History from those who lived it

Chavez leads historical presentations on Westside’s growth, culture

Looking back at the history, “We want to help people understand what the Westside has meant to Kansas City through various times,” said Kansas City Museum Historian-in-Residence Gene T. Chavez, Ed.D. (left).

Gene Chavez, Jose Garcia and Paul Rojas all agreed it is especially important that younger audience members hear these stories. “It’s important to resurrect these experiences because it provides roots for younger Latinos who have come in,” Garcia said.


Local historian and Kansas City Museum Historian-in-Residence Gene T. Chavez, Ed.D, presented a two-part series on the history of the Westside last Saturday. The presentation, “From Immigrant to Neighbor,” was part of the museum’s Our Legacy/Nuestro Legado Series, profiling different historic ethnic neighborhoods in the city.

According to literature supplied by the museum, “Beginning around the 1890s, new industries in the U.S. Southwest—especially mining and agriculture—attracted Mexican migrant laborers. The Mexican Revolution (1910-1920) then increased the flow: war refugees and political exiles fled to the United States to escape the revolution. Mexicans also left rural areas in search of stability and employment. As a result, Mexican migration to the United States rose sharply. The number of legal migrants grew from around 20,000 migrants per year during the 1910s to about 50,000–100,000 migrants per year during the 1920s.”

By the start of the decade of the Roaring ‘20s, almost 900,000 immigrants had fled the aftermath of the revolution and made the journey to the U.S. Communities of immigrants settled in the Kansas City area, from Turner to Argentine, from Armourdale to the Westside. These neighborhoods would become safe havens to those coming to America for a better life, and the Kansas City, Missouri Westside specifically would become a safe haven for those seeking refuge from the deadly 1951 flood.

“We want to help people understand what the Westside has meant to Kansas City through various immigrant populations through various times,” Chavez told KC Hispanic News, adding that the Westside wasn’t always a Mexican-American community, and that it was originally made of European immigrants, such as Germans, Irish, and Swedes. Paul Rojas, another presenter in the series, noted that later, the Jackson County Legislature and its form of charter governance would be established by wealthy white men.

According to Chavez, Kansas City started in the West Bottoms and was the logistical center of the area. Kansas City became the focal point of that development. With the development of the railroads, people started moving into the Westside, and suburbs began to develop.

“There is a long history of the Westside contributing to the Kansas City community,” Chavez said.

Communities such as Armourdale, Rosedale, and Argentine in Kansas will be the focus of future programs – those communities, too, helped build Kansas City.

“But the Westside played a key role, because it was one of the earliest developed communities as people spread out from the Bottoms,” he said. “The main reason why people left was because it was a filthy place from the smoke from the trains and the stockyards developing down there.”

Nebraska resident Jose Garcia, who grew up in the KC Westside, joined the second presentation in the series by Zoom, telling stories of growing up in the neighborhood in the 1950s.

“Being raised on the Westside made me invincible,” Garcia told the crowd. “When I left the Westside, I was equipped to go work (for various companies). I not only knew English I knew how to carry myself in a European-American society.”

Garcia recalled being raised by his grandmother and learning both Spanish and English – he also recalled a Guadalupe Schools teacher who Americanized his name, too.

“My teacher changed my name from Jose Francisco to Joe Frank. Everyone in the Westside community knows me as Joe Frank,” Garcia said. I didn’t change my name back to Jose until I joined the U.S. Army. That’s when I found out I was Jose Francisco. It wasn’t reality to me. … When I found out I was living under another name, I relished being able to change that scenario.”

Garcia said he enjoyed having the freedom to roam the surrounding area, adding that he also would have enjoyed being able to learn a bit more about his cultural background in the books he read so regularly.

“I’d ride my bike up and down Broadway. I had very little supervision,” he said. “But there was nothing about me or my culture in the books and magazines I read in the library.”

Now, in the age of gentrification, the Westside stands as yet another community whose ethnic heritage is threatened, both Garcia and Rojas said.

“This isn’t a new subject. It’s all over the country. … but our people have been with us and they still are,” Rojas said. “Sometimes, (losing a community’s cultural heritage) is our own fault -- if we prematurely sell a property for an attractive amount of money. Oftentimes, people can’t wait to get away.”

Said Garcia: “(Gentrification) is a way of life in the urban area. It reaches into my heart that there are people and institutions that have forgotten about the Westside.”

That is precisely why such programming exists, Garcia said – to teach old and young alike about their roots and to preserve those narratives for the future.

“I relish the opportunity to offer a Mexican-American perspective on the history of Kansas City’s Westside,” Garcia said. “The Westside has been a nourishing place for people like me for generations.”

Chavez, Garcia and Rojas all agreed it is especially important that younger audience members hear these stories.

“It’s important to resurrect these experiences because it provides roots for younger Latinos who have come in,” Garcia said.

Chavez said he might even turn to social media in an effort to attract younger audiences to future programs.

“I’m hoping we’ll attract more young people … I think what we need to do is go beyond our traditional ways of publicizing, like doing Twitter or Tik Tok and other kinds of media outreach,” Chavez said. “I’m heartened by their interest, and that’s one of the things the Kansas City Museum can do, is to help them understand their own history.”

For more information contact Kansas City Museum Historian-in-Residence Gene T. Chavez, Ed.D, at 913-206-2936.