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History & Hope: A conversation with Latino trailblazer Lali Garcia

Rafaela “Lali” Garcia has long been an activist in Kansas City’s Latino community.

Her work earned her a number of awards and recognitions over the years including the Humanitarian of the Year Award from the KC Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and a spot on Ingram’s list of Kansas City’s power elite in 1993 and 1994. Before Garcia became a trailblazer for the Latino community, she faced discrimination as a young woman. She shared her experiences with KMBC9 News reporter Bianca Beltrán.

“We used to stay with my grandmother in Kansas City, Kansas and there was a movie house there and every Wednesday she’d love the cowboys so we’d take her to see the cowboy movies so but there was only two rows in the back that was for Mexicans and if there were Black they had to go sit upstairs. Discrimination in Kansas City, Kansas was real bad, really bad.”

She saw discrimination in schools too.

“Oh, they mistreated you something terrible. They always had the Hispanics and the Black in the back of the school.”

Garcia said her father was involved in politics. His life came to a tragic end in St. Louis, Missouri.

“Way back when they took them to jail, if you were Hispanic or Black, they would beat the truth out of them or make ‘em talk. Well, they did that to my dad, they beat him to death. When I’m young, 12 years old, you don’t realize a lot of things yet. Those things, I’m glad they are over. Well, maybe not all over. Look what’s happening now all these demonstrations.”

Her community involvement started at the Guadalupe Centers, the nation’s longest-running social service agency for Latinos. Her family received support from the organization when they were displaced from Kansas City, Kansas, after the flood of 1951. She gave back by helping provide meals and assistance to seniors. It was there that she developed her passion for community organizing and elections.

“ had a hard time getting into elections so we got our own club and we called it La Raza Political Club,” Garcia said. “For election time they all came out and they worked the polls so they wouldn’t discriminate the people. “We started running our people. The first person that we ran was Robert Hernandez and he won. We were so proud of ourselves.”

Hernandez was the first Latino city councilman in Kansas City, Missouri. He was elected in 1975 and served three successive terms. Garcia also organized the Westside Citizens Democratic Club, which became a launching pad for former Latino-elected officials such as Pat Rios and Paul Rojas, the first Latino elected official at the county and state levels.

“We need them to represent us. You find people right now that are prejudiced and against us and they show it. That’s why we thought we gotta keep going.”

Sitting at her kitchen table Garcia flipped through a photo album filled with pictures of her with notable politicians: Claire McCaskill, Al Gore, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton, to name a few. Her first trip to the U.S. Capitol was with her friend Congressman Emanuel Cleaver II.

“He was a big help to us, a big help.”

She said partnering with African-American leaders and advocacy groups helped advance shared interests.

In her lifetime, Garcia went from restricted seating to a seat at the table. She says her life’s mission is to make life better for the Hispanic community.

“My grandmothers would ‘Always help your people, always.’ You can’t help them with money, but you can help them with your mouth.”

“When you think about this history and you think about the future, do you have hope?” Beltrán said.

“We got some good people that are going to take the helms when we are gone,” Garcia said.

At 93, Garcia is still pushing for more representation. She continues to serve the community as a member of the Guadalupe Centers Board of Directors, the Jackson County Human Relations Citizens Complaint Board, and the Civil Rights Consortium.

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