A game of pick-up basketball at the school gym at Kepley Middle School in Ulysses, Kan. where the Hispanic population is increasing.
Published: November 13, 2011
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.
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.