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Kansas man creates ‘A Slice of Time’

Dani Sandoval captures hands and heart of Mexican Village

 By Dave Myers

Southwest Kansas Catholic

They came to Kansas, their hearts clinging to prayers for a better life—some coming alone, some with a young family—promises of a job with the Santa Fe Railroad adding to the fervent hope that their prayers might be fulfilled.

    Such was the response to jobs offered by the Santa Fe Railroad that the company donated a 450 by 500 square-foot plot, which became the land on which the influx of Mexican and Hispanic American workers built their homes.

    The area, just southeast of Dodge City, became known as the Mexican Village. It had its own school, church, and general store. 

    A sculpture now on display at Boot Hill Museum in Dodge City seeks to honor all those who worked to build and maintain the historic railroad while living in the Village. It includes two hands swinging a hammer onto a spike, held by two more hands, to pound it into a railroad tie to hold the track in place.

    “The idea for the sculpture came after attending a Mexican Village reunion,” noted Wichita artist Dani Sandoval.

    “I was thinking about dedicating something to our village ancestors and our railroad forefathers.”

    Sandoval’s great-great-grandparents on his father’s side were ranchers from Spain, traveling across Kansas by covered wagon, settling in the “Republic of Texas”, now known as New Mexico. His grandparents on his mother’s side came from Mexico; her father was a boot-maker by trade.

    “Days at the Village started very early,” Sandoval explained. “Even on weekends, you would always see a parade of men leaving their homes, answering a morning steam whistle from the railroad yard.        

    “The next whistle was at high noon, and everyone would stop and eat their lunch. And there was one at the end of the day. We could tell time by those whistles.                

    “Some of those old timers were so good at swinging that hammer; they could hit the spike all the way into the wooden tie with only two hits,” Sandoval said.

    “I started to look for original railroad workers to help construct my sculpture, and the closest one to me was my Uncle Manuel. He started telling me stories that the old timers told him. I came up with the idea for the sculpture and I asked him if he wanted to be part of my sculpture piece. He said sure, yeah!”

    On his back porch, the artist gently poured the molding material around his Uncle Manuel’s hands as his uncle told stories of his work on the railroad some seven decades earlier.

    “His stories added fuel to my sculpture,” Sandoval said. “He said he’d been assigned to work on the ‘rip track,’ where they would repair and replace track. Just the thought of it and how many spikes were hammered from ocean to ocean. ... It was hard to wrap my mind around it. Every tie has two plates and four spikes on each plate with miles and miles of track.

    “I had a piece of track and found other pieces over the years, and got this spike mull [the iron end of the hammer] donated by the K&O Railroad. I was looking for men who were from the village who also worked on the railroad to swing the hammer. I couldn’t find anyone to volunteer, so I used my hands as a representative of the spirit to all our forefathers. I wanted to make it as authentic as I could get. My hands looked really soft, so I put a glove on my left hand and cut out my fingers to make a stronger image of a worker’s hands. My uncle had worked on the railroad and his hands looked like alligator skin from working in the sun.”

    If you read the story on the quilt on Page 24 of last week’s issue, then you know the man to whom the hands belong. Manuel Gonzales was the father of Nora Mode, who donated the “classroom” quilt to the Boot Hill Museum. (Nora’s mother and Sandoval’s mother are sisters.)

    The quilt hangs beside Sandoval’s sculpture, which was also donated to the museum.

    “I invited Nora to come and see the finished piece,” he said of his cousin. “She came after her shift at work, and I had just put it all together in my backyard at about two in the morning. We both stood there looking at it. It was dark and a single spot light was shining on it. The piece was glowing. I can’t explain the emotions we both felt.

    “We looked at each other and she asked, ‘What are you going to call it?’ It’s like the hands were there but the people weren’t. It’s like a slice of time. That’s how the title came about.”

                The Village was razed in the early 1950s, leaving little evidence of the multitude of lives it embraced all those years ago, making “A Slice of Time” an invaluable visual record for all those to come.

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