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  • Writer's pictureStefania Lugli

The past and present of ‘Marfil Grin,’ where Mexican Americans made the Flint Hills home

Updated: Oct 16, 2023


A group of Mexican railroad workers in the early 20th century. Falcón found this image during their archival research. They believe it was taken in the 1920’s or 30’s in either Kansas or Nebraska. (Courtesy of Falcón)

On a September morning, scholars, artists and community members gathered outside of a Matfield Green bunkhouse to learn about the history of Mexican settlement along the railroads that cut through the Flint Hills.


Curious minds listened as Kandace Creel Falcón presented how Mexican Americans shaped the Flint Hills and Matfield Green through their laboring as railroad track hands. Historians from Wichita State University were also present to record and archive stories from living relatives of past railroad workers.


Falcón, a descendant of Mexican railroad workers, is an interdisciplinary feminist scholar, writer and visual artist. Note: Falcón uses they/them pronouns.


During their presentation, Falcón said that their great-grandfather came to the United States from León, Mexico to work the railroad in Nebraska and Northeastern Kansas.


“My family did not have roots in this part of the state, but they certainly were part of the larger story of how many Mexican and Mexican-American people got connected to Kansas,” they said. “So I like to say that I’m a third-generation Mexican-American and Kansan.”


The Matfield Green Santa Fe railroad bunkhouse is one of the last remaining in the country, renovated in the early 2000’s by locals. According to the owners, immigrant families lived in the bunkhouse from 1923 into the 1960s.


Bunkhouses were built to house railroad workers near their worksites. Pictured is the Matfield Green bunkhouse in 1930, where families of railroad workers — likely Mexican migrants — lived. (Courtesy of Falcón)

Falcón collaborated with archivists, historians and other descendants of railroad workers for their research. One of them, Chris Palacioz, the grandson of a resident of the Matfield Green Bunkhouse, described a typical bunkhouse as a building “made of concrete blocks, cement floors and plaster walls… (with) a cement porch extending the full length of the building on the east side.”


Falcón said they initially moved into the bunkhouse for their Tallgrass Artist Residency in 2021, then stayed for research to “bring together all of this interest I’ve had in Mexican migration to the state, my family history and … this connection to the Flint Hills that had just been wonderful to cultivate and reconnect to.”


Remembering the past with accuracy and affection


Harking back to the early 1900s — when the Santa Fe trains used to rumble through the Flint Hills — hundreds of railroad Mexican American laborers worked and lived beside the train tracks, quickly accustomed to the rhythmic hisses and screeches of each train’s brakes. These workers migrated from their native country in search of economic opportunity and to escape from the brewing Mexican Revolution, according to historians.


Initially, Mexican men would take advantage of seasonal work with the railroads, working springs and summers before returning to their families back home. Eventually, though, these workers brought their families with them to settle down in Kansas.


Falcón frequently pays tribute to the past in her art pieces. In this side-by-side comparison, you can see how Falcón included a real Mexican railroad worker in a painting. Her paintings combine current and past railroad imagery — their patchwork showing the legacy of Mexican rail work still being felt today. (Courtesy of Falcón)

Mexican labor was “an invaluable asset to the railroad industry,” according to the Kansas Hispanic & Latino American Affairs Commission. But, as “members of an ethnic group, Mexicans have received no recognition for their substantial contribution to the growth of the state’s economy.”


“In fact, in the three histories of the Santa Fe railroad written during this century, only one mentions Mexican labor, and that, in a quarter-page reference,” the commission said.


Outside of Kansas, Falcón argues, the erasure goes even further. Many people outside of the region don’t see Mexican influence in the state — regardless of economic impact.


“It’s been part of my life’s mission to really find ways to honor and highlight and magnify those stories,” they said.


Falcón’s great-grandfather, Pastor Falcón, pictured on the job. He migrated from Mexico to work on the railroads in Nebraska before settling his family in Kansas.(Courtesy of Falcón)

One of those stories belongs to Falcón’s great-grandparents: Pastor “Shorty” Falcón, who migrated from Mexico to work on railroads in Nebraska before moving to Kansas, and his wife, Maria Gonzalez Falcón, their great-grandmother.


