By Joe Stumpe
When Esther Lazos thinks back to her arrival in Wichita 42 years ago, she lets out a soft laugh. Both she and her husband came here from Mexico illegally, with no ability to speak English. Their possessions consisted of “a 6-year-old and empty hands.”
They had one thing going for them, though.
“Me and my husband, we are a great team,” Esther said.
Today, she and Luis own 18 rental homes, enjoy legal status and are proud of having started the first Spanish language Baptist church in Wichita.
Back in 1979, with the United States facing an oil crisis, inflation and depression, they were just happy to get work in their new home. Luis found a job with the Garvey Grain elevator on 29th Street, and Esther got a job cleaning rooms at the Wichita Royal, which she remembers as “a beautiful hotel” at Douglas and Main, making $2.80 an hour.
On her bus rides to work, Esther noticed a Spanish-speaking woman wearing a snazzy blue uniform. The woman told Esther she worked at St. Francis Hospital and made $3.50 per hour.
“I thought ‘Oh my god,’” Esther said. “I put in my mind I wanted that job.”
Esther, who still didn’t speak any English, had her nephew coach her on how to say “I’m looking for a job.” For a week straight, she showed up at the front desk of the hospital and repeated the phrase, unable to understand what was being said to her in return. Finally, a Spanish-speaking employee came out and said, “Today I have a job for you.”
Esther worked in housekeeping at the hospital from 1980 to 2008. After giving birth to her second son, she learned English to be able to take part in parent-teacher conferences. At work, when she saw fellow Spanish-speaking employees struggle, she helped any way she could. Her boss noticed.
“The director one day says, ‘What are you doing cleaning when you can do something else?'”
She got promoted to supervisor in 1995 and was made general manager two years later. She obtained her U.S. citizenship after President Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which made nearly 3 million immigrants eligible for amnesty.
In 1990, Esther and Luis bought a home at 2601 N. Fairview, paying $8,000 cash — a memory that brings another laugh. After remodeling it, Esther suggested they sell that house and get a loan to buy another one. Luis doubted whether a bank would lend them money.
“I said, ‘If you don’t try, you don’t know if you can do it or not.’”
They got a loan and bought a house on the west side for $16,000 in 1993, fixed it up and sold it for $65,000. By the time they bought their third house, Esther had another idea.
“I told my husband, ‘Let’s start renting it.’”
They did, and Esther started looking for more houses to buy, fix up and rent. The uglier the house was, the better she liked them.
Asked how she found them, Esther said, “You know, I think they’re looking for me.’”
More seriously, she said, “First, I look for good footing and structure. If a house has a good foundation and framing, the rest doesn’t matter. We can fix it.”
In some cases, the homes were vacant and awaiting demolition by the city. Esther and Luis did most of the work themselves, fixing or replacing drywall, windows, floors and cabinets, while leaving electrical and plumbing work to professionals.
Although landlord-tenant conflicts are not uncommon, Esther said the couple has been “blessed” in that regard. “Our tenants are very good. They take care of them.”
Real estate developer John Todd met Esther and Luis as they were remodeling the Armstrong property and came away impressed, saying, “They have created tremendous economic and neighborhood uplift over the years.”
From St. Francis, Esther went to work at Wesley for five years and then spent one year at Galicia Heart Hospital before retiring at age 60. Luis retired from the maintenance department at St. Francis.
Originally, the couple planned to return to Mexico, but now their roots are here. They have five grandchildren spread between Wichita, Texas and Iowa. In 1990, unable to find Baptist services in Spanish locally, they started a church, Iglesia Bautista Getsemani. When the congregation outgrew their garage, Esther went to the local office of the Southern Baptist Association seeking help. They were allowed to use a Baptist church then located at Topeka and St. Francis. The church broke up in 2018 over a pastoral dispute, but Esther said several options exist for Spanish-speaking Baptists today.
The couple’s 18th house — on north Armstrong — will be their last. They plan to sell or turn their properties over to their sons.
That’ll give Esther more time to read novels and doing puzzles, both of which you can be sure she never leaves unfinished.
“I’m not the kind of person to give up.”