Kansas economy depends on Latinos and Hispanics, state’s fastest growing demographic

By Polly Basore Wenzl | The Wichita Beacon

The Beacon offers an abridged transcript of an in-depth discussion by Latino leaders from Wichita, who spoke at a July 29 panel hosted by the Kansas Hispanic and Latino American Affairs Commission.

Hispanic people represent 18% of residents in Wichita and the fastest growing segment of the Kansas population — making them an integral part of the state’s workforce, critical to the state’s overall economic success.

On July 29, the Kansas Hispanic and Latino American Affairs Commission held a Latina Leadership Summit at  Wichita State University. It drew 180 attendees on a Saturday to discuss how Hispanics and Latinos can increase their impact at the ballot box and in areas of education, public health and the economy.

What follows is an abridged transcript of a panel on Latinos Powering the Kansas Economy, where panelists discussed the importance of Hispanics to the state and the need to win greater economic and political influence. Some quotes are paraphrased for clarity and conciseness.

Four out of five panel participants were Wichitans: Yeni Silva-Renteria, the executive director of the International Rescue Committee in Wichita; Maria Kury, a translator for Wichita Public Schools and the president of the Wichita Hispanic Chamber of Commerce; Martin A. Rosas, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers union Local 2; and Shaun Rojas, senior director of civic engagement at the Kansas Leadership Center. The fifth participant was Ernestor De La Rosa, the city of Topeka’s chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer.

Yeni Silva-Renteria (giving introduction):  I would like to share with you some facts on how immigrants are powering the economy in Kansas and shaping the landscape of this country and of Kansas. Since 2010, the state’s white population has been in decline while the Hispanic population has increased. Hispanics grew from 10.5% to 13% of the state’s population, which means that Kansas Hispanic population grew 25% since 2010. In contrast, Kansas’ population grew just 3% overall. 

So what does that mean? We are the driving force of the workforce in our economy. And not only employment. We are supporting different programs like Social Security, Medicare and other programs. 

And as baby boomers retire, younger immigrants are filling crucial jobs in the market. It’s expected that by 2030, more than a quarter of the manufacturing industry’s workforce will retire. Four million jobs will become available, but about 2.1 million of those jobs will go unfilled. We need the labor. Workforce development cannot afford to ignore the immigrants or refugees that are coming in.

What is the role of Hispanics and Latinos in the Kansas economy?

Ernestor De La Rosa (moderator): Latinos make up 16% of the US population. But we contributed 73% of the U.S. labor growth since 2010. And so my question to my panelists here is: When thinking about growth in our economy, and given the field of your expertise, what do you believe is the role of immigrant Latinos in our economy?

Maria Kury (panelist): I think the answer has to be divided in two parts. The first part is Latinos, we are the dream consumer. We marry a brand and we are loyal to our brands, especially when they try to reach us where we are at. In Wichita, Kansas, last year Hispanics contributed $3.5 billion. That’s a lot of money. The second part of my answer is that we are not only someone’s workforce, we are also entrepreneurs. We have five million Hispanic-owned businesses in the U.S. So we are not only fighting for survival, but when we don’t find ways to survive, we create our own jobs. And I think that’s how we contribute to our economy.

Martin A. Rosas (panelist): That was the projection before 2020, before the pandemic, that the workforce in the United States will be primarily Latinos, people of brown color (by 2030). I think we might be ahead of the game. 

We need to maintain keeping the Latino community engaged and being intentional because we are open for business and will continue to grow, but when it gets to the nitty-gritty of decisions that affect the Latino population, some politicians have tried to define where we’re gonna go, and in my opinion, Latinos should by no means allow any politician to define or describe your future.

When you’re young and you are from Liberal, Kansas, or Garden City, it’s most likely your parents work in meatpacking plants. Don’t feel ashamed. It’s the reason why you are here. Feel proud of your parents working in those industries. 

I’m heavily involved in the labor movement. We have to be very intentional about how we want to move forward. We have systematic racism in this country. And we must and we should remain vigilant and engaged in how we’re going to change that. … Numbers don’t lie. Whether it’s with the labor movement or opening a business, we need to be engaged on the political scene.

Shaun Rojas (panelist): Yeah, I think our role is really just to dream big. Martin, you were talking about family. And you know, my mom’s a waitress, and my dad works in a factory. And maybe there was one time where I didn’t see well beyond that, like what could I do. But let’s just assume that there really is no limit. That there’s nothing that we can’t do. There’s not any role that we can’t be in. And I think you’re starting to see that more and more across the country, you’re starting to see it in Kansas, you’re starting to see it here locally. Our role is to dream big and be confident about it.

What barriers do Hispanics and Latinos face in the workforce?

Ernestor De La Rosa (moderator): I couldn’t agree more that data and numbers don’t lie. One of the Kansas Leadership Center’s latest reports related to Latinos in 2025 and predicted that one out of every two new workers entering the workforce would be Latino or Hispanic. With that in mind, what are some of the barriers that Latinos, Hispanics, or immigrants for that matter, face in the workforce today?

