Profile Text: Olivia LeRoux
Sara Huddleston first traveled to the United States as a tourist in 1988 expecting gun slingers, cowboys, and horse and buggy teams to surround her when she stepped off her flight. She was fully prepared for a total John Wayne experience. Her expectations quickly changed when her hosts picked her up at the airport, not on the back of a bucking bronco but in a brand new Ford Bronco. Since moving to the United States from Yucatán, Mexico, in 1989, her perceptions of the Midwest have drastically changed.
While Huddleston might not have entered “The Little House on the Prairie” atmosphere that she was prepared for, she still faced plenty of culture shock. “I had to really adapt,” she said. “You talk about cultural shock about food? Completely different. I felt there was no taste. Needed salt, garlic. It was just plain food. But, you know, I learned and [one day] I thought, ‘Oh, now I love mashed potatoes.’ I even made mashed potatoes in Mexico [for family]. I love mashed potatoes and I love the corn.”
Huddleston came to the United States after being invited to study and assist the Spanish Department at Simpson College in Indianola. She quickly realized that she wasn’t quite prepared for coursework taught entirely in English. “My English wasn’t as good when reading Gulliver’s Travels-type books, and in Shakespeare, in the old English, it’s like, ‘Oh, I feel like I [had] zero English because my English wasn’t even that close…and then Shakespeare!” Huddleston had been studying English since her teenage years, when she wrote letters to a pen pal in Missouri. Cognizant of the advantages of learning a second language, Huddleston always suggests that others do the same.
Huddleston and her husband moved to Storm Lake when her father-in-law, who was a minister, asked for their assistance and company. Upon arrival, the words “ghost town” came to Huddleston’s mind. Additionally, she noted, “When I came here, I mean, I think I even call myself, funny joke, the conquistadora [laughs]. Because there was no, I mean, seriously, I felt like I was the only Latina, you know, Hispanic woman in town.”
Soon thereafter, she became bored and unsettled and decided it was time to find a job. She first applied at IBP. When she arrived at the plant, the supervisor eyed her suspiciously. “I don’t think you really want to qualify for this job,” she remembered the supervisor telling her. Huddleston wasn’t sure why he would think that. He then said, “I don’t think you can even…you’re not gonna pass the test.” Sure enough, Huddleston, weighing in at a whopping 110 pounds, was not able to pass the strength test to work at the plant.
She found her first job at a bakery before being hired to work at the bank as a teller. Huddleston’s bilingual skills started to come in handy over the next four years, and people recognized her abilities. The wife of a minister in town asked Huddleston if she would be interested in working as a victim’s counselor for battered immigrant women. Huddleston wasn’t sure if she was qualified, but she decided to give it a go. “I started learning all this, all these systems, all these organizations when I was networking and connecting clients with the resources that they needed,” she remembered. She understood that these women faced unique situations and needed more than a protection order. “If they were undocumented, they would say, ‘I rather get beat up than get out, because if I do this, he’s going to deport me.’ I mean there was a lot of serious threats.”
Huddleston encouraged the women she worked with to find ways to learn English. “You know, I have to be honest with you,” she would tell them. “And I mean, if you want to be in this country, you really have to learn English. If you’re eventually going to leave your partner, you need the skill to survive.” This was partly due to a lack of bilingual people working in town, she said. For fourteen years she enjoyed the work she was doing and gained insight into immigration law and the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). Now, she sees the children of the women she helped graduating from colleges around Iowa.
Huddleston was being noticed by the Storm Lake community whether she knew it or not. She volunteered and worked on several committees including the Commission on Latino Affairs and the Iowa State University Extension Office’s Diversity Task Force. Columnist Chuck Offenburger, then living in town, met Huddleston through the Task Force and was present at many of Huddleston’s presentations. He suggested she run for city council in 2004.
Huddleston wasn’t so sure. She didn’t feel that her English was good enough, nor did she know enough about politics. But Offenburger assured her, “I can help you,” she recalled him saying. Carla and I can help you create a campaign poster.” Huddleston remembered a central piece of advice he imparted. “He said, ‘Just have fun.'” Huddleston agreed, and began to work on the campaign trail. Offenburger and Huddleston spent days door-knocking. After a hard day’s work, Huddleston said, Offenburger said to her, “Sara, I’m very surprised. At every single house, they knew you! They said, ‘We’re going to vote for her.'” Huddleston responded, even more surprised, “That’s the same thing that happened to me!”
Soon after, Huddleston became the first Hispanic immigrant woman on Storm Lake’s city council. She served the town for three consecutive terms. Huddleston took her role incredibly seriously. “I started becoming a member of the city council and participated in every single training program, in every single class I can go to,” she said. “Because now I can make decisions and I have to be responsible. I’m representing the community in my decisions, that are important.” In her time on city council, Huddleston actively promoted the city to invest in a new resort and water park. Another city council member warned Huddleston, she recalled, that if the project was a failure it would come down on her. She replied, “I said it’s not going to go on me. This is going to be a success. This is going to be OK.”
Huddleston accomplished a great deal on city council and is humble about her her role as a model of leadership for younger generations. “I don’t consider myself a leader,” she said. “I don’t consider that. But people tend to look at people that do stuff and they want to be like you…They were inspired.”
Huddleston focused a lot of her time in public service advocating for women’s health, specifically immigrants. She has worked on establishing a program to make ESL classes available to immigrant women. She also helped to establish community clinics for women who came from countries where their health was not nurtured or supported. She pushed for resources to restore homes and to help with the housing crisis in Storm Lake. While she feels she accomplished a lot, at times she wishes she could have done more. “But in government,” she confessed, “you have some people that just don’t want to go for it, you know, they want to keep things [the same].”
After her third term, Huddleston recognized that it was her time to move on from city government. What she didn’t realize was that she, and Storm Lake, had gained the attention of many Iowans. The buzz was positive. People wanted to know how Storm Lake was succeeding in its policing methods, increasing its diversity, and handling language barriers. People could see that Huddleston was a strong force in many of these issues and they were itching to know more about her.
She was approached by two Iowa state legislators. “They asked me if I would consider to run [to be] a state legislator.” At the time she wasn’t ready to take on that race. She decided to focus on her education and earn a degree in political science. By 2014 she felt that she might just be ready to run as the Democratic candidate for Iowa’s District 11. Most recently, in 2020, she ran for the position but has faced defeat in the traditionally red state. She continues to try, she said, because she is saddened by the current issues that Iowa faces. “I consider this my home. This is my home. This is where I live. And it really hurts to see that small towns are dying, that the businesses are closed, and that there is no money in the chamber.” If Huddleston were to win, Iowa would see its first Latina representative.
Huddleston deeply cares about Storm Lake. Even though she knew few other hispanic individuals in town when she came here with her husband, she felt welcomed. She wholeheartedly believes that this small rural town was the best place to raise a family.