KU exhibit, events explore 500 years of Latino American history

Latino Americans: 500 Years of History

In spring 1541, not even 50 years after Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue and “discovered” the New World, Spanish conquistador Francisco Vázquez de Coronado led a troupe of soldiers, priests and Native American allies into the Great Plains.

They were in search of the mythical Seven Cities of Gold. Instead of riches, Coronado and his men found winding rivers and fertile soil in the indigenous settlements of central Kansas.

The area, later named Quivira by Coronado, and the explorer’s lasting legacy in the Sunflower State, is the subject of a new exhibit opening at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at Kansas University’s Watson Library, 1425 Jayhawk Blvd.

“It was the very first European exploration of the territory. This was way before the Louisiana Purchase,” says Betsaida Reyes, Kansas University’s librarian for Spanish, Portuguese, Latin American and Caribbean Studies, and the exhibit’s curator.

A keynote address by University of Arkansas associate professor Yajaira Padilla at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday in Watson Library will kickoff to a month-long series of public events surrounding the history of Latino Americans in the Heartland.

The project, dubbed “Latino Americans: 500 Years of History,” is funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and American Library Association. KU’s Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies has partnered with KU Libraries, the Tonantzin Society of Topeka and the Lawrence Public Library in organizing the free events, which include lectures, an educators’ workshop slated for this summer and screenings of the 2013 PBS documentary that inspired — and shares its name with — the programming.

Comprising interview with nearly 100 Latinos and more than 500 years of history, the documentary sheds light on an American experience that has often been overlooked, misunderstood or unfairly politicized, says Danika Swanson, CLACS education program specialist and outreach coordinator. She hopes “500 Years” will do the same, particularly for Latinos in Kansas.

“I think people hear these conversations about Latino Americans and these debates about immigration and think it’s all about other places, but this is also a part of the story of Kansas,” Swanson says. “There’s a vibrant and diverse Latino community here, and we’re hoping to showcase how they came here and what they have contributed to our economy and culture and communities.”

At the Lawrence Public Library, every Friday from 4:30 to 7 p.m., anyone who identifies as Latino or Latina is invited to share their experiences at the library’s Sound + Vision studio. These oral histories will be recorded, preserved and made accessible to future generations by the library and KU’s CLACS.

“We just want to capture people’s stories and come up with a good narrative of what Lawrence is about and how people got here — what they’ve done in their community and what they find valuable in our community,” says Kristin Soper, the Lawrence Public Library’s events and programming coordinator.

Those who can’t make the Friday time slot are encouraged to call the library to schedule a session.

Swanson also envisions a project similar to last year’s Lawrence Inside Out portrait series of local artists and creative types that would instead focus on the faces of Lawrence’s Latino community. She hopes to have the photographs showcased at the Lawrence Public Library during the “500 Years” run, followed by a “more formal exhibit” in the fall.

“Sometimes people have neighbors with a really interesting story that they don’t know about,” Swanson says. She thinks it’s time we make these stories heard.

For a full list of “500 Years” programming, visit latamst.ku.edu/500years.