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Background Image young people from Garden City

The World Grows Here

Towering over the prairie, silos dominate the landscape not far from the feedlots on the outskirts of Garden City in southwest Kansas. 

The silos and feedlots with their thousands of bellowing cattle pay homage to the agricultural industry that drives the city’s economy and brings workers from around the world to this bustling community. 

Jose Guevara, originally from El Salvador, came to work at the meat packing plant in 1984. He and others from Somalia, Mexico, Honduras, Myanmar, Uganda, and elsewhere attracted film maker Stephen Lerner to Garden City and inspired him to work with Finney County Historical Society to make “Strangers in Town: a Documentary Film About Immigration in Small Town America.” 

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“The national conversation about immigration has become so polarized and angry, that when I heard about Garden City, I thought that perhaps here was a town in Kansas that had something important to add to the debate,” explained Lerner. 

Lerner serves as project director for “Strangers in Town” which received an HK-supported Humanities for All grant. He co-directed the film with award-winning Los Angeles filmmaker Reuben Aaronson. The two were childhood best friends and are now filmmaking collaborators.

Lerner noted that while Garden City is not immune to bigotry and racism, it made a conscious decision decades ago to find ways to welcome a wide variety of immigrants and refugees. 

Here lies a town “that has embraced immigration and diversity, creating policies and resources that have helped the community grow and thrive,” stated Lerner.

He remarked on the incredible openness of the community which he attributes to their success in welcoming immigrants and refugees.

Since the meat packing plant opened in 1979, the population of Garden City shifted to majority minority with immigrants and refugees becoming the backbone of the community. Guevara’s wife Celia joined him in Garden City in 1986 and now the two own Santa Rosa Panaderia y Carniceria, a Latin American grocery store that serves the town’s Hispanic community. It is one of the many migrant-owned businesses mentioned in the film.

As “Strangers in Town” shows, Garden City high school students embrace the richness of their varied backgrounds. Indeed, the city website extolls as a virtue the fact that over 20 languages are spoken by children in the local school system, and the city’s motto is “the world grows here.” 

The film premiered in Garden City last October to an audience of over 100 people. Now the filmmakers are taking the film on the road so Garden City's story can spark conversations in other Kansas communities, including Lawrence and Overland Park.

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