Kansas City’s Mexican Community and the Guadalupe Center

In the summer of 1920, Paula Sanchez felt as if she had finally figured out how to survive in Kansas City, the town she now called home. Since her arrival to this country from Mexico in 1916 and the birth of her oldest child that same year, she learned enough English to allow her to work as a clerk in a furniture store. She walked out the door of her modest home located at 1409 W. 23rd (now Avenida Cesar Chavez) on the Westside in order to stock up on flour to prepare the day’s tortillas. As she headed east to Holly she saw the bell tower of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church and smiled as the sight brought her comfort, in part because church priest Father José Munoz spoke Spanish.

Westside neighborhood, 1940
Houses on Paula Sanchez's 23rd Street block. Courtesy of the Missouri Valley Special Collections.

She turned south on Holly and found herself on 24th street, the heart of the Mexican colonia, the area settled by Mexican immigrants that contained several businesses catering  to this new community. Among them were El Buen Gusto restaurant (where immigrants could enjoy the tastes of home), Hurtado's barber shop (next door to Mike Parra's barber shop and pool hall), and Frank Mora's confectionery. She finally reached her destination of Munoz’s grocery store and greeted the proprietor in her native tongue.

In the years between 1915 and 1925, Mexican migrants such as Paula Sanchez and her family arrived at Kansas City in large numbers to work for the city’s railroad and meat packing companies. These jobs proved to be erratic and poorly paid. In addition, these newcomers possessed few resources upon their arrival, save determination and a strong work ethic. Anglo Kansas Citians worried that this group would drain the city’s resources. Several female reformers, however, banded together to form a social service organization, known as the Guadalupe Center, to aid these arrivals.

From its origins in 1919 to the present day, the Guadalupe Center has been a mainstay of the Mexican and Mexican American community in Kansas City. The center offered services similar to other settlement houses throughout the country; however, it differed in important respects. First, unlike Hull House and other settlement houses in the Midwest and East, the Guadalupe Center sprang up specifically to serve Mexican immigrants. Second, from its outset the Guadalupe Center affiliated itself with the Catholic Church, unlike most other settlement houses that were officially secular but culturally Protestant. This essay discusses the origins of Kansas City’s Mexican community during the Pendergast years and how immigrants adapted to Kansas City. The Guadalupe Center first arose to meet the concerns of the greater Kansas City Anglo community regarding the "Mexican Problem," mostly through Americanization programs. However, Mexican immigrants themselves eventually used the center as a way to Mexicanize their Kansas City environment by requesting services to meet their own needs.

Migration to Kansas City

Mexicans from the agricultural states of Guanajuato, Jalisco, and Michoacán in west central Mexico began arriving in large numbers in Kansas City around 1910 (with perhaps as many as 7,000 arriving that year alone) due to the chaos and economic upheaval caused by the Mexican Revolution. The policies of overthrown dictator Porfirio Díaz left many rural-dwellers from this area landless and unable to make a living. Families, desperate to survive, decided that temporary migration to the US was their only option. Railroad agents for the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway recruited these men to Kansas, and the company soon grew to be the largest employer of Mexicans in the region.

Learn more about the effects of the 1917 Immigration Act from the University of Washington Bothell » (archive link)

The railroad needed laborers in large part due to World War I. The war impacted the labor force in two ways. First, it virtually halted immigration from Europe, and with it, the unskilled laborers that the railroad hired. Second, and most importantly for Kansas City, working age men joined the armed services and left job vacancies. Finally, the US did not restrict migration from Mexico as it did migration from other countries such as China, Japan, and European countries, making Mexican laborers readily available.

The initial Mexican settlement in Kansas City consisted mainly of men who travelled to the US alone in order to provide for their families left behind in Mexico. This trend created a bachelor society of Mexican men in Kansas City. This community consisted of a number of elements, including groups of migrant men living in boarding and rooming houses rather than single-family dwellings. For example, Agustin Gil’s wife, Camila, cooked and cleaned for nine of her countrymen who worked for the railroad with her husband. Such accommodations proved less expensive and often offered amenities such as laundry and meals. Businesses including restaurants, pool halls, and drinking establishments such as the Hotel Paraiso (controlled by Tom Pendergast himself) sprang up to serve this population.

Azteca Cafe
Businesses on 24th Street.

Mexican men also attracted the attention of the police who clamped down on perceived lawlessness. Mexicans bristled at this characterization, and Kansas City’s short-lived, Spanish-language newspaper reported that a delegation of Mexican citizens went to the police commissioner to ask him to tell his officers to stop harassing Mexicans on 24th Street in the Westside district. Finally, these new immigrants also drew the attention of reformers who wanted to help the community.

