Multigenerational Experiences of a Latinx Family in Kansas City

By Juliana Ayala

For the Vela-Moreno family, the United States has been their home for almost 100 years. The Vela-Moreno family arrived in Kansas City in the late 1930’s after immigrating from Durango, Mexico. The family decided to come to the United States in search of a better life, and to find more stable employment. Their first stop was in El Paso, Texas, however, shortly after crossing into Texas, they heard about an opportunity to lay railroad track in Humboldt, Kansas where they would be provided with a box car to sleep in, and more money than they could have ever made in Mexico. They laid railroad track all the way up into Kansas City where they finally settled in the Westside neighborhood of Kansas City, Missouri and set roots creating a multigenerational family dynamic of Mexican-Americans. Mother, Theresa Moreno, and daughter, Lisa Reales hope to share how their involvement with the Westside neighborhood, the Guadalupe Center, and the Latinx youth of Kansas City has changed the reality of life in the Midwest for Mexican immigrants and their families.

Overview of the Waves of Immigration into Kansas City

In various states within the Midwest, Mexicans and Mexican Americans have laid roots for over 90 years, giving these areas a rich cultural and multigenerational atmosphere. In Kansas, Mexican influence on the state is dated back to even before it became an official state.[1] In the early-twentieth century, the Mexican immigration influx into Kansas came in three major waves, which created the first communities in Kansas City. Immigration from Mexico’s highland states such as Guanajuato, Michoacán, Jalisco, Zacatecas, and San Luis Potosí was very prominent due to the problems these areas were facing with agricultural difficulties, and economic instabilities. The first influx of immigrants arrived between 1900-1910, and this group consisted of solo males, who immigrated for the sole purpose of finding work, and sending money home. A lot of these men were instrumental in supporting industries such as the railroads, meatpacking plants, and ice packing industries. Railroad companies such as Atchison, Topeka, Santa Fe, Chicago, Rock Island, and Pacific, tended to seek out these solo men to complete the tasks, and allowed them to sleep in the box car settlements. The second wave of immigrants into Kansas City came during the heightened tensions of the Mexican Revolution. This wave included many families seeking asylum from the dangerous conditions of Mexico during that time. The third large influx of Mexican’s occurred during World War I, and this came with many opportunities for better employment for the immigrants. At this time, Mexicans were excluded from receiving citizenship, therefor this wave of Mexican immigrants was excluded from having to serve in the war. [2] This allowed for better employment opportunities for Mexican’s because it freed up better-paying and secure employment within meatpacking plants, agriculture, steel, ice, and automobile productions. It was during this wave of immigration that the Vela-Moreno family arrived in Kansas City following the railroad box car settlements from Texas. [3] The story of  Vicente Vela, and her immigration into the United States is typical to other stories of that time. When Vela was young, her mother became very sick and as to not leave her youngest daughter alone, she married her to a man when she was just twelve years old. According to stories Vela used to tell her granddaughter Theresa Moreno, she did not have much of a childhood since she was married so young. When her and her husband moved to Humboldt, Kansas and were able to live in the box cars, she explained this time as the best of her life since she finally had friends, and felt a sense of community she had never felt. When her family finally arrived in the Kansas City, Missouri neighborhood of the Westside, their involvement in the community was instrumental into creating the culture of the neighborhood which is still seen today.

Prominent Mexican and Mexican-American Neighborhoods in Kansas City

The geographical locations of Kansas City, Kansas and Kansas City, Missouri allow for an easy flow of cross-border traffic, and permits its residents flexibility of life on both sides of the state line. In regard to predominantly Mexican-American communities, or barrios, they cross both state lines consisting of three on the Kansas side, and two on the Missouri side. In Kansas, the Argentine, Armourdale, and Rosedale neighborhoods quickly became settlements of many Mexican immigrant’s due to their closeness to the largest railroad camps on that side of the state line. In Missouri, neighborhoods such as the Westside which overlooks the Kaw River, and Burlington Yard in North Kansas City. [4]

The Guadalupe Center, and the Westside Neighborhood

For the Vela-Moreno family, the Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, the Guadalupe Center, and the Westside neighborhood have always been a prominent fixture in their family history. According to stories Vicente Vela’s great granddaughter, Lisa Reales used to hear as a child, her great grandmother never learned to read or write, but one day during her time living on the railroad box carts, two spinster sisters for whom she worked for taught her how to write her name. That story has great parallels to the story of Theresa Moreno-Espinosa, Vicente Vela’s daughter, who also met two spinster sisters known as the Gallagher sisters. Lisa Reales recalls stories that her grandmother used to tell her about her life growing up in the West Side.

