The Western History & Genealogy Department on the fifth floor of the Denver Public Library’s central branch is quiet, except for the sound of Kali Fajardo-Anstine flipping through maps of the city from the early 1930s. “Let me see if I can find where my people were,” she says, before landing on a page that charts out an area just west of downtown where each building is marked with a specific color. “You can see,” she says, “my character’s whole neighborhood is red.”
The character Fajardo-Anstine references is Luz, the protagonist of her debut novel, Woman of Light, a multigenerational saga due to be published by One World, an imprint of Random House dedicated to telling underrepresented stories, this month. And red is the color Sanborn Map Company, which created the nearly century-old atlas, used to denote structures that fire insurance companies should’ve viewed as too hazardous to underwrite. The map is a quintessential example of redlining, a discriminatory practice by which resources, such as mortgage loans and insurance, are denied to residents in specific neighborhoods, almost always largely inhabited by people of color.
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Fajardo-Anstine, who identifies as a Chicana of mixed heritage, including Indigenous ancestry she can trace back to various Pueblo tribes whose homelands are in what is now northern New Mexico, picks up another redlining map and reads aloud the words that accompany it. “Infiltration of Mexicans. Occupation: laborers, single. Repairs: very poor. This is an area of scattered old shacks and brick houses. Ranking: very rugged and unattractive,” she says, and then looks up. “It’s fascinating to see the way they talked about us.”
To give Woman of Light the heft she desired, Fajardo-Anstine, who is 35, spent countless hours in archives, including this one. Studying the maps allowed her to choose the neighborhoods where each character in the novel lived in a historically accurate way. Looking through microfiche of 1930s newspaper clips helped her decide which Denver radio station people in the book would’ve been listening to (an early version of KOA) as well as what stories listeners would’ve heard about constantly (everyone was talking about Bonnie and Clyde). She also found relics in the archives that make an appearance in the story, such as a Ku Klux Klan robe that was made for a baby, complete with the child’s name sewn into it.
Those details were important, but Fajardo-Anstine often wasn’t able to find the one thing she was most interested in learning about during her trips to the archives: accounts of what life was like for Americans of Mexican descent, also known as Chicanos, and other people of color at the time. “It’s mind-numbing to sift through hundreds and hundreds of documents that are just about white people,” she says. Even when she did find what she was looking for, there were issues, including the time an archive in southwest Colorado provided her with a box of oral history tapes from Chicanos who had lived in Durango. The tapes were completely out of order; some of the recordings were broken. Fajardo-Anstine sent an email saying that the archive needed to more highly value this aspect of Colorado history.
Fajardo-Anstine can’t seem to get away from archival injustices: A few days before she visited the Denver Public Library this past March, she experienced one firsthand. The city released a report in late February titled Nuestras Historias: Mexican American/Chicano/Latino Histories in Denver, which included a map highlighting historic places related to those groups in the city. One of the sites was the former home of Lucy Lucero, Fajardo-Anstine’s great-aunt, who died in 2010. Lucero’s home in Baker served as a haven for gay Chicano youth for more than 50 years, including during the height of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. But the city never credited Lucero’s daughter for the stories about the home. The report also spelled Lucero’s name wrong.
Fajardo-Anstine ultimately asked to have her family removed from the records. “The idea of taking a story from a family, and using a story without attributing it to the family, is extraction,” she says. “I think it mirrors the landscape having all the resources extracted from it. It’s people as resource, rather than people as human beings.”
The writer shifts from one black-booted foot to the other and pushes her dark hair behind her right ear as she considers her next thought, the maps laid out on a table in front of her. “There is no better way to learn about humans than to see the way they’ve been acting over time, the way they’ve kept records over time, and how they decided to tell stories,” Fajardo-Anstine says. She pauses, then adds: “Part of what I am trying to do with a book like Woman of Light is show that there needs to be more justice with how our stories are told.”
In the late 2000s, while Fajardo-Anstine was a student at Metropolitan State University of Denver, she regularly walked a couple of blocks from where she lived near Seventh and Inca streets to her great-aunt Lucy Lucero’s house at 547 Galapago Street. The two-story home, where Lucy and Fajardo-Anstine’s godmother, Joanna Lucero, lived, was often filled with the scent of beans and green chile. Everyone was welcome—neighbors occasionally stopped by to borrow $5 for a pack of cigarettes—and the television was always turned to Turner Classic Movies.