Appreciable numbers of women and children from Mexico arrived to join husbands and fathers in Kansas City after World War I. The railroad companies believed that men were more likely to remain on the job if their wives and children present and actively encouraged Mexican workers to bring their families to the US. In this way, the skewed sex ratio began to even out.

Most Mexican migrants to Kansas City came from a rural, agricultural environment, and the hustle and bustle of city life and industrial labor proved foreign. They left mountain villages where everyone knew everyone and now lived near railroad tracks and packing houses. The noise and stench of both trains and cattle replaced fresh air and quietude, and smoke and soot assaulted their senses. The security of extended family and friends met at the market, town square, or church was gone.

With the arrival of women and children, migrants created stable neighborhoods in the Argentine, Armourdale, and the Westside corridor of 24th Street. These colonias were eventually characterized by a large degree of home ownership by the Mexican population, which in turn reflected permanency and financial stability.

Argentine, Kansas
Argentine, Kansas. Courtesy of the Missouri Valley Special Collections.

Located on the Kansas side of the river near the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railroad tracks, the Argentine district began to take shape around 1915 and consisted of just over 300 Mexican immigrants in that year. Well over 200 of these were men over age 16 who worked for the railroad. At this time, large groups of Mexicanos either lived in boxcars provided by the Santa Fe or roomed in private boarding houses.

Mexicans also began to reside in the Westside around 1915 and at first shared this neighborhood with a smaller Swedish community. Located on the Missouri side of the river directly across the state line, immigrants who lived here worked for various railway companies and labored at downtown hotels. A few also secured employment with the packing companies. The 24th Street artery of the Westside proved to be the main business district in this neighborhood, with at least 18 different types of services catering to Mexicans.

Packing houses in the Armourdale district of Kansas City, Kansas. Courtesy of the Missouri Valley Special Collections.

By 1920, Mexicans settled in one other distinct neighborhood. Known as Armourdale and located on the Kansas side of the river near the packing houses, it was bound by railroad tracks, stockyards, and the Kansas River. This colonia consisted mainly of families who lived in rented homes or apartments and worked for the packing companies. According to Kansas City historian Sherry Lamb Shirmer, approximately 7,000 persons of Mexican descent settled in Kansas City between 1910 and 1925, with 10,000 calling the area home by 1930.

Kansas City’s "Mexican Problem"

Given the rapid influx of Mexican migrant workers and their families, Kansas City believed it had a "Mexican Problem," centering on the beliefs that Mexicans were inherently inferior and needed to be uplifted to American standards, that they lacked cleanliness and spread disease, and that they consisted of a criminal element. For example, local newspapers castigated Mexicans as "greasers," "chili con carnies," and cast the entire Mexican community of Argentine as "trouble for the police department."

With the Settlement House Movement, reformers found one solution to this so-called immigrant deficiency. Settlement houses served to uplift the poor through example and by offering community programs. The movement began in England in the late 19th century and arrived in the United States shortly thereafter. Jane Addams founded Hull House, arguably the most famous of all settlement houses in the country, in 1889. The idea quickly spread to other cities and became a way for middle and upper class Anglo women, such as Guadalupe Center director Dorothy Gallagher, to respectably enter the work force.

Adult Education English Class, Guadalupe Center
Adult Education English Class, Guadalupe Center. Courtesy of the Missouri Valley Special Collections.

Settlement Houses in the Northeast and Midwest catered to the large number of European immigrants, but the Guadalupe Center fell out of this purview because it more closely resembled southwestern settlement houses that focused exclusively on Mexican Americans and Mexican migrants. Founders of the Guadalupe Center embraced Americanization and reform as a means to address the Mexican problem. One landlord commented that his Mexican tenants treated his property roughly. According to him, "they pile wood and coal against the plaster in the kitchen instead of in the box provided outside." He complained of having to repaper after each tenant. In other words, Mexicans were dirty and kept their homes in that state as well. Anglo residents also blamed Mexicans for the spread of the influenza epidemic in 1918. In an article titled "The Influenza Situation," the Argentine Republic reported that Mexicans lived in "disease-ridden shacks" and opined that white children should not have to go to school with Mexican children.

Kansas Citians were so concerned about the Mexican Problem that the Council of Social Agencies devoted an entire issue of their 1926 bulletin to Mexican relief, noting that "the best policy for Kansas City seems to be to accept the Mexicans and extend a friendly hand to them and try to help them become good substantial self-supporting and semi-respecting members of the community."

