In Kansas City’s rapidly growing Latino communities, ‘all of us have different stories’

Laura Ziegler, KCUR, Zach Perez, KCUR, Noah Taborda, KCUR

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Over several months of listening sessions and interviews in the oldest neighborhoods on the West Side of Kansas City, Missouri, to newer communities in Johnson County, Kansas, KCUR heard stories of how Latinos are bringing distinct cultures while sharing common concerns.

For Joe Arce, a soft-spoken newsman who founded the small bilingual weekly KC Hispanic News in 1996, growing up in the close-knit community on Kansas City’s West Side was not just about a neighborhood of tree-lined streets on the western edge of downtown, it was about the sounds and smells of his native Mexico.

“One of the things that I remember was when you walked (through the neighborhood), you could smell the tortillas,” he told KCUR’s Zach Perez as they drove the streets where Arce hung out as a boy.

“You can smell the food that was cooking. Back then we didn’t have air conditioning, so the windows were up. So, you would be able to smell the different aromas as you went from one house to the other. They’re gone. A lot of folks are gone now.”

The sense of loss Arce described is now widely felt among residents of the West Side, where people say generations of deeply embedded culture is evaporating like the smells of the Mexican food that once wafted from their open windows.

New homes being build against the skyline of Kansas City, Missouri
New $1million homes are going up across the West Side, pushing up housing prices and property taxes. Native West-Siders say the newcomers are taking advantage of the “million-dollar view” of the downtown Kansas City skyline.

In 2000, 70% of West Side residents were Latino. Today, that number is 44%, according to the Mid-America Regional Council. Residents describe not just the loss of culture, but changes to the physical look of their streets. Where Latino-owned bungalows, passed down from grandparent to parent to a third generation, once lined the steep inclines of Jefferson St. and Summit St., those hills are dotted with vacant lots where older homes have been demolished for palatial new ones that give the area a hip, modern vibe.

Gentrification is driving up housing prices and property taxes. Working people are having a harder time affording homes.

But metro wide, the Latino population is seeing a different trajectory: it’s increasing. Rapidly.

In fact, people of Latino heritage grew more than any other single race or ethnicity according to the latest Census. Jackson County, Missouri, saw its Hispanic population grow by more than 20,000 people between 2010 and 2020, while the white population declined over the same period of time. Johnson County, Kansas, added almost 16,000 Hispanic people during those years, outpacing growth among the white population by 2,000 people.

The large majority of Latino people in the Kansas City area are of Mexican heritage, but the metro is also home to people from Cuba, Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Venezuela.

Kansas City artist, writer and teacher Jose Faus said there is a common misperception that Kansas City’s Latino population is monolithic, something KCUR heard many times in conversations with community members over the past several months. In fact, Faus said, as Kansas City’s Hispanic people spread out, so do their respective cultures.

“Say you’re on the West Side, say Armourdale or Argentine, or the Northeast area,” Faus said, “or you’re out on the borders in Belton, Peculiar, Olathe or Overland Park, say 77th and Quivira. There are some bodegas over there, too, or in KCK along Central or Kansas Avenue. Very distinct communities have settled there. They come from different places and have their own distinct flavor.”

Orlando Alonso Hererra, a sociology student at Kansas City, Kansas, Community College who came to the United States from Mexico 15 years ago, said Latinos are frequently misjudged.

“Not all the Latinx people come in the same situation,” she said at a meeting of the Student Organization of Latinx. “All of us, we are coming from different environments. All of us have different kinds of stories. And most of the American people think we are all the same.”

Immigration and the impact of migrants crossing the southern border continue to dominate the political agenda in the United States, becoming a potent issue in upcoming elections. Missouri has sent National Guard troops and the Highway Patrol to aid authorities at the Texas border; in February, lawmakers in the Kansas House passed a non-binding resolution to do the same.

Amidst this debate, KCUR was reminded that Latinos in the Kansas City area have been here for centuries.

Archival aerial black and white photo of a river with rail bridges over it.
An aerial view of the Armourdale neighborhood in Kansas City, Kansas. Armourdale’s proximity to the railroads made it one of the first Hispanic communities to form in the Kansas City area in the late 1800s.