Martin A. Rosas:  All of us in this room, we have an obligation to emphasize to the people, you’re not just here to work. You’re here to make a living. You’re here to be present and understand the dynamics of state politics, as much as Latinos hate to talk about politics. In 2017, I met with Laura Kelly and Lynn Rogers came and visited my office and the first thing to come out of their mouths was, “We’re here to talk about immigration.” And I pushed back: “So let me be clear. Because what you see is a Mexican with a heavy accent, you assume I want to talk about immigration. I would like to discuss education, access to health care and jobs and the state of Kansas. Then immigration can be another topic we can tap into.” The fact is, they want to label us as immigrants, here to work. No, we’re not here to work. We’re here to stay.

Maria Kury: Ditto to everything Martin just said. Besides the very deep need to have comprehensive immigration reform and deconstruct systemic racism that all of us face in our workforces, one of the biggest barriers beside those two is education. And not just K-12 or college education, but how to start and manage a small business. We as Hispanics are starting small businesses at a faster rate than our non-Hispanic friends. But our businesses fail in the first seven years.

So we need to make sure as leaders of the community that we provide the tools, opportunities and education for our small-business owners to succeed. Not only to stay in a small-business mindset but to grow and create your own empire. Because that’s why we’re here, why we all chose the country of opportunities, right? Because we know that we can make it here. But it’s not going to work until we start working together.

What leadership opportunities exist for Hispanics and Latinos?

Ernestor De La Rosa (moderator): And the next question is … Shaun, you shared an example. And my story is very similar. My mom is a meatpacking worker, and she is proud to work at Cargill. And my dad is a construction worker, retired now. And I came here at the age of 12. And they brought me here for opportunity, for education, and to have a better life. And so what does opportunity look like for financial and leadership advancement for Latinos and Hispanics? Shaun, any thoughts there?

Shaun Rojas: I’m a little biased, because, you know, I believe that leadership is an activity, it’s a skill, it’s something that you can develop. And what I’ve noticed in that field is there’s not a lot of people that look like me. I see the larger population spending lots of time and money investing in leadership training, and I don’t see that investment from us. Maybe it’s just not second nature quite yet. 

I didn’t experience any type of leadership program or training until I got to the Kansas Leadership Center. And I was in my mid 20s. But when I look around the room, I can say two things: One, maybe these trainings aren’t designed for us. That’s one way to look at it. But the second part is, I didn’t take that step for whatever reason. And sometimes I still see some of my counterparts not taking that step either. 

I’m not saying, “Go to a leadership program, that changes everything.” But that feels like a component that is missing. I think if we can learn leadership and bring what we bring, it will be awesome.

Maria Kury: Your response made me think about a story from my grandpa. He had a job and he didn’t know how to drive a car, especially in manual. But he never said he couldn’t.  So when his boss asked him to go to the airport and pick somebody up, he said, “Can I borrow the car so I can take it and wash it and make sure that it’s clean and presentable?” And the boss said, “Yes.” And he learned how to drive in one day. 

And I think that is something that we all have. We have that drive and energy that we can accomplish whatever it is that we want to accomplish. If you would have asked me nine years ago, when I moved here, that I would be in front of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, I would have laughed so much that my stomach would hurt. There was no one that looked like us, that sounded like us. If you had asked me if we would have a Latina on the (Sedgwick) County Commission, I would have said “no way.” But we do. We are making big steps, and we need to believe that we can learn how to drive that car.

How can Kansas recruit and retain Latinos?

Ernestor De La Rosa (moderator): Very good, Maria. So we know that in the state, and really across the country, we have a labor shortage. … What can we do as Latinos and as the state of Kansas to recruit and retain Latinos? What are some of the challenges and opportunities there?

Martin A. Rosas: One thing is a willingness to pay people better. But it’s not only about money. … People are realizing they need to provide another additional benefit. Employers need to be open to providing people additional days off with pay. 

I think if employers would become more creative with how to attract and retain workers we might not have this problem. But overall, I think the answer always has to be immigration reform because there’s plenty of people. We all know people that are willing to work today. Unfortunately, due to their legal status, they’re unable to find a good job.

… The answer is here: immigration reform with a pathway for people to become U.S. citizens. It’s as simple as that. But you know why they’re willing to turn their face in a different direction? Because it’s a way to exploit people.

Ernestor De La Rosa (moderator): Maria or Shaun?

Maria Kury: Going back to the data Yeni mentioned about the population growth. … If I focus on only Wichita, which is my area of expertise, the Hispanic population, we’ve grown at a rate of 133%. Our non-Hispanic population declined by 8%. So we are the only population that is actually growing, that is having kids. But also, we are younger. The median age for our Wichita Hispanic community is 26 years old. And the average age for the non-Hispanic community is 42.5 years old. So we are very young compared to our other friends. And in Wichita, 48% of Hispanics are between 18 and 49 years old. That means that we are at an age where we can work and we can be the future of the workforce.

How can Latinos support small businesses and youth?

Ernestor De La Rosa (moderator): I’m gonna switch it up a little bit and talk about small businesses. We know that the most entrepreneurial cohort is the Latino. They’re more willing to put together a small business compared to other groups. How can we support and continue to guide our Latino entrepreneurs, including our entrepreneurial youth?

