How election losses motivated one Kansas activist — a lesson from Liberal

Kathleen Alonso at a May 31 protest in Liberal. (Kyanna Altamirano)

When your home’s an inhospitable place, what does it take to make it better?

Democrats lamenting their recent losses in Kansas elections could look for inspiration to Kathleen Alonso, a 23-year-old in Liberal.

Alonso’s father died when she was 12. Her mother, who struggled with mental illness and addiction, was serving a few days for a DUI in the Seward County jail when U.S. Immigration, Customs and Enforcement agents swept through in one of their monthly roundups.

Alonso was 16 when ICE deported her mother.

Alonso had held down jobs since she was 13 but otherwise had no support.

“I was a typical troubled teenager and not always making the right decisions,” Alonso says, “trying to figure it all out and how to process so much trauma in such a short period of time.”

She picked up more jobs, power-washing pig manure out of stalls at the Seaboard meatpacking plant in nearby Guyman, Oklahoma, and later working as a quality assurance tech at the National Beef plant in Liberal.

By the time she graduated a semester early from Liberal High School, she’d been accepted to a college in New York City. But she was pregnant. So she enrolled at Seward County Community College. This year, she started her own real estate company.

In one way, Alonso’s story reinforces the classic American up-by-her-own-bootstraps myth. What’s also classically American is leaving kids to fend for themselves in a hypocritical economy that secures cheap labor with fear of deportation.

“I saw first-hand the struggle as members of the working class here in the community,” Alonso says.

So in July, when ICE came back and arrested three or four people, she had to do something.

“It was not a whole lot of people, but with Covid and everything, the fact that they went above and beyond to round people up — that woke something up in me,” she says. “Maybe we can’t stop ICE from coming, but maybe we can help their kids or family members get through this.”

A participant at the May 31 protest in Liberal. (Kyanna Altamirano)

She and others took their concerns to the Liberal City Commission.

“The fact that you all are elected officials and have — at least that’s how it feels — turned a blind eye to the issues the Hispanic community continues to face on a daily basis, is bad,” she told commissioners.

To read local reports of those meetings (July 30, August 15 and August 21) is to catch a glimpse of a community run by white people even though around 60% identify as Hispanic or Latino.

“There was not a whole lot of addressing the concerns we had,” Alonso says. “So I thought, ‘OK, so we need to get active.’ For such a large demographic, we were just going with the norm and not being politically active.”

Alonso spent the last few months organizing the Latino community, canvassing locally and elsewhere in the state to turn out voters and volunteering for the campaign of Edgar Pando, a young attorney from Dodge City who looked like a promising challenger to longtime Kansas Sen. Bud Estes.

On Nov. 3, Democrats lost badly. They had enthusiasm and a huge turnout, but so did Republicans.

“I was pretty distraught,” Alonso admits. “I told people their vote mattered, but after looking at the numbers, it didn’t make a huge difference.”

She’d already made a difference in other ways, though. At the city commission meeting, Alonso’s story caught the attention of Judge Bradley Ambrosier, chief of the state’s 26th Judicial District, who approached her about starting a free legal clinic for people who needed help.

“She was a really smart young lady,” Ambrosier says. “I just wasn’t going to let the opportunity pass.”

Ambrosier emailed area lawyers to see if anyone wanted to help. Paul Kitzke, of Hugoton, was one of two who volunteered a few hours one afternoon last month, helping a handful of people — white as well as Latino — with general questions, like landlord-tenant or child custody issues. They’re planning a second clinic.

“It’s really nice to be able to help some people,” Kitzke says. “They might sit at home and stew on something, hitting their head against a wall. ‘Oh, just call the Department of Labor and that fixes it’ — but they would never know that. It makes you feel good about what you do.”

In small-town Kansas, change happens a few people at a time.

Black Lives Matter protesters on May 31 in Liberal. (Submitted to Kansas Reflector)

Alonso’s political efforts in Seward County, meanwhile, impressed Pando.

“Kathleen very quickly came out of nowhere down there and now is building a reputation as being a fighter,” he says.

Though he lost by a depressingly wide margin, his numbers were best in Seward County, where Alonso and many others had been hard at work.

“Liberal is one of the places where it seemed the most impossible,” Pando adds. “It’s almost more openly adversarial to anyone who is Hispanic. You’re expected to know your place.”

For Alonso, the place for Latinos is now on bodies like the city commission. She wants to capture the enthusiasm of other young people, such as those who turned out for Black Lives Matter protests — yes, even in Liberal, and they were peaceful thanks mainly to Alonso’s efforts — to run locally.

“Although we are small, we have powerful people in our community who want to create change,” she says. “We have the numbers. You don’t have to get that many out to win a local election.”

She knew what to do about those results on Nov. 3.

“It puts things into perspective as to how much work actually needed to be done,” she says. “It motivated me a little more.”