A long history

The earliest Latino people in this part of the country came with Spanish colonists in the 18th century, long before Kansas or Missouri became states.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the burgeoning railroad industry attracted Mexican laborers who settled in what was then the city of Argentine, Kansas (now a neighborhood in Kansas City, Kansas). Rosedale, Kansas, and Kansas City, Missouri’s West Side also grew with migrants drawn to jobs as the area became a hub for the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe, the Kansas City Southern and the Frisco Railroads. By the late 1920s, 90% of the laborers on the railroads were Mexican.

In 1980, facing an economic downturn in his country, Cuban leader Fidel Castro reversed the regime’s ban on emigration and allowed almost 2,000 Cubans to leave on boats. A small group of Cuban refugees were settled in Kansas City as part of the Mariel boatlift. Starting in the early 1980s, people from Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua, fleeing brutal and repressive regimes often propped up by the U.S. government, arrived and put down roots in Kansas City, Missouri’s Northeast area and in Kansas City, Kansas.

Gene Chavez, historian in residence at the Kansas City Museum, said Kansas City has historically been a fruitful place for immigrants.

“Early on it was the sugar beet fields and factories that brought people to the area,” he said. “Today we have jobs in construction, in agriculture and landscaping. Labor intensive jobs. They are a pull for immigrants.”

Common barriers

Despite the growing numbers and diversity of Latino communities across the metro, a language barrier is one common concern.

Census data estimates more than 50,000 Kansas Citians speak a language other than English at home and roughly 20,000 have limited English proficiency.

In Kansas, almost 8% of people speak Spanish as their first language. In Missouri, that number is almost 3%.

Kansas and Missouri’s percentages of Spanish speakers are low compared to the 13.3% nationally, according to the U.S. Census, but language barriers are a debilitating burden for thousands of families who lack access to officials, school administrators, election information and health care.

It also leaves younger, more assimilated family members to translate for their elders — often a weighty responsibility.

David Gabaldon, 24, a first-generation college student, told KCUR it was hard juggling classes, work and interpreting for his grandparents while trying to get through school.

“It was like, ‘Hey David, you’re off from school,’ or, ‘You’re not working. Can you take your grandfather to his (doctor’s) appointment?’” said Gabaldon.

Woman in red T shirt and long black hair hugs little girl also with long black hair and a pink T shirt in kitchen
Selene Rocha speaks mostly Spanish. She relies on her 8-year-old daughter Marissa to interpret for her as she goes about her daily life. Rocha suffered a stroke over a decade ago and has little movement on her left side.

Selene Rocha is an undocumented immigrant who today has little movement on her left side. She drags her left leg when she walks and she can’t unclench her left hand, using her right one to manually pry open the fingers. She can’t raise her left arm.

She lives with her 8-year-old daughter, Marissa, and her mother, niece and nephew. Sitting next to her mother in their suburban home, Marissa struggles to recall the medical terminology she’s had to learn while interpreting for her mother in doctor’s offices.

“What’s the word?” she said, rapidly tapping her hand on the kitchen table. “Oh yeah, it’s stroke! That’s what she had, a stroke.”

Rocha’s story is also about immigrants’ lack of access to health care.

Half of undocumented immigrant adults report being uninsured nationwide. One in five immigrants who have legal documents also say they’re uninsured. That compares to fewer than one in ten uninsured among naturalized citizens or people born in the U.S.

In Johnson County, Kansas, and Jackson County, Missouri, more than half of undocumented immigrants say they were uninsured between 2014 and 2016, according to a report published by the Migration Policy Institute. In Wyandotte County, about three quarters reported the same.

The language barrier is also a problem at schools. For one 16-year-old named Luis, it was largely responsible for his suspension. (KCUR is not using his last name because the family fears retaliation.)

Luis’ parents don’t speak English. When he told them he’d been bullied at school, they had no one they could speak with at the DeSoto USD district.

“(This girl) … she was calling me a ‘beaner,’ telling me to go back to my home country,” Luis said. “This was happening every day.”