Midway through watching, say, an Omar Sharif film for the hundredth time, Lucy would turn to her guests and regale them with stories about her family. She talked about an uncle who had been a snake charmer and an aunt who had worked in a Denver glass factory manufacturing mirrors. The tales detailed traumas, such as the story of how her family hid from KKK members on the floor of their home or the one about how her father, a Belgian coal miner, abandoned the family when they lived in southern Colorado. (Despite the serious subject matter, Lucy would adopt a French accent when telling parts of that story.) “There was an element of entertainment with the stories,” Fajardo-Anstine says. “But I think it was also instructive: Try your hardest to stay out of these situations, because the world is going to bring them to you. You need to avoid getting killed.”
The narrative that stuck with Fajardo-Anstine more than any other, though, was the one about how her family ended up in Denver roughly 100 years ago. In the 1920s, another one of her great-aunts had a child with a white man while the family was living in a mining camp near the Colorado-New Mexico border. The man wouldn’t claim the baby as his own, and one of the great-aunt’s brothers assaulted her because he was embarrassed she got pregnant outside of marriage. After surviving the attack, the woman decided she’d had enough and hitchhiked north to the city. When she was settled in Denver, some of the other family members followed.
After hearing this history time and again, Fajardo-Anstine came to realize she might not exist if not for her great-aunt’s determination to start over. She also knew she had never seen this type of migration story, one that detailed how people made it from these small villages to the big city, in a book or on screen. Her family’s tales from that time were gripping and cinematic, and they spoke to a largely ignored aspect of the history of the American West. She began to wonder if she could help share the stories with a wider audience.
The then aspiring writer had already been working on pieces about her family’s past, including one based on the tale of her great-grandmother, great-aunt, and their siblings being abandoned by their father. In 2011, she wrote an early draft of Woman of Light, much of which was shaped by the stories she’d heard from family elders; the main characters were (and still are) inspired by her great-aunt, Lucy, and her great-grandmother, Esther.
Now, a little more than a decade later, the story, which is set in Depression-era Denver, is due to be published. The journey she took to tell it was, as one might imagine, anything but easy.
Fajardo-Anstine was in high school when she wrote a short story that begins when an Indigenous woman from a poor family is forced to marry a white rancher who lives on the plains. One of the only things she brings with her to her new home is a large cedar chest with a brass lock on it. Toward the end of the story, the pair run out of firewood, and the man decides to burn much of their furniture, including the cedar chest, so they don’t freeze to death. After the fire dies down, the woman sees that the brass lock survived the blaze, and she retrieves what is essentially her only remaining possession.
The themes in the story—including the ways in which people deal with trauma—were sophisticated for a teenager, an early sign of Fajardo-Anstine’s talent. The story also foreshadowed how she would use her family’s narratives in her work; Fajardo-Anstine’s parents had a similar lock in their room that had been in the family for multiple generations.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that she would be thinking about connections to the past, given the milieu in which she grew up. Her mother, Renee Fajardo, the director of the Journey Through Our Heritage program in the Chicano/a Studies Department at Metro State and a local activist, raised her kids—Fajardo-Anstine has five sisters and one brother—going to Indigenous prayer circles and Aztec dance classes at various locations around Denver. They constantly spent time at the homes of elder family members. Fajardo-Anstine’s childhood house in Arvada was also a regular gathering space for relatives, as well as artists, musicians, and other prominent figures within the local Chicano community who loved to tell stories.
Fajardo-Anstine didn’t always find the same level of understanding about her background outside of that community, though. While at school or participating in other activities in Arvada, parents of white children would walk up to her and ask, “What are you?” The question made her feel different—other—as she struggled to tell them that she was Indigenous Chicana but that she also had Belgian, Jewish, and Filipino ancestors. “These kids that come from these blended families can feel like they have no voice,” Renee says. “I think there were times when she definitely felt very alone because of that.”
High school was particularly difficult for Fajardo-Anstine, who describes her teenage self as “always depressed and listening to Bob Dylan’s music while lying on the floor.” She admits she didn’t always apply herself in class, but she knew she loved books and talked her way into Advanced Placement English to start her senior year at Pomona High School. About two weeks into the academic year, Fajardo-Anstine had what she calls a “major depressive episode,” which caused her to miss multiple days of class. After she returned, her English teacher pulled her aside and told her she didn’t seem cut out for school and should drop out. Fajardo-Anstine grabbed her backpack and started walking home, crying the entire way. She told her parents she was done with high school that day and never went back.
