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Celebrating Lali Garcia, the activist and 'Queen Bee' who helped shape KCMO

Rafeala Lali Garcia
Posted at 2:00 PM, Oct 15, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-15 19:33:02-04

KANSAS CITY, Mo.  — There are people that make such an impact during their life that when they're gone, it makes those they knew wonder how the world ever functioned without them.

Kansas City had that type of person whose contributions not only shaped the advancements of the Latino community seen today but Greater Kansas City.

"She's been gone now four months, but people are still thinking about her and talking about her," Lisa Aquino said talking about her mother.

Aquino's mother held many titles: icon, organizer, activist, trailblazer, friend, mentor and Queen Bee.

But there was one title she treasured most.

"She was mom or grandma. The kids all called her Grandma Lali," Aquino said.

Lali Garcia. A name that, for such a small woman, held such a big influence throughout the 93 years she was on Earth.

"She did it all," Aquino said. "She had the job, she had the family, she had all of these activities outside of that that were just as important."

Rafaela "Lali" Garcia was born in 1927 and lived in the Armourdale neighborhood in Kansas City, Kansas.

After Garcia's family survived the devastating flood of 1951 while her husband, Jesse, was away serving in the U.S. Army, she organized resources. She moved her family and her husband's family out of KCK. They settled in KCMO and would become a key figure in the Westside.

With the urging of her stepfather, she got involved in Latino civic clubs, such as Union Cultural Mexicana, which her stepfather co-founded.

She helped organize the Westside Citizens Democratic Club, which became a launching pad for Latino politicians. This club produced officials such as Pat Rios and Paul Rojas, the first Latino elected officials at county and state levels.

Garcia worked extensively to expand programs for senior citizens and childhood education at the Guadalupe Center, sitting on the board for years.

She founded La Raza political club in the 1980s.

That's only a portion of her work.

“We just always knew that she kind of belonged to these other people first," Aquino said. "I mean, not first. But it didn't bother us because we knew what she was doing was important. And my dad, too. He told her, 'You got the mouth, go do it. They listen to you.'"

Garcia was a person who was always looking for ways to help out. She knew all the people to call, and if she didn't know something, she'd figure it out.

“She was a firecracker, I tell you what," longtime family friend Cris Medina said, whom Garcia hired at the Guadalupe Center in 1980. He would eventually become CEO and retired in 2021. "She had two speeds: go and go faster."

Medina said Garcia wasn't just a champion for Latinos — she fought for equality for everyone.

Having experienced discrimination herself as a child, she set out to change the way Latinos were treated in the 50s and 60s.

"You were red-lined. If you were Latino, Mexican, you had certain parts of the city you could go to. She fought against that, for housing, for schools, trying to make sure they opened the doors for us so we could get our kids in there," Medina said.

Medina and another longtime friend, Manuel "Rabbit" Hernandez, worked alongside Lali in one of her biggest passions: mobilizing the Latino community to vote.

Medina says if anyone wanted to succeed in office, they needed Garcia's endorsement.

“That carried a lot of weight," Medina said. "She knew all the politicians. What she could deliver was votes."

Garcia met presidents, congressional leaders and was friends with local heavy-hitters such as Dutch Newman, Claire McCaskill and Rep. Emanuel Cleaver.

"My longtime friend, Rafaela 'Lali' Garcia, was a champion of civil rights for the Latino community in Kansas City and beyond," Cleaver said in a statement to KSHB 41 News.

His statement continues, in part, "Lali's legacy is colored by community, compassion and unparalleled commitment to public service. This Hispanic Heritage Month, let us honor Lali's life and memory by continuing her dutiful work and ensuring her profound legacy lives on for generations to come."

Garcia worked the polls every election year. She and Rabbit made sure senior citizens had a ride to the polls. They walked door-to-door and organized registration drives.

"You needed us to get behind you," Rabbit said. "And people take us for granted, that we're not important. We are important, 'cause there's a lot of Hispanics in Kansas City."

Lali's loved ones say her passing leaves a void, but if everyone does just a little of what she accomplished, the community can fill that.

"I was with her at the end, and her speech to me at the end was, 'Rabbit, don't let it die. Keep the club going and keep fighting,'" Rabbit said. "And we're still going to do that."

In her lifetime, Garcia received the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Humanitarian of the Year award, the Pat Rios award and the MANA Community Service award. She also served on the Ethics Commission, the Port Authority board and was named a Missouri Squire, among many other accomplishments.