Becoming American

Doreen Vargas helps immigrants to western Kansas with everything from car insurance, to filing taxes, to doing the paperwork to start a business.

She says she’s seen a little bit of everything in her 14 years in Dodge City, and she is acutely aware of how hard it has become for people who want to immigrate to the United States to gain legal status.

“A lot of my customers have been with me since I started this business,” says Vargas, who with her husband, José, operates La Raza (which means “the race” in Spanish) Community Services. “And a lot of them are just now getting their families to the United States. They have been here, working and living alone, all this time.”

Thanks to its feedlots and packing plants, Dodge City is home to more Hispanics than any other ethnic group, including Caucasians.

The original wave of Mexican immigrants to Dodge City came more than 100 years ago, drawn to the area by plentiful jobs working on the railroads and generous immigration policies. But since 1960, it has been the beef processing industry that has attracted Hispanic workers — at a rate that makes more than 50% of the city’s population Hispanic.

Key Points

• Western Kansas has a huge Hispanic population.

• Immigrants are crucial to the workforce.

• Assimilation occurs more quickly than many realize.


Vargas says those numbers do include some of the “old” Mexican community and their descendants. The assimilation into the American way of life is faster than a lot of people imagine it to be, she adds.

“There are always the people who are going to resist changes,” she says. “But it turns out that the changes are a lot less than many people fear. By the second and third generation, all the children of immigrants speak perfect English. Many of them own or manage businesses. They want to go to college and become successful. They are Americans.”

The resistance to change exists in the incoming population as well, she says.

“Many Hispanics try to cling to their native culture, including language. But for the most part, it fades. You do see traditional cultural celebrations, especially on religious holidays. And you see a prevalence of ethnic food,” she says. “But the culture becomes something that is part of a celebration. It becomes something remembered and cherished, but not something lived day to day.”

Those cultural celebrations, she says, are something that can make a community stand out.

For example, she says, a segment of the immigrant population of Dodge City includes Mexicans who are descendants of the Native American population of that country. They celebrate Aztec traditions, including passing down dance and costume traditions to their children and grandchildren.

One of her office employees is a young woman who participates in the Danza Santa Cruz, a local Aztec dance club. The woman is learning to make the traditional dress, a costume that requires the application of hundreds of sequins by hand.

A good thing for western Kansas, she says, is that Hispanics are creative and entrepreneurial.

“I help a lot of people start businesses,” she says. “They have an idea and they go for it. A lot of them don’t have a good plan and they don’t succeed the first time. But they learn. And they progress. And a fair number, like me, don’t have another option, so they just hang on and eventually win by sheer persistence.”

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HELPING IMMIGRANTS: Doreen Vargas operates La Raza (“The race” in Spanish) Community Services in Dodge City, helping Hispanic immigrants with everything from sending money home, to filling out papers, to starting a business.

This article published in the January, 2012 edition of KANSAS FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2012.