The Latino Americans: 500 Years of History initiative supports cultural heritage projects exploring Latino in Dodge City, Emporia, Newton, and Overland Park. Here, Miguel Morales of the Billington Library at Johnson County Community College reflects on the initiatives impact in Overland Park.

The fall focus for the Latino Americans project at Johnson County Community College in Overland Park centered on education.

Partnering with the college’s annual Diversidad Conference, the Billington Library screened an episode of the PBS documentary, “Latino Americans: 500 Years of History.”

Peter Haney, Assistant Director for the Center for Latin American & Caribbean Studies at the University of Kansas, moderated the post-screening discussion.

Latino Americans: 500 Years of History is part of an NEH initiative, The Common Good: The Humanities in the Public Square, which is designed to demonstrate the critical role humanities scholarship can play in our public life. The nationwide public programming initiative supports the exploration of the rich and varied history and experiences of Latinos, who have helped shape the United States over the last five centuries and who have become, with more than 50 million people, the country’s largest minority group.

The screening and discussion served as a starting point for all the conference workshops and the keynote speaker’s presentation.

The Billington Library’s initiative also supports an oral history project. Two of the conference participants shared their experiences as educators living in the Midwest.

Art Gutierrez

Art Gutierrez

Art Gutierrez, a member of the Emporia Board of Education, spoke about the pride he feels as an educator and as a Latino at the spring graduation ceremony. He reflected on the significance of the ceremony when he, a Latino school board member, shakes the hands of a Latino graduate.

“I think it’s important for them to see another Hispanic member on that stage to know that’s possible, to encourage them and inspire them,” he said, “it’s how I give back to my people.”

Gutierrez also spoke of the growing presence of Latinos in the Midwest

“We’re everywhere and I think if you have the chance to be everywhere, that’s great,” Gutierrez said, “but if you’re looking for a place [to settle] the Midwest is a great place to be. I would encourage anybody, especially Hispanic people, to investigate it.”

Elva Medina, counselor at Shawnee Mission North High School, decided to go to college after going to work with her father on ‘Take Your Daughter to Work’ day. Her father was a farm laborer.

“I remember my dad waking me up at 4:30 in the morning to get in a van,” She said. “I didn’t make it through the whole day because it was too hot.”

Medina said she made up her mind that day to finish high school and to go to college.

The stories collected and shared would not have been possible without the support and guidance from the Kansas Humanities Council.

For the next Latino Americans screening in April, the Billington Library will partner with the Johnson County Library and the Latino Writers Collective. After the screening and discussion, members of the Latino Writers Collective will help participants document their own stories. Emphasis will be on collecting stories from and about the 1951 flood that devastated the Latino community in Kansas.

The Latino Americans: 500 Years of History initiative is supported by a grant KHC received from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the American Library Association.