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State Line Hispanic Communities Have Deep Roots In Kansas City History

Students from the Armourdale community of Kansas City, Kan., refer to their neighborhood as the barrio.

Today the neighborhood is predominantly Hispanic, but it wasn’t always this way. Armourdale, which was one of the first Hispanic communities to form in Kansas City, Kan., in 1886, went through an era when Hispanics were a minority. 

Bordered by the Kansas River and Interstate 70, Armourdale is just one of a number of communities along the Missouri-Kansas state line that has a rich Latino history dating as far back as the mid-1800s. These neighborhoods have deep roots in the history of the Kansas City area and their experiences have shaped how they interact today.

As we take a closer look at the history of these state line communities in KCUR's Beyond Our Borders project, we spoke to a number of members of the Latino community. Many are longtime residents and experts in Hispanic history in the Kansas City area. Some are more recent arrivals, but they provide perspectives on how the state line has affected their communities in the past 100 years.

RELATED: Timeline of important events in Kansas City Hispanic history.

Early Hispanic immigration to Kansas City

Hispanic migration to the Kansas City area dates as far back as the 1830s, when the Santa Fe Trail opened up trade from Mexico. But the first major wave of immigration came with the establishment of railroads in Kansas City, Kan., and Kansas City, Mo.

Credit File photo / KCUR
KCUR's Beyond Our Borders project will examine the Missouri-Kansas state line in the Kansas City metropolitan area through the end of 2014.

Around the turn of the century, the Kansas City metropolitan area was a hub for railroad expansion. Dozens of rail lines crisscrossed downtown Kansas City, Mo., and railroad companies were eager to find inexpensive labor to continue expanding.

During this time, Mexican workers recruited by the railroads established compact communities around the rail yards in Rosedale, Argentine, and the Armourdale neighborhoods of Kansas City, Kan., and the Westside and West Bottoms in Kansas City, Mo.

Daniel Serda is the owner of Insite Planning LLC, a community planning and economic development consulting firm in Kansas City, Mo. He grew up in the Armourdale community of Kansas City, Kan.

“The communities along the rail lines were referred to as ‘campos,’ primarily in (the Kansas City, Kan., neighborhood of) Argentine," Serda said. "These were railroad camps where workers were literally imported in. They were transported here in boxcars from Mexico."

Gene Chavez is a local curator and historian for the Kansas Humanities Council. He says that in addition to railroad work, many opportunities existed at industrial sites and meat packing plants.

“There were plenty opportunities of hard labor which a lot of people found distasteful. The Mexican workers were willing to put in the hard labor,” Chavez said.

During this time period, from the turn of the century until 1920, the existence of a state line dividing the metropolitan area had little impact on where immigrants chose to settle. They went where there was work. The state line became a more important border almost half a century later, when nature brought devastation to the area.

The Great Flood of 1951

In July of 1951, floodwaters rushed down the Kansas River and inundated the Kaw River valley and the Missouri River basin, resulting in great change in the communities bordering the state line. Armourdale and the West Bottoms were under water, displacing entire Latino communities.

“When those people were displaced, many of them moved to higher ground, which meant moving to Rosedale and Argentine, but especially to the Westside," Serda said."There were literally businesses on Kansas Avenue in Armourdale that just picked up and moved across the viaduct to (the) Westside."

Chavez says the migration across the state line had a great effect on education. Those families that moved to communities on the Kansas side faced a public school system that segregated black and Hispanic students from white students.

“It was basically the 1951 flood which almost forced integration in Kansas schools,” Chavez said. “The kids from Argentine, Armourdale and Rosedale needed schools to attend, so instead of building new schools just for them, the board decided they had to let the Hispanic children attend regular schools.”

The case was different in Missouri. Ramon Murguía is a longtime resident of the Kansas City, Kan., neighborhood of Argentine. He says the Latino communities in Missouri have a longer history of cultural centers that were well equipped to deal with immigrant needs. When the 1951 flood brought a new wave of Hispanics to the area, there were already schools in place to accommodate them.

“Groups like the Guadalupe Center in (the) Westside established charter schools for the Hispanic community because they weren't being addressed by the public schools,” Murguía said.

Recent immigration and the revitalization of communities

In the past 20 years, turmoil in Central America and Mexico has brought a new wave of immigration to the Kansas City area, revitalizing the historic Hispanic communities.

“Many descendants of the first-generation Hispanics have followed migration patterns out of the core cities and settled in more suburban areas, but there are recent waves of immigrants who are resettling in certain corridors of Kansas City,” Chavez said.

As descendants of the older Hispanic populations move away from the cities' urban cores, these new immigrants are revitalizing parts of the cities had been in decline.

According to Chavez, Central and Minnesota Avenues in Kansas City, Kan., and Independence Avenue in Kansas City, Mo., have experienced tremendous growth in the past 20 years.

“Those that have arrived in the last 15 years or so have a great entrepreneurial spirit. I’ve noticed that there is more of a willingness to take bigger risk in terms of business investments in the immigrant population these days," Murguía said.

As we continue our investigation of the state line in Kansas City, we’ll hear more from these voices and communities who have had an important part on the history in the area and continue to be a part of its character today.

This look at the Missouri-Kansas state line is part of KCUR's months-long examination of how geographic borders affect our daily lives in Kansas City. KCUR will go Beyond Our Borders  and spark a community conversation through social outreach and innovative journalism.

We will share the history of these lines, how the borders affect the current Kansas City experience and what’s being done to bridge or dissolve them. Be a source for Beyond Our Borders: Share your perspective and experiences on the state line with KCUR.

Slow news days are a thing of the past. As KCUR’s news director, I want to cut through the noise, provide context to the headlines, and give you news you can use in your daily life – information that will empower you to make informed decisions about your neighborhood, your city and the region. Email me at lisa@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @larodrig.
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