100 Years Ago, This Group Tried To 'Americanize' Mexicans — Now It Empowers Latinos In Kansas City
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Latinos started moving to Kansas City in the mid-1800s. Despite their major role in building the early infrastructure that made this city what it is today, there are only a few local landmarks that credit their involvement or tell their story.
Today, Latinos make up roughly 10 percent of the city's total population, but when many Mexican immigrants began moving to the area to work in the railyards, that percentage was much smaller.
"You are one of the few, right? You stand out amongst the people, even other immigrants," says historian Valerie Mendoza.
The Guadalupe Center was formed in 1919 to give these new, Spanish-speaking immigrants a place to come for resources and support — but its founders weren't initially concerned with understanding the community. Over the course of a century, the Mexican American community transformed the Guadalupe Centers into an organization that celebrates Latino culture and adapts to the needs of the communities it serves.
Mendoza says those first immigrants from Mexico never meant to end up in Kansas City. They were mostly young men looking for work — and Kansas City had a lot of it on the railroads.
With their wives and families back in Mexico, the young men began to take on a bachelor lifestyle, frequenting pool halls and bars after long days on the railroad. And in the 1920s, the establishments frequented by immigrants, and everyone else for that matter, were owned by Boss Tom Pendergast.
"You know, he was very much involved in those bars and pool halls that catered to Mexicans," Mendoza says. "And, so they get this reputation of being lawless—most of it not deserved."
Before long, Kansas Citians were referring to the "Mexican problem."
The railroad companies soon encouraged the men to move their families here as well, thinking that women and children might temper any perceived wild behavior.
To help these new families adjust, the Agnes Ward Amberg Club, a Catholic club mostly comprised of rich, white, anglo women formed a community center to teach the newly-arrived women and children about the ways of their adopted culture. They called it the Guadalupe Center, after Mexico's patron saint, Our Lady of Guadalupe.
In the beginning, the children's programming worked well, but the Mexican women did not want to be "taught" how to cook or sew, which is what the center offered them; they already had these skills.
That began to change, largely due to one of the club women, Dorothy Gallagher, who had been visiting the homes of the Mexican families. To this day, Gallagher is known as the godmother of the Guadalupe Center. Through those home visits, Gallagher learned that the community wanted more than English lessons. They wanted a place to gather with their families.
So, the Guadalupe Center held its first Gran Fiesta in 1926, then listened to other ideas the community wanted to pursue. The Mexican community began to find its voice and advocate for the services they actually wanted.
"It was like, 'Oh wow, we can do this.' And so then the Guadalupe Center started hosting things like musical groups. They had musical groups that would practice there. They had folk dancing groups that they started. That became very popular," Mendoza says.
By 1935, the Agnes Ward Amberg Club didn't have the resources for an expansion, so Gallagher herself purchased land and paid for construction of the building still in use on Avenida Cesar Chavez on the west side.
Researcher and former Guadalupe Centers board member Theresa Torres says that when Gallagher left Kansas City during World War II, the Catholic diocese took control of the center.
After the war ended and with the birth of the Civil Rights movement, there was a new sense of empowerment among Kansas City's Mexican Americans, some of whom were veterans who had served alongside whites and blacks in the war.
"I think that you could say that it was this kind of growing awareness and consciousness of their own ability to be leaders that began to change the thinking of the youth and to say we all need to deserve to be treated equal," Torres says.
By the 1970s, it was clear that the diocese's and community's visions of the Guadalupe Center's role in Kansas City no longer aligned. The Latino community didn't want charity, it wanted leadership and help from others who'd already met with some success in the city.
The two split, and in 1978, the Latino community hired one of their own to run the center—Tony Salazar. He, in turn, hired the man who would lead the organization for the next 40 years.
Since 1980, Cris Medina has acted as chief executive officer of the organization. His ties to the Guadalupe Centers date back to the beginning.
His great grandmother moved to Kansas City in 1919. Decades later, on a trip to Mexico, his mother met soccer champion Chino Medina. They married in Mexico, but then moved to Kansas City.
Medina says that as a child, he had family on nearly every block on the Westside.
"We had our last family reunion, we did it over at the armory and that's been a number of years now, but we had 900 or a thousand people there," Medina says.
Under his leadership, the center has grown to 18 buildings, including several schools, and 300 staff members. It provides services for Latinos in every part of the metro, including immigrants who've moved to Kansas City from dozens of countries. Services like healthcare, education, financial assistance, childcare, workforce development, and various types of programming for all ages.
Lali Garcia is 92 years old and has been coming to the Guadalupe Center since she was 13. She's the founder of the La Raza Political Club and continues to be very active in politics.
"I started going there to meet with the young people like me. As of today, I'm still going, and I'll keep going till God comes after me, or the devil comes after me," Garcia says.
With all the good they've been able to do within the community, Medina says many of the challenges faced by the Latino population are the same as those faced by his ancestors who first stepped through the door of Gallagher’s building 100 years ago.
"We're still talking about hate crimes and immigration and stuff. I thought we'd be beyond that," Medina says.
But he and the Guadalupe Centers will hold steady in their mission. Right now, that involves fostering leadership skills in young people, and encouraging some of them to eventually run for office.
"If we're going to have our populations be successful and provide for ourselves," Medina says, "we need to give them the tools to be able to do that where they can find decent jobs, paying a livable wage where they can provide for themselves."
Lisa Rodriguez is the afternoon newscaster and the city hall reporter for KCUR 89.3 Follow her on Twitter @larodrig.