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StoryCorps In Kansas City — Fighting For Chicano Rights In Kansas

John Mendoza and Dr. Valerie M. Mendoza

StoryCorps' MobileBooth came to Kansas City to collect the stories and memories of residents. This is one in a series of stories KCUR has chosen to highlight.

John Mendoza graduated from Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas, in 1967, excited to take on a job at NASA as an aerospace engineer. 

"I always wanted to be a figher pilot because of movies and space programs, outer space movies," John told his daughter, Valerie M. Mendoza.

He returned to the university to get accredited to teach when he found out that some students were forming an organization of Latino students. 

"Out of curiosity partly and, secondarily, concern, I went to the meeting," John said. "And I ended up becoming the first president (of the organization)." 

That was the springboard John needed to get involved with the Chicano movement. 

"I had a responsibility to call attention to the fact that we hadn't made any progress," John said. "Giving up our identity, our language, our customs and traditions, becoming acculturated to the dominant culture — sacrificing all of that didn't put us closer to full citizenship."

John admits that the task of fighting for civil rights was tough. He had to sacrifice a lot of time and attention from his Ph.D. studies, ultimately settling for a master's degree.

But he's glad that he worked to make the concerns of Mexican Americans and other Latinos visible to Kansas officials.

"We took on the (Topeka) city council, the (Topeka) mayor, we called them out at meetings and demonstrated," John said. "At the time, we had Father Ramon Gaitan from the Church establishing El Centro."

Though he didn't get to finish his Ph.D., John's determination was passed down to his daughter. Valerie Mendoza completed her own Ph.D. in history from the University of California, Berkeley, in honor of her father, and says his work was an inspiration.

"You've had a big impact on me. Thank you," she said as both teared up.

Matthew Long-Middleton is a community producer for KCUR 89.3. Follow him on Twitter @MLMIndustries.

Cody Newill is an audience development specialist for KCUR 89.3. Follow him on Twitter @CodyNewill.

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