Mexican-American families lead effort to recognize the site of La Yarda community in East Lawrence

photo by: Rochelle Valverde

A wooded area in eastern Lawrence near the railroad tracks that was formerly the location of La Yarda is pictured Jan. 22, 2022.

There are no roads or signs that lead the way to La Yarda, but for many of Lawrence’s longtime Mexican-American families, history will always flow back that way.

From 1920 to 1951, the housing complex built in the woods along the railroad tracks was home to dozens of Mexican-American railway workers and their families, and now some of La Yarda’s former residents and their descendants are leading an effort to recognize the site and potentially make it more accessible.

Lawrence resident Pedro Romero, who grew up in La Yarda, is one of the former residents who will be in discussions with the City of Lawrence about a way to recognize the site and its history. Romero said while it was a tough life and La Yarda residents knew where they lived was different — not like town where there were streets, addresses and street lights — they kept it up, and the red brick of the buildings was complemented by the hollyhocks, peonies and rose bushes that the residents planted.

“I tell you what, if we could only go back into time and see La Yarda, it was like a little hacienda there, that’s the way I like to describe it,” Romero said. “It was out there, it was a pretty place, it was real pretty. Because we that lived there took real good care of it. Everybody was proud of where we lived.”

Today, what is left of the complex is obscured by brush and debris, but Romero is one who sees the potential for something more.

photo by: File Photo

Young La Yarda residents are pictured at the complex in this historic photo.

The Santa Fe Railroad built the simple brick apartments, which had concrete floors, no electricity and no indoor plumbing, near the railroad tracks in East Lawrence. The complex wasn’t on a neighborhood street, but rather removed from the nearby houses in East Lawrence, built in the woods between the railroad tracks and the Kansas River.

La Yarda consisted of two U-shaped buildings that faced each other, with several small units in each building that housed multiple families and dozens of people at a time. Romero said they used kerosene lamps at night, until electricity was added in the late 1940s. Romero came from a family of 14, including his parents, and he said all the La Yarda children played games in the yard, which included a basketball goal built out of railroad ties. Residents got water for cooking and bathing from a pump on the grounds, and they also kept chickens and vegetable gardens, canning the produce for the winter months. Romero remembers being tired of eating frijoles, but he said his dad did raise a pig, which he later butchered, and the gardens included sweet potatoes, tomatoes, chiles and radishes.

“We didn’t know no other way, so we pretty much lived on what we had, which wasn’t very much,” Romero said. “But we were strong people and we toughed it out.”

The buildings were in use until the flood of 1951, when the Kansas River overflowed its banks and filled the complex with mud and debris, rendering the units unlivable. All that is left in the woods today are the buildings’ concrete foundations and depressions in the earth where the water pump and outhouses used to be. Though some families moved on after the flood, others stayed in Lawrence, remaining to this day.

Other recent community projects have sought to make La Yarda’s history more known, but there is no indication at or near the site of its significance. An oral history project began in 2006, led by Watkins Museum of History archivist Helen Krische, and was resumed in 2019 by Nora Murphy and Emily Raymond. The interviews with former La Yarda residents, which are available online, speak to the life of La Yarda residents — of women washing clothes in the yard, of the kids crossing multiple sets of railroad tracks to get to school and of big gatherings for tamales at Christmastime. Interviewees also spoke about life in Lawrence, where they faced discrimination and segregation at local businesses and sometimes at school.

A display created by Krische that told the history of La Yarda was first incorporated into the annual Mexican fiesta at St. John the Evangelist Church in 2006, and the Journal-World first reported on efforts to recognize the history then and in 2009. At that time, there were rumblings about doing something to recognize the history of the site, which for years has been a common location for homeless encampments, but nothing has materialized.

Murphy, who conducted interviews with some La Yarda residents as part of the oral history project and helped in an effort to digitize and transcribe the interviews, contacted the city about the desires among former La Yarda residents, their descendants and others in the Mexican-American community to recognize the site. That includes an idea of the city taking over the site from the railway and potentially making it into a small park or publicly accessible space. Those ideas were brought to the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board, and a subcommittee was formed in October to look into options and spearhead communications with the La Yarda group and other interested community members.

Murphy, who has been on the fiesta committee for almost 20 years and is friends with some of the La Yarda families, said she initially emailed the city last spring about the possibility of the city purchasing the site from the railway and making it more publicly accessible. She said that led to a visit to the former location of La Yarda with some Parks and Rec board members and city staff, and the broader conversations about possibilities for the site. Murphy said the site was special because of what the physical space represents for so many Lawrence families, and it deserved to be recognized.