Burley and well-spoken, Luis admitted he made a “bad choice” when he overreacted after peers accused him of carrying a weapon.

Luis, who was bullied and suspended at his high school in De Soto, Kansas.

“They accused me of having a gun … because there’s a stereotype that Hispanics always have guns,” Luis said. “They pretended to be fake scared of me, so then one day I got tired of it and pretended to have one. A cop showed up at my house. I got suspended for the rest of the year.”

Luis said he stopped doing work, isolated himself, almost flunked out.

He doesn’t want others to experience similar discrimination, so Luis has organized a multicultural club to support the school’s growing Latino population.

Demographics are changing in schools across the metro. In Kansas City, Kansas, public schools are 55% Hispanic; in Kansas City, Missouri, 30% of the students are Hispanic, according to the Latinx Education Collaborative, an education advocacy organization. One of the group’s studies with UMKC found that for 52,000 Latino students across the area, there are only 201 Latino educators.

“There are a lot of inequities when there’s lower representation,” said Christy Moreno, chief community advocacy and impact officer with Revolucion Educativa, a partner organization to LEC. “When we look at the school to prison pipeline, we see our students following that line. When we go to truancy court, 70% of families are Latino, Spanish speaking families. Why are they there? Because they have not received information in their language of choice, which is a civil right.”

This lack of access to English speakers ripples out to affect Latino families as they try to apply for jobs, set up bank accounts or vote.

A spreading culture

Crowds come to the West Side in Kansas City, Missouri, at the end of October 2023 to celebrate Dia de los Muertos, where families create alters, or ofrendas, to their loved ones. Here, they’re displayed in the trunks of cars.

As the Latino population grows in Kansas City and across the country, it will have a louder voice — dispelling myths, addressing obstacles and celebrating different cultures, said Herrera, the sociology student at Kansas City, Kansas, Community College.

“We want the people to know this is something we are trying hard to do,” she said. “To let the people see the positive things we have and we can share with this nation. Because this is our nation now, too.”

In Kansas City, thousands of people now attend Hispanic Heritage Month events, Dia de los Muertos and Cinco de Mayo festivals from the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art to the Mattie Rhodes Center on the West Side.

And in some cases, Mexican-American culture is going mainstream — as with lowrider car enthusiasts.

Consuelo Cruz remembers how her mother taught her about their Mexican heritage by coming to the Country Club Plaza from their home on the West Side.

Her mother would take her to the brightly colored tile mural of the pre-colonial National Autonomous University of Mexico, one of the earliest universities in the Americas, in the wall of a shop on the Plaza. It’s one of many famous Mexican-made tiles embedded in walls throughout the shopping district.

multi colored tile mural of a building
One of many tile murals on the Country Club Plaza made by a famous Mexican ceramics studio. This mural depicts the pre-colonial National University of the Americas, one of the oldest universities in the Americas.

“When it got hot at night …. we had a little air conditioner that we preserved for use in the later evening hours,” said Cruz (a member of KCUR’s community advisory board). “My mom would say, ‘Let’s go get an ice cream on the Plaza and cool off,’ and she’d talk about what the tiles depicted.”

Cruz said as Latino immigrants continue to arrive from around the world, it falls on those who have been in the Kansas City area for generations to make sure newcomers are able to celebrate their own culture while learning to thrive in a new one.

“The future of Kansas City is going to depend a lot on the Latino community,” she said. “It’s incumbent on all of us to make sure we build the leadership for a future that’s good.”

Daniel Wheaton of the Midwest Newsroom contributed data visualizations for this story.

Cover Photo: Joe Arce, 71, in front of his boyhood home on Holly St. on the West Side. He said the smell of Mexican food was always in the air and every adult on the block helped raise him. Today, large, modern homes and apartments are going up across the street. (Credit: Laura Ziegler, KCUR)

Publisher’s Notes: This story comes from the Midwest Newsroom, an investigative journalism collaboration including IPRKCUR 89.3Nebraska Public Media NewsSt. Louis Public Radio and NPR.

In Kansas City’s rapidly growing Latino communities, ‘all of us have different stories’ was originally published in KCURand was republished with permission.

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