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Hispanic Heritage Month: Meet the Kansas City community leader who mobilized Latinos to vote

Paul Rojas was the first Latino elected to the Missouri Statehouse in 1972.

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One Kansas City community leader mobilized Latinos to vote and run for office. Paul Rojas was also the first Latino elected to state office in Missouri.

His last name, Rojas, is proudly displayed around his home on Kansas City's westside. But his first name was given to him in school.

"My real name is Raul. I guess the nuns took the little foot off the R and made it Paul, a P, but that was not uncommon," Rojas said.

His father came to the United States from Mexico. The musician found work in packing houses.

"My brother used to say, 'You know Paul, whenever you go to a strange town, if you want to find the Mexican community, follow the railroad tracks,'" Rojas said.

Rojas grew up during World War II.

"I distinctly remember in school, when Rena Marino comes in and she was crying. They had just gotten notice of her dad. They sunk the ship," he said.

He joined the Navy as a teenager, serving during the Korean War.

"You have one son and you have one star. However, many sons were serving, that's how many stars were on your window. There was not a window in this Westside that didn't have one of these with a number of stars," Rojas said. "We have gone unnoticed for what we have given to this country. And all of us like myself, I'm very proud to be American citizens."

He became politically active, working to increase Hispanic representation.

"We formed a political organization. We, like in the Black community, we were controlled people politically. So, we changed that. It wasn't easy. There were threats made," Rojas said.

Rojas was the first Latino elected to the Missouri Statehouse in 1972. While doors opened for change, he received questions.

"Some people would ask me where you're from. You know, in the state Capitol, 'Where are you from?' Where am I supposed to be from, you know?" he said.

Despite progress, he said that discrimination persists.

"There is an organized movement to paint us as not worthy of holding such positions because they label us as being non-American this and being criminal elements, many of the things that are not true," Rojas said.

At 87 years old, he continues to be involved with the historic Guadalupe Centers organization, providing education and services to the Hispanic community in Kansas City.

He also speaks out against gentrification.

"The bulldozer that's going to run me out of here hasn't been built yet," Rojas said.

He said that young people give him hope for the future.

"Be proud of your heritage and be proud of who you are, and we are all made in God's image plain and simple," Rojas said.

Last year, Rojas was appointed by the Kansas City mayor to the city planning commission, which approves most major development project proposals.

Watch the video above for the full story.