While the teacher at Pomona failed Fajardo-Anstine, other mentors in her life would provide her with the literary education she desired. Her father, Glen Anstine, often bought new books and left them outside of her bedroom when she was a teenager. At the age of 16, she started working at West Side Books in northwest Denver, where owner Lois Harvey exposed her to tomes from a wide swath of authors, such as Great Plains novelist Willa Cather, science-fiction writer Octavia Butler, and futurist Arthur C. Clarke.
Fajardo-Anstine held a job at the shop off and on until she was almost 30, including while she earned her GED and studied English and Chicano/a Studies at Metro State. During that time, Harvey watched her grow and find her voice as a woman and a writer. But even when Fajardo-Anstine was younger, Harvey sensed she was destined for greatness. “She was always so conscientious and deeply thoughtful,” Harvey says. “I just remember my husband saying, ‘She seems like someone who is going to end up being interviewed [on NPR] by Terry Gross someday.’ ”
In late 2012, Fajardo-Anstine had a moment of clarity. She was sitting on a Navajo-style rug in the home of one of her professors for the creative writing MFA program at the University of Wyoming. Four of her classmates, all white men, were also there, and the group was workshopping one student’s story about a character who came to the American West and found himself by connecting with the landscape and nature. Nothing about that was unusual. Week after week, the pieces they discussed always seemed to have similar themes.
Many of Fajardo-Anstine’s classmates had received accolades for stories about the transformative experience of coming West. Some of them had been published in major magazines such as the New Yorker, and one student had already gotten a book deal. “These white men, who are not from the area, were given this ability to define it somehow,” she says. “And they were being praised for it.”
Fajardo-Anstine knew she had a repository of rich, meaningful, authentic stories about the region. She had been subconsciously centering her writing up to that point on the tales from her great-aunt, great-grandmother, and others, and the idea of creating historical fiction based on her family’s migration to Denver was ever-present. She also knew she was a good writer. She remembers one of her professors at Wyoming, the esteemed author Joy Williams, running up and down the hallway of the department with an early draft of Fajardo-Anstine’s “Sugar Babies,” a story about two eighth graders in a fictional town in southern Colorado who have to care for a bag of sugar together for a home economics class; it became the first piece to appear in Sabrina & Corina. “Who wrote this?” Williams wondered aloud for everyone to hear. “This is incredible.” But Fajardo-Anstine’s work had yet to receive the same amount of attention from the publishing world as her classmates’.
As Fajardo-Anstine sat on the rug in her professor’s house on that day in 2012 and listened to the group dissect yet another piece about a white person taming nature, she realized that she was being called to focus her work on the lives of Indigenous Chicana women living in the American West in a way that felt like a form of social justice. She would make them the center of her stories to show their strength and resilience, their ability to overcome. “My family’s story is: We were here, then Europeans came here and mixed with us,” she says. “And then they literally just kept coming. And now we’re invisible. I needed to add my voice to that.”
Despite having that fully formed sense of purpose, success as an author didn’t come immediately after Fajardo-Anstine graduated from the University of Wyoming with a master’s degree in 2013. She bounced around the country working various jobs, including a writing fellowship in South Carolina and a gig helping put on a festival for a literary nonprofit in the Florida Keys. She also taught freshman composition at Fort Lewis College in Durango for a year. All the while, she kept working on her novel, as well as the short stories that would eventually constitute Sabrina & Corina.
She managed to have a few of those stories published in literary journals such as the Idaho Review and the American Scholar. More often than not, though, publishers rejected her submissions. “For a while there I think it was really tough for her,” Fajardo-Anstine’s sister Piper Anstine says. “I don’t think she ever considered quitting writing, but she was definitely wondering whether or not it was ever going to work out for her.”
In 2016, while at Fort Lewis, Fajardo-Anstine sent a draft of Woman of Light to her agent, Julia Masnik. Masnik didn’t find it particularly compelling. She knew Fajardo-Anstine was capable of better writing and asked the author if she’d considered doing more research for the book. “At first, I was like, I don’t need to research this. I live in this,” Fajardo-Anstine says. “But I decided to try it, and it set off this explosion.”
Every weekend, she would drive to sacred sites, such as Chaco Canyon and Chimney Rock, throughout the Southwest. She started digging through museum and library archives. She spent hours talking to people about their stories, including the older Chicano couple who lived next door to her. “I realized I am part of a bigger thing,” she says. “There are so many of us who have these stories.”
