Creating Identity: Reflections on the Chicano Movement in Kansas City

Jennifer Tufts

In 1964, The Salazar family, Marcario Ortega Salazar Sr. and Velia (Madrigal) Salazar with their nine children moved to the Ivanhoe neighborhood on Kansas City, Missouri’s east side – twelve miles from the colonia, Argentine where they had grown up in Kansas City, Kansas. Their parents had been born and raised in Mexico, but followed the railroad north for steady work, and they and their children were born in the United States. Many families left Mexico in the 1920s to escape “demographic and political tensions, which culminated in the La Cristitada (the Cristero Rebellion).[Valia’s family settled in Argentine, and Marcario’s moved to Elsworth, Kansas. Eventually, both families put down roots in Argentine, and by the time their third son Carlos Salazar was born in 1956, ninety-five percent of their small community had Mexican heritage and were employed by a railroad or meat packing company.

The Railroad Was The Attraction

From ’56 to ’64 we lived in KCK and Argentine, which was a large Latino community. Ninety-five percent of those people were from the same state as my mom, the same city – Michoacan. They had all heard that this was a safe place to come to, and they could live together and live in the same community. My grandparents – both sides came because of the railroad. The railroad was the attraction. There were jobs being offered to Mexicans because of the low cost and because of the availability. At that time, the broseros – I think it was called broseros? Broseros? Basically looking for laborers to come over, so they came over and stayed and were granted citizenship.[ii]

Population statistics for Argentine and Armourdale neighborhoods began to shift in the early 1900s as “dominant groups in the United States increasingly expressed disenchantment with changes they attributed” to increased immigrant populations from Scandinavia and southern and eastern Europe.[iii] At the same time, “politicians in Europe expressed concern over the fate of their compatriots, which resulted in more exclusionary immigration policies between the two continents.”[iv] These policies limited capitalists’ access to large, immigrant labor pools from Europe, and created space in Midwestern industries for workers from the southern United States and Mexico. By the time of World War I, Argentine and Armourdale were bursting the seams of the once planned company housing at the epicenter of Kansas City’s leading industry – meat.

Second only to Chicago’s Union Stockyard, the Kansas City Stockyard established in 1871 grew to national attention in less than a decade, helping expand and innovate the industrialization of meat. Rails were an essential component to the industry. Cattle came into the city live in rail cars designed for animals. Stock was unloaded into massive pens in the yard. They were bought and sold in the clean and separate exchange building. Next, killed in gruesome slaughterhouses with efficient disassembly lines. Then, processed and packed for transit, and finally, shipped to supermarkets coast to coast by refrigerated rail cars. The Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad recruited workers from Mexico to first build, then maintain thousands of miles of tracks heading west through Kansas from 1869 well into the 1920s.

Philip D. Armour, founder of Armour Packing Company, one of the “Big Four” meat packers ruling the industry at the turn of the twentieth century expanded his Chicago brand by opening a packing house in Kansas City. He built a residential community close by, which was meant to house workers in comfortable conditions. But, soon “the meat processing industry in the heartland employed thousands of additional workers,”[v] overpopulating the planned community, Armourdale. The below map of Wyandotte county from 1887 shows the proximity between Armourdale and the massive Union Depot originally in Kansas City’s West Bottoms, bordered by the Kansas (Kaw) River and the Missouri state line.[vi]

Southwest of Armourdale is the “City of Argentine,” which eventually was incorporated into Kansas City, Kansas.

In meatpacking plants, immigrants worked alongside white and black workers in some of the first integrated spaces in the city; however, factories designed for efficiencies restricted all employees’ access to power. Managers worked to quell collective organizing and used “reserve labor pools to discipline and divide workers.”[vii] Mexicans and African Americans were both used as strikebreakers until a multiethnic union was formed in later decades. Meatpacking facilities at the turn of the 20th Century are a case study in deplorable working conditions, stratification among working classes and ethnic groups, and to some degree the effectiveness of unified, collective action. Rick Halpern and Roger Horowitz explore the impact on the African American community in Kansas City in the 1930s and 1940s in their book Meatpackers: An Oral History of Black Packinghouse Workers and Their Struggle for Racial and Economic Equality.[viii] They argue that activism with the national union – the United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA) was essential to the advancement of Kansas City’s African American community. Workers, through union activities had access to power, and they used it to “ameliorate racial prejudice” and “transform the working conditions and living standards for all packing house workers.” [ix] Thirty years later, the country was ripe again with social upheaval, and another multi-ethnic Union – the United Farm Workers of America (UFWA) activated the Latinx community in Kansas City to fight for racial and economic equality, which defined a new generation of Mexican-Americans rooted in the Midwest.