Maria Kury: Shop local. That’s the number one: shop local. That goes not only for Hispanic small-business owners, but for all small businesses. There’s no way that our small businesses can survive if we as a community don’t support them. If we want to be the leaders of the community, then we have to lead by example. Instead of buying your blazer at H&M, go to the other store that is locally owned. Instead of going to chain restaurants, support local as much as you can. 

And when it comes to youth, our youth is amazing! And sure, they’re not perfect, but we were not perfect either. Somebody told us that millennials were here to fix the world and that we were going to be the next leaders and we were gonna make everything right. But nobody showed us how. Nobody said, “And by the way, here’s the manual on how you solve every single issue.” So it’s our responsibility to make sure our youth have those tools. 

Ernestor De La Rosa (moderator): Shaun, anything to add there?

Shaun Rojas: Normally, governments like to make a lot of incentives for the big businesses. A lot of times, that’s maybe the only focus. But if local governments and entrepreneur-support organizations could support the growth of small business, I think that’s really helpful. But the challenge is, you don’t get to see the big company come in quickly, right? You can bring in a Lowe’s and everybody can see it. … It’s hard to think about what it looks like to invest in individuals. But I think if we could try to just help support individuals, maybe like split that strategy up a bit, invest in some big businesses, but also invest in small individual people.

How can Hispanics and Latinos gain better political representation? 

Ernestor De La Rosa (moderator): I have one more question, one that I’m very passionate about. It’s important and vital, especially when our ethnic group is the fastest growing group in the nation. I come from Dodge City in southwest Kansas, and southwest Kansas is home to the only four counties in the state that are majority Latino or Hispanic. But we don’t have representation. We are seeing some leaders step up to the plate to run for office. But we have seen decisions being made for Latinos, Hispanics and immigrants without their presence or opinions. The question is: What are some best practices that organizations should consider when making decisions about Latinos, Hispanics and immigrants whose voices are often underrepresented?

Maria Kury: So there’s the saying: When you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu. I think we are on the menu very often. But that needs to change. In order for us to get the space that we deserve, we need to own those things. First, we need to make sure that we elevate our voices. Don’t raise our voices, we elevate our voices, which is different. We don’t want to be loud, we want to be accurate. We have this economic power, we have this $3.5 billion, that can give us a little bit of advantage. If we don’t start believing it ourselves, nobody else is going to ask us how we feel. And so I have a 7-year-old boy. And he makes sure that I know all the time what he thinks and how he feels about what I do, and what I wear and what I say. I think about my son and how he is growing up in an environment where saying how he feels is the norm. So how come he is not the norm for all of us? 

If we don’t agree with the decisions that are being made, how come there’s no more people running for office? How come we’re not making our friends and family accountable for not going out to vote? Have you voted? Do you know that there’s a primary election right now? Until we start owning that space, that space is never going to belong to us.

Shaun Rojas: I sat on a district advisory board for District 6 in the city of Wichita, one the north side, lots of Latinos in that area. And you know, I rarely saw any Latinos attend those meetings. Sometimes it doesn’t have to be this big giant step of running for office and raising money … it’s just showing up and being there. Sometimes they’re boring meetings, and they’re talking about things that maybe aren’t the most exciting, but if we show up in those spaces, the elected officials will notice. And we’ll get more of what we want.

Martin A. Rosas: May I say something? We need to be careful, too. …  We need to bring more Latinos into the political system, but we actually have to be vigilant, so that the other side doesn’t bring someone that doesn’t reflect our beliefs. They can be from Guatemala, they can be from Mexico, but who funded their campaign means a lot. They may be people who don’t want to see us here in this country, or they want to perceive us as just workers.

Ernestor De La Rosa (moderator):  I will follow your comment by saying, as a city employee, I shall remain neutral. … And I will also say as an immigrant myself, being a DACA recipient and now a green card holder, we have to do our homework. There are some of the most important, vital elections we have in our country, our local elections, because they’re the closest to the people. And we have to do our work by researching the candidates, their principles and their position on the different issues.

Maria Kury: Can I just make a closing comment on the voting? I’m a green card holder, not a citizen, and therefore I can’t vote yet. But if you are second-, third- or fourth-generation and you are able to vote, think about that sacrifice that somebody in your family made before you. So you could have all the things that you have right now. And honor that sacrifice, by going out to vote. I cannot emphasize that enough. Go out, honor your family and honor their legacy.

Wichita Mayor Brandon Whipple and Sedgwick County Commissioner Sarah Lopez, front row, listen to the panel discuss ways Latinos and Hispanics can gain greater political representation in Kansas. The panel was hosted by Gov. Laura Kelly’s Hispanic and Latino American Affairs Commission. (Polly Basore Wenzl/The Beacon)

Polly Basore Wenzl is the editor of The Wichita Beacon. A graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism, she worked as a reporter in Washington, D.C., before coming to Wichita in 1998. She is the author of the 2021 book about her family’s experience in Wichita during the pandemic, “Apocalyptic Polly: A Pandemic Memoir.”

This article was republished here with the permission of: The Beacon