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How Olathe's Hispanic population has grown since the 90s, what one woman envisions for community's future

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Since Sylvia Romero first moved to Olathe in 1993, she says she’s seen the population of the community change and become more diverse, especially as it pertains to the Hispanic citizenry. 

Romero, now a pastor and the executive director of the Center of Grade mission in Olathe, first arrived in the U.S. as an exchange student from Bogota, Colombia. She returned once she finished school but came back to the U.S. shortly after and married a man she met in Iowa. After a few years living in Iowa and Wyoming, she found herself in Olathe. 

Early on, Romero was a travel agent, but after serving as a translator on an international mission trip put on by a local church, she found herself drawn to a new path. 

“I'm like ‘This is so awesome that we do this, are we doing anything in Olathe?’” Romero said “And the person in charge of the trip said ‘Well funny you should ask because we wanted to start an Hispanic ministry but we don't haven't found anyone. Would you be interested?’”

It happened quickly after that. Romero quit her job as a full-time travel agent — which had benefits — and took on the new ministry. Over the years, she rose up to her current role as executive director. Although her title includes pastor, she doesn’t personally do any teaching but works in an administrative role at the center associated with Grace United Methodist Church. 

HISPANIC COMMUNITY GROWTH 

Over the years, she’s seen the Hispanic community and immigrant population in Olathe grow. Romero says that the Spanish-speaking population has grown for the same reason the entire city has grown over the last few decades. 

“It's a great place to raise kids, we have a wonderful community, we have quality public schools and there are jobs available,” she said. “So, it's just the same things that attract everyone else.” 

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Center of Grace provides services for those families and others through a variety of avenues, both in physical and educational needs. One example of that is, in nonpandemic times, it partners with a community college to provide English lessons. 

“We had people from 39 different countries all learning English here,” Romero said. 

Someone who is Hispanic can come from any country or be any race, provided they speak Spanish as their first language. According to U.S. Census data, roughly 11.5% of Olathe’s population was Hispanic or Latino, which is someone who hails from a Latin American country, in 2019. In Johnson County as a whole, from 2010 to 2020, the census counted an increase of nearly 40% in the self-reported Hispanic or Latino population. 

That growth, Romero said, can be felt in other ways too. Just look around and you’ll find several businesses catering to a more diverse community, including international grocery stores and bilingual businesses. 

‘ACKNOWLEDGING OUR PRESENCE, OUR CONTRIBUTIONS’

At the City Council meeting on Sept. 7, the city of Olathe repeated its annual proclamation to declare Sept. 15 to Oct. 15 Hispanic Heritage Month. The Johnson County Commission did the same. When accepting the city’s proclamation, Luis Araujo, owner of Carmen’s Cocina on Mur-Len Road, also discussed the growing Hispanic community. He said when he moved to the community over 20 years ago, there weren’t “very many of us here.” 

“I’m so happy and so proud that we have so many small businesses that have to do with Hispanics and thank you to all of you for supporting all of our Hispanic … businesses, we are so grateful,” he said. 

Romero said these proclamations are important. 

“For me as a Hispanic immigrant woman,” she said, “I feel like, ‘Oh, somebody's essentially acknowledging our presence, our contributions.” 

HISPANIC TASK FORCE

Beyond businesses, there are other indicators that the Hispanic population is growing in Olathe, including the Hispanic Task Force based in Olathe. Romero said it is a working group that she helps facilitate. 

The task force regularly meets with community leaders, like the Olathe Police Department and the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment to help build connections in the city and identify points of contact in organizations that can help.

“Basically we come together to share information,” she said. 

Romero said if someone needs help from a specific community organization or department to know who to call. The task force helps with that. 

“We can come together and brainstorm and figure out, ‘OK, if nobody's doing this then who do we need to approach what needs to happen, whose attention do we need to get so that this doesn't happen or that can get resolved,’” Romero said. 

It’s not just about Olathe either. Romero said the task force also works with the Head Start program in the Shawnee Mission school district. 

“We're better off working together and just sharing information so that we can help people in the most effective way,” she said. 

LOOKING TOWARD THE FUTURE 

Romero said she feels like the community has taken great steps forward in supporting and acknowledging the Spanish-speaking population in Olathe. One area that’s done really well, she says, is the Olathe school district and the police department. Collectively, the USD 233 and OPD run the Olathe Hispanic Leadership Lowrider Bike Club. 

Oswaldo Polanco, a senior at Olathe North High, previously told the Olathe Reporter that the Olathe Hispanic Leadership Lowrider Bike Club is about giving back to the community. The police department donates old bikes to them and they fix them to distribute to kids. 

Students in the club also receive “fancy” bikes that they can personalize and work on while they are in high school, Polanco said. Once a student graduates high school, they get to keep the bike. 

But there’s always more to be done, Romero said. 

One particular area that has room for improvement is the issue of affordable housing at all income levels, which, Romero said, is a struggle facing all communities in Olathe. 

“It seems like all the affordable prices are getting remodeled and the rents are going up, and it's just hard for people to find affordable housing,” she said. 

Other barriers to success include access to reliable transportation. Olathe and Johnson County as a whole are car-dependent municipalities, which can be expensive for anyone, but especially for someone just starting out, Romero said. 

“When you first come into the country, having to be able to afford a vehicle and maintain that vehicle and get insurance and all the costs that come along with owning a car makes it very hard for people,” she said. 

As a whole, though, Romero said she’s extremely grateful for Olathe. 

“I'm just grateful for all the different organizations that we have. I'm grateful for the cooperation that we have between organizations,” she said. “I'm glad I moved here. It's a good place to live.” 

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