Public art has become a visual battleground of contested space in the epic story of Denver’s growth; one in which artist Emanuel Martínez has been a part since painting his first mural on the walls of La Alma Lincoln Park in 1970. In a new art exhibition, Smoking Mirrors: Visual Histories of Identity, Resistance, & Resilience, which opens October 14 at Museo de las Americas, Martínez will do what he does best—tell the story of Indigenous peoples’ resistance and resilience, using mythology and history as the lexicon.

The exhibition opens just weeks after the Denver City Council voted unanimously to make La Alma Lincoln Park an historic cultural district. Much of the conversation behind that decision centered on Martínez and preserving hundreds of murals he created as a celebration of Chicano history and culture—which many longtime residents consider the soul of a neighborhood threatened by gentrification.

“His contributions are not just aesthetic,” says Denver City Councilwoman Jamie Torres, “they speak on behalf of our community history, our battles for visibility and justice, and our cultural contributions.” Torres’ District 3, which includes neighborhoods in the western part of the city like Sun Valley and Westwood, is an open-air museum dedicated to Martínez’s murals.

La Alma Lincoln Park has been a focal point for the community since its days as a hub of civil rights activism for Denver’s Chicano community. It was home to the Brown Berets, a communist party group, and the Crusade for Justice; the local organization led by activist Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales protested police brutality, employment discrimination, and inequity in public education endured by the city’s Latinx communities. It was also the site where Martínez painted his first of many murals, not under the auspices of municipal cultural management, but as a form of resistance.

“The first mural I did was on the outside of the housing projects,” says Martínez. “When the director of the Denver Housing Authority heard about it, he came with an eviction notice.” Martínez says it was his collaboration with the community in painting the artwork that saved him from being unhoused. “Residents who were helping me paint said, ‘If you kick him out, you’re gonna have to kick us all out.’ ”

That commitment to community is what continues to set Martínez’s work—which has also appeared in the Smithsonian and in California—apart from contemporary muralists of some notoriety. (His first commissioned piece, completed in 1967, was for the Bishop of Los Angeles; a Catholic mass altar emblazoned with a crucifix bearing a brown-skinned Jesus and an indigenous woman holding wheat and grapes, meant to signify the bread and wine of communion.) It’s a commitment that spans decades.

Emanuel Martinez
“Eyes on the Park” by Emanuel Martínez. Photo by Philip Clapham

In 1971, Martínez wanted to create a space for young people to learn and express themselves through art. That year he was hired by Denver Parks and Recreation, first as a lifeguard at La Alma, and later—after receiving a grant to implement an arts and crafts training program for young people in the neighborhood—as a recreation coordinator. The only problem was a lack of space. So Martínez and other community members converted an old storage building on site into a year-round center.

“I never really intended to be a rec leader,” says Martínez. “I wanted to paint murals.”

The unexpected gig, which Martínez recalls paid around $3.60 an hour, had perfect timing. “The city was putting out a lot more money to remove graffiti than it would be to hire me to do murals,” which Marintez says led to him becoming the first and only full-time muralist for the city of Denver. There was a catch, however. He had to buy his own paint and supplies. Despite the costs, the artist painted hundreds of murals on building fronts and bridges, inside schools, and other buildings.

He even turned public pools into gallery space, like at Curtis-Mestizo Park’s “Eyes On the Park,” a mesmerizing multicultural fresco of three bronzed-skinned, square-jawed, and sunglassed subjects painted in 1971 that represents the neighborhood’s historically Black and brown residents. “La Alma,” painted in 1978, adorns a rec-center wall at the eponymous park with vibrant images full of symbolism connecting contemporary Chicano peoples to their indigenous past. His mural from 2000 entitled “Confluent People” has become an iconic splash of paint along the Speer Boulevard corridor and a favorite among Denverites.

Martínez has since expanded his repertoire, working as a relief artist and a sculptor; something that Michael Chavez, program manager for Denver Arts & Venues, says is often overlooked. “His bust for Cesar Chavez Park is amazing,” he says. His most recent, a towering monolith entitled, “La Raza Unida,” was unveiled in June of 2021 during a renaming ceremony for La Raza Park. The piece is set to be presented to the city as a gift to its permanent public art collection, according to Chavez. And, at the upcoming Museo exhibit, Martínez will reveal new work, including a 20-foot-long sculpture of Quetzalcóatl, Mexico’s feathered serpent deity, alongside 30-plus local artists.

Emanuel Martinez
Emanuel Martínez. Photo courtesy of Chicano Murals of Colorado Project

Martínez’s cultural and political awareness began as a child, growing up in Five Points. He was part of a cadre of young people enthralled with the Chicano movement. Those early political voices were heard through art, and continue to influence generations of Chicano and Latinx artists in Denver.

But some, like Lucha Martínez de Luna, an archeologist, founder and director of the Chicano/a Murals of Colorado Project, and daughter to Martínez, view Five Points as a cautionary tale.

“I’m worried because Five Points, which is also a historic cultural district, has been almost 100 percent gentrified,” says Martínez de Luna. She suggests that the designation could spur an influx of artists and their co-ops, leaving a trail for developers and yuppies to follow, displacing longtime residents in a process referred to as “art washing.” “Co-ops start setting up artists’ studios, talking about how they’re going to work with the community, but they also start working with developers,” says Martínez de Luna. “That’s exactly what they did in Five Points, they even changed the name of the neighborhood to RiNo.”

La Alma Lincoln Park is the Mile High City’s second historic cultural district. Five Points is the first. In a 2020 Westword essay by co-founder Patricia Calhoun, she pontificates on how the historically Black neighborhood, once known as the Harlem of the West, would perhaps be more aptly named “Gentrification Station.” The neighborhood in which Black folks were redlined into, used to stretch all the way to the Platte River, and for many former and longtime residents, its reparceling and renaming are a form or racial harm meant to erase its Black past in order to make it a palatable arts hub.

The move came as the neighborhood, one of Denver’s oldest, continues to see encroaching gentrification; that double-edged social phenomenon promising economic renewal in the form of eateries, coffeeshops, and art galleries, but also displacement of longtime residents. This, just after a 2020 study by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition named Denver the “second-most gentrified city in America.” A 2015 study by the city of Denver had already listed Lincoln Park, and other historically Black and Latinx neighborhoods as “vulnerable” to gentrification.

That change potentially threatens Martínez’s murals. Since the designation only protects physical buildings, and not what’s painted on