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Accurate histories of minority and marginalized communities are difficult to come by. It’s even harder to tell such stories when those communities have been destroyed—which is what the city of Denver did when it razed the largely Hispanic Auraria neighborhood in the 1970s. To ensure similar cultural demolition doesn’t happen in the future, the city released a historic context study of its Mexican American, Chicano, and Latino communities in March. The study—the first in a series of similar projects—will help determine the culturally significant structures that deserve special protection, so they aren’t torn down.
At the same time, the report provides fascinating insight into the evolution of Latino culture in the Mile High City. That tale is far too wide-ranging to publish in a single magazine story—or a book or a library, really—so we asked Colorado state historian Nicki Gonzales, a consultant on the project, to draw up a timeline of five important milestones.
More than twice as many Mexicans will die during the Mexican Revolution as will Americans in World War II. To escape the bloodshed, many Mexicans start fleeing to the United States, some landing in the Auraria neighborhood in Denver, which is predominantly Irish and German at the time. The influx of Latinos will rise during the world wars, as they seek higher wages in factories and as the Great Western Sugar Company, among others, begins recruiting Mexicans as inexpensive labor for its beet fields.
Hispanics who move into Auraria encounter discrimination at the area’s churches. St. Leo the Great, for example, reserves the main altar for whites; Latinos are baptized in the basement. Mexican women advocate for their own parish, leading to the establishment of St. Cajetan Church in Auraria, home to a school, convent, and credit union. Although the building will be spared from urban renewal, the congregation relocates to southwest Denver.
Two Mexican Revolution refugees, Ramon and Carolina Gonzalez, turn their Auraria home into Casa Mayan, the first Mexican restaurant in Denver. It becomes a gathering place for advocacy groups such as the West Side Coalition, a sort of chamber of commerce for largely Hispanic west Denver.
In response to a series of Rocky Mountain News articles about the “Spanish American Problem” in Denver, more than 1,000 Mexican Americans demonstrate at Cole Middle School. The protest leads to the creation of the Good Americans Organization (GAO), which promotes civil rights and improved neighborhood conditions for Latinos. Under leader Paco Sanchez, a former musician and the founder of Denver’s first Spanish-language radio station, the GAO becomes the first private organization in the city to financially back low-income housing projects.
Even as Hispanics become entrenched in their own neighborhoods, they are often left out of politics because citywide balloting decides representation for each district, leaving Denver’s majority-white population to choose elected officials in Latino areas. Latinos begin leading their own communities in the 1960s when the city makes the transition to districtwide voting, providing a path into office for Chicano movement leaders. Polly Baca, for one, becomes the first Latina to serve in both chambers of the Colorado General Assembly, and she twice co-chairs the Democratic National Convention.