Published November 1st, 2021 at 4:19 PM
Mexican families have been key players in Kansas City’s story for more than a century.
That’s what historians, journalists and scholars have reported repeatedly. Yet, over the years the origin story gets lost in the mix of Kansas City’s rich history.
Flatland follower Esther Esteves asked curiousKC: “How and when did the Westside become a draw for Mexican immigrants to Kansas City?”
In recent years, community centers, parishes and university historians have worked to keep this history top of mind.
As the story goes, many Mexican laborers — and later their families — fled the Mexican Revolution that started in 1910. They looked for places they could work and build community. That led many to the Midwest. The labor market kept them here.
“It was a humble community,” said Paul Rojas, 87, longtime Westside neighborhood resident and a well-known Kansas City activist. “There were many professional people that came through here also from Mexico. Revolution causes the intellectuals to leave the country either (voluntarily) or mostly by force, as is true in any revolution anywhere.”
Railroad companies and agriculture were booming in the Kansas City area in the 1910s. Mexican families were continually drawn to Kansas City by promising prospects for work.
In 2014, KCUR’s Lisa Rodriguez created a timeline of events with the help of historian Gene Chavez and city planner Daniel Serda.
Here’s a visual timeline of Mexican migration to Kansas City, based on a combination of Rodriguez and Flatland’s research.
Unlike the Southwest, where Mexican families were native to the land, Mexican families in the Midwest were transplants, now forced to learn a new culture and live in a new climate, wrote Theresa Torres, associate professor in Latino/a studies at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
In her article entitled “The Kansas City Westside,” Torres broke down how and why Mexicans were drawn to the Westside in this excerpt:
“Immigrants tended to settle according to their employment. For example, railroad companies provided both the workers’ jobs and the boxcars in which they lived. To replace the loss of Asian employees and European immigrants,who preferred permanent rather than seasonal employment, railroad companies welcomed Mexicans who were willing to accept these working conditions.
The colonia in Kansas City consisted of six enclaves of Mexican settlers with three in Missouri and three in Kansas. Of those, the first Mexicans moved to the Westside neighborhood (an urban settlement along the Westside bluffs, which looks down on the Kansas River) in 1909 to work on the construction of Union Station, the central train station for Kansas City, Missouri. Two other smaller barrios in Missouri included a railroad enclave in the Burlington yard in North Kansas City and the Sheffield district along the Blue River.”
Torres was part of a research team with local historians Valerie Mendonza and Sandra Enriquez, which primarily focused on documenting and amplifying the stories of Kansas City’s Mexican people. The team’s exhibit, which aligned with the Guadalupe Center’s centennial anniversary, was supposed to be on display for one full year.
Then COVID-19 hit. While the exhibit was taken down, the research continues. Much of the work included oral histories, listening to the people whose families were core to the Westside neighborhood.
“By World War I, Kansas City was at the heart of the Mexican migratory movement to the interior of the country.”Theresa Torres, “The Kansas City Westside: Home of the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe“
And at the heart was the Westside, located close to railroads where folks could work and live. Thus began the development of the Westside barrio. Everything was centralized — community, goods and services — and in close proximity to the other Mexican barrios such as Argentine on the Kansas side of the state line.
“While some Mexican children attended school outside of the barrio, the families rarely encountered local residents because the railroad yards provided all of their food and clothing needs,” Torres continued.
Then came a pivotal point in history, deemed as one of the largest reasons why Mexican families congregated on the Westside: The great flood of 1951.
Communities were forced to migrate elsewhere in the metro. Slowly but surely, the community built itself back up elsewhere. But the Mexican population in Kansas City faced economic difficulties entangled in racism and segregation.
In fact, the flood caused an unintended ripple effect, according to KCUR:
“The massive 1951 flood played a role in ending school segregation (in) Kansas City, Kansas. The Clara Barton School was knocked off its foundation by the raging waters. The following year, Mexican American children were allowed back into Emerson Elementary’s general population for the first time since 1918.”
People like Paul Rojas fought for equity in school and in political power.
Fast-forward to today, and some Westsiders feel like their community is overlooked, like Richard Hernandez, president of the West Side Neighborhood Association.
Hernandez has long been a leader in the community, as were a few of his own friends like Paul Rojas and Richard’s brother, former City Council member, Robert Hernandez.
Both Rojas and Hernandez contend that over the years, the Mexican community has spread out through the metro. Though remnants of the colonias exist, development of the highways have divided their communities.
Their hope is to somehow preserve the Westside’s identity and place in history.
“(My families) were some of the first here,” Richard Hernandez said. “I ended up with my parents’ home.”
Oftentimes, that’s how the story goes.
Aging Westside residents leave their homes to their children or grandchildren, a memento of their lived history and the pride of having built a place to call home through years of struggle for a chance at the “American dream.”
But the younger generation continues to move out, leaving their ancestors’ homes at risk of gentrification, Hernandez said. He fears their neighborhood’s history will be forgotten.
But Rojas insists he won’t budge, nor is he intending to stay quiet.
“I’m not going anywhere,” he said. “I think I told you, the bulldozer’s gonna run me out.”
Vicky Diaz-Camacho covers community affairs for Kansas City PBS.