Rafaela Garcia, longtime political organizer and ‘Queen Bee’ of West Side, dies at 93

Rafaela “Lali” Garcia, longtime community activist and political organizer for the Hispanic community on Kansas City’s West Side, died Wednesday morning of chronic health conditions, her family said. She was 93.

Over her decades-long career volunteering for political and charitable causes, Garcia has been celebrated as a highly influential figure who fought on the front lines seeking to correct economic, social and racial injustices. She also developed a reputation as a kingmaker in Kansas City politics, using her organizational skills and clout to make or break political futures.

“Every person wanting to get elected in Kansas City had to at some time or another sit down and talk to Lali Garcia. The last thing you wanted was for her not to be for you,” U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II told The Star on Thursday, describing Garcia as a close friend for nearly 40 years.

“She was a sweetheart who could also take somebody apart,” Cleaver added.

Widely known in the West Side, friends and acquaintances called her “Queen Bee” because she was always buzzing around town and staying involved with various social clubs. She built friendships in high places, and knew who to call when something was needed in her community.

As a co-founder of La Raza Political Club and its president, Garcia helped blaze the path of former Kansas City Councilman Robert “Bobby” Hernandez in 1975 — the first person of Mexican descent elected to the position. Her activism and voter drive initiatives continued even until last year’s presidential election with assisting and organizing buses for senior citizens to make it to the polls.

She helped to develop the Guadalupe Centers, a nonprofit organization that offers social and educational services to Hispanic Kansas Citians, through volunteer efforts there for years. And she served on a number of city-related boards and committees, including as an appointee of Cleaver’s while he was Kansas City’s mayor.

“Strong lady in the community. She’s going to be sorely missed,” said Manuel “Rabbit” Hernandez, La Raza’s vice president.

Whether she was making a case to state lawmakers in Jefferson City or bringing heat to a meeting in the Kansas City council chambers, Hernandez said Garcia always remained a fighter. If something was needed or had been promised to the West Side, she would go and get it, he said.

Hernandez said the political club she helped found is going to be around for a long time to come. And after all these years, they’re planning to name the organization after her.

“You couldn’t ask for anybody better to represent the community,” he said of Garcia.

Garcia was born Oct. 24, 1927 in Kansas City, Kansas. She spent her early life there, marrying her husband and beginning a family, until the destructive Flood of 1951 effectively wiped out the Armourdale community where she resided.

The eldest of three, she was tasked then with helping her family and extended family rebuild while her husband, Jesse Garcia, was serving in the U.S. Army. The Garcias eventually settled on the West Side and stayed there, planting deep roots in the community.

“My aunts and uncles always tell me, ‘We don’t know what we would have done without Lali. Because she came in and she got us and she got us to safety,” said Lisa Aquino, her daughter.

“She has just always been an organizer,” Aquino said.

Garcia drew inspiration from her stepfather, Ramon Reyes, who she raised her since she was 7 years old. A former chef on County Club Plaza, Reyes co-founded the Union Cultural Mexicana, an organization formed with the aim of preserving Hispanic culture and heritage and fighting discrimination.

He encouraged her to do whatever she could to help others — especially those most in need.

“When I was a young person, we were not let into restaurants,” Garcia told The Star in a 1994 interview. “They kicked us out because we were Hispanic. He was always telling me, ‘If you can ever do anything for your people, I want you to find a way.’ He told me, ‘You’re strong enough, and you’ve got the mouth for it, so just do it!’”

Garcia was preceded in death by her son and husband. Her survivors include her two daughters, Lisa Aquino and Julia Palmer, and 24 grandchildren. Services are scheduled to begin with a visitation at 5 p.m. June 16 in Kansas City’s Redemptorist Church.