“There aren’t many places in Lawrence that represent such a touch-point for a certain group,” Murphy said.

Earlier this month, the La Yarda subcommittee created a summary of what it has found out about the site so far, and subcommittee members are planning to meet with former La Yarda residents, their descendants and others interested in the effort in early February.

Subcommittee Chair Marilyn Hull said the subcommittee has looked into the idea of the city acquiring the site, and though it’s not off the table, there are some challenges there. She said the city was still trying to figure out whether the railway would be willing to give, lease or sell the property to an outside entity.

The summary states the site is owned by the BNSF railroad, and acquiring it could represent a significant cost for the city. The summary goes on to state that because the city’s Kansas River Wastewater Treatment Plant, a concrete plant, and active railroad tracks border the site on three sides, it is not an attractive acquisition as a new park site. It notes that currently there is a large homeless encampment at the site and other camps in the vicinity, and displacing those residents when they don’t have better housing options would be difficult. One idea is to establish a trailside shelter and historic display on the nearby corner of Eighth and Delaware streets, but the summary states the board should give the community members who identify with this site the opportunity to determine what options might be appropriate and desirable.

Hull emphasized that the conversation is just getting started, and at this point the subcommittee is focused on hearing from the La Yarda group to see what ideas they have. She said the subcommittee recognized the importance of the history, not only to Lawrence’s current Mexican-American residents, but to the larger community.

“Just hearing their stories was fascinating, and it’s a part of Lawrence history that most people don’t know about, and it should be lifted up and it should be told in the wider community,” Hull said. “And so we feel really strongly about that, that’s why we’re trying to work with them.”

The subcommittee summary states that it was agreed among the Parks and Rec board, which serves to provides recommendations to the City Commission for consideration, that the city should try to be as supportive as possible of finding a way to recognize La Yarda’s history and make it more accessible to the public.

Hull noted that there have been other recent community-led efforts to recognize a more inclusive version of Lawrence’s history, including the NAACP-led project to commemorate the 1882 lynching of three Black men and the ongoing effort to return a sacred prayer rock belonging to the Kaw Nation that was made into a city monument. Hull said she went to the screening of a recent short documentary about La Yarda, created by local filmmakers Lourdes Kalusha-Aguirre and Marlo Angell, and it was a full house. She said another thing motivating the subcommittee is that they know it’s an issue the Lawrence community wants to see progress on.

“It seems like there’s some momentum in the community around resurfacing some of this important history and making it better known to the public,” Hull said.

photo by: contributed photo

Pictured from left to right in the back row are former La Yarda residents Pedro “Peter” Romero, Alberta Romero Gutierrez, Valentina Romero Guerrero and Teresa Romero Martinez. In the front row, from left, are filmmakers Lourdes Kalusha-Aguirre and Marlo Angell.

Jacinta Langford Hoyt, whose grandparents lived in La Yarda, is also among Lawrence’s longtime Mexican-American families who will be in discussion with the city about finding a way to recognize the site and its history. Hoyt said that there are a few people in her family who lived in La Yarda who are still alive and that generally the surviving residents are in their 70s and 80s. She said it was important to acknowledge the city’s first Mexican-Americans and what they’ve contributed to the community over the years.

“It’s important just to recognize the people that lived there and what they had to go through and how they had to live so they could stay in America and work on the railroad,” Hoyt said. “And what they brought to the community.”

Some of the former La Yarda residents and their descendants, Hoyt included, continue to be involved with St. John’s annual Mexican Fiesta, which has now been celebrated for more than 40 years. Hoyt said she understood that the site was not the most accessible location, and she is open to the city’s suggestions for how La Yarda could be recognized.

For his part, Romero says he has a lot of ideas for the site. While discussions are just beginning, he said one of his dreams was using some of the brick left on the site — he said a lot of it was thrown into the former pit toilets — to reconstruct part of one of the buildings. And though he recognized the site’s location is challenging, he said if the city took it over, he thinks that members of the Mexican-American community would be happy to help clean it up. He said maybe it could be gated and opened up for visits a couple of times per year, perhaps as part of the annual Mexican Fiesta.

Long-term dreams aside, Romero, who is 83, said that, to begin with, the people living in the encampments would need to be helped, and then what he’d like to see is some of the brush, trees, earth and other debris that now crowd and obscure the site cleared away to help preserve what is left.

“It meant a lot to us, and to go back there and see all that junk on there it just kind of brings a sad feeling to know we used to live out there — and our brothers and sisters and aunts and grandmas and all that used to live there. And to see it today, the way it is, I don’t know …” Romero said, trailing off.


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