, Mexico, women tend to dress up on the weekends even if they aren’t going anywhere. Vrieze said this practice caused confusion among some Storm Lakers, even her own mother-in-law.

“I was looked at like, ‘Who is she? Where’s she going?’” Vrieze said. “Or even my mother-in-law always asked, ‘You get up in the morning, take a shower, get dressed and put makeup on, and you get all dressed up just to be in on the weekend?’”

We have Oriental [sic] officers, we have Caucasians, we have Hispanics. We have colored [sic] officers also. So we are a rainbow department, which makes us unique. It’s kind of nice, because you cannot say, ‘Oh, he’s picking on me because I’m Hispanic,’ because it might be a Hispanic [officer].

Vrieze worked at the IBP (now Tyson) plant when she first moved to Storm Lake, but she applied for a job at the police department in 1993. By that time, the city’s Hispanic population was rapidly growing, and the department hired her as an interpreter. In the nearly 29 years since she arrived, Vrieze has seen the makeup of the department become considerably more diverse, which is reflective of the way the city as a whole has changed.

“We have Oriental [sic] officers, we have Caucasians, we have Hispanics. We have colored [sic] officers also. So we are a rainbow department, which makes us unique,” Vrieze said. “It’s kind of nice, because you cannot say, ‘Oh, he’s picking on me because I’m Hispanic,’ because it might be a Hispanic [officer].”

Vrieze was with the department for about three years when one of Storm Lake’s greatest tragedies occurred: the 1996 Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) raid of the IBP plant, in which dozens of undocumented workers were arrested; some were even deported. Vrieze herself was not present when the raid occurred, as she was at Disneyland with her family. However, many Hispanic Storm Lakers felt betrayed by her because they mistook one of the INS agents for her.

“One of the agents in immigration was a female, and it looked like me, and a lot of Hispanics thought it was me, the one going after them, and I got blamed for not telling them or letting them know that immigration was coming in,” Vrieze said. “And at the time, I had no clue.”

Though she didn’t return to Storm Lake until about two weeks after the raid occurred, Vrieze was aware of the severity of the event, and she witnessed a wide variety of reactions from different members of the community. Some white people were glad it happened. Some were upset that INS didn’t detain all the city’s immigrants. The Hispanic community, many of whom had relatives arrested during the raid, was gutted and desperately seeking help.

“Some people came to the police department to see what they can do for my cousin or my grandma or my mom or something like that,” Vrieze said. “But we direct those people straight to the immigration department because we don’t deal with immigration. So I did not have the answers for them.” Many got the support they needed from their neighbors in town, though. Storm Lakers were quick to step in and take care of houses, kids, and pets for those affected by the raid. As Vrieze would quickly find out, the community’s constant willingness to help is one of the best things about living in the city.

In 2006, Vrieze was diagnosed with cancer and forced to miss 11 months of work. Her neighbor immediately stepped in and arranged for a member of the community to bring her family dinner every night for the entire 11 months. “The whole town came together for my family,” Vrieze said. “That is something you don’t see very much. So I am glad that I’m here because the residents here are – it’s a good town. It’s a very good town.”

Vrieze and her family were again struck by Storm Lake’s generosity in 2013, when she and her husband Terry adopted two of her nieces in addition to their four biological children. The younger niece, Montserrat, was just 18 months old and in desperate need of a liver transplant. Once again, the community rallied behind the Vriezes and raised the funds necessary for the transplant. Montserrat is now 10 years old and perfectly healthy, largely due to the community’s fundraising efforts. “There was an article in the paper about her with us and her story. We were on Channel Four in Sioux City also to try to collect funds to try to do her surgery and stuff. So it’s a wonderful story,” Vrieze said. “She’s becoming a beautiful girl, and she’s still alive, which is wonderful.”

Unfortunately, Vrieze is once again undergoing treatment for cancer, but she’s showing no signs of slowing down. She said she has no desire to retire any time soon, nor does she ever want to leave Storm Lake – mainly because her four grown children still live in the area. “I like to be involved with people. I like to help people and I like to interact with others. So I think I will be bored if I just go home,” Vrieze said.

Though Storm Lake’s generosity toward Vrieze’s family during their times of need is a testament to the city itself, it’s also demonstrative of how beloved she is within the community. Because everyone in the city knows and loves Gracie, they also love her family members by extension – even if they don’t know their names.

“Everybody knows who Gracie is in town. So my husband gets kind of mad; he feels kind of left out because it’s like, ‘Oh, hi you’re Gracie’s husband. Oh, hi, you’re Gracie’s daughter. Oh, you’re Gracie’s son,’” Vrieze said. “They never know any of my family members by name.” Despite any annoyance Terry Vrieze may feel at Storm Lakers not knowing his name, he’s undoubtedly aware of how special his wife is: upon meeting new people, he introduces himself not as Terry, but as “Gracie’s husband.”

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