Olathe Is Embracing Latinos, But It Will Take Time Before They Celebrate Culture There

Jun 27, 2016

Black Bob Elementary is one of Olathe’s flagship schools. It’s in the middle of the city, surrounded by neighborhoods, and just a few blocks away, there's a big shopping center with  a Starbucks and Walgreens.

But it didn’t always look that way. Dr. Alison Banikowski, deputy superintendent of Olathe Schools, remembers what the city looked like when she first arrived in 1982. 

Black Bob Elementary School is one of Olathe's oldest schools. Dr. Alison Banikowski says she's seen the city grow around it.
Credit Olathe Schools

“I served for the first year I was here with Blackbob Elementary, and it was really literally out in a field,”

Back in the early 80’s, Olathe had a population of around 37,000 people. By 2014 that number had climbed to more than 130,000, making Olathe the fourth largest city in Kansas.

That spike in population isn't surprising, considering how Kansas City's suburbs have grown over the last 30 years.

But the Olathe has also seen a major demographic change. According to U.S. Census numbers, Latinos in the area have gone from being less than two percent of the population in 1990, to more than ten percent in 2013, which makes it one of the biggest Latino populations in Johnson County.

For Banikowski, that growth mirrors national trends.

“That isn’t really to me much different to me than what's happening in the United States, we're just a microcosm of that larger world,” Banikowski says.  

Her district uses 285 interpreters, who speak more than 80 languages, for their parent-teacher conferences.

The influx of Latinos can be seen in more than schools. 

Sylvia Romero is a pastor at Grace United Methodist church in Olathe. She moved to the area in 1993 from Bogota, Colombia.
Credit Lisa Rodriguez / KCUR 89.3

Sylvia Romero is a pastor at Grace United Methodist Church. She moved to Olathe from Bogota, Colombia in 1993.

She says when she got here, she didn’t really notice a lot of Spanish-speakers. It wasn't until the early 2000s, while she was working as a travel agent, that she noticed a change.

“And you can just see it... like you know, when you just go around the city and when go to the stores. And even some of the main stores how they have changed the stuff that they sell so they can cater to the Spanish speaking population,” Romero says.

Why Olathe?

Banikowski, for her part, says one reason people move to Olathe is new and affordable housing and lots of space to  build and grow.

“We didn't move to Olathe because it had great mountains and a roaring ocean, but it does have wonderful school systems. It has a wonderful community, and I think a lot of people wanted to raise their children in this community,” Banikowski says. 

Romero says it’s no different for Latinos. She was also looking for good schools, and a community with a small-town feel.

City leaders, like longtime Olathe Mayor Michael Copeland, were ahead of the population trend. Copeland says the city was intentional about preparing for a growing — and changing — population.

"I think that we struggled to stay ahead of it, but I think we were successful in doing so," Copeland says.

Jan Heinen, an administrator for Olathe schools, says it’s something the district took seriously.  When she arrived there two decades ago, she says school officials were told to prepare for 40 years of steady growth.

“I was struck right away as a new person in 1995 how well the business community, the chamber of commerce, the city government and the school district partnered together to plan for the growth,” Heinen says.  

Heinen is the director of instructional support for Olathe Schools — she's part of the team that organizes all those interpreters for parent-teacher conferences. She says training teachers to deal with students and parents who don’t speak English has been a challenge, but the district has been fully supportive.

“It’s something that is a responsibility that we see and we simply fulfill that responsibility,” Heinen says. 

Finding community at church, but no place to celebrate Hispanic culture

Churches have also had an important role for newcomers. 

The congregation for the Spanish service at St. Paul Catholic Church in Olathe overflows into the lobby.
Credit Lisa Rodriguez / KCUR 89.3

On Sunday afternoons, St. Paul Catholic Church has Spanish mass. Last week, the sanctuary was completely full and at least a dozen people stood in the church lobby listening to the service.

Claudia Ramirez, the pastoral assistant at St. Paul,  says religion is an important part of Latino culture and a church is often the first thing people find when they arrive in a new city.

“You know, it's, 'OK, I found a church, I’m going to join a church,' and that's how you gradually intertwine into, you know, get into acquaintances and friendships,” Ramirez says. 

Raul De Leon Garcia moved to the area about 16 years ago from Los Angeles, where a lot of the members of St. Paul’s congregation are from. His family lives in DeSoto, but they frequently come to Olathe.

He says at church, he feels connected to the community, but outside it's a different story.

"Here, you come inside and it feels like a family. Outside, its another kind of family...not very united, I don't think," Garcia says in Spanish.

“Aqui ya uno entra adentro y ya es una familia, ya afuera, pues es otra familia...Pues, muy unidos no creo.”

Part of the reason they’re not united, is that Latinos in Olathe don’t come together for big celebrations.

Garcia and his family often go back to Mexico for festivals, and many people choose to celebrate in the West Side in Kansas City, Missouri or the Argentine neighborhood in Kansas City, Kansas, where the Mexican populations go back more than a hundred years.

Patience, Olathe

Romero says that establishing these traditions could take time.

“What I would love to see is a place where regardless of where you come from that they would feel welcome to celebrate their heritage and where they came from,” she says.

As Olathe’s Latino population continues to grow, efforts across the city are underway to embrace the Hispanic population.

Each September, the city organizes Hispanic Heritage Month. For the last 15 years, an unofficial group of service providers from around the city, called the Hispanic Task Force, has been meeting once a month at Romero’s church.

The Olathe Latino Coalition was started in 2011 to respond to address the needs of Olathe's Latino community.

But despite their hard work, it may take another generation of Olathe Latinos to celebrate their heritage in the place that they call home. 

Lisa Rodriguez is a reporter and producer at KCUR. Connect with her on Twitter @larodrig.

This story is part of KCUR's series called 30/30 Vision, in which we examine Kansas City's past to reimagine its future.