“West Side Por Vida”: Reclaiming History with Rodolfo Marron III


Holding on to History

There’s a mural on Summit, just south of its intersection with Southwest boulevard. Weathered by the seasons, graffiti tags, and local efforts at hiding them, boxer Julio César Chávez stands focused, sending a left jab at full extension.

The mural is slowly becoming camouflaged in its urban surroundings, with fading hues of blue and bright red turning pink. Through the wear, hovering just above Chávez’s arm, you can still read “PEACE IN THE HOOD – PAZ EN EL BARRIO”

The mural is embedded in the memory of Westsiders like Rodolfo Marron III, who named his Rocket Grants project Paz En El Barrio after this landmark. At his studio in south Kansas City, the artist and Kansas City native recalls formative moments associated with the painting – like pretending the boxer was his father when he was young, or flipping through pages at Half Price Books and seeing a photo of the mural just before seeing one of his late grandfather, Al Rodolfo Marron Sr.

“West Side For Life” a photo of Al Rodolfo Marron Sr.

“It was just something really powerful, being able to see family and someone that looked like me” Marron says.

“And thinking about how important that is for young, brown, Latinx children to see their families and a likeness of them in these books…that shows their history, their importance, and their place in this community.”

Paz En El Barrio is a collection of photos, stories, and interviews with residents of West Kansas City’s Latinx community documenting their families’ histories in the area. The publication ties into a recent shift in Marron’s work,using themes of community and heritage to preserve the history of his Westside neighborhood in the face of gentrification.

As an artist, Marron tells his story through shrines, mythology, handmade dyes, sequins, personal photos, ghostly paintings and collected objects. He creates arrangements of personal memories and iconography that feel like a stream-of-consciousness view into the context of his life. Paz En El Barrio, however, is not just about Marron’s own history – it serves as a platform for the collective memory of his barrio.

Marron notes the difficulty of keeping up with his neighborhood when everything changes so quickly. He laments the loss of neighborhood staples like Ortega’s Mini Mart, or a series of murals off 27th and Belleview at the old Guadalupe Center office. One depicted Emilio Zapata, another the Aztec calendar, and the third an Aztec warrior beside the body of his dying princess.


Ortega’s Mini Mart

Google Earth screenshot of the three murals in 2015 before they were taken down

Seeing them in a dumpster on a rainy day after the building was boarded up, Marron initially blamed himself for not being quick enough to document them. But it also made him reflect on the rapid development happening in West Kansas City.

“That’s the interesting thing to note… is how much Westsiders are aware of what’s happening in their community, what these developments are, and whether or not they’re being included.” Marron says. “These changes don’t go unnoticed”


Walk the Line/Speak Up

Even though he is from the neighborhood, Marron still considers himself an outsider at times. As he assumes the role of documentarian on the streets where he grew up, walking the line between intimate and intrusive has been a challenge for him. Being invasive or coming off as exploitative of people’s time and sensitive memories are genuine worries that Marron deals with while interviewing community members for his project.

“Even as Droopy and Bethel’s little brother, which a lot of people know me as, I still feel a little ‘other’ because I’m an artist. I want to be respectful entering those spaces so that they know that I’m coming there as a fellow Westsider, Latino, Chicano… I’ve learned that a lot of families on the Westside are proud, but they’re still very private. So it’s a little tricky having them trust me even.”

Part of the trust Marron speaks of involves honoring his participant’s faith that their stories will be shown accurately. As many communities of color are aware, there’s significant power in being able to control someone’s image. So it makes sense that West Kansas City’s Latinx residents would be cautious as to who they share their stories with with.

Marron is well aware of this dynamic, and you can hear it in how he talks about his career and lifestyle as an artist trying to engage with his community. Whether it’s his Mexican-American heritage, queerness, his West Kansas City upbringing, or being an artist, Marron is constantly struggling to reconcile these identities with one another.

“It’s that idea of codeswitching, which I am guilty of. From… how I talk with my family and friends, and then trying to change that up.” Marron says.

As he finds himself in more arts spaces – whether it’s group shows, solo exhibitions, or his residency at Fire Island in New York City – Marron is growing more aware of how his presence and artwork can have an impact. When asked if he feels pressure to put his work in a more political frame, Marron accepts the challenge.

“Growing up I was more quiet and reserved. Even in school I was the kid that never wanted to be called on… but with this opportunity I’ve had through winning the Rocket Grant and all these opportunities, I can’t be silent. If I can create visibility and if I can be a small voice in the Latino, Chicano, Westside, Midwest, arts community… I have to say something valuable. I have to do it justice and pay my respects.”

“Just like with my own artwork, I think it’s important to create space for these same communities so they can start to see themselves in fine art, galleries, and museums. Not just for some elitist group” Marron says.

Organizations in Kansas City like the Mattie Rhodes Center, Garcia Squared Contemporary, and the Artist of Color Alliance, which Marron is a part of, help inspire him as he shifts towards using his work to talk about social and political issues affecting his community. He wants to be able to exist beyond his own awareness, and to claim the power that he now has as an artist.

Paz En El Barrio is Marron’s first large step towards owning his newfound influence in his community. It is a representation of West Kansas City’s Latinx community created by members of the community themselves. As a physical publication, he means it to be something special to hold, to grow with and to share between generations. It should be a place residents can see themselves years later and celebrate their long and unique history.

“It’s a way for this community to reminisce and hold onto memories…, but also a tool to teach these people that are moving in and have no idea what they’re getting into.” Marron says

“If you’re going to come in… respect the place, understand it. And educate yourself on the people that have lived here for generations.”


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