Multiple narratives exist in tension describing Mexicans’ “place in Midwestern society” and their relationship to European immigrants who ca­me before them.[x] Valdes explains three narratives. First, that Mexicans migrated north in search of opportunities, were able to improve their lives through access to better jobs, and could expect a degree of socio-economic mobility. The second, that migration was more constrained, and because of widespread discrimination, Mexicans only had access to the “least desirable jobs,” limiting their ability to socially advance as their European counterparts had been able to do within the broader society. The third, Valdes calls “a still bleaker assessment,” proposed by George Edson that Mexicans were “brought in as supernumerary laborers … confined to the function of an unstable labor reserve,” [xi] vulnerable as a group existing barely in the margins of society. In Kansas City, colonias like those that formed in Argentine and Armourdale were safe spaces for Mexican-American families to socialize and maintain cultural traditions, but discrimination in the broader society restricted access to education, employment, and healthcare, halting social mobility for Mexican immigrants and their American-born children.

Carlos Salazar, a second generation Kansas City native believes that had his family stayed in the Argentine neighborhood, they would have been too isolated. He describes the limitations he perceived in Argentine, and by contrast the lessons he learned living in a more diverse neighborhood on the east side as the “minority of the minority.”[xii]

I think we all learned and gained something as a family

Even though we were part of the neighborhood, we were different because we were the minority of the minority, and so my brothers had to fight. I had to fight just because of the color of our skin with people who were just the color of our skin, not darker, but it was just the natural introduction to the community. You had to prove that you belonged there and you were going to – you weren’t just somebody who was going to be in and out. All and all, it gave us the best education when it came to not only public schools – the public schools were excellent at the time, but then the knowledge that we learned living in that neighborhood and how things worked because if we had stayed in KCK, I think we would have – we probably would have gone to college, but some of us probably would have gone to work at the railroad with my dad. We wouldn’t have learned anything other than we were in a little Latino neighborhood. I think we all learned and gained something as a family that allowed us to do things differently.[xiii]

In 1964, West Side communities were still seen as “immigrant” or “migrant” communities even though many who lived there were born in the United States and had never lived in Mexico, the home country of their grandparents or great grandparents. The city’s population was shifting. White families were moving out of the urban core into new, southern suburbs. African American and Latino families began to fill vacancies left behind, but many houses remained vacant, essentially abandoned by owners who stopped paying property taxes. The impact on the tax base was dramatic.

I didn’t know it at the time, but I saw white flight

I grew up at 3529 Flora, which is a block East of Paseo. Six blocks East of Troost. On Kansas City’s east side. When we moved in in ’64, I didn’t know this at the time, but I saw it happening – didn’t know what it was, but white flight was taking place. I was seeing when we moved in, we saw – I’m not saying this is because we moved in, but just this is what was happening at the time – we bought our house from a white family. My uncle had already bought a house next door and my other uncle had bought across the street after we moved in, but then predominately the community was changing from whites to African Americans and Latinos – the whites who were older and couldn’t afford to move, were still there and are still there today. So, they learned to live amongst all of us and we learned to live amongst everybody. I didn’t know it at the time, but I saw white flight, and I saw the impact of white flight played on the city as a whole as regards to tax base.

When we saw the transition, a lot of the houses became rentals – those who could afford, bought, but most became rental, and the flight of the owner – most of them left town and just rented the property through an individual renter. Later on we noticed that the taxes weren’t being paid and the cities were putting the houses up on the auction block. So, it impacted the community. We were seeing people who lived in houses that were renting houses they didn’t pay their taxes and they got sold or the houses became in poor condition, so eventually were knocked down, so we had a lot of infill empty lots that were predominately taking over the community, and so when you lose that, you lose your tax base. That was my fight – we weren’t getting any services for that neighborhood, for that community.

