Eight years ago, my life became intimately intertwined with the Latino community for the first time. I had recently accepted a job with the Univision affiliate in Kansas City, managing sales for the global Spanish-language television network. Although I was hired to sell the Latino culture and what it represented to advertisers, I was swiftly sold myself. Quickly, I became immersed in the Hispanic community, becoming familiar with neighborhoods like Argentine, Armourdale, and Rosedale. These communities served as havens to a wave of immigrants when Kansas City became a hub for railroad expansion at the turn of the century.
Although Mexican laborers played an important role in Kansas City’s development, they were often met with discrimination. Mexican children were not allowed into certain schools. Their parents were exploited in the workforce and were often refused services at hospitals and government agencies.
As the need for basic services within the Mexican community grew, Guadalupe Center opened its doors in 1919, becoming one of the first social service agencies in the nation. Over the past 100 years, the organization has improved the lives of countless individuals.
Another organization that has touched the lives of many Latinos in Kansas City is the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. In 1958, Hector Barreto Sr. arrived from Guadalajara, Mexico. His first job was picking potatoes for 50 cents an hour. He later worked in a packinghouse and as a school custodian. Barreto had big dreams, however – not only for his family, but also for the entire Hispanic community. Eventually, he became a successful restauranteur and, in 1977 along with other Latino businessman, founded the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Greater Kansas City (HCCGKC). Under Barreto’s leadership, the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce was chartered in 1979, making Kansas City the birthplace of the national Hispanic Chamber. This rags-to-riches story is truly remarkable. Not only would Barreto go on to serve as the President of the national Hispanic Chamber, he was also appointed to President Ronald Reagan’s transition team in 1980.
Over the past four decades, HCCGKC has tutored and groomed scores of business owners. Hispanics are an entrepreneurial bunch. Nationwide, they are 1.5 times more likely than the general population to start a small business, and Latina-owned businesses are growing five times faster than any other group. This spirit of entrepreneurialism and innovation doesn’t just positively impact the Hispanic community; it benefits Kansas City and the nation as a whole.
In 2013, I was elected to serve on HCCGKC’s board, where I’ve had the honor to follow such trailblazers as Barreto. I’ve also had the honor to serve for and alongside, among others, Chileans, El Salvadorians, Brazilians, Puerto Ricans, Venezuelans, and Bolivians. Kansas City’s Latin American community is comprised of a rainbow of multiculturalism.
While I’ve since moved on from Univision, I haven’t moved on from the Latino culture. Recently, I took a trip to Santiago, Chile, with my significant other, whom I met through HCCGKC. The combination of compassion and commerce – a mirror of Guadalupe Center and HCCGKC’s work – is on full display in Santiago. We toured the Sanctuary on San Cristobal Hill, where Pope John Paul II prayed and blessed the city in 1987; and we visited Garmin’s Santiago office, a sleek, modern skyscraper overlooking the majestic Andean mountains.
As I reflected on the stunning views, I came to the realization that the core pillars of hard work, determination, compassion, and collaboration is essential to succeed. This is true for global companies such as Garmin, expanding their footprint. It is true of migrants from Mexico. And it is also true of our communities in general.
I am hopeful that we can apply lessons learned from Kansas City’s history – both the good and the bad – to become a beacon for compassion and commerce and to offer a bridge when waters are troubled, so others facing challenges can rise to the heights that Barreto achieved. A rising tide truly lifts all boats, regardless of their entry point.
About the Author
Chelan David is a board member of the International Relations Council. Chelan graduated from the University of Kansas with a Bachelor of Science in Journalism and currently serves as the director of development for Youth Volunteer Corps. Prior to YVC, he worked at Univision where he launched D’Latinos, a local community program that gives leaders a platform to address important issues impacting the Hispanic community in Kansas City. Chelan plays an active role in the Latino community serving on the board of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.