By Beatriz Paniego-Béjar
At the turn of the 20th century, everything was in transition. Mexicans were fleeing their country because of the hardships caused by the Mexican Revolution, and the United States was expanding its massive network of railroads. Seeking to build a new life in a new country, many Mexicans settled in Kansas City, where dozens of rail lines crisscrossed the downtown area.
Kansas City, which itself is divided between two states: Kansas to the west and Missouri to the right, also offered work in farming and livestock But despite the fact that there was high demand for labor, these new Americans still had to face hardship in all parts of their lives: discrimination.
“Mexican children were not allowed into certain schools, while their parents were not allowed to shop in many places. The Mexicans were also exploited in the workplace and basic services offered by area hospitals and government agencies were not granted to the Mexicans.” It was 1919, and this discrimination sparked the creation of the Guadalupe Centers, one of the first social service agencies for Latinos, as they state on their history page.
This year marks their 100th anniversary, and just as Kansas City was the heart of the railroads, Guadalupe Centers has become the heart of community—not just for Latinos—in Kansas City, and it has become local pillar of pride.
Joining the UnidosUs Familia
It all started with a Catholic women’s club who, after seeing the discrimination suffered by our community, decided to establish a volunteer school and clinic for the underprivileged Mexican immigrants in Kansas City. They named themselves after the patron saint of Mexico, la Virgen de Gaudalupe, and helped them get acclimated, learn English, and become integrated into local culture.
After the center separated from the church in the mid-60s, Guadalupe Centers found new partnership with UnidosUS, then called the National Council of La Raza, and joined the familia in 1985.
“We attended one of your Conferences, and we were exposed to la raza, exposed to role models and Latino leaders,” Cris Medina, CEO of the Guadalupe Centers, explains. “These were Latino organizations that look like us, but we couldn’t find anything like that where we were, so we decided to join and become members, and we learned.”
As Medina puts it, UnidosUS didn’t just give them fish; they taught them how to fish: “We had some of their best leadership team come to train us, and as a result, the organization grew and developed.”
The Guadalupe Centers came to UnidosUS ready to learn, never afraid to ask for help. They have participated in many of the programs we’ve created, such as Escalera: Taking Steps to Success, our Financial Empowerment initiatives, and our middle school education programs: “The Academia del Pueblo [an early UnidosUS education program] was one of the first ones, an after-school educational enrichment program. We were able to track the kids’ results, and how we were able to help these kids improve their grades and become better students. We were also able to help the parents navigate the school system and work with their kids to help with their homework, but also be advocates at the schools for their kids,” Medina says.
After implementing The Academia del Pueblo, the Guadalupe Centers realized there was a world of possibilities to continue supporting the Hispanic community in Kansas City, and they’ve taken this work very seriously, broadening their reach to have as much impact as possible.
Today, the Guadalupe Centers has created a complete charter school system, the Guadalupe Educational System (GES), from preschool to high school. “We are the second-largest charter school in the Kansas City School District, serving 1,400 kids,” Medina specifies.
GES is only one part of what the Guadalupe Centers offers. Their work aims to help Latinos of any age improve all aspects of their lives, including efforts related to family support services, older adults programs, youth development and recreation programs, workforce development (a culinary school as part of this program), as well as their financial opportunity center and even a federal credit union, which serves 1,500 people.
UnidosUS President and CEO Janet Murguía, a native of Kansas City, Kansas, has seen the Guadalupe Centers evolve before she even arrived in our organization: “The Guadalupe Centers was one of the first social service organizations founded to help Latinos in the U.S. As a native of Kansas City, I grew up seeing the enormous impact of the Center firsthand, thanks to their pioneering work in education, youth and elderly care, workforce development, and financial and political empowerment. But their reach and reputation—through the tireless and visionary leadership of Cris Medina—have gone national. Today the Guadalupe Center is one of the most well-known and respected institutions in Kansas City and in the country.”
One Success Story Out of Many
“I was shopping the other day,” Medina recalls. “A gentleman comes up and says, ‘Cris Medina, Cris Medina!’”
The man was one of his former students at GES: Medina coached him in school, and he made an impact in this young man. “I now run the store: I’m the manager here,” the gentleman told the Guadalupe Centers CEO, and Medina says that he runs into stories like that constantly through Kansas City: “They are very proud, and they remember the good principles they learned in our schools.”
Another success story of the Guadalupe Centers is the one of Enrique A. Chaurand. Chaurand has had an impressive career in the government and nonprofit sectors, serving as former public affairs officer and deputy press secretary under President Bill Clinton’s administration, former policy advisor for Missouri Governor Bob Holden, and Deputy Vice President of Communications and Marketing at UnidosUS. Now, he’s senior director of communications at the KIPP Foundation.
He is also a product of the Guadalupe Centers, and many of his friends who also were part of the Center have advanced degrees and have achieved leadership roles, and “it was because education was reinforced; there was a support system around us, and that’s what they continue to do today,” Chaurand says with pride.
“I very much I am a product of the Guadalupe Centers,” Chaurand explains. “Had it not been for the Guadalupe Centers, all the after school programs they provided, the leadership skills that they helped to teach me, the opportunities that they gave me, not only in grade school, but in high school, to be involved in my community, I wouldn’t be where I am today: it really taught me a lot.”
Guadalupe Centers has committed to serving all the people of Kansas City remain proudly Latino and stay true to their culture identity. They want to ensure that the community is also proud of who they are, because the Mexican community has a long history in the city: “The Guadalupe Centers was and continues to be for our community a pillar of pride,” Chaurand continues, and it has also been a fierce advocate for Latinos and people of all ethnic backgrounds in their mission of improving their quality of life and the celebration of cultural heritage.
Trust Is of The Essence
How do you build an organization of 100 years? Trust must be at the core: “People know the Center, they know the history, they trust us, and they feel comfortable being served by people that look like them,” Medina explains. And their comprehensive approach to analyzing the full portrait of what a person or family is going through, and ensuring they provide them with the adequate services they need, makes that trust easier.
“We make them agree to work with us to break that cycle of poverty,” Medina continues. They provide financial education, and workforce development, and help vulnerable families in Kansas City find a stable housing situation, and stay with them as they take the steps needed to establish a steady income. “Having all those resources in place is huge, because they can get all of them in one organization, and that makes a big difference in serving and navigating systems,” Medina says.
Medina, who has led the Guadalupe Centers for almost 40 years, concludes: “We are the major force and major entity that provides services for the Latino populations in the city: it’s been like that since our inception, and our mission continues.”
Beatriz Paniego-Béjar is a Content Specialist at UnidosUS.
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