I am America: Latino immigration transforms a Kansas town

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By Chuck Conder and Ted Rowlands, CNN

Ulysses, Kansas (CNN) -- Out on the broad west Kansas prairie the tiny farm town of Ulysses is undergoing a quiet revolution.
About 15 years ago Ulysses, like many small rural communities, was slowly dying as the town’s youth grew up and left, seeking greater opportunities elsewhere.  Then a handful of new residents began arriving in the mostly white town: recent immigrants from Mexico and Central America.
What started as a trickle soon became a flood.  “It seems like every year it’s more and more,” says Irene Ramirez.  Irene and husband Sefeino operate a Mexican bakery that has been doing a booming business.
    “We don’t like big towns,” says Sefeino, who met Irene in Ulysess after arriving here as a migrant worker. “A lot of noise, a lot of traffic,” is how he describes larger places.  Sefeino and Irene have flourished in Ulysses, raising their five children here.
    Today Ulysses – population about 6,000-- is more than 50% Latino.
    Long-time residents could easily have become resentful over the demographic changes,  but not that didn’t happen in Ulysses. “It’s just not a big deal,” according to Mayor John Battin. “They’re good neighbors.  They’re good people,” Battin says of the new Latino community members.
    Jose Olives, who works with United Methodist Mexican-American Ministries, says the Latino immigrants in Ulysses share the same small town values of their Anglo neighbors.
    Olives believes the newcomers have brought a welcome dose of entrepreneurship with them.  “We pay taxes, buy homes, buy vehicles, buy groceries, so it helps the economy.”
    A bad economy, and the hard times that come with it, is something Ulysses knows well.  During the depression the town suffered through the Dust Bowl era.  Extreme drought killed crops and led to dust storms, which killed more crops. Agricultural production in Ulysses dwindled to almost nothing.
    Since the 1940s there have been a handful of migrant workers in Ulysses.  Most came from Mexico.  But today’s jobs are more permanent.  There is still work on the farms, but there are now jobs in the oil and natural gas fields, and in the area’s thriving cattle industry.  Today’s immigrants come to stay.
    That has been both a challenge and a boon for the local school district.  With an expanding population comes a larger tax base and increased funding.  But the district needed to find more bi-lingual teachers and classroom aides.  That wasn’t easy.
    District Superintendent Bonnie Dieter says the community united behind the goal. “It doesn’t matter where that child comes from.  They are all our children, and I think the whole community embraces that idea.  They come through our door and they are our kids.  And inside a kid just needs to learn,” says Dieter.
    The Daylight Donut Shop in Ulysses is a gathering place for Latinos and Anglos alike.  One corner of the shop is reserved for “The Gray Haired Women’s Club.” It’s a gossipy group of ladies that have lived most of their lives in Ulysses.  They told CNN they are concerned that some of the area’s most recent arrivals may be illegal aliens.
      But Mayor Battin isn’t concerned.  “I never ask that question because I don’t know and I don’t care,” he says.
      Donut shop owner Deborah Thompson feels much the same way, “Everybody just gets along with everybody.  We’re a small town, and that’s what’s great about a small town.”