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Lali Garcia, ‘Queen Bee’ Of Kansas City’s Latino Community, Dies At 93

Rafaela 'Lali' Garcia poses with her friend Manuel Hernandez in 2014.
Lisa Rodriguez
KCUR 89.3
Rafaela 'Lali' Garcia poses with her friend Manuel "Rabbit" Hernandez in 2014.

Garcia founded La Raza political club in Kansas City to get more Latinos involved in politics. She had the ear of many elected officials and opened doors for Latino candidates at the local, state and national level.

Rafaela “Lali” Garcia, an activist and political pioneer in Kansas City’s Latino community, died Wednesday, according to close friends. She was 93 years old.

Garcia founded the La Raza political club and worked polls every Election Day for more than 50 years. She was also heavily involved in with Guadalupe Centers Inc., which provides services to the Hispanic community in Kansas City and served on the board of directors until her death.

Friends remember her as a pioneer for Latinos in politics, a trailblazer unafraid to hold those in power accountable.

Cici Rojas, president of Tico Sports and The Latino Coalition, said Garcia paved the way for her to succeed in business and civic work.

“She was not afraid to ask the hard questions, the thought-provoking questions about lack of representation or the unseen prejudices that existed — she was willing to call them out,” Rojas said.

That willingness to speak frankly and call out injustice earned her the respect of influential Democrats.

“Former Senator Claire McCaskill and a number of former Democratic governors … it was Lali that called them and they would pick up the phone,” said Dr. Theresa Torres, who knew Garcia and teaches Latinx studies at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. “It was that political link that made a difference in so many ways, so that the Latino community of Kansas City didn't get left out.”

McCaskill reacted to Garcia's death on Twitter Thursday.

"Oh Lali. I will miss you terribly. You taught me so much. You put me in my place when that was needed. You were the essence of heart and strength," McCaskill wrote.

U.S. Rep Emanuel Cleaver also expressed his condolences Thursday on Twitter, calling her “a true trailblazer for the Latino community in every sense.”

A life of activism

Garcia was born in Kansas City, Kansas, in 1927.

In an interview with KCUR in 2019, Garcia spoke about the impact Kansas City’s Guadalupe Center had early in her life. She said she started going to the Guadalupe Center when she was 13 years old.

"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 said.

After the flood of 1951 displaced her family, Garcia, who was pregnant, went to the Guadalupe center for food, clothing and shelter. That’s what Torres said ignited her passion to help those experiencing trauma and other hardships.

“And so the experiences of her earlier life and, you know, and having to deal with floods and difficulties, I think were the things that struck that strength in her to be a stronger person to fight for other people that particularly were poor and often got left out,” Torres said.

According to the Guadalupe Centers, Garcia organized the Westside Citizens Democratic Club, which eventually became the La Raza political club, in 1968 at the urging of her stepfather.

“He was always telling me, 'You know, you're just such a gabber and like to get into everything. I think you should run for something,'” Garcia told KCUR in 2019.

La Raza Political club successfully backed several Latino candidates for city, county and statewide office.

Chris Medina, former CEO of Guadalupe Centers Inc., told KCUR in 2014 that an endorsement from Garcia and La Raza political club was one of the most sought-after by local politicians.

Garcia was also active in registering Latinos to vote and taking people to the polls on Election Day. In a 2014 interview, she told KCUR she had worked her precinct every Election Day for more than 50 years.

Paul Rojas, who said he’s known Garcia for more than 50 years, recalled securing a school bus with Garcia to get voters in line before the polls closed.

“[They] kept the polls open because they cannot close the polls as long as there’s people in line wanting to vote. And the polls were open well past 7 p.m. because of the lines of people that we were transporting from the West Side,” Rojas, chairman of the board for Guadalupe Centers, said.

Later in life, Garcia started programs for senior citizens at the Guadalupe Centers, and could frequently be seen at weekly bingo games. She continued to serve on the board of directors for that organization throughout the pandemic, even as her health declined.

“Trying to get on the Zoom calls, which can be a challenge for anyone let alone someone, you know, who's 93, but she figured it out,” Cici Rojas said.

Janet Murguia, a Kansas City native and president of Unidos US, a national Hispanic advocacy organization, said she wouldn’t be where she is today had she not been inspired by Garcia.

“She was one of the key reasons I went into public service and I will never forget her or the selfless example she set,” Murguia told KCUR in a statement.

In 2020, Murguia was featured in a Washington Post story marking 100 years since the passage of the 19th Amendment which gave women the right to vote. In it, she spoke about Garcia’s impact on her life and what her legacy means for Latinos in Kansas City and across the country.

“Thank you to Lali for blazing the trail for all of us. Muchísimas Gracias,” Murguia said.

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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