When [Vicente Vela] had her daughter, the two spinster ladies who started the Guadalupe Center, the Gallagher sisters wanted to give my grandmother opportunities. She was, not without a lot of fuss, but was able to take advantage of those and their scholarship money that they offered her and be able to go to Redemptorist [catholic school], and become the first Latina to graduate from there. Then come back and give to her community so I feel that you know, the rule is, you know maybe it was weak to begin with, because there was not opportunity for my great grandma, but then for my grandma there were opportunities and she was a woman before her time.[5]

The Guadalupe Center was started by affluent Dorothy Gallagher, who came from a wealthy family in Kansas City. Gallagher was involved in a Catholic women’s group, the Agnes Ward Amberg Club but was not satisfied with the work she was doing.[6] As more Mexican immigrants came into Kansas City, Missouri, Gallagher noticed the immense discrimination the community faced, and the troubling social, and academic struggles the families and more specially that the children faced, she decided to make a change. [7] In 1919, the Agnes Ward Amberg Club opened the Guadalupe Center at Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish. “The center’s goal was to help Mexican immigrants adjust to American life while still maintaining much of their cultural heritage. On a practical level, this meant the center offered English classes, instructed newcomers on applying for jobs, organized communal activities, and operated a health clinic. The biggest event preserving Mexican culture was the fiesta on the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. It featured courtship dances, mariachi bands, food stands, and games. The fundraising contributed to the Guadalupe Center’s general operations.”[8]

In 1936, the Gallagher family donated land to the Guadalupe Center for them to build a larger location for the developing organization. Dorothy Gallagher worked at the center without pay, and was often noted for her nickname the “Godmother of Guadalupe.”[9] For the Vela-Moreno and the Moreno-Reales family, they feel their contributions to the Guadalupe Center and the Westside neighborhood have been actively involved in creating it to what it is now.

Theresa Moreno recalls,

I think we were instrumental in doing a lot of things that hadn’t been done before. One, because there wasn’t any Latino population here and then when they came they all worked together to help each other, and made sure that everybody had what they needed. They started businesses, they started barber shops, grocery stores, restaurants and if you go to any Latino area now you can see that they are just thriving. My grandparents and my mother were instrumental in starting the neighborhood, they started what they call a [Union] Cultural Mexicana, which was called the UCM. Which was a bank because there was nobody who would loan them money in case of an emergency. They all worked, and saved their money and put it in this bank and would loan each other money and pay back interest.[10] There [were not] any schools, or daycares where the kids could go to school, so my mother became the first kindergarten teacher in 1944 when I was four and she worked out of the Guadalupe Center and had all Latino children in the first kindergarten class.[11]

Theresa Moreno and Lisa Reales: Mother-Daughter Stories

Theresa Moreno, 77 was born in Kansas City, Missouri to Mexican parents from Durango, Mexico. Currently, she works for Kansas State University for Research and Extension, where she serves as a nutritionist. As a nutritionist, she works with minoritized families to support their nutritional habits, and assures they are making the current choices when it comes to food choices. Throughout her life, Moreno was always very involved with the community.

She was an avid dancer, and participated in every fiesta with the Guadalupe Center for their summer dancing programs. When she could no longer dance, she used her dancing skills to give back to her community by teaching it.

Moreno stated,

Oh, my dancing, okay! Let’s see, I took dancing lessons for 15 years. Tap, ballet, and acrobatics. Then when I could no longer take dancing, then I taught dancing. I helped the children with fiestas, I was instrumental in starting the first debutant ball, and all the young ladies that participated got college scholarships or book money. I had a modeling agency, and a dance class which I had over 50 children in, I did that for about 10 years. I have always managed to give what I’ve learned. [12]

For Moreno, working in the community, and helping other Latinx and people of minoritzed status is her true passion.

