An exhibit opens this weekend at the Kansas City Museum about Lupe Gonzalez, a local musician who became an icon in the Latino community. His name may not be recognizable, and that’s likely because Gonzalez never received national recognition.
Born in 1935, Gonzalez was the son of Mexican immigrant parents, Julie and Juan Gonzalez. He grew up in the Argentine neighborhood in Kansas City Kansas, back when Kansas City was a very different place. Historian and curator at the Kansas City Museum, Gene Chavez,explains the racial tensions that existed during that time.
“Lupe grew up during a period when the communities were really highly segregated,” Gene says. “Blacks had segregated schools and so did Mexican-Americans.”
Gonzales was fortunate to attend the Argentine High School in 1949, during its first years of desegregation.
“When you see the pictures in the yearbooks,” says Gene, “you notice that there are very few brown faces, most of them are white faces, but Lupe Gonzalez is usually pictured in those pictures.”
It was at Argentine that Gonzalez received his professional music training. As a member of the school’s orchestra he had the opportunity to study under Bob Luyben, who helped establish the Kansas City Symphony.
Gonzalez soon became a skilled musician and created the Lupe Gonzalez Orchestra, an eight-piece band that played traditional Mexican music and popular show tunes with a Latin twist.
“If you were to hear the song Hello Dolly from Lupe’s orchestra, they’re not going to play it straight forwardly,” says Gene. “If you listen to his version of it, it has a Latin beat to it, so you can actually do the rumba to the Music."
The Lupe Gonzalez Orchestra became well known throughout Kansas City and the Midwest, playing at dance halls for weddings, quiceañeras and community events. Richard Ruiz, a former colleague and long time friend of Gonzales, says being a well-known musician allowed Gonzales to standout as a leader.
“Music created a lot of opportunity for Lupe to get involved,” explains Ruiz. “Many people approach you to say, 'hey can you help me with a benefit? can you help us were trying to raise money for this family whose house burned down? Or we're trying to raise money for the church.' Those requests get people like Lupe more and more involved in the community and understanding the needs and the wants. The music ability and skill that Lupe had led into his leadership role.”
Gonzalez often wrote for the KC Hispanic News, helped create and manage a job training organization called SER and volunteered his time to support many local causes.The contributions Gonzalez made were important, because as Ruiz explains, at the time the local Latino population received little recognition.
“Hispanics were like maybe 3, 4 percent of the population,” says Ruiz. “Our numbers weren’t great enough for somebody to be concerned about and so over and over again we would see discrimination occur.”
In one instance the local police department began offering a bounty to officers for arresting undocumented citizens. As Ruiz recalls, this had a direct effect on the Latino community.
“When asked how do you determine when someone is undocumented, they said ‘well they look dirty they’re usually by the railroad tracks and they’re walking around," says Ruiz. "Heck in Argentine that was our fathers. They would get off work at the railroad and they would walk across the bridge.”
Both Gonzalez and Ruiz were involved in confronting the department and successfully brought the police campaign to an end, adding to the lasting influences Gonzalez left when he died in 2008.
“It’s about time to acknowledge our community,” says Ruiz. “And our leadership and at the same time someone who mastered the art of music on top of that”
Supported by the museum advisory committee, Nuestra Herencia and the Gonzalez family, the exhibition Música es Mi Primer Amor / Music is My First Love
The Lupe M. Gonzalez Orchestra runs through December 29 at the Kansas City Museum.