The early 1920s saw a focus on a "Mexican Problem" in Kansas City for several reasons. First, the economy suffered a postwar economic downturn, and Americans feared that immigrants would take their jobs. Second, the severe winter of 1920-21 left many Mexicans unemployed and destitute. In order to combat this and keep Mexicans from using relief services, Kansas City chose to send them back to Mexico and repatriated several hundred immigrants.

Americanization, the Agnes Ward Amberg Club, and the Guadalupe Center

The Guadalupe Center began its operations during the summer of 1919 with 18 young Catholic women who volunteered to organize a Mexican summer school. This group of women named themselves the Agnes Ward Amberg Club and stated that the purpose of their organization was to "care for the spiritual, as well as the physical, welfare of those in less fortunate circumstances." Its first annual report noted, "the club is fortunate in having some very talented members, especially some experienced and successful social service workers." While the club received the blessing of the formal Catholic structure in the city (churches and their affiliated priests), members themselves originated, planned, and delivered programming. Initially, the Amberg Club also catered to the Italian immigrant community, but they soon focused their attention on the Mexican population.

Kansas City women had actively participated in the city’s civic life since the Civil War with the founding of the Women’s Christian Association. According to Kansas City scholar David Hanzlick, women claimed space in the public sphere through activism in the form of benevolence and reform. For the most part, those involved in the Amberg club were young, single, middle and upper class Anglo women.

An affiliation with Our Lady of Guadalupe church aided the Agnes Ward Amberg Club in its mission. Father José Muñoz supported the work of the women of the Amberg Club. In its first year, the club "engaged in many lines of social service work," including a night school for adults, a sewing school for Mexican girls, a Sunday school, and a summer school attended by over 50 Mexican children daily. At the summer school, volunteers taught the children English and took them for a picnic in Penn Valley Park. From the reformers point of view an outing at the park encouraged Americanization by engaging in an acceptable form of leisure.

Sewing class sponsored by the Agnes Ward Amberg Club.
Sewing class sponsored by the Agnes Ward Amberg Club. Courtesy of the Missouri Valley Special Collections.

These early activities focused on women and children because of women’s importance in the home and in raising children, and because children were thought to be more amenable to cultural adaptation. When these women initially resisted reformers’ efforts by not attending classes and events designed for them, settlement workers set their sights on children and adolescents who they viewed as more malleable. For example, while the night school for Mexican adults was "well attended" (the numbers were unspecified because they were small), the summer school for Mexican children had "over 50 participants daily."

In order to combat the lack of participation, Amberg members also engaged in friendly visits. According to one scholar, Walter Trattner, "friendly visiting assumed the right and duty of intervention in the lives of the poor by their social and economic betters." According to the club’s 1919 annual report, members visited the homes of those "absent from the Parochial school and also the sick." Jose Martinez and his family represent the type of people club members tried to reach. Martinez, his wife Lena, and their four children ranging in age from 17 to 4, migrated to Kansas City in 1917. He worked as a section hand for the railroad, and the family lived in a bunk car on the Westside along with two male boarders. Amberg Club members were concerned about the poor living conditions of such families and instructed Mexican women how to keep bunk car homes clean and how to cook proper (American) meals for their children.

This type of work proved so popular with club members that 8-10 women enrolled in a course on social service work given by the Provident Association. They attended lectures by Mrs. Ream, field supervisor of the Provident Association, and upon completion of the course, were assigned a Catholic family "to visit and care for."

Our Lady of Guadalupe Church and Guadalupe Center
Our Lady of Guadalupe Church and Guadalupe Center Settlement House. Courtesy of the Missouri Valley Special Collections.

By 1925 the club expanded their Americanization and charity services by purchasing the home adjacent to Our Lady of Guadalupe Church to serve as a base for their operations. The women adopted a motto, "the house of the good neighbor," and dubbed the house the Guadalupe Center. The naming of the settlement house after the church next door used Mexican culture to draw Mexican immigrants to use the center’s services. The Guadalupe Settlement House joined the Swope Settlement and the YWCA of Kansas City, Kansas Settlement in reform efforts for needy populations.

The purchase of a permanent building allowed the club to add a medical clinic to aid clientele. During the clinic’s first year of operation, it treated 1,733 patients. By 1931 use of the Guadalupe Center clinic by its Mexican clientele exploded to over 3,000 patients, and the center itself boasted an attendance of over 21,000 patrons at its organized meetings that year. Obviously this large number included community members who attended multiple events, but it also suggests the growing popularity of center programming.

The Guadalupe Center and Mexican Immigrant Agency

By the mid-1930s, in response to their continued presence in Kansas City and deliberate decision to settle permanently, the Mexican community began to ask for and receive services from the Guadalupe Center. This transformation was due to increased need during the Great Depression and an appropriation of Guadalupe Center space as their own. Rather than providing services from the top down, agency heads took into account the desires of the Mexican and Mexican American clientele.