The most important lessons she has learned, from her grandmother and mother is, “There is nothing you can’t accomplish through hard work, and you must be honest, and work hard and there is not such word as can’t in my vocabulary. You can do it, and you will.”[13] Those words are something that she continues to live by, and shares with the young women that she has mentored.

Moreno stated,

All the girls that I’ve taught dancing to, I’ve meet them on the street and they tell me, “Mrs. Moreno, I will never forget those words, you can and you will and we have.” So that makes me feel good.

Lisa Reales, 59 was born in Kansas City, Kansas to a 1st generation Mexican-American mother. Although Lisa was born in Kansas City, Kansas, she spent a lot of time in the Westside neighborhood of Kansas City, Missouri. She currently works as an educational sales person, with a focus on early childhood, where she designs more developmentally appropriate classrooms and curriculum children birth through 6 years. The curriculum goes to school districts, private, public daycares and YMCAs, nationwide. Her current interests are working with Head Start programs which serve mostly Latinx and Native American children, but has always been involved locally to support the Latinx youth of the greater Kansas City metro area.

Lisa has been involved in the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, she has worked with the chamber as a management business director recruiting all types of businesses, not just Latinx but also major corporations to join and support the chamber in order to create more scholarships and opportunities for the Latinx youth.[14]

Reales’ earliest memories are of growing up in a multigenerational family. This allowed her to have a better understanding of the history of who her family is, and where they came from. Most of her best memories are associated with going to the Our Lady of Guadalupe church, or the Guadalupe center, and enjoying the community.

My favorite memory I would say would be going to visit my great-grandma, and being with her Monday through Friday, and she would have me walk down to the neighborhood store at the corner and she would give me $1. With that $1, believe it or not, I would buy a loaf of bread, half a pound of bologna. Then there would always be 25 cents left, and with that 25 cents, I was able to go to the penny candy counter, and buy 25 pieces of candy and I would bring those 25 pieces of candy back and she would make us a piñata, a homemade piñata. She would put it out on the back yard, and then my other siblings and I would get to split those pieces of candy and always have that piñata. So, lots of good times with her. [15]

What the World Should Know About Latinx in Kansas City

Moreno and Reales believe in their community of Latinx in Kansas City and hope this oral history research allows for the community, scholars, and researchers to better understand the complexity of Mexican-Americans and other Latinx people. When asked what she wished other non-Latinx to learn about Latinx and Mexican-Americans here in Kansas City.

Moreno shared,

Just the fact that Latino people are happy people, we are very loving people, we are very close, family oriented people, we are very hardworking people. Sometimes we have to work a little harder than somebody else because we have that stigma that we, you know, sleep under a sombrero, we like to take siestas, and that’s not true. We are very hardworking people, very honest people. I would just say, love each other take care of each other, and don’t let people who are higher up put you down, because you know who you are, and there is nothing they can do.

Currently, Latinx in the Kansas City Metro area make up 8.2% of the total population, accounting for about 166,000 people.[16] This number has increased dramatically from the 10,000 that were counted in the time that the Vela-Moreno family came into Kansas City in the 1930s. With the increase in the Latinx population.

Reales concludes with,

Read up, pay attention, look back, investigate see and praise some of the accomplishments that can be attributed to the Latino community and going forward, youngsters, such as yourself, you know young Latinos, are doing a great job, like you are, in documenting and getting this information down because I don’t think that it’s really documented as well as it should be, so good luck! [17]

For the Moreno-Reales family, the new generation is still continuing to serve the Latinx community, and remaining true to their multigenerational impact on the Greater Kansas City area.


[1] Mexicans regularly passed through the state on cattle drives, and as wagoner’s through the Santa Fe Trail. However, actual Mexican immigrant settlements did not occur until the twentieth century: “Mexican Americans in Kansas – Kansapedia – Kansas Historical Society.” Accessed May 1, 2018.

