The image that many may associate with the concept of small town Kansas probably doesn’t involve a heavy focus on Hispanic customs and culture, but in Liberal, such a focus is very much the reality.
In the last few decades, Liberal’s demographics have shifted significantly, and people of Hispanic heritage have become the town’s majority. According to recent census information, 61% of Liberal’s population is Hispanic–about five times higher than the average for the state.
As a result, Hispanic cultures, foods and languages have been introduced to the region, transforming the community and shaping local custom.
Local Cheryl Carson has lived in the Liberal area her whole life. She was born and raised 25 miles away from Liberal, in Plains, Kansas, but moved to Liberal in 1964.
“When I first began living in Liberal, the culture was very different. We weren’t exposed to other cultures the way we are now, because almost everyone was white,” Carson said.
However, in the 1980s and 1990s, new economic opportunities facilitated the growth of Liberal’s Hispanic population.
“Employment changed, and so did Liberal’s culture. This happened in the schools, but also in the local businesses. More and more of them became Hispanic businesses, and so people were introduced to aspects of Hispanic culture very quickly,” Carson said.
One of these small businesses in Liberal is Beto Botas, a Hispanic, family owned Western apparel store located on South Kansas Avenue. Co-owner Roberto S. Lopez, who runs the store alongside his wife, moved to Liberal 32 years ago from Chihuahua, Mexico to pursue new job opportunities.
“I worked at National Beef for 16 years, where I began selling cowboy boots to other employees. Eventually, we started selling them out of our house while we saved up to start our business,” Lopez said.
The store has been open for 16 years now, and the styles that they sell are popular with many residents of Liberal.
“Our bestsellers for men are our cowboy boots, which are very, very popular, our hats, and our traditional button up shirts and jeans. For women, it’s our fashion dresses and shoes,” Lopez said.
Lopez explained that, during his time owning a business, he’s found that these trends unite Hispanic Americans with other ethnicities in Liberal.
“Our fashion isn’t exclusive to Hispanics. Ideas about fashion can unite different types of people, and that’s what I’m passionate about. As a small business, we get to establish personal relationships with our customers, and share aspects of our culture through those connections,” Lopez said.
Lopez added that there’s also a lot of potential for life in Liberal, even though the town is small. He’s proud that everyone can share that culture with one another, and proud that “our small business–and other businesses like it–can stimulate the economy and encourage more people to spend locally.”
Language customs and popular foods in town have also been influenced by Hispanic culture.
“I will always miss Mexico, but in Liberal, I don’t have to miss the language, the food or the people. I can go down the street and get authentic tacos. I can use Spanish slang with my friends, and regardless of their race, they’ll understand it,” Maria Herrera, a sophomore biological systems engineering major from Liberal said.
Herrera explained that, while spending the summer in Manhattan, Kansas doing research, she noticed how unique Liberal is in terms of the culture that influences it.
“I tried to use Spanish slang that pretty much any young person from Liberal would have been familiar with, and my friends in Manhattan were so confused,” Herrera said. “They’d never even heard that word until I said it, I don’t think.”
Herrera also observed that, unlike Liberal, Manhattan did not offer dozens of options for authentic Hispanic food.
“There was one really mediocre taco stand, and it took forever to find,” Hererra said.
In addition to fashion, food, and language, though, the diversity of Liberal’s population has led many locals to embrace new people and ideas.
“I’m very glad my children and grandchildren grew up in Liberal, because they’ve never had a problem accepting diversity because of it. For me, I had to learn, because it wasn’t something that I grew up with,” Carson said. “Our young people know how to interact with people from other cultures, they know more about different languages, and that’s a really positive thing.”
Herrera adds that she thinks people in Liberal have really learned how to be accepting of other people, because they’ve been exposed to other cultures, and they’ve made friends and learned new things.
“There’s less hate and division,” Herrera said. “People realize that it’s okay to have neighbors who are different, okay to have friends that aren’t like you, and that’s awesome.”
This story was originally published on The Crusader on October 15, 2019.