In Kansas City, the African American and Latinx communities faced widespread discrimination in social and economic sectors, and had to compete for access to limited community resources. “I realized that the city, when it came time for distribution of dollars, was having us compete with the African American community. Because they were a lot bigger and stronger and more farther advanced, they were getting a bigger piece of pie.”[xiv] The Latinx experience seemed to mimic the second reality Valdes described, and Mr. Salazar saw a difference between what his parents believed about their perceived opportunities for advancement and what he experienced. “We were brought up by our parents to be good citizens – well prepared, never to question authority, to take things as they were, but if you do a good job somebody will notice you and you’ll have an opportunity for success in some way. It was a great story, but it wasn’t factual.”[xv]

Fourteen-year-old Carlos Salazar was learning first-hand about the unequal realities for minority populations in the Kansas City community when Cesar Chavez, a co-founder of the United Farm Workers of America (UFWA) spoke at Penn Valley Community College, urging the Latino population in Kansas City to stand in solidarity with Filipino and Mexican-American grape pickers in California. These workers represented the third experience of immigrants described by Edson – the disenfranchised, oppressed experience. But they were organizing to protest unsafe and inhumane working conditions and unsanitary living quarters with a massive strike. Cesar Chavez was traveling the United States, calling on Latinx communities to support the efforts of the table grape pickers strike, by boycotting grapes in their local grocery stores. The strike and subsequent boycott of table grapes lasted five years, and young Mr. Salazar joined the effort asking customers at Safeway not to buy table grapes from non-union growers.

We need your support to help us make a change of their lives

We were carrying signs, “Boycott grapes.” and then people would walk in, and we would say, “Please can you help us by not buying – purchasing these products? Our people are working in the fields. They are being treated unfairly. They live in terrible conditions. They are having to work in areas where pesticides are being sprayed around them, on them, and so the health conditions are just as bad. We need your support to help us make a change of their life, and you can do it by not buying these products. Some people would say, “We support you. We’re going to do this.” And others like – till today, you know – “You know why don’t you go back where you came from? We’re going to buy these things no matter what.” But that’s every day. That’s still today now with things are going, but it was interesting for me because I felt like “Hey! all my buddies are doing it, my brothers are doing it. My parents supported it, so it was interesting time. So, I was learning, not knowing what I was learning at the time, that we could make a difference, we could make an impact and change that would impact somebody 2,000 miles away that we had known nothing about.

“Huelga” or “Strike” was the national cry of the United Farm Workers of America. Communities across the US participated in a consumer boycott of grapes and lettuce in solidarity, forging a new identity for themselves.
The UFWA grape boycott lasted five years, 1965-1970. It sparked El Movimiento.

El Movimiento, The Chicano Movement had come to Kansas City. A multi-faceted movement – fighting for worker’s rights in California, political representation in communities with Latinx populations throughout the country, curriculum in high schools and colleges that taught Latinx history and culture – birthed new cultural expressions in literature, poetry, film, and music, and created space for a new generation of Mexican-American men and women who would not be ignored or silenced in their communities. They were Mexican and they were American. El Movimiento explored the complexities of that identity.

Yo soy Chicano

Here at UMKC, we were introduced to the Chicano films. There was a song I specifically remember. Son los Chicanos y tengo color. We are Chicanos and we have color. Americanos con honor. Americans with honor, but when the revolution comes, we will defend our flag and our people until the day we die. We were in the dilemma. We belong here, we’re a part of it, but we also have this culture that belongs with us, carries with us that a lot of people don’t understand. I remember I would sing that to myself all the time. Yo soy chicano y tengo color. Americano pero con honor y cuando me dicen que hay revolución. Defiendo a mi raza con mucho valor.

Freda Mendez Smith joined the Chicano Movement in earnest in 1981 when she became a member of MANA, a national association of Mexican American Women. She calls herself “Chicana,” and remembers that through community organizing, “we were able to create an identity.”[xvi] She made it her mission to break stereotypes that limited how Mexican-American men and women, boys and girls saw themselves within the broader Kansas City community. She also hoped to expand the imaginations of the broader community by introducing them to the language, culture, and history of her Mexican heritage. Through local media, she helped produce television programming that educated both publics, and literally put a spotlight on Mexican-American professionals active in the Kansas City community.

She was the last one waited on

All I paid attention to at that point was people’s reaction when I told them that I lived at 2116 Holly. Why do you live there? My aunt lives there. I’m staying with my aunt. So, I knew it wasn’t what was considered a “good” neighborhood. The other thing I paid attention to was when I went out with my aunt. Since I had a car, and my two cousins didn’t, I took her places, like I did my mom when I went home. Grocery store, drug store, wherever. We were downtown shopping, and I realized that she was being treated different from others. In a small town, they don’t do that because there wasn’t the numbers, but in Kansas City, there was a line. She was the last one waited on, if they deemed to wait on her. She was very quiet. She didn’t say anything, but she needed something for her family, so she would stand there until they deigned to wait on her. And I’m saying, “What’s with this?” That planted a seed way back then, so when I turned thirty, I had one child. I was married by then, and I had one child. I decided thirty was old and I needed to do whatever I needed to do now, so I enrolled in college. I went to Penn Valley for five years and UMKC for five years part-time. Took a year off to have a second kid, so it took me eleven years to get to my degree, which I finally got in 1981. In 1981, I jumped in with both feet in the Hispanic community because I wanted to help people see that people are alike over the strata of population. You find the same people – good, bad people in any level of strata of the population. I wanted to end the stereotype of Mexican. I don’t look Mexican. People don’t take me as Mexican, so they would treat me different than my indian cousins. Then, of course they see the name, and that’s a subtle discrimination thing. You go through a list and you see the name and you just keep going over the Hispanic sounding name.

