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Radio Readers Special Edition: The Garcia Family and the Santa Fe Railroad

F. M. Steele
Finney County Historical Society

Hello, I’m Dennis Garcia.  I was born in 1951 in Garden City, Kansas. 

Even in a small town like Garden City, we get so busy we don’t see things that impact our daily lives. For me, it was the railroad. 

I’m one of 10 kids raised in a small wood framed house.  Our home stood alongside the Santa Fe Railroad’s main line that went through town.  We lived so close that by the time I was 10, I could throw a rock from my backyard and easily reach the tracks.

During the 50s, three passenger trains a day made a quick stop at our small depot.  When all the passengers had boarded, the conductor signaled to the engineer with a wave of his lantern and sent the trains on their way. 

About the same number of freight trains passed through town, some crawling at a snail’s pace, others roaring past at high speed.  Every train blew its whistle at every street crossing.  Their noise became a part of my day, so much so that I hardly noticed it.  Seldom did the train whistles wake me during the night.  It wasn’t until I went to college that I began to learn the Santa Fe’s great impact on my life.

My college classmates in Albuquerque, and later, friends in Tucson, would ask me, “Where you from?”  Expecting a hint of recognition, I’d answer, “Kansas.”  But they were puzzled by my response.  Mexican and non-Mexican alike, would say, “Kansas?  I didn’t know there were Mexicans in Kansas!”  I then explained the little history I knew.  Both of my grandfathers worked for the Santa Fe, and where you find a railroad in Kansas, you find Mexican families.

In researching the book I wrote about my cousin, Ernie, also from Garden City, I found that the Santa Fe had a far greater impact on my family than I realized.  In the early 1900s, American railroads supported the building of railways in Mexico.  They found that Mexican workers were not only durable cheap labor, but also less likely to quit, especially if they had families. 

By 1910, railroads were in need of laborers, partly because immigration laws in the 1880s imposed limits on the Chinese.  During that time the Mexican Revolution erupted sending thousands of families to the border to avoid the Mexican Army and Pancho Villa.  In 1917 my grandfather, Jose Garcia, fled central Mexico to El Paso where the Santa Fe hired him.  In 1920 the Santa Fe shipped him and his family to Holcomb, Kansas.  Later, the family moved to Garden City where they raised six sons.

It is a quiet fact, unknown to many people, whether of Mexican or non-Mexican heritage, that Mexican families on the high plains and in the Midwest are now third and fourth generation Americans.  They are not recent arrivals.  The railroads connected them to the U.S.

The railroad continues to impact my family.  When I lived in Arizona a family member passed away in Kansas and the funeral was set within a few days.  It had been snowing, so I traveled by train to avoid delays and driving fatigue.

And recently, I accompanied my 73-year-old aunt and 84-year-old uncle on a train from Kansas City to Albuquerque.  They were traveling to meet Bonnie, the 60-year-old daughter of their late sister, Nina.  Bonnie’s birth was unknown to them until she discovered them online after years of searching.  Riding the same tracks as my grandparents a century earlier, my aunt and uncle met their niece for the first time. 

The railroad continues to enrich the lives of my family.  My guess is that across the Midwest, railroads connect us to our past, and for some families, the future as well.

Thanks for listening, I’m Dennis Garcia, a Garden City native and author of Marine, Public Servant, Kansan: The Life of Ernest Garcia.  My book tells the inspiring story of a boy growing up on the High Plains who realized the American Dream. It’s available online and through the University Press of Kansas.

My thanks to High Plains Public Radio.