[2] The Immigration Law of 1917 exempted Mexican immigrates, and required a literacy test, and head tax insured that Mexican’s would not have to serve in World War I: Smith, Michael M. “Mexicans in Kansas City: The First Generation, 1900-1920.” Accessed May 1, 2018. Perspectives in Mexican American Studies 2.32 (1989): 34-36.

[3] Vicente Vela and her husband moved from Durango Mexico, into El Paso Texas. After 7 years, they followed work into Kansas City with the railroad: Theresa Moreno, interview by Juliana Ayala, March 11, 2018.

[4] Burlington Yard, and the eastern Sheffield district are both located in Northern Kansas City and also became an area of larger Mexican-American residence because of its proximity to smaller railroad camps: Smith, Michael M. “Mexicans in Kansas City: The First Generation, 1900-1920.” Accessed May 1, 2018. Perspectives in Mexican American Studies 2.32 (1989): 34-36.

[5] Theresa Moreno later became the first kindergarten for her community in the Westside, teaching Mexican-American children: Lisa Reales, interview by Juliana Ayala, March 11, 2018.

[6] “The ‘Godmother of Guadalupe’ | KC HISTORY.” Accessed May 1, 2018.\

[7] When Mexicans arrived into Kansas City, there was no institutional support, and there were hardly any Spanish speaking churches, schools, or grocery stores: “Kansas City’s Mexican Community and the Guadalupe Center,” June 15, 2017.

[8] “Kansas City’s Mexican Community and the Guadalupe Center,” June 15, 2017.

[9] Gallagher left the Guadalupe Center in 1944 to work in social work in Europe, after World War II, she returned to Kansas City to teach and once again support the community in social welfare until her death in 1982: “Dorothy Gallagher,” October 17, 2017.

[10] The Union Cultural Mexican UCM, started in the 1920’s to help end discrimination towards Mexican- Americans. Currently, it serves as an organization for Latinx in Kansas City by supporting students with scholarships for college: Smith, Michael M. “Mexicans in Kansas City: The First Generation, 1900-1920.” Accessed May 1, 2018. Perspectives in Mexican American Studies 2.32 (1989): 34-36.

[11] Theresa Moreno, interview by Juliana Ayala, March 11, 2018.

[12] Moreno was on the first planning committee for the Noche de Gala debutant ball which helped support women of color by awarding scholarships, and book money: Theresa Moreno, interview by Juliana Ayala, March 11, 2018.

[13] Theresa Moreno, interview by Juliana Ayala, March 11, 2018.

[14] The Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Greater Kansas City is an organization which aims to develop a business network that would provide the Hispanic business community with cohesion and strength while promoting economic growth and development of its member businesses and the community they serve: “Hispanic Chamber of Commerce » History.” Accessed May 1, 2018.

[15] Lisa Reales, interview by Juliana Ayala, March 11, 2018.

[16] This statistical data gathers demographic information about the Kansas City Metro Area through data collected from the 2010 census: “Race and Ethnicity in the Kansas City Area (Metro Area) – Statistical Atlas.” Accessed May 1, 2018.

[17] Lisa Reales, interview by Juliana Ayala, March 11, 2018.


“Dorothy Gallagher,” October 17, 2017.

“Hispanic Chamber of Commerce » History.” Accessed May 1, 2018.

“Kansas City’s Mexican Community and the Guadalupe Center,” June 15, 2017.

Lisa Reales, interview by Juliana Ayala, March 11, 2018.

“Mexican Americans in Kansas – Kansapedia – Kansas Historical Society.” Accessed May 1, 2018.

“Race and Ethnicity in the Kansas City Area (Metro Area) – Statistical Atlas.” Accessed May 1, 2018.

“Railroads in Kansas – Kansapedia – Kansas Historical Society.” Accessed May 1, 2018.

Smith, Michael M. “Mexicans in Kansas City: The First Generation, 1900-1920.” Accessed May

1, 2018. Perspectives in Mexican American Studies 2.32 (1989): 34-36.

“The ‘Godmother of Guadalupe’ | KC HISTORY.” Accessed May 1, 2018.

Theresa Moreno, interview by Juliana Ayala, March 11, 2018.