Compadre: close friend, associate or companion; Spanish: joint father, godfather, friend; medieval latin: compater=with+father
Our community has lost an incredible man. Cirilo Arteaga was the compadre of many, a community activist, a keeper of stories, and the voice of the Mexican American community in Wichita. He knew our history, he knew our stories, and he shared our lives. For a man so small in stature, he left a mighty imprint on us all.
I knew Cirilo through my father, but more importantly, I knew Cirilo because of his stories. Cirilo knew no stranger and the relationships he made intertwined throughout our city, our state and across borders. He took the time to know everyone. And as he learned each story, he would share another, and another, so that eventually our stories became the fabric of our families, our friends, our neighbors. Each of us carries the patchwork of Cirilo and if you don’t, you have truly missed out.
A summary of his story: his family was from Mexico, he attended Horace Mann and North High and was the state wrestling champion three years in a row. He was the first Hispanic postal clerk in the city of Wichita, retiring after 41 years, and he served in the US Army during WWII. Mr. Arteaga spent his life helping others, which earned him the Distinguished Volunteer Award from Governor Sebelius in 2007 for his 65 years of voluntary service to the Hispanic community. Even in the days before he passed away, he was on the phone late one night, contacting someone to see if they could help someone else in need. If he couldn’t help you directly, he’d find someone who could.
And while I know all of this about Cirilo, what I will always remember is what he did for the young men of our community for 30+ years, including my father. Just back from the war, he organized a basketball team for Our Lady of Perpetual Help church, a team my father and many of the neighborhood boys played. He was their coach and manager. From this he founded the Mexican American Basketball Tournament in 1947. Began in Wichita, he worked hard to spread the word and soon the tournament was drawing teams from Texas, Colorado, California, Nebraska, and Iowa. To fund his tournament, he held a dance that included candidates for Mexican Queen, and the proceeds from the money raised by the candidates, sponsorships and raffles went to support the annual tournament. The tournament lasted 35 years and spawned many other Mexican American tournaments, all continuing his vision and legacy.
Tonight, just before the rosary held for Cirilo, my father showed me the program from the 26th Annual Mexican American Basketball Tournament held in March 1972. It was held at Bishop Carroll High School and Chaplain Kapaun High School, and was sponsored by the Wichita Mexican American Athletic Club. Inside the program is a photo of the first team who initiated the tournament: Gilbert Gutierrez, Augie Navarro, Joe Minjares, Lucas Rodriguez, Joe Rodriguez, Al Gutierrez, Eli Romero, A.Z. Zamorano, James Iniguez, Ruben Larez, and Cirilo Arteaga, coach. The queen candidates were Theresa Gutierrez, Marie Lopez, and my sister, Shirley Castro. There were teams competing from El Paso, Kansas City, Garden City, Coffeyville, Topeka, Winfield, Hutchinson, Newton, Wellington, and Wichita. At the back of the program, it lists the champions from 1947-1972: Our Lady Guadalupe (Hutch), Newton, Wichita OLPH, Kansas City Knights, Omaha Our Lady of Guadalupe, Wichita Conquistadors, KC Charros, etc. But it was more than just an annual basketball tournament.
From his vision, Cirilo was able to build relationships, give recognition, as well create an environment of strength, growth, and acceptance. Through the early years of the tournament, these young men were not allowed in certain restaurants, were forced to sit in the balconies of movie theaters, and definitely were not allowed to play on other city basketball teams. Cirilo gave them a place to play, a place to belong, a place to be welcomed. He gave them family.
I feel it was those hard, early years that encouraged Cirilo to seek out his people. He would read the rosters of local or visiting teams and find the young Mexican athletes, whether on the football team at the University of Wichita or playing in the NBC baseball tournament, or the WSU basketball team. He would introduce himself and bring these young men into our community, welcome them into his home, as well as all of our homes. He made sure they were fed traditional meals they were accustomed, and ensured they felt the support of familia even if they were miles from their homes. By his unselfish hands, our community reached to Texas, Arizona, California, New York, and into Mexico. The ripple that was Cirilo spread far and wide, and will be apparent many years to come.
What I hope each of us can do, as a community, as individuals, is continue his legacy. I hope we will continue to sit and learn the story of a stranger, welcome visitors, and extend a hand to our own who have lost their way. And in turn, we will share his story and continues ours, forever weaving the richness of Cirilo into the quiltwork of our community and lives.
“If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away when they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive.” (Barry Lopez)
“If you don’t know the trees, you may be lost in the forest, but if you don’t know the stories, you may be lost in life.”
Thank you, Cirilo, for always knowing, for always sharing.
Cirilo, front row center.