Latinos Reviving Small Towns on the Plains
ULYSSES, Kan. — Change can be unsettling in a small town. But not long ago in this quiet farming community, with its familiar skyline of grain elevators and church steeples, the owner of a new restaurant decided to acknowledge the community’s diversity by adding some less traditional items to her menu. Cheeseburgers. French fries. Chicken-fried steak.
A toast at the Down-Town Restaurant in Ulysses, where the Hispanic owner has added what she called “American food.”
“American food,” the restaurant owner, Luz Gonzalez, calls it. And she signaled her move by giving her Mexican restaurant a distinctly American name: “The Down-Town Restaurant.”
Such fare was all but extinct in a place where longtime residents joke — often with a barely disguised tone of frustration — that the dining options are Mexican, Mexican or Mexican. After the last white-owned restaurant serving American favorites closed this year, it fell to one of the recent Hispanic arrivals to keep the burgers-and-fries legacy alive. Ms. Gonzalez even enlisted the help of neighbors to teach her to cook more exotic dishes — like potato salad.
For generations, the story of the small rural town of the Great Plains, including the dusty tabletop landscape of western Kansas, has been one of exodus — of businesses closing, classrooms shrinking and, year after year, communities withering as fewer people arrive than leave and as fewer are born than are buried. That flight continues, but another demographic trend has breathed new life into the region.
Hispanics are arriving in numbers large enough to offset or even exceed the decline in the white population in many places. In the process, these new residents are reopening shuttered storefronts with Mexican groceries, filling the schools with children whose first language is Spanish and, for now at least, extending the lives of communities that seemed to be staggering toward the grave.
That demographic shift, seen in the findings of the 2010 census, has not been uniformly welcomed in places where steadiness and tradition are seen as central charms of rural life. Some longtime residents of Ulysses, where the population of 6,161 is now about half Hispanic, grumble over the cultural differences and say they feel like strangers in their hometown. But the alternative, community leaders warn, is unacceptable.
“We’re either going to change or we’re going to die,” said Thadd Kistler, a lifelong resident who recently stepped down as mayor. “This is Ulysses now, this is the United States now, this immigration is happening and the communities that are extending a hand are going to survive.”
After years in which mostly white communities throughout the region used gimmicks to lure new residents with limited success, like offering free land or lengthy tax abatements, many are wondering if this unexpected multicultural mix offers one vision of what the future of the rural Great Plains may look like.
“The face of small towns is changing dramatically as a result,” said Robert Wuthnow, a Kansas-born Princeton professor who studied the Hispanic influx for his book “Remaking the Heartland: Middle America since the 1950s.” “The question is: Is this going to save these small towns?”
There has long been a strong Hispanic presence throughout the region, which is rich with difficult work in meatpacking plants and on farms, feedlots and oil fields. But over the last decade, as their population in the rural Great Plains spiked by 54 percent — a figure comparable to gains in metro areas in the region — Hispanic residents have pushed from hubs like nearby Dodge City, Garden City and Liberal into ever smaller communities, buying property on the cheap, enticed, many say, by the opportunity to live quiet lives in communities more similar to those in which they were raised.
In the sparsely populated western half of Kansas, every county but one experienced a decline in the non-Hispanic white population, two-thirds of them by more than 10 percent.
At the same time, a vast majority experienced double-digit growth in Hispanic population, more than offsetting the declines in seven counties and many smaller cities and towns. Those places with the highest percentage of Hispanic residents tend to have the lowest average ages, the highest birth rates and the most stable school populations.
“These towns, I don’t know what they would do without Mexicans,” said Oscar Rivera, a Honduran immigrant who lives in a community of a few hundred people and travels through rural parts of western Kansas selling prepaid phone cards used to call overseas. “It would be like ghost towns.”
The backgrounds of the student population are reflected in the names on the lockers at Kepley Middle School in Ulysses.
One such town is Bazine, about two hours from here and little even by the standards of its neighbors. The decaying strip of downtown stores was abandoned long ago, and empty houses dotted the surrounding streets. A few years back, the high school closed and the building was sold on eBay. There was talk about shutting the elementary school as well.
“The decline was happening,” said Patricia Showalter, the mayor, standing inside the little post office she runs. “And then the Hispanic people came.”
For the first time in more than a half century, the population grew in the latest census, inching up to 334 as the Hispanic population jumped to 86 from 4. Now every house in town is occupied. A new church, La Luz del Mundo, just opened. Though there are no new businesses on Main Street, some entrepreneurial newcomers sell homemade tamales door to door.
And, most importantly to those who had watched the town become ever older, the school enrollment is growing.
In neighboring Ransom, which is almost entirely white, the student population has declined to 34 from 62 in the last eight years. Meanwhile, in Bazine, the numbers have increased to 46, up from 35. The average age in Ransom is 15 years older than in Bazine.
In Ulysses, which grew a modest 3 percent over the last decade, much appears unchanged by the years. Livelihoods are still tied to the earth, where people grow wheat and corn in the dusty soil, drill for the generous deposits of oil and gas beneath the surface and feed cows inside muddy pens that line the roads. Churches — there are more than a dozen — still play an important role, and the pace is still slower than what one usually experiences in a bigger city.
But the influx of Hispanics, a majority of whom were born in Mexico, has left an unmistakable impact.
Rachel Gallegos remembers that as a young girl she was the only Hispanic student in her class and her parents’ Mexican restaurant was the first Hispanic business in town. Now, Hispanics make up two-thirds of the school population and own bakeries, clothing stores, car dealerships and computer repair shops, some catering to Hispanics and others simply filling vacant niches.
And when children become adults, a time when residents have historically headed to bigger communities seeking opportunity, her family was becoming rooted in the community — Ms. Gallegos said that of her nine siblings and their two dozen children, all but a couple remained.
Ginger Anthony, director of the Historic Adobe Museum, which chronicles the history of the onetime frontier town, discussed the changes with dismay, pausing repeatedly to reiterate that she did not want her criticism to seem “politically incorrect.” She is so unnerved, particularly by illegal immigrants, that she recently started locking her door — saying that the police-beat column in the local paper disproportionately features Spanish surnames.
“This wave of new people coming into the Midwest, it’s not always a good thing,” she said, as a co-worker nodded in agreement. “If you talk to the average working person, a lot of them are sort of fed up. Our town isn’t what it was.”
But Hispanic residents here say they have been mostly well received, even if the non-Hispanics sometimes keep their distance. There are exceptions, like when students at a neighboring high school showed up to a basketball game in sombreros and tossed tortillas onto the court.
Jose Olivas, a longtime community developer with Mexican American Ministries, said that it took years of pressure to hire Hispanic employees at schools and at some businesses. Now employers are taking Spanish lessons, and expressing preference for bilingual job applicants.
“For a while you had to be careful,” Mr. Olivas said. “But they’ve really changed their attitudes.”
Mr. Kistler, the former mayor, agreed that there were culture clashes, but said they were slowly dissipating.
“At first every community, including Ulysses, was very unwelcoming, but a lot of that was because we wanted to hold on so tight to what we were,” he said. “In the last five years, we’ve really seen that they’re here, they’re staying, they’re part of the community. We’ve kind of gotten used to each other.”
Part of that has been dictated by demographics.
At the hospital in town, exactly half of the 102 babies born last year were Hispanic. And in a telling sign of the future of the community, 13 babies were listed as having one white and one Hispanic parent.