 So, that was my mission when I started, and I started with IMAGE, then I joined MANA. I was involved in MANA for thirty-two years, and that was one of my main organizations. By the second year of MANA, American Cablevision got its contract with the city, and part of that contract was that they had to have an access channel. There was a young Hispanic – I even called him young then, because I was forty when I got my college degree. He thought the community could take advantage of this access channel, so he came around and visited organizations – told them what he wanted to do – put together a group to do television programs. Ok, that kind of fit with what I wanted to do. Number one, Hispanics could see themselves on television. Young kids could see people like them on television, and I could learn to run a camera. Mostly, it was moving up close and then withdrawing, so yeah. I could do that. So, he organized us and created Hispanic Productions. And his name was Bob Brunk. Again, he was half-Hispanic. He was part of the Lopez family out of Lee’s Summit. Dr. Lopez.

Although the Latinx community in Kansas City was significantly smaller than West Coast enclaves, they got organized and found power in a “collective consciousness determined to stop the oppression and indignity suffered by Hispanics in America.”[xvii] In the 1960s when the mayor of Roeland Park, Kansas warned shopkeepers to be vigilant with Mexicans because “they are proven shoplifters,”[xviii] leaders rose up from within the community and called for a protest. Hundreds of men and women, students, boys and girls met in Kansas City’s West Side neighborhood, and marched across the state line into Roeland Park. They sang songs as they marched, and people left their porches and joined them. Together, they stood on the steps of city hall demanding an apology and the resignation of the bigoted mayor.

The neighborhoods were activated. Students in Kansas City started wearing brown berets to school, identifying with the national student activist group named for their hats. Activities organized by the Brown Berets were publicized in bilingual newsletters, which were created to keep members of the community informed and mobilized. In 1969, students planned to walk out of both West High School and Westport High School, both part of the Kansas City, Missouri Public School District. Students who identified with the movement, left classes in the middle of the day and marched with the Mexican flag toward Kansas City, Missouri’s city hall. They demanded “the designation of September 16, Mexican Independence Day, as a national holiday in the United States; the creation of solidarity and unity for all Chicanos; and the implementation of Mexican American culture-oriented curriculum changes and bilingual classes.”[xix] Students also worked on political campaigns and began building partnerships with local civic, social, and educational institutions. By the 1980s, these middle and high school students, activated by the Chicano Movement, were adults, with higher education and professional occupations. They continued to advocate for their community by establishing new non-profits, a charter school system, and endowed funds to create better access to education, sustainable and skilled labor, legal counsel, mentoring, bilingual services, and affordable housing. They reshaped the political, educational, and social landscape in Kansas City between 1969 – 1989.

At the time of the 2010 United States Census, 45,978 people of “Latino or Hispanic” descent were living in Kansas City Missouri, a city that sprawls for over 300 square miles. This represents 10% of the total population in the city, which at that time was 459,787. Of that 10%, 7.8% identify as Mexican, .3% Cuban,.3% Puerto Rican, and 1.6% identify as “other.” Community activists like Freda Mendez Smith worked for decades to improve the data collection process for the Census, so that the diversity in the Latinx community could be better represented in the statistics. Today, more than fifty years since El Movimiento began, progress has been made towards accomplishing the goals the movement established, but the complexities of identity still impact the multi-faceted Latinx community in the heartland. Yiliam Baez Medero is Cuban. Soon, she will be an American Citizen. She came to Kansas City as a teenager in the early 2000s with her aging father, a political refugee from Cuba. Her experiences at the turn of the twenty-first century would sound familiar to those migrants who followed the railroad 100 years ago in search of better opportunities for themselves, and found that their opportunities were limited by unjust systems and prejudiced ideologies.

