On a blazingly hot June evening at Emporia State University, LeLan Dains led a tiny group of community residents in a game of 20 Questions. There was a twist to the contest: It was being played in Spanish.
Or mostly Spanish, anyway. The participants weren’t native speakers – not on this night, anyway – but they gave it their best.
Dains let one of the participants, Patricia Riley, pick a slip of paper. She examined it to discover the object she would be playing in the game, then started taking questions.
“¿Estás vivo?” Are you alive?
“¿Eres tu planta?” Are you a plant?
No. And not an animal either.
That perplexed one questioner, who lapsed into English. “You’re not a plant or an animal, but you’re alive?”
The answer, it turns out, was a mariposa, a butterfly – el insecto, neither animal nor plant, precisely, but definitely alive.
So why was this group of people spending their evening struggling through a simple party game in a language they’re just starting to learn? Because they are part of Emporia Spanish Speakers, a group founded by Dains to adapt to – and be more welcoming of – the community’s large and still-growing population of Spanish speakers and immigrants.
More than a quarter of Emporia’s residents are Hispanic, and nearly 13% are foreign-born, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
At most meetings, that effort is aided by some of Emporia’s many native Spanish speakers. (The June meeting happened after school got out, and the heat may have kept people home.)
At a May gathering, for example, Sally Sanchez and other members of the local Hispanics of Today and Tomorrow group were on hand to lead
a Spanish-language lesson in tortilla making.
Dains “makes it fun,” says Sanchez, who has participated, off and on, in the ESS gatherings for several years. “He just doesn’t make it just a book and pencil. No, he has conversations. He has activities for them.”
The point isn’t just to learn a language: It’s to make connections, and to transform a community Dains believes has sometimes only haltingly welcomed its new neighbors over the last few decades.
That task, he says, “begins by learning how to communicate with one another.”
A changing state
Emporia isn’t the only community in Kansas with a substantial Latino population, of course. The 2020 census found that the state grew by just 3% over the previous decade, but the number of Hispanic residents grew by an astounding 27.5%. Put another way: The state’s entire population rose by 84,762 people during the decade – and 82,561 of those residents were Hispanic.
“So, Hispanics are disproportionately driving Kansas’ modest population growth,” Patrick Miller, a University of Kansas political science professor, pointed out last year in the Topeka Capital-Journal.
That’s a process that has been underway for decades, spurred early on by the rise of the meatpacking industry during the 1980s. (Emporia has been home to a large plant, now owned by Tyson, since the 1960s.) Those new plants attracted a number of new immigrants – not just from Spanish-speaking counties, but also Asian and African newcomers – and transformed southwest Kansas towns such as Garden City and Dodge City from largely white to majority Latino communities.
The country is home to more than 40 million Spanish speakers, including 22 metropolitan and micropolitan areas that have more Spanish speakers than English speakers. For the most part, those communities are in the places you might expect – along the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California. But a few are further north, including Liberal, Kansas, where 58% of residents speak a language other than English at home, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. (In Emporia, the percentage of residents speaking a language other than English at home is 21%.)
The pace of change has sometimes challenged cities as they sought to accommodate and serve their new residents.
“It put strains on social services, on infrastructure,” says Don Stull, a professor emeritus of anthropology at KU who has been studying the changes in Garden City since the 1980s. The communities weren’t always ready for the change “because most of those (social services) providers were – and to a large extent still are – monolingual English speakers.”
There have also been dramatic moments of backlash. In 2019, three men were sentenced to prison after they were convicted of plotting to bomb a Garden City apartment complex where a number of Somali immigrants lived.
Emporia has a somewhat different history: Spanish-speaking immigrants aren’t a recent phenomenon here – a century ago, Mexican laborers flocked to the city to work on the railroad. Those newcomers “slowly blended into the community and have been referred by the locals as ‘old-guard Latinos,’ accepted and respected in town,” László J. Kulcsár and Albert Iaroi, a pair of Kansas State University researchers, noted in a 2013 examination of the city.
“I think Emporia is a very unique city, where we’ve always been a melting pot of cultures with our industries,” says Mayor Becky Smith. “There’s really not an ‘us and them’ anymore. It’s everybody.” If there’s a community backlash to immigration, she says, “they’re very much in the minority.”