The change in attitude on the part of reformers occurred for a variety of reasons. First, the transient nature of the Mexican community began to stabilize. Migration of Mexicans to Kansas City from Mexico and other parts of the US virtually halted due to the Depression, and a stable population of homeowners, who had American-born children, remained. These children were raised in the US, so the need for Americanization lessened as they grew up more fully assimilated in the schools and community. The permanent group, therefore, proved its worthiness through persistence, homeownership, and the American citizenship of their children. Third, the Mexican community began to exert its power and ask for programming.

Our Lady of Guadalupe Church
Our Lady of Guadalupe Church. Courtesy of the Missouri Valley Special Collections.

In 1936, during the midst of the Depression, the Guadalupe Center expanded once again, in part because it outgrew its space due to increased demand from the Mexican community. As director Dorothy Gallagher stated, "Neighbors began appealing for help . . . Children came in to play in inclement weather. Older groups wanted to meet for their parties in the clinic room, ‘the only big room in the neighborhood.’" Executive director Dorothy Gallagher and her family donated the land for a new building down the street to accommodate the center’s ever increasing number of activities. Gallagher herself drew up the initial building plans and hired an architect to complete her vision.

The new building cost over $21,000 and was built in the Spanish-colonial style of architecture with a "stucco and adobe effect" and red tile roof. According to Gallagher, the new building brought "the spirit of the Spanish Southwest" to Kansas City. Sister Celine Vasquez noted in 1942 that, "the physical structure of the Center is important not only because of the immediate advantage in carrying out a program . . . but also in its psychological effect upon the people." The Spanish colonial style of the new building looked like those at the recently-built Country Club Plaza.

The center’s Mexican neighbors viewed the large room on the first floor as the "living room of the neighborhood" and used it for such purposes as weddings and parties. The Club Tepeyac organized a Halloween party in the large room in 1939, which included a costume contest where over 55 people attended, and in 1940 the room was used for a Noche Buena party with an equally large number in attendance. Additionally, women of the community used the kitchen to cook large quantities of food, such as tortillas, for various events. As Dorothy Gallagher commented in 1937, "for the past two years Mexican suppers at the Center have been a growing fad." All of these events served as examples of greater respect that the center staff afforded Mexican immigrants and the Mexican American population. The use of the center by the Mexican community for cultural events also shows their trust of the center and its staff. In essence, they were beginning to "Mexicanize" the Guadalupe Center by using it for their own purposes.

1939 Halloween party at the Guadalupe Center
Halloween party at the Guadalupe Center, 1939. Courtesy of the Missouri Valley Special Collections.

Center staff in particular strove to meet the needs of the youth of the community. For example, they also hired a "boys’ worker" to take charge of activities, and sanctioned the formation of the Knight’s Spear, a center newspaper begun in 1931 by children of the neighborhood. This publication appeared sporadically throughout the 1930s and chronicled important events in the lives of the children.

According to editor-in-chief Erineo Lopez, the goals of the publication included, "1. To create a brotherly feeling in the community. 2. Clean sportsmanship. 3. To spread the appreciation of old Mexico." Only three extant issues of the publication exist: the August and Christmas 1931 editions and one from May 1934. Each volume contained articles written exclusively in English and solely by the children. The influence and importance of the center in the lives of these children emanates from each of the issues. For example, the staff dedicated the first issue to "our true friend, Miss Dorothy Gallagher, who labors so unselfishly and cheerfully for our welfare." Each issue also highlighted the interests of the children, such as the establishment of a playground at the corner of 23rd and Summit, or a Christmas program performed at West Junior High and featuring groups from the Guadalupe Center.

The 1930s show the Mexican population using center services for its own needs, preserving and adapting their own cultural traditions to harmonize with those of Kansas City. In doing so, they appropriated and "Mexicanized" the center’s Americanization efforts and initiated their own types of services to the benefit of their community. For their part, the Guadalupe Center’s Anglo reformers relaxed their beliefs about Americanization and the "problems" of Mexican immigrants, thereby accommodating the particular needs of the Mexican community. The use of the center, therefore, provides a lens into the many ways that immigrants adapted to and influenced their surroundings in Kansas City.


Funding for this essay is generously provided by the Freedom’s Frontier National Heritage Area. A longer version of this article is published in the book, Wide-Open Town: Kansas City in the Pendergast Era (University Press of Kansas, 2018), edited by Diane Mutti Burke, Jason Roe, and John Herron.

Primary Sources