Falcón spent years extensively looking into archives to find their family’s story, including the National Archives, the Kansas Historical Society and the Lyons County Historical Society. As a feminist scholar, Falcón was determined to highlight the role, presence and contributions of women during the peak of Mexican railroad laborers.


“There was some representation of track laborers that were all about the men’s work, that they were doing out on the railroad, even though we do know now that women were also working on the rails,” Falcón said. “Primarily, these women supported the entire endeavor by serving as wife and mother and caretaking the home and tending to the needs of the community.”


Flicking through a series of still-life photographs, Falcón stopped at one. It showed their great-grandmother looking directly into the camera lens with her husband taking a smoke break. Her facial expression has the slightest of smiles. A washboard sits in the background.


Maria Gonzalez Falcón and Pastor Falcón, Falcón’s great-grandparents. This large family of 13 children worked and lived in northeast Kansas. Falcón believes this photo was taken in the 1930’s or 40’s. (Courtesy of Falcón)

“I just love this image,” Falcón said. “It spoke to me the moment I saw it. I feel like it really highlights the importance of rest and relaxation and finding joy amongst the very hard work that our ancestors had to do.”


Palacioz, the grandson of a Matfield Green bunkhouse resident, described family freetime as a chance to “wash clothes, peel cactus, occasionally relax and sometimes dance.”


“Dances were held once in a while on the porches of housing at Matfield and Cassody,” Palacioz said. “People from Gladstone, Bazaar and Strong City would come to dance to a guitar and fiddle. Big tamales sold for 5 cents.”


According to Falcón, their great-grandmother would wash, by hand, the clothes of her large family, which included thirteen children. Falcón's grandfather, one of Maria's sons, eventually worked for the railroads too.


“(His kids) knew that their grandpa and their dad worked for the railroad, but they always imagined they were the engineers or driving the trains. (The kids) would wave at the trains when they would go by on the track, or they’d go out to pick out any corn that might have fallen out of the box cars.”


What those kids didn’t know was that the Sante Fe railway didn’t allow Mexicans to be trained engineers until the 1980s — Falcón’s family actually was replacing railroad ties or driving spikes into the tracks.


Honoring ‘Marfil Grin’


Falcón has an additional nod to the past. The title of their work, ‘Marfil Grin,’ is how Spanish-speaking families pronounced Matfield Green, according to Palacioz.

Falcón often incorporates historical photos as references — this one representing her grandparents — uniting the couple with the land and their labor. (Courtesy of Falcón)

“In another funny story, my mother named me something that my abuela cannot pronounce. I, too, am a product and legacy of the way that Spanish and English don’t always connect and translate clearly,” they said.


The gathering ended with an invite from Falcón to “dance on the porch of the bunkhouse for our ancestors, and to take some of those lessons of joy along with honoring their hard work,” as well as a promise on the horizon: Falcón and the owners of Matfield Station are working hard to place the bunkhouse on the National Register of Historic Places.


The recognition would honor the lives of the Mexican families who worked, cooked and danced upon the land they chose to make home. A way to bring their suppressed experiences to the forefront of history.


In "The Crosses We Bear," Falcón visually joins two different spaces — the gravesite and the home — honoring the sacrifices of those who worked and died on the railroads. She also shows the lasting impact and immediacy with which they are still felt. (Courtesy of Falcón)

You can view more of Falcon’s art work and read about their experience living in the bunkhouse by visiting tallgrassartistresidency.org/kandace-creel-falcon/.


For further exploration on Mexican railroad workers in Kansas, you can listen to ‘La Yarda,’ an oral history project looking into a neighborhood of worker housing in Lawrence. The interviews primarily feature the children of the railroad workers who migrated to Lawrence in the early 20th century.


Somos de Wichita, a Wichita State University project, also looks at how families from Mexico and Latin America weaved themselves into the fabric of the Wichita area via the railroad and meatpacking industry, and where their descendants stand culturally today. Available in English and Spanish.

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