About a year later, Fajardo-Anstine and Masnik sent a group of short stories and 50 pages of a revised version of Woman of Light to Nicole Counts, an editor at One World. Counts was mesmerized by what she read. “It’s so, so rare to fall in love with just 50 pages,” Counts says. “But everything I was reading was in such high saturation. She would describe the color yellow, and it would be so bright. She would write about a cottonwood tree, and it would just come to life.”
Fajardo-Anstine signed a two-book deal with One World in fall 2017. The publisher decided to release Sabrina & Corina first, followed by the novel. Fajardo-Anstine’s writing, fictional re-creations of her ancestors’ tales, of the lives of Indigenous Chicana women, and of Denver, were about to be shared with the world.
For most of 2020, Kali Fajardo-Anstine lived in a small studio apartment at 17th and Champa streets in downtown Denver. Like most everyone else, she hunkered down to avoid COVID-19. She also had to finish a draft of Woman of Light.
The previous year had been one of the busiest of Fajardo-Anstine’s life, following the publication of Sabrina & Corina in April 2019. She remembers being anxious in the lead-up to the collection’s release because most local outlets, 5280 included, hadn’t reviewed it—or written anything about it at all. Her agent suggested to Fajardo-Anstine that she go on tour. But she didn’t have enough funding, so she arranged small, grassroots events. She held a launch party at Lighthouse Writers Workshop; she spoke at Su Teatro, a nonprofit arts complex supporting Latino culture in Denver; and she even did things such as write to the San Antonio City Council to see if it would help land her a book reading in the area (that one actually worked).
Interest in the book grew slowly. Fajardo-Anstine attributes the initial support for Sabrina & Corina to Chicanos throughout the Southwest. “It was huge that she wrote about a modern Denver that centers Latinos,” says Manuel Aragon, former community engagement manager for Lighthouse Writers Workshop. “People were like, Oh, this is finally the Denver I know.” The hype for Sabrina & Corina reached a different level when award selections began pouring in. The collection was a finalist for the PEN/Bingham Prize, the Clark Prize, the Story Prize, and the Saroyan International Prize. It won the American Book Award. But the biggest moment came when Sabrina & Corina was named a National Book Award finalist; she and her parents flew to New York City to attend a high-profile ceremony, where she accepted a medal.
By spring 2020, however, the celebrations had ended, and Fajardo-Anstine found herself in that tiny apartment, trying to finish her novel. She had moved to the location from her parents’ house, where she’d been living the previous few years. Despite the success of Sabrina & Corina, she qualified for one of the few units in her building reserved as low-income housing. The door had one lock, instead of two like most others in the building, and there was a hole where the second was supposed to be. The award-winning author says she got a “modest to medium-good” advance for her two books, but she had yet to see royalties on the deal. (At press time, she expected to pass the required sales threshold soon to start earning more.)
Fajardo-Anstine had chosen to live in the location in part because it is across the street from where Luz, the main character in the novel, works as a secretary for a lawyer. The decision to have Luz and the attorney work on a case related to the murder of a young Chicano by police officers helped unlock a larger view of how the city operated at the time, and it was helpful for Fajardo-Anstine to be near that space while imagining their lives.
She couldn’t ignore what was going on around her, though. The scenes that Fajardo-Anstine witnessed in present-day Denver were eerily similar to everything she had researched, and was currently writing, about the Mile High City in the 1930s. She heard from people who were afraid they were going to be evicted, watched protests against police brutality, and found xenophobic rhetoric everywhere she turned. All of those things appear in Woman of Light in some form. The tenuous nature of her own living situation even echoed the many versions of displacement her ancestors experienced. “It felt like a direct portal between the Depression and what we were experiencing,” she says.
Fajardo-Anstine hopes Woman of Light will change things for her personally. She told Masnik and Counts when she signed her book deal that her goal was to eventually be able to afford a house in Denver. “Maybe we’ll get a Netflix show, and that’ll happen,” she says. She wants the Mile High City—or at least the Denver area—to always be her home.
Things are changing rapidly, though, and Fajardo-Anstine says she can feel the city becoming more segregated than ever. “If you read the book, you can see Denver was built in these zones and sections,” she says. “The cost of living is naturally pulling people apart again. Even the Chicano Arts and Humanities Council had to move out of the city—it just signed a lease in Lakewood.”
Fajardo-Anstine can’t predict what comes next, for Denver or her career. No matter what the future brings, she expects she’ll continue to tell stories. It’s the best way she knows to show that what’s happening, both in the Mile High City and the American West, is part of a much longer history. It helps her honor her ancestors and the successes and traumas they experienced in their lives. Most important, it’s how she plans to keep those stories from disappearing forever.