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They Helped Hispanics Succeed

by Lewis W. Diuguid
The Kansas City Star

Esperanza Amayo wants people to know what Saturnino Alvarado did for Hispanics in Kansas City, Kan.

But mostly, she wants everyone to know the history of Hispanics in this community.  So little of their stories -- tragedies and triumphs -- has been chronicled.  Stories like Alvarado's.

They need to know that Alvarado, a shoe repairman, did the unthinkable in the 1920s for Hispanics in Kansas City, Kan.

The school district then operated under what Robert M. Cleary called "a tri-racial system of education."{  The best schools were for white students.  A second and unequal set of schools were for black students, and a third, the Clara Barton School, was for Hispanics.

Cleary wrote about the unusual system of public school segregation in his 168-page University of Missouri-Kansas City master of arts thesis titled "The Education of Mexican-Americans in Kansas City, Kan., 1916-1951."

The costly and inefficient school system was maintained for decades.  Whites' widespread prejudice against African-Americans and Hispanics kept it alive.

But Hispanics, drawn from Mexico by area meat packing and railroad jobs, had no high school.  At least African-American students had Sumner High School.

Alvarado in 1925 began what turned into an international campaign to open the all-white Argentine High School to his two children, Jesus and Luz Alvarado, as well as Marcos de Leon and Victoria Perez.  He encountered strong resistance.  But Alvarado persevered, appealing to the Mexican consulate.

The U. S. State Department got involved.  Officials wrote on Oct 30, 1925, that under the treaty with Mexico, Hispanics "must be regarded as friendly aliens and as such extended the same privileges as those enjoyed by American schoolchildren."

Officials on Nov. 9, 1925 also suggested that injunctions be issued against anyone who tries to hinder Mexican children from attending Kansas City, Kan., school peacefully.

Two years after the struggle began, three of the Hispanic students enrolled at Argentine High School.  Among Amayo's memorabilia are pictures of them in the 1927, 1928, 1929 and 1930 high school yearbooks.

Amayo, 74, has become an amateur historian for the Hispanic community in Kansas City, Kan.  Her studies have led her to seek public recognition for Alvarado.

She wants the new $7.2 million 12th Street bridge over the Kansas River to be named after him and have a plaque describing his deed.  She also has campaigned -- so far unsuccessfully -- to get the auditorium at Argentine Middle School named after Alvarado and to have a plaque tell of his great accomplishments.

A street, Alvarado Drive, is named in his honor.  "But nobody knows where it is" or "why is has that name", Amayo said.

Racism in education for Hispanics didn't end with the Alvarado struggle.  Amayo recalls the rejection she experienced when she tried to enroll her younger brother, Joe Rangel, into a white grade school during World War iI.

She said she told the principal that Hispanic men were fighting and dying in the war, but their children couldn't so much as attend a neighborhood school.

"If they die, their blood will run red," Amayo said, recalling the conversation.  "It won't matter the color of their skin."

That convinced the principal to later admit her brother.  Yet Amayo faced similar rejection with her children in the 1950s and 1960s.

"There are so many hurts in this world," Amayo said.  "Why does this hurt so much?"

To understand the hurt, people need to know the history of Hispanics in Kansas City, Kan.  Stories like Alvarado's.  Stories like Amayo's.

But Amayo fears the history of hispanics' climb from segregation to success could die with her generation.

"Look at our age," Amayo said of herself and her 79-year brother, Solomen Rangel.  "It's important because what library can you go into and read about our history?"

People need to know what Hispanics faced, the heroes who help them overcome and then never forget.