Wichita's Immigrant Identity
Learn more about how immigration from countries across the world has affected — and continues to affect — our city through food, culture, entrepreneurship and art.
Despite being a mostly white city in the Midwest, Wichita has a rich heritage of welcoming immigrants into the fold, allowing them to change the city in interesting and compelling ways. So how does that tradition continue today?
Watch this short video to learn more about how immigration has affected — and continues to affect — our city. Use YouTube subtitles to view captions in the language of your choice.
UNTANGLING WICHITA’S IDENTITY
If you live here, and you’re not Native American, you came from somewhere else. You had relatives who left their country — their culture, families and lives — to come live in Wichita, or at least the United States.
Just as Ellis Island became a gateway to the great American dream, Wichita became an open city for immigrants of all backgrounds. And it wouldn’t be the same city if it hadn’t. One of the city’s founders, William Greiffenstein, was a German immigrant merchant. Without him, there might not even be a Wichita, and Douglas Avenue may not be the main downtown throughway.
"Wichita has been a city of immigrants from the earliest days of our community, even before we were a city," says Dr. Jay Price, who chairs the history department at Wichita State University. "Diversity has been a part of our story from the outset."
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, America was synonymous with immigration. Today, it’s tough to talk about immigration without delving into the nuanced politics of it all.
So how do we look at immigration today? Are we as welcoming as we were in the past, or are we resistant to the change that results from being a home to people from different parts of the world?
IMMIGRANTS OF THE PAST
Germans, Irish, Mexicans, Lebanese and more have all shaped our city from its early days.
They all came for different reasons, but most came as communities — family groups, religious groups and, sometimes, entire villages — looking for a place to settle down.
"They’re looking for economic opportunities, but they’re also looking for places where people of their background are," Price says. "So if you’re a German immigrant in the 1870s, 1880s, you can go to places where they speak German."
The more people Wichita attracted from a specific country, the more people it continued to attract. The German population was a prime example. Price says newspaper articles from the late 1800s suggest that up to a third of Sedgwick County residents had emigrated from Germany.
In the early 20th century, Lebanese immigrants followed suit, fleeing religious persecution and poverty in what was then Syria in the Ottoman Empire. By 1920, more than 100,000 Lebanese Christians had immigrated to the United States, and many of them came to Wichita.
Early Lebanese families in Wichita included the Stevenses, Farhas, Cohlmias, Jabaras, Ablahs, Razooks and many others with names still familiar to today’s Wichitans.
Today, you’d probably find a dozen or more Lebanese restaurants in town, or Mediterranean cuisine restaurants, so it has really enriched the culinary culture here in Wichita.Warren Farha
Warren Farha is the owner of Eighth Day Books in Uptown. His grandfather emigrated from Lebanon in 1895.
"Most of the immigrants here were merchants of one sort or another," he says. "You remember that Wichita was basically 20 or 25 years old as a city, so it was wide open with opportunity, especially for merchants."
The early Lebanese community concentrated in Delano. By the 1930s, many of them experienced success and felt more comfortable to spread their influence across the city through a strong sense of entrepreneurship that continues today in ventures including Spangles, Genesis Health Clubs, Razook’s Furniture, Riverside Café, Jabara’s Carpet Outlet and more.
More recent Lebanese immigrants are also coming into Wichita as medical doctors and specialists, especially through Kansas University’s School of Medicine.
Even those who are unaware of Wichita’s Lebanese heritage, and the businesses that are only here because of past immigrants, are well aware of the food.
"It was really a revolution in cuisine here," Farha says. "Today, you’d probably find a dozen or more Lebanese restaurants in town, or Mediterranean cuisine restaurants, so it has really enriched the culinary culture here in Wichita."
Farha says that while there was some prejudice against the Lebanese community, most Wichitans were open and welcoming to their culture and their traditions, and tried to help in getting them established.
So what are the experiences of today’s immigrants?
IMMIGRANTS OF TODAY
While the Lebanese community is still thriving and growing in Wichita, people from across the world are entering the U.S. and Wichita with high hopes that we will welcome them with open arms.
Claudia Amaro, co-owner of AB&C Bilingual Resources, is one of those.
"One of the things that I like to think is the first thing that you packed when you’re an immigrant is your heart," she says. "It hurts because you’re leaving part of your family and your country. … But at the same time, you bring that heart open for new adventures — for new feelings."
