BROOKLYN, Iowa – Before one of their own went missing, before the nation’s gaze found them, before the White House made what happened here about immigration politics, the residents of this farming community of 1,500 people say they lived in relative harmony.
Together, the town of whites and Latinos, liberals and conservatives, spent their time on Jackson Street, dining on the south end at the one sit-down restaurant in town and attending class on the north end at Brooklyn’s only high school. They mingled at lunchtime in the Brooklyn Grocery and learned to smoke meat at the hardware store.
By late August, harvest season was coming, St. Patrick’s Catholic Church was accepting sign-ups for fall confirmation classes, and the residents of Brooklyn were entering their fifth week without answers in the disappearance of Mollie Tibbetts, a 20-year-old University of Iowa student who left for an evening run July 18 and never returned. Her hometown had spent the summer searching, praying and planting “missing” signs in the yards surrounding John Wayne’s boyhood home and Brooklyn’s “Community of Flags” display. Residents were united in their belief that eventually she would resurface - that soon all would be back to how it was before.
Then, police found Tibbetts’ body discarded in a cornfield. They charged Cristhian Bahena Rivera, a local farmhand, with her murder. And they announced that Rivera, who had no prior criminal history, was an undocumented Mexican immigrant.
What Brooklyn wanted was to mourn, to avoid the politics.
“It was a crime that was committed because of something on the inside,” said Tibbetts’ close friend, Paris Flack, 17, “not because of his skin on the outside.”
But within hours of Rivera’s arrest, the tragedy within this small community became about partisan political division everywhere else.
Conservative pundits talked with vitriol about all that Tibbetts’ death meant to them: a broken immigration system, lax border security, the reason to build that wall. Racist screeds flooded online forums. A white nationalist group sent robo-calls claiming without evidence that Tibbetts, if she were alive, would say of immigrants: “Kill them all.”
President Donald Trump seized on the case, too, framing it as evidence that illegal immigration is a violent threat. At a rally in West Virginia after Rivera’s arrest, Trump presented Tibbetts’ death as a cautionary tale of us vs. them.
“You heard about today with the illegal alien coming in very sadly from Mexico,” he told the crowd, referencing Tibbetts’s death. “Should’ve never happened. … The immigration laws are such a disgrace.”
For most people in Brooklyn, though, Rivera’s legal status is a distraction. This time should be about Mollie, they say, not the man accused of killing her. They remain in disbelief that someone they know, who worked on a dairy farm operated by someone else they know, could have killed a young woman whom everyone seemed to know, too.
Soon, residents were retreating from their usual routines, avoiding the park, the grocery store, their own front yards, because the hatred being spewed out there had begun seeping in here, too. The wave of racist rhetoric prompted organizers to cancel two nearby Latino heritage festivals. At the high school, the principal used his annual welcome-back assembly to tell his students that prejudice had no place in their halls, even as one Latina student listening in the crowd would soon hear classmates whispering that people like her should go back to the border.
Next came anonymous, threatening text messages and the realization that people in her town were still uniting — some just weren’t uniting with those who looked like her.
Hundreds joined search
At first, Brooklyn welcomed the deluge of attention. When Tibbetts went missing in mid-July, reporters filled the Classic Deli, which has homemade pie and free WiFi, and covered with fervor every development in the case.
Hundreds of people across Poweshiek County joined search parties that scoured corn fields and barns. Community members held prayer vigils and plastered the area with missing signs made by the local print shop. They tied teal ribbons - Tibbetts’ favorite color — on street signs.
“We all wanted to find Mollie,” said Rusty Clayton, who owns the hardware store and has known the family since Tibbetts’ mother was a girl. “It was a community effort, and our community extended beyond our borders.”
On Aug. 15, Vice President Mike Pence — visiting Iowa to talk about Trump’s tax-cut plan - met with Tibbetts’ family aboard Air Force Two. It was paternal, not political, her father, Rob Tibbetts, told the Des Moines Register, and Pence “agreed with that wholeheartedly.”
That changed a week later, after Rivera was charged with murdering Tibbetts and Trump spoke at the West Virginia rally. Brooklyn’s appreciation for the widespread attention shifted to resentment.
They resented that Trump — whom their county narrowly favored in the presidential election — was politicizing the death of one of their own, keeping them from mourning in peace. They resented that Tibbetts, whom they describe as warm, sharp, liberal and loquacious, was being used as a pawn for a political position she never would have adopted.
In response to the political outcry, a relative wrote on Facebook that “evil comes in EVERY color.” At her memorial service on Sunday, Rob Tibbetts defended the Latino community, saying, “As far as I’m concerned, they’re Iowans with better food.”
At a vigil at St. Patrick’s, where Tibbetts was a parishioner, youth minister Angie Gritsch almost mentioned that the young woman was “not a Trump fan,” then reconsidered. If there were anywhere Brooklyn should be able to escape politics, she thought, it was at church.
But if Mollie knew about Trump’s speech?
“Oh my gosh,” Gritsch said. “She would be so mad.”
