La Yarda a piece of city’s Hispanic history

Exhibit to showcase area at 25th fiesta

Other people in Lawrence may have forgotten La Yarda, but Val Romero remembers it well.

“We called it La Yarda because it was really a big yard with several housing units … there were several big walnut trees there that made it look like a grove. Nice place to sit down and enjoy the weather,” Romero said.

Romero’s father, a Mexican immigrant, worked for the Santa Fe Railroad during both world wars. During that time, Santa Fe was recruiting Mexican men to work in section gangs, repairing tracks. In order to keep them in town year-round, Santa Fe built special housing for the workers and their families.

The complex that quickly became known as La Yarda was right by the railroad tracks near Eighth Street. There were two long u-shaped housing units facing one another, with a long stretch of grass in between. A simple pump in the center supplied city water to all the families.

The Mexican families who came to Kansas to work for Santa Fe were among the first Hispanics in Lawrence. That makes La Yarda an important piece of Lawrence history, said Helen Krische, exhibits coordinator at the Watkins Community Museum of History, 1047 Mass.

Krische compiled a series of photos and interviews with former La Yarda residents that tells the story of the first generation of Lawrence’s Hispanic community. That exhibit, called “La Yarda: The Mexican-American Heritage of Lawrence, Kansas,” will be on display this weekend at St. John’s Mexican Fiesta.

The fiesta will be from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday at St. John’s Catholic Church, 1204 Ky. Admission is free, but proceeds from the food and carnival games go to St. John’s School, 1208 Ky.

Helen Krische, archivist at Watkins Community Museum, has created a panel of historic photos and papers from her research into Lawrence's Hispanic community. The exhibit will be on display at St. John's Mexican Fiesta. At left is a photo of a children's dance troupe, and at right Krische holds a portrait of Maria and Jesse Ramirez, who settled in Lawrence.

This year marks the 25th anniversary for St. John’s Mexican Fiesta. Organizer Frank Lemus said that highlights of the first fiesta were a boombox and a burrito stand. Since those humble beginnings, the festival has expanded to include live entertainment, traditional Mexican food, carnival games and various other activities.

The fiesta even had its own parade two weeks ago to promote its 25th anniversary. Lemus said the fiesta’s growing success in the past quarter decade comes from its celebration of pride and heritage.

“I think the fiesta is one thing that really displays that pride in Lawrence,” Lemus said.

Lemus said he expects thousands of people to attend this year’s fiesta. Most come for the tamales, the Mexican dancers and the Mariachi bands, he said. But this year, the history of Lawrence’s Hispanic community will play a big role.

Lemus, 36, who had uncles who worked for Santa Fe and lived at La Yarda, said holding onto community history is “vital.”

“My fear is that, especially my generation and lower, we’re losing some of that knowing who we are, where we come from and appreciating the ones that came before us. They sacrificed for us. And I just hope we don’t lose that,” said Lemus.

At La Yarda, there was no electricity, in-house running water or bathrooms. The floors in each housing unit were cement. But the community was tightly knit, and everyone seemed to know one another.

John Chavez remembers going to visit friends at La Yarda in the 1950s. He and other children would play basketball on a makeshift court and explore the surrounding terrain.

“It was kind of a hilly area, and we would dig caves and play where we weren’t supposed to,” Chavez said. “The old women would get after us and tell us to get out of there because it was dangerous.”

Today, nothing remains of La Yarda except a few concrete slabs where the buildings once stood. The sidewalk is visible, too.

Though the houses are gone, Lemus said La Yarda’s roots still run deep through the Lawrence Hispanic community.

“One way or another, we all have some kind of lineage. At least, if not to the Santa Fe Railroads, to those families who lived there,” Lemus said.

St. John Fiesta schedule


On Friday only, there will be a free moonwalk available for children.

6 p.m.-10 p.m.: Authentic Mexican food. Items include tamales, tostadas, burritos, tacos and rice.

6 p.m.-7 p.m.: St. John Fiesta Dancers. Fiesta Folklorica, a dance group, will also perform.

7:30 p.m.-11:30 p.m. Las Estrellas band.


4:30 p.m.-Mariachi Mass.

6 p.m.-10 p.m. Authentic Mexican food served.

5:30 p.m. Mariachi Habaneros, a traditional Mexican band.

6 p.m.-7 p.m. St. John Fiesta Dancers, followed by Fiesta Folkorica.

7:30-11:30 p.m. Latin Express band.