The Westside Heroe, Irene Ruiz

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Seed library, multilingual media, gardening classes, book club, computer & wifi access



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The Westside: Established in the late 1800s as a tight-knit, ambitious community that unceasingly promoted community, tolerance, relationship-building and small business.


Well, almost unceasingly.


One of the few stains upon the Westside’s repute stems from the discrimination and inequity multitudes of Mexican immigrants encountered upon settling the area.


Let’s back up a few years. Prior to a mass Hispanic migration north, the United States adopted a little thing called the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. Chinese immigrants seemed to be occupying a lot of jobs that Americans could perform if only the jobs were available. The country and its citizens simply refused to allow this while trying to revive the economy following an inundation of economic recessions throughout the century. Yep – you guessed it – the oft-purported “taking American jobs” mantra arose in this era. The Chinese Exclusion Act resulted in such an apparently positive impact for American laborers that 40 years later the Immigration Act (of 1924) passed, disbarring entry for nearly anyone of Japanese ethnicity (particularly miners and laborers).


With these prohibitions in place, Mexicans were practically the only people allowed to immigrate to the United States (well, no other countries were technically excluded from immigration at that time for ‘hoggin’ all the jobs. But seriously. A lot of discrimination going on here). Sprinkle in a mass Latino immigration to the United States in the wake of the Mexican Revolution, and a large Hispanic population accumulated in the Westside. During the early 1900s, numerous Mexican nationals found work in a boomin’ town called Kansas City. The stockyards, the railroads, the meat-packing factories, the river, you name it, Kansas City had it going on. Companies found solid work for cheaper wages in immigrants. The Westside—an ideal location to live, for it overlooked the stockyards and made for a short walk to work—became saturated with Mexican-American residents.


The brick manors along Jefferson Street severed into boarding houses and apartments, Hispanic organizations and businesses cropped up, and the immigrants began to encounter prejudice and exclusion in their new community. Immigrant children were disallowed from public and private schools, and anyone of Hispanic descent might be refused at local hospitals and healthcare centers.


Fortunately, the population (and Westside’s reputation) found a few saving graces. The Cabot Westside Clinic at 2121 Summit St., founded in 1906, provided care regardless of ethnicity or socioeconomic class. In 1919, a few kindly Catholic ladies established The Guadalupe Center (named for the patron saint of Mexico). The organization offered schooling and “basic services,” like healthcare, to the isolated immigrants.


The Guadalupe haven for the Latino community is now the oldest Hispanic organization nationwide, and still very active. A 2012 survey determined those of Mexican descent still represent nearly 75 percent of the Westside’s population. The neighborhood remains the Hispanic hub of Kansas City culture.


This is largely in thanks to Irene H. Ruiz. Ruiz was a leader and a livewire who controlled and channeled her energy into productivity. She held teaching positions and librarian positions and even a place in the military in the early 1940s, overseeing phones and translating upon a plea from the United States government for bilingual workers after the Pearl Harbor attack. The bright and opinionated Texas-born lady and her husband, Francisco, (the first Chicano professor in Penn Valley Community College history) relocated back to Lawrence, Kans., in 1963, both alums of the University of Kansas. Later moving to Kansas City, the couple organized several affairs for the Hispanic cause, such as hosting local lectures from inspirational figures like renowned civil rights crusader Cesar Chavez. When the Kansas City Library transferred Ruiz to its West Branch, they hoped – nay, knew – that she’d do big things.


Big things, you say?


The West Branch library of the Kansas City Public institution (nee Switzer Branch), founded in 1911, subsequently moved in 1926…and again in 1988. And again in 1996. And again in 2001, to its final—and present—home on West Pennway in the Westside, replacing an old auto repair garage. Mrs. Irene H. Ruiz had steadily collected a mass of bilingual and Spanish media, which continued to expand, housed in the West Branch library. Ruiz campaigned throughout the neighborhood, specifically to Latinos. Her efforts lead to significant Hispanic patronage at the West Branch, increasing further as the community utilized resources (books, magazines, DVDs, etc.), and found a vital resource in Ruiz herself, who translated for and aided people in searching for jobs (and nearly anything they needed).


In 2000, the West Branch library was rechristened the Irene H. Ruiz Biblioteca de las Americas, in honor of the progressive and influential dignitary herself. The honor suits Ruiz, a woman who changed a community with her efforts. The librarian also arranged an oral history of the Westside mission. Her copious interviews with original Westsiders retrieved the stories destroyed by the flood of 1951, an important historical context that without Ruiz may have been forever lost. After her retirement in 1996 (at age 76), Irene remained the resident reader for weekly children’s story time.


The library still offers book groups, and more recently public computer access and free Wi-Fi connection. Even more recently, the Kansas City Public Library system installed a Seed Library in each branch. This ingenious system allows the public to ‘borrow’ fruit, vegetable and flower seeds. Once they are planted and grown, the borrowers dry and ‘return’ the new seeds to the library, ensuring a continuous stock. Garden guides and various gardening classes accompany the Seed Library.


The dynamic neighborhood owes many thanks to Ruiz and all those who assisted in her quest and shared her vision (especially the Guadalupe Center). ¡Viva la Irene H. Ruiz Biblioteca de las Americas!