The Prairie Remembers*Â
I made a pot of beans the first morning of my residency and wondered when was the last time this space held the aroma of simmering pinto beans. I wondered, when was the last time someone sliced a jalapeĂ±o into the pot? When was the last time someone sopped up their bean juice with a freshly made tortilla? I didnâ€™t go that far, but having just spent the previous five days with family, I was the beneficiary of a few New Mexican Frontier tortillas from the special delivery my mama made to my tĂaâ€™s house in Emporia. A touch of Albuquerque in Kansas, a tale that has shaped the contours of my life. Do you think these walls remembered these smells? Well, not exactly these walls, but the bones of this place? Having undergone a complete renovation process by the current tenders of this space in the early-2000s, Bill and Julia saved it from certain collapse. I like to think the bunkhouse felt similar joys as I did. This building in its new configuration, with different amenities within, different colors of paint adorning its walls, welcoming me and my pot of simmering beans to my first artist residency.
You may be wondering why Iâ€™m starting with beans. Which makes sense. Kansas might be known for baked beans. An important and delectable side for barbecue. But, pinto beans? Simmering on the stove? Iâ€™ve been on a nearly two-decade-long obsession with the ways we remember or donâ€™t remember the Mexican railroad laborers who came to Kansas in the early 20th century to continue laying track, building and maintaining the railroads. And the place Iâ€™m writing about, Matfield Station in Matfield Green, Kansas, is one of the few physical markers (that Iâ€™m aware of) that serves as a monument to these laborers and their familiesâ€™ presence in Kansas. Iâ€™m here because of a series of events that brought me here, probably also true for the original 13 Mexican-origin people who moved into this building built by the Santa Fe railroad in 1922. I am here because I dreamed of going to an artist residency in my January 2021 Passion Planning session. Iâ€™m here because my amiga sent me a listing of possible residency opportunities and this one at the Tallgrass Prairie stuck out to me since the description noted it was in the Flint Hills of Kansas. I am here because I live in a prairie ecosystem in West Central Minnesota. I am here because I was born in the Flint Hills. I am here because before applying to the residency I watched all the zoom artist talks from 2020 to see what others worked on and how they connected to this residency and because in an aside, a question from an audience member asked an artist â€śwhat did you think about the place you were stayingâ€ť and the artist replied something to the effect – â€śoh itâ€™s lovely, is there something more specific youâ€™re asking about?â€ť And the audience member said, â€śwell youâ€™re in a bunk house for Mexican railroad workers, thereâ€™s a story about it on the wall in your room.â€ť And the artist kind of shrugged like they hadnâ€™t given it much thought. I am here because my Great-Grandfather left LĂ©on in the 1910s to begin working for the railroad in Nebraska first, and then ultimately settled in Northern Kansas. I am here, as a third generation Kansas-born Mexican American. I am here because my work is fundamentally concerned with home and belonging.Â
Iâ€™ve been working on a book exploring these themes of home and belonging for Mexicans in Kansas; particularly focusing on the role of women in settlements like these. Part recovery project, part looking to push the interdisciplinary boundaries of oral history, archival research, and autoethnography, the book is held together by the history of Mexican railroad laboring familiesâ€™ presence in Kansas. A topic still under-explored even as my stalled manuscript collects the equivalent of dust in my computerâ€™s hard drive. Iâ€™m glad Iâ€™m here to paint not write, but I also know my writing is painting and my painting is writing. Iâ€™m eager to find new ways of documenting our presence in narratives that can meander through the parts of us that sense more deeply, not only the parts of us that read and think. In my requests of the residency staff to meet with or learn more about the Mexican-origin folks who are connected to the history of this place, they reached far and wide connecting me to the people who might know more. On the constant hunt for images of Mexican laborers and their families, many of the responses from contacts replied, â€śIâ€™m not so sure about the history of the Mexican railroad workersâ€¦â€ť And so Iâ€™m back to bemoaning the limits of the archive. Grabbing fragments here and there. Though there have also been newer efforts to record these histories in the state. And Iâ€™ve also enjoyed making amazing new connections with descendants in nearby towns who have family and community archives to share with me. Like the gifts of time and photos Ray and Patrice Olais shared with me one afternoon in Newton. I thought that the reason people didnâ€™t know much about this history was the lack of monuments, but itâ€™s clearly deeper than that. I should have known that given our nationâ€™s current reckoning with monuments as a means to remember. Who gets remembered, who gets left out is always the question as statues stand to mark people, events or eras. I should have known that even given this structure is a testament to the Mexican presence in Kansas, it still continues to reflect back our absence. Unless, we dig. And demand remembering, and call-in the ancestors whose lives shape our present even as we may not know it all.Â