But the town has seen occasional anti-immigration protests when the issue has flared up nationally. And the 1990s saw a new and more diverse wave of Latino immigrants – not just Mexican, but also newcomers from El Salvador, Ecuador and Guatemala.
“I think in all honesty, that the community for the most part did not think too highly” of the Latino immigrants coming in, one anonymous Emporian told the K-State researchers.
For some newcomers, that aloofness was obvious.
“It was a little tough,” says Sanchez, who moved to Emporia from south Texas in the 1970s. “It was a little hard to deal with that. But luckily the Hispanic community grew.”
Sometimes, Sanchez says, conflicts in the community have centered on language.
“You live in the United States, you speak English, which I have no problem with that,” she says. But there have been times when “I’m at an establishment or a restaurant and I’m speaking Spanish (to a friend) and somebody tells me, ‘Hey, you need to be speaking English.’ Why? This is my language. I’m speaking to a friend of mine. So I do what I want. That’s when I get a little bit perturbed about it.”
Stull says some communities have done a better job of welcoming immigrant workers than others.
“It’s what’s called ‘the context of reception,’” he says. While it’s hard to say why some towns did well with the transition and others have not, those that did tended to have a group of leaders “who saw the need to welcome these new people who were culturally very different.”
Which, as it happens, is what Dains is attempting to do in Emporia.
Dains wears a number of hats around town. He’s the director of Visit Emporia, the city’s tourism bureau, co-owns the Gravel City Adventure & Supply bike shop, and for a number of years was part of the ownership group for the Unbound Gravel bike race.
It was in that last role that he was part of the process for changing the race’s name from its former moniker, the Dirty Kanza, after complaints that the label had also historically been used as a slur on the state’s native tribes.
“I really equate it to something as simple as: We’re all ignorant,” he says. “But once you become educated, you’re no longer ignorant. And once we became aware of the situation many years into operating the bike event, we had an obligation to do better.”
That same approach – getting educated, fighting against his own ignorance – helped bring about the creation of Emporia Spanish Speakers.
“Like most people, I had an up-and-down relationship with the Spanish language,” Dains says. “I took a course in high school, then had no use for it.”
That changed after he graduated from college and started traveling internationally.
“I began studying from a lot of my own textbooks that I had had and my wife’s textbooks that she had had for college,” he says. “And after about nine months, I realized I could read and write extremely well.”
Speaking? Not so much.
When he tested his newfound skills in public, “it became very apparent to me that what I was missing was a speaking component,” Dains says.
And so, in 2017, Emporia Spanish Speakers was born.
“There has to be other people in the community who are in the same boat, kind of the same realization in their language-learning journey that they’re not able to speak very well and listen when native speakers talk,” Dains says of his thought process. “And so I put it out there as a community group. And I had some people join me.”
A typical gathering can involve 10 to 20 participants – learners and native speakers both. Many of the learners practice and learn between meetings on the Duolingo app, but when they get together it’s all interaction: the games, the activities and the conversation.
“This is a free opportunity for anyone from the community to join us and practice speaking if they would like, or simply practice listening if they’re not ready to talk,” Dains says.
The group relies heavily on the participation of native speakers like Sanchez to help the learners get the hang of Spanish as it is actually spoken. That’s conceivably a burden, but Sanchez doesn’t see it that way.
“I make it a point to learn something, no matter how big or how small, to learn something every day,” says Sanchez. “So, I mean, it’s our way of giving back to the community, by helping out with the Spanish Speakers.”
And at least one participant has made a new connection to her family history. Riley, a longtime Emporia resident, says her parents were both Spanish-speaking Mexicans – but they refused to teach their American-born kids the language.
“My dad wanted to assimilate,” she says. Over time, though, Riley came to feel that something had been lost. Learning Spanish, and participating in ESS, has helped her start to reclaim that. “I know my mom and dad would be proud.”
The discussion group forms the core of Emporia Spanish Speakers, and Dains hopes it can serve as a model for other communities adapting to new immigrant populations. But that’s just the start: ESS is also widening its range of offerings.