Brooklyn typically does not revolve around Washington politics. Though many residents lean Republican, there are also plenty who vote for Democrats.
“The big rivalry here,” Clayton said, “is when Iowa and Iowa State play each other in football.”
Immigrant families have been drawn here by the work opportunities in the meatpacking industry, on construction crews and as farmhands. The Latino population in town has grown steadily since 2000, yet it still makes up just 2.3 percent of the population.
Brooklyn’s Latino residents say they have felt welcome in this town, which sits halfway between Iowa City and Des Moines along Interstate 80, but there have been subtle tensions. Language barriers create some separation, and there are cultural disconnects: In Mexico, quinceañeras are a community affair. Here, they are not.
Many Latino families live on the farms where they work or on other land owned by their white employers.
At Yarrabee Farms, the longtime Lang family dairy operation where Rivera worked, the phone has been flooded with hundreds of calls, messages and death threats since the arrest, attacking the family for employing an undocumented immigrant.
“This farm absolutely is an accessory to Ms. Tibbetts death,” one person wrote on a Facebook page for the business.
The hatred forced Dane Lang, 33, who lives on the farm alongside his grandfather and employees, to send his dog to stay with a friend and to arrange for the family’s 90-year-old patriarch to stay with relatives. Then he reluctantly called a news conference to explain that the business had run Rivera’s documents through a Social Security database before they had hired him, not knowing the paperwork was false.
The Langs know the Tibbetts family well, and soon after the news conference, a Tibbetts family member reached out to apologize to Lang for all the farm was facing. “Don’t you be sorry,” Lang said, adding that the worst was yet to come. Next would be the trial.
After Rivera’s arrest, Lang’s employees, who are mostly Latino, holed up in their trailers on Lang’s property behind locked doors, afraid to be seen in town, Lang said. Rumors circulated that Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials planned to raid Brooklyn, and fearful families weighed whether to stay or go.
Rivera’s uncle, Eustaquio “Capi” Bahena Radilla, said he fears less for himself than for his three school-age children. Most days, Bahena Radilla socializes only with co-workers at Yarrabee Farms. Even if he spent more time in town, he wouldn’t know if neighbors were whispering about him — he doesn’t speak English.
But his children go to school with their children.
“My concern is that people will treat them badly or look at them differently,” Bahena Radilla said, through an interpreter.
North of town, in her home in a private lakeside community, Adela Fragoso, who babysat the Tibbetts children and attended high school with Lang, pondered whether she should go to Sunday’s memorial service for Tibbetts. She wasn’t worried people would say something; she was worried if they did, how it would affect the Tibbetts family. She would speak to Mollie’s mother privately instead, once everything had settled.
Now 34 and a permanent U.S. resident, Fragoso said she came from Mexico with her family as a child. She had never felt unwelcome in Brooklyn, she said — but things seemed suddenly different.
Some of her friends on Facebook were making disparaging remarks about undocumented immigrants. One man, whom she has seen at nearby Mexican restaurants, wrote after Rivera’s arrest: “This is why we need a [expletive] wall.”
“I don’t think they’re racist by any means,” Fragoso said. “I just think they’re ignorant.”
Fragoso has straddled the line between legal and illegal, as she has had both statuses during her time here. She said documentation didn’t change the person she is or the choices she has made. But she feels caught, she said, between a desire to educate her neighbors and a yearning for it all to blow over.
“I think it might separate us a little in the community,” she said.
Clayton, the hardware store owner, agreed. “Your heart not only aches for Mollie’s family,” he said, “but it aches for the Hispanic community because this has kind of put a black eye on all of them.”
He, too, wants town harmony to return — as long as everyone follows the rules.
“I think everybody just wants to live happily together,” Clayton said, pausing to clarify. “Legally, I mean.”
Friday night lights
By the end of the week, Brooklyn finally found refuge in something routine: Friday night lights.
At the high school football season opener on Aug. 24, an away game two counties over, Brooklyn’s high school asked the host team to keep the evening focused on football. Brooklyn Bears teammates — including Mollie’s brother Scott, who plays quarterback — would wear Mollie’s initials on their uniforms, and the cheerleaders would tie teal ribbons in their hair. They wanted nothing more.
On the sidelines and in the stands, Latino and white children cheered together, though outside politics had influenced them, too. The 10th-grade girl who heard classmates saying people like her should go back to Mexico had since received 10 text messages, mostly from strangers, filled with hate. She didn’t know how they had gotten her number.
One message had come from a kid she knows. Others were sent from neighboring area codes. Her older brother, Gerardo Gamboa, had posted a message on his Snapchat asking for the bullying to stop.
Gamboa, who just started college classes nearby, drove to the game to watch his former teammates play. His sisters, both cheerleaders, rallied the crowd. On the field, Tibbetts’s younger brother led the team to three touchdowns in the first half.
At halftime, the sisters ran over to greet Gamboa with hugs and a request: concession stand money.
He grumbled, fished for cash in his wallet, then asked his sister about the harassing texts — and if anything had been done about it.
She had done what she had been advised to do, she said: delete the message, block the number and, like everyone else in town, try to move on.