Amaro’s family moved from Mexico when she was 12 and came to Wichita from Colorado when she was 18. Her father worked in the aircraft industry.
"I started a youth group for Latinos in the local church. I’ve always been very active. I love this community," she says. "I fell in love with Wichita. And then later, I fell in love with my husband here in Wichita."
Amaro married her husband in 1998 and had a son in 2000. Things were good. Her husband started a business, and Amaro was considering starting one herself. Then one morning, Amaro’s husband was detained without a driver’s license and turned over to immigration authorities.
"I went to try to help him, and both of us were arrested that same day," Amaro says. "I was released the next morning, but his case was a little bit harder. He ended up being deported in January of 2006."
We wake up every morning proving to ourselves and trying to prove to the world that this is our home. This is where we belong.Claudia Amaro
Rather than stay in the States, away from her husband, Amaro chose to move with her son back to Mexico, leaving her mom and sisters here in Wichita. In 2007, a wave of violence swept through Mexico.
"We saw bodies hanging from bridges, shootings every night and then, one day in 2012, my husband was kidnapped for ransom by two police officers in Mexico," Amaro says.
After paying the ransom, Amaro was desperate to get back home to Wichita. She and seven other DREAMers, who grew up in the U.S. but were back in Mexico, presented themselves at the border in a form of civil disobedience, asking then-President Barack Obama to let them come back home.
After being detained for 17 days, Amaro was released back into the United States. Her husband was detained for more than two years before being released to be with Amaro and their son.
"We wake up every morning proving to ourselves and trying to prove to the world that this is our home. This is where we belong," Amaro says.
There’s no doubt that there are geopolitical issues at play when it comes to immigration. Amaro has experienced the worst of them firsthand. But there are also deep issues of cultural identity at play. When someone from another country comes to America, who do they become?
HOLDING ONTO CULTURE
Mohan Kambampati is an Indian-American immigrant who is the lead coordinator for the Wichita Indochinese Center, a center founded in 1985 to help immigrants from Indochina, including Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, learn English and other skills and, eventually, find good jobs.
Since its founding, the Wichita Indochinese Center has morphed into a resource for all immigrants. Kambampati says there are about 15 languages represented at the center, from Chinese and Vietnamese to Spanish and Arabic.
Part of the Indochinese Center’s mission is to integrate immigrants into American culture without having them sacrifice their own cultures. The Wichita Asian Festival, which Kambampati directs, focuses on sharing culture, food and tradition with the rest of the city.
"About 17 or 18 countries [share a] cultural show, fog dance, marriage demonstration, all those kinds of things," he says. "And then there are about 36 food and art booths. Those food booths are the most popular."
Altogether, about 15,000 Wichitans attend each year to experience the cultures represented within the city.
Amaro says it takes being a bit stubborn to hold onto culture in Wichita. She says she has always been sharing her culture with others in an attempt to make other Mexican-American immigrants feel comfortable keeping their identity while also adopting a new one. She has started a radio show with this in mind.
"I have been on air for almost three years, and that’s one of the missions that I have with my radio show," she says. "To first of all, empower our community."
CREATING A WELCOMING FUTURE
As it stands, Wichita is somewhat segregated. Latin Americans inhabit the north side, while Vietnamese Americans inhabit the south side. The African-American community is concentrated in one or two other pockets.
There are certain neighborhoods and districts that feel claimed by someone, and that’s not a great way to make people from all cultures, creeds and skin tones feel welcome.
"Wichita is not like other big cities where [they] have public transportation, and [they] are used to seeing and observing people different than us, so we need to start creating those spaces where we can come together," Amaro says. "Latino businesses are in, of course, mostly Latino spaces, and people are afraid to go. That same fear is from the other side. [Mexican-Americans] are afraid to go to spaces where [other] Americans are more comfortable. So I think we need to start doing more of that, starting more conversations."
Something as simple as a smile can go a long way in making people feel a little more comfortable in this city. But it takes something more drastic to truly welcome and empower them to create positive change for our city.
It takes exploring new neighborhoods, restaurants and shops and learning more about immigration history. It takes evaluating our own ideas, attitudes and values to ensure we’re doing what we can to make this city a more welcoming place for everyone.