Unsettling Ambitions: The Story of Joanne Alvorez

Profile Text: Talon Wolter
Edited by: Sam Purkiss
Audio Profile: Tanner Frost

Joanne Alvorez embraced her daughter, Alesia, and posed for a graduation photo in 2020. She was receiving her Masters in Social Work from the University of Iowa, and though her path wasn’t always clear, her priorities were ever firm. “If you’re going to doubt something,” she wrote on her cap in Spanish, “let it be your limits.”

Growing up in Storm Lake, and as her cap’s message suggested, Joanne Alvorez wanted to advocate for marginalized voices. Throughout her childhood, Alvorez attended a Spanish-speaking church, where she met many undocumented Latinx immigrants. She witnessed families torn apart by government deportations. She saw people with but a semblance of control over the direction of their lives. Such experiences raised a tough question to her: why should a complicated, expensive, and broken immigration process determine who has a shot at the American Dream? Using the good fortune of her birth in Storm Lake, Alvorez decided to go college, and to put her education to use to work for those less fortunate.

Even with such noble ambitions, while in high school, Alvorez felt doubted by some teachers. In the late-2000s, when she was a senior, Storm Lake High School disproportionately promoted the local community college, Iowa Central, for students of color. Despite her acceptance to a university in Tulsa, a guidance counselor attempted to pressure her into attending an informational meeting on the local community college. When she told him she had already been accepted to a better university, the guidance counselor replied, “How ambitious of you!”  Looking back on this memory, it was clear that “brown and black students [were] regularly ushered into that path at a higher rate than the white students,” she said. “The teachers were well-meaning…but they have to be willing to be uncomfortable” when approached about unintentionally racist choices and actions. They must be willing to learn from students, too.

Alvorez (pictured far right) with friends Mayra Lopez (left) and Emilia Marroquín (middle) at an Iowa Department of Human Rights Convention

After receiving her diploma from SLHS, Alvorez left Storm Lake briefly in 2009 to attend college and returned back home after graduating in 2013, determined to make a difference in her hometown. In order to provide an empathetic ear to students facing similar micro-aggressive discrimination, she became a psychotherapist for Storm Lake Public Schools through the Plains City Mental Health Center. Two years ago, Alvorez earned her MSW and became a licensed social worker.

Though her job allows her to connect and aid dozens of immigrant children and their families, she recognizes that the public school system only impacts a relative minority of the immigrant population in town. “If you don’t have kids in the school system,” she said, “you really are on your own to figure out where to find everything, to communicate with people. The good thing about SALUD!, especially, is our ability to connect with different communities within Storm Lake.”

Alvorez holds leadership positions in the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) and SALUD!, which are both multicultural rights and activism groups. Alvorez initially became involved with the latter after being hired by a company in Storm Lake as a self-identified “diversity hire.” Her company encouraged her to join SALUD! as a representative. At first, she was hesitant about representing the company as a token minority, but she soon came to realize the good she could accomplish. The organization strives to “make Storm Lake a fair and equitable place for all.” With leaders like Diane Daniels and “a bunch of other Latinos that I knew in town who just wanted to make Storm Lake a better place,” the group is largely succeeding in its mission.

Alvorez with her husband, Erick, and their daughter, Alesia

LULAC was founded in 1929 in Texas, initially as an advocacy group for Hispanics returning from service in World War I. Today, you can find a chapter in almost every state. As the group grew, it gained more capital and a stronger voice for the Latinx community. Alvorez joined the Storm Lake chapter in 2017, a couple of years after it had been established.

Although the two groups hold similar aims, the size naturally dictates the scope of the services they are able to provide. SALUD! provides local benefits, such as improved access to mental and physical care, addressing community hunger, and participating in the Iowa Migrant Movement for Justice. LULAC provides education, health, technology, civic engagement, and economic empowerment programs in order to help Latinx citizens all around the country.  Both of these organizations have unsuccessfully tried to collaborate with the Storm Lake City Schools, but in recent years with the help of the new superintendent Stacey Cole, collaboration, communication, and consultation has been growing.

Reminded of her unsavory encounter with the unimaginative guidance counselor, she discussed how, when she was growing up, Latinos and other minorities were made to feel “othered” by the community. Without the advocacy from groups like SALUD and LULAC, kids felt stuck accepting the prejudices and preconceptions of their teachers. “That’s different now,” she said. “We know the school owes us. We don’t owe the school.” Now, students are standing up for themselves and are being supported. “People are demanding equality and fairness,” she added. “They aren’t taking no for an answer anymore.”

Alvorez reminisces about the challenges faced by Latinx students when she was in school and reflects about the positive changes she sees today.

In fact, Alvorez’s favorite part of Storm Lake are the successive generations of students. She was impressed with the student response to the murder of George Floyd, which ignited protests across the country for racial equality. Over the summer of 2020 the young adults in SLHS planned a Black Lives Matter protest, on their own, as a response to the murder.

Despite the promise of each class of SLHS students, racism still infects the City Beautiful. During the Trump Presidency, some in Storm Lake would justify his racist statements about Mexican border policing. Although racism may not be always seen overtly, it still resides, subtly, in town. Little things, such as being told to “go back home,” or avoiding a conversation in the store for fear of what the other person might say about your race, build up over time and deny the immigrant community a welcoming hometown or the safety afforded to affluent white residents.

Alvorez is often asked her opinions on the border. Her immediate response focuses on the migrant children stuck at the border, a subject that, as the mother of a six-year-old daughter, hits close to home. “Children should not be held at detention centers,” she stated, and is frustrated that this has continued under the Biden administration. Such a sentiment fits well within Alvorez’s larger worldview and methodology towards community restoration: children can inspire adults to change for the better.

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