Las Colonias de Emporia: Stories from the Latino Community

Simon Rodriguez and granddaughter Natalie Rodriguez in front of the family's restaurant in Emporia.

Simon Rodriguez and granddaughter Natalie Rodriguez in front of the family’s restaurant in Emporia.

The Latino Americans: 500 Years of History initiative supports cultural heritage projects exploring Latino in Dodge City, Emporia, Newton, and Overland Park. Here, Lisa Soller of the Lyon County History Center reflects on the initiative’s impact in Emporia.

Latino immigrants traveling to Emporia, Kansas, didn’t come by way of New York City and the Statue of Liberty. No, the first Latino immigrants were predominantly from Mexico. They were greeted in El Paso, Texas, by railroad employment agents with promises of money, lodging and transportation to the work site. For them it was a chance to escape from poverty and the turmoil of the Mexican Revolution.

The Emporia Gazette first mentions Mexican laborers working for the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway in 1904. These first immigrants lived an area just west of the roundhouse known as “Little Mexico.” Early day housing consisted of bunk cars made from boxcars and buildings made from railroad ties. Sometime later permanent housing was available in the area and was known as, “La Colonia” (The Colony) and “Las Casitas” (Little Houses).

The second wave of Latino immigrants to move to Emporia began toward the end of the 1960s. Armour Packing Company opened a meatpacking plant in 1964, but sold it to Nebraska based-company Iowa Beef Packers in 1967. In the years following the purchase, I.B.P. expanded its operations and employed as many as 1,600 employees. Many of these new employees were Latino immigrants recruited from San Antonio and Laredo, Texas.

Project manager and Curator, Lisa Soller says, “The Latino immigrant story begins like any other immigrant group looking for a better life in America, yet many barriers prevented a complete assimilation into the Emporia community for decades. This initiative is an excellent opportunity to explore those barriers, but also highlight the contributions of the Latino community.”

Until recently the story of the Latino community in Emporia has been largely untold. The Lyon County History Center is hoping to change that by working with local organizations; Hispanics of Today and Tomorrow (HOTT) and two Emporia State University organizations: Hispanic American Leadership Organization (HALO) and the Spanish Club.

Through this initiative LCHC hopes to increase the number of oral histories from the Latino community and create an exhibit that will highlight the history of Latinos in the area. At present Emporia’s Latino population represents over 25 percent of the total population. The LCHC believes this initiative will also serve as a springboard for future Latino programming in their new location, a move that will happen later this summer.

The Latino Americans: 500 Years of History initiative is supported by a grant KHC received from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the American Library Association.