You just kick a rock over there and money comes out

I just thought everything was going to be so beautiful and my life was going to be so great. And everything was going to be so easy. And the fault is part of Cubans that go over there because we – like I say – we don’t have nothing – right? So, Cubans are very – we like to show off – you know – we have gold. We like to show off that we have money, that we have nice clothes. So a lot of the people that come from Cuba and they have been here for a while – especially people that live in Miami, they go to Cuba and they dress – Oh my god! Name brand clothes and thick gold chains and stuff like that, so they make you think for the people that never left – you know – they make you see those people wearing all that jewelry and nice clothes and money to spend in parties and drinks and all that stuff – you think like, “Wow!” You know, you just kick a rock over there and money comes out. You know? But the truth is that it’s not like that. It’s not like that. So, that’s why I gotta say there is a lot of Cubans that come here and after they’re here, they want to go back, or they start talking bad about this country, and other Cubans get mad because they’re saying, “Well, if you don’t like this country, then go back.” I don’t know if all of Cubans that lived here feel like me, but for a lot of years, I felt like I was a hippie – kind of. You know hippies, they don’t belong to anywhere?

So, I went back to Cuba after three years of me being in this country, and that’s when I really, really noticed the difference because when you’re there – that’s your life, that’s what you’re used to see every day. You don’t really see anything, but then you come here and you change. Even though you think you haven’t, you do. You change. So, when I went back for the first time, I started seeing all these – that’s when the difference really, really hit me, you know? And I – then I start feeling like a hippie. I didn’t belong to Cuba anymore, but I was feeling like I didn’t belong here either. People will say sometimes – there are some people that are racist and they will say mean things to you and who likes that? Nobody does. And I think of, in my case for example, I never really wanted to come here. I like my country. I like the way we live. If it wasn’t because of that president we have and that government that we have, I would be happy there. I think a lot of the immigrants that are in this country feel the same way – it’s just that other reason made them leave their country, their culture, their people, their families, you know? So, that’s why I get sometimes upset when people say things like that – mean to mean or anybody else. I imagine they do that because they haven’t really feel – or they haven’t been in our shoes to see what it is to leave everything you love just to live like a person.

The fight for equal representation in government, equal access to education, and equal recognition of cultural heritage continues for members of minority ethnic and racial groups across the United States. When asked what advice he would give to those in the Kansas City community that are fighting for their dignity today, Mr. Salazar said, “There are people out there – organizations out there who can help. It’s not a struggle that you should do by yourself or that you need to do by yourself. We’ve created opportunities that are vast. If it’s a struggle of money, we have organizations that can help with money. If it’s a struggle of social injustice, we have organizations that can help with social injustice. We’ve been through this fight before. This fight will probably never go away, but we’ve got so much historical knowledge and people who can help make a difference.”[xx]

[i] Valdes, Dionicio Nodin. “Reckoning with Winter” in Barrios Nortenos, 26. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000.

[ii] Salazar, Carlos. Interview with Jennifer Tufts. Personal Interview. Kansas City, Missouri, April 25, 2017.

[iii] Ibid., 22.

[iv] Ibid., 23.

[v] Valdes, Dionicio Nodin. “Reckoning with Winter” in Barrios Nortenos, 22. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000.

[vi] Hopkins, Griffith Morgan, Jr. Map of Wyandotte Co., Kansas. [Philadelphia: Published by G.M. Hopkins, C.E, 1887] Map. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, (Accessed May 07, 2017.)

[vii] Valdes, Dionicio Nodin. “Reckoning with Winter” in Barrios Nortenos, 22. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000.

[viii] Halpern, Rick and Roger Horowitz, Meatpackers: An Oral History of Black Packinghouse Workers and Their Struggle for Racial and Economic Equality. (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1996).

[ix] Ibid., 2-3.

[x] Valdes, Dionicio Nodin. “Reckoning with Winter” in Barrios Nortenos, 26. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000.

[xi] Ibid., 23.

[xii] Salazar, Carlos. Interview with Jennifer Tufts. Personal Interview. Kansas City, Missouri, April 25, 2017.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] Ibid.

[xvi] Smith, Freda Mendez. Interview with Leah Palmer. Personal Interview. Kansas City, Missouri, April 13, 2016.

[xvii] Ortiz, Leonard David. “La Voz de la Gente.” Kansas History, 22, no. 3 (1999): 229-244.

[xviii] Salazar, Carlos. Interview with Jennifer Tufts. Personal Interview. Kansas City, Missouri, April 25, 2017.

[xix] Ortiz, Leonard David. “La Voz de la Gente.” Kansas History, 22, no. 3 (1999): 229-244.

[xx] Salazar, Carlos. Interview with Jennifer Tufts. Personal Interview. Kansas City, Missouri, April 25, 2017.