The Guadalupe Center and Mexican Immigrant Agency

Agency heads took into account the desires of the Mexican and Mexican American clientele

Author: Valerie Mendoza University of Kansas

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.

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.

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.

Primary Sources: Guadalupe Center Collection

Secondary Sources: Rendering Assistance to the Best Advantage: The Development of Women’s Activism in Kansas City, 1870-World War I Historical Overview of the Ethnic Communities in Kansas City

Acknowledgement: 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.

Rights/Licensing: This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.