The group now also runs Los Puentes – Spanish for “the bridges” – to offer instruction to elementary school-age children: Nearly 30 students graduated from the most recent class at a Cinco de Mayo ceremony. And recently, ESS started an eight-week program to offer instruction to Emporia retailers interested in being more welcoming to their Spanish-speaking customers. There were 14 participants in the first program, Dains says, and another is being planned.
If the amount of programming by ESS has grown, so has Dains’ perspective on how Emporia has accommodated its Latino population.
“I think I had this naive viewpoint that, Oh, everything is harmonious and everyone can function within our community and everyone’s just an English speaker, regardless of their ethnicity or heritage,” he says. But as the group grew, he began to realize that “the reason I wasn’t having diverse language experiences is
because the Spanish-speaking population didn’t feel … welcome or invited into predominantly English-speaking spaces.”
There’s probably a reason for that, says Ernestor De La Rosa. He came with his family from Mexico to Dodge City as an undocumented migrant in 2004, and – after earning official status under the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program – now serves as the assistant city manager for his hometown.
“You already have a challenge of fitting in into a new culture, a new home, a new country, if you will, once you decide to move to the U.S.,” he says. “But also in my case, as an English as a second language person, you have to work twice as hard to compete with the average English speaker – and not only orally, but written.”
With that realization in mind, ESS in late August sponsored a community conversation on “Latinx leadership” featuring De La Rosa, assistant city manager in Dodge City; Huascar Medina, the poet laureate of Kansas; and Daniela Rivas, assistant city manager and finance director in McPherson. There were a few dozen attendees, mostly a mix of older white community leaders and younger Latinos.
Perhaps inadvertently, the event highlighted a tension inherent in Dains’ efforts: If he’s successful, Dains – a white man trying to plant the seeds for full Latino participation and leadership in his community – will at some point have to become less prominent as others step forward into leading on the issue.
Despite growing numbers, participants pointed out, just a precious few Latino Kansans hold local or state leadership roles.
“Latinos are the fastest-growing group in Kansas. But we don’t have any representation,” De La Rosa said during a Q&A session. “That’s an issue.”
Medina agreed, saying Latinos in Kansas should aim for more than just getting a seat at the proverbial table of community leadership. “We should be setting our table,” he says.
Getting to that point might force community leaders to rethink their old approaches.
For example: While ESS’ small conversation groups encourage participants to immerse themselves in Spanish, the August community conversation was held entirely in English. That led one participant to question whether a discussion on Latino leadership was closed off to some community residents who still feel more comfortable in Spanish.
“How can we involve more Spanish speakers at events like these, to give them more of that power, the voice to actually be involved?” Maria Solis, a 24-year-old Emporia accountant, said afterward. “I just wish to see more people at events and share what they want, to share their experiences, but also share them in the full spectrum, not just hindered with the language barrier.”
Dains says he recognizes the need to eventually make way for others to lead on the issue.
“Already in my heart, I desire for what Ernestor said, which is for the Latino community to be the driver of these things,” he says. For the moment, Dains says, “I believe right now the best thing I can do is use my privileges and inspire and motivate others.” When the time comes to step to the side, “I have the full confidence that I will absolutely do that and I will remain to the side as an ally.”
For now, though, there seems to be appreciation in Emporia for the work that Dains is doing.
Yahaira Ibarra, a 24-year-old Latina community leader who emceed the August event, says Dains has done “a great job of just evolving and getting the Latino community just more involved” in the Emporia community. That effort is “much-needed just so people can see that there are people trying and that there are people out there who want to expand that knowledge, expand the diversity,” she says.
And Dains remains enthusiastic about his big goals for the community.
“My vision,” he says, “is to see a truly bilingual Emporia.”
That means “not just that native Spanish speakers are being somewhat required to learn English, but that native English speakers are choosing to learn Spanish because it enriches their own lives, opens more doors for themselves and connects them to a part of the community that they wouldn’t otherwise be connected to,” he says.
The spirit of the effort is reflected in a green T-shirt that Dains wears regularly to ESS events.
It featured a slogan: “¡Si, como no!”
“It translates to, ‘Yes, of course,’” he says. “Why wouldn’t we do that? We like to say yes to things.”
A version of this article appears in the Fall 2022 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. Order your copy of the magazine at the KLC Store or subscribe to the print edition.
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