Kansas is home to more than 300,000 people of Hispanic origin, making up about 11 percent of the state's population, according to the Pew Research Center. Starting next month, the Center for Latin America and Caribbean Studies will bring visibility to the history of this group with a series of events and educational programming around Lawrence, which is free and open to the public.
Planning for the month of programming began after CLACS was awarded the "Latino Americans: 500 Years of History" grant through the National Endowment for the Humanities and American Library Association in February. The Lawrence Public Library, the Tonantzin Society of Topeka and KU Libraries are all co-sponsoring the programming.
CLACS Outreach Coordinator Danika Swanson has spent the last few months brainstorming projects, booking event space, and figuring out the best ways to use the grant money.
“I think it’s easy for people to hear about immigration or Latino Americans and think that this is not so relevant to Kansas, but there is actually a very rich and varied history,” Swanson said.
Swanson said that due to the group's shared history, she hopes the programming appeals to the non-Latino as well as the Latino community of Lawrence.
“I think that one of the things that we talk about is the goals of these programs in some ways are two-fold, and one is to inspire pride among the Latino and Latina community here by giving voice to their stories and by recognizing their contributions and by telling their story as very much part of our shared history, and also then to educate the non-Latino community about those same things,” Swanson said.
Beginning April 6, four episodes of the PBS documentary series, “Latino Americans: 500 Years of History,” will be the focal point of the public programming. The PBS website bills the series as the first major documentary series to tell the history of Latinos “who have helped shape the United States over the last 500-plus years and have become, with more than 50 million people, the largest minority group in the U.S.” A lineup of scholars of Latin American and Latino Studies from around the country will introduce each episode.
“The purpose of these films is that they provide a basis from which to provide multiple stories and not just to provide a singular story,” said Alex Villagran, a junior from Garden City studying political science.
Villagran is the president of the Hispanic American Leadership Organization, a group that functions as a support system for Hispanic and Latino students at the University.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has increased discussion about racism and undocumented immigration with his inflammatory comments about building a Mexico-funded wall at the border between Mexico and the United States. Villagran references his now infamous “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending the best,” quote about Mexican immigrants to highlight the necessity of the documentary series and CLACS programming.
“We have stereotypes being thrown around recently in American politics, phrases such as 'lazy', 'criminals', 'rapists', 'drug users' — whatever it may be," Villagran said. "These stories provide a basis for more accurate representation and really gets to the point that, as Latinos, we are more than just a branded term, we are individuals that exist within a society."
The first Hispanic presence in Kansas was part of the Coronado Expedition in 1541, according to Kansas historical society. Spanish conquistador Francisco Vasquez de Coronado spent two years trekking from Mexico to what is now southwestern Kansas in hopes of finding the mythical Cities of Cibola.
Betsaida Reyes, librarian for Spanish, Portuguese, Latin American, and Caribbean Studies, is curating an exhibition on the Coronado Exhibition to be hosted on the fifth floor of Watson Library in the international collections. A reception will be held on the library’s third floor on April 6 to kick off the exhibition, which will run throughout May. Featuring books, maps, and other documents detailing Coronado’s journey, Reyes said the exhibition has the potential to interest more than just history buffs.
“I find that as a non-Kansas native I was fascinated to learn that there’s a rich history of colonialism and exploration from Spanish conquistadors coming into this territory,” Reyes said. “As a non-Kansas native, it’s fascinating to learn about it, but also if you are from here, it’ll be a chance to learn a little more.”
Items will include a copy of a letter Coronado sent to then-Emperor Charles V and a Kansas Historical Society photo of a flag that was made for the 400th anniversary of the exhibition.
Reyes said she thinks the topic is especially relevant to Kansas residents and those with any investment in the history of the Latino culture.
“It’s a shared history in many ways. It’s a shared story of moving and going to new places. It might just be a different group that we’re highlighting this time around, but at the end of the day I think it’s inherently a shared history," Reyes said.
— Edited by Mackenzie Walker