There are only about five bunkhouses still standing enough to be recognizable along the Santa Feâ€™s line. And Matfield Station is the only one that has been renovated so as to be fit for human habitation again. The Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad had a variety of bunkhouses they would build often a mile out of town for their Mexican laboring railway workforce and their families all along their line. And the Santa Fe bulldozed almost all of them in the 1960s. The bunkhouses were rather the most humane structures of the lot, being actually constructed from brick and concrete with plastered walls instead of old boxcars repurposed as living quarters or railroad ties stacked as walls like were common amongst other, earlier Mexican settlements across Kansas. The bunkhouse is a glorious monument. All that remains of the physical evidence of company housing in Emporia are the decaying, halfway buried railroad ties once used as foundations for retired box cars now adorning new homesâ€™ front steps as makeshift low fences. The fact that these bunkhouse plans were specific in their placement to town also provides insights into the level of separation, of purposeful segregation on behalf of the ATSF corporate powers that be. An upholding of white passenger train riders not wanting to see the shantytowns as they came into the station. How do we continue to segregate this history from our collective knowledge? While the bunkhouse was perhaps more warm in the winter, all of these structures shared the common experience of no indoor plumbing, no running water, no electricity. The modernization of the bunkhouse today makes for a lovely place to stay, especially for the train enthusiasts because the tracks are steps from this structure. Iâ€™m grateful I donâ€™t have to run out there quickly to fix the track before the next one rolls by, or, as many once did, push the handcart up the rail to fix something before the trains came through again. I am grateful that I get to experience the trains moving through, and my only responsibility is to pause my thought, or my paintbrush, because the sound and vibrations call for it. Itâ€™s a BNSF line now, the merging of Burlington-Northern and the Santa Fe in the mid-1990s is a history easily located and shared. Contrast this with the still too hidden in the shadows; the history of the role of Mexican laborers in this space.
When I walked in the green door to unit 3 there was a train rolling slowly by, which I could hear but not see through the drawn curtains over the door leading to the outside seating area on the other side of the bunkhouse. I was immediately struck by the energy of the place, the care and love of twenty-first century renovations while also feeling a deep reverence for its history. The ghosts of the walls that once separated rooms into five units instead of the current threeÂ Â hugged me as I began to get to know this tiny Kansas town. Donâ€™t blink or youâ€™ll be through it. I sat in the aroma of a fresh pot of beans for the entire first day of my residency and enjoyed beans for breakfast the next eight days. It was my attempt to share with the space, create a connection back to the people who once called this structure their home. It was my attempt to time travel back, to shorten the distance between me and them. To let these ancestors, kin to my ancestors, know that their backbreaking work on the rails was worth it. That some of us made it. That some of us hear the trains go by and know itâ€™s only possible because of their manual labor that kept these rails working. That some of us are committed to upholding that labor with the dignity you did not receive during your lifetimes. The cricket sings outside the window and I think about how many generations of crickets have been here, who also sang to the workers as they rested after a grueling, physically demanding day of work replacing track. The Willowleaf Sunflower waves at me though the window, sometimes casting a shadow as it blows in the wind. It catches my eye as it sways even as sheâ€™s still just a vibrant green stalk, not yet flowering. These sunflower descendants of the ones that kept Cipriana EnrĂquez company while she made beans and her husband Lalo fixed the track. And waved at Lucita Tetley while her husband Jesus worked outside the bunkhouse as she toiled inside. And, the crickets sang to Sr. Melchiadoes Mesa, Sr. Alfredo GarcĂa, and ZacahrĂas Beltran, and Patrocina and Severiano PalacĂoz who rounded out the first residents of this bunkhouse who expanded families here. ÂˇPresente! Who would have thought an artist whose interest in Mexicans in Kansas would be here a hundred years later writing your names? Getting to know us in the archive? Are the Willowleaf Sunflowers, and the other tallgrass prairie plants best at remembering the presence of those whose lives intertwined with theirs? Are their root systems the ways to better recount the intertwined and interconnected relationship my people have had with the prairie? What can we learn from the plantcestors who survived the installation of the track, who blow in the breeze of the wind of mother nature and the wind of the trains as they zip by so very fast? Who witness, from their outside vantage point, the windows rattle as Matfield Station shifts in response to the force of that steel. What does the prairie remember that we cannot seem to hold ourselves?Â
*An earlier version of this essay appeared in the July 2021 issue of the Art of KCF Newsletter
Traqueros: Mexican Railroad Workers in the United States 1870-1930, Jeffrey Marcos GarcĂlazo. University of North Texas Press, 2013.
La Yarda Oral History Project, Digital Douglas County HistoryÂ
Kandace Creel FalcĂłn, Ph.D. (she/they/their) is an interdisciplinary feminist scholar, writer, and visual artist. Their lifeâ€™s passion grounds the power of narrative for social transformation. As a Xicanx femme feminist, KCFâ€™s work is driven to disrupt conventional notions related to femininity. Drawn to mixed-media methods of painting, printmaking, fabric arts, and writing KCF brings together various mediums to make sense of the world around them.
As a former academic and mostly self-taught visual artist, their work is concerned with home and belonging, and the shifting nature of public/private dichotomies related to domesticity. Born in Kansas, and raised in New Mexico, she is a descendent of Mexican Railroad laboring families who came to Kansas to grow roots. She now lives and works in rural Erhard, MN.