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Hispanics reviving faded towns on the plains

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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 growing 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. 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, towns 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 results 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 6,933 is now evenly split between white and 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 historically 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 influx 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, Hispanic residents have pushed from hubs like nearby Dodge City, Garden City and Liberal into ever smaller communities, buying businesses, homes and farmland on the cheap, enticed, they say, by the opportunity to live quiet lives in communities more similar to those in which they were raised.

In Ulysses, 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 well over 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 being the only Hispanic student in her class more than 40 years ago. Now, the school population is two-thirds Hispanic. She believes her parents’ Mexican restaurant was the first Hispanic business in town. Now, there are bakeries, clothing stores, car dealerships and computer repair shops, some businesses catering to Hispanics and others simply filling vacant niches. And when youngsters become adults, a time when people have historically headed to bigger communities seeking work, more are staying. Gallegos said that of her nine siblings and their 27 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 — noting 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 community developer with Mexican American Ministries who has lived here for decades, 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 because they’d as soon as shoot you as say hello," he said. "But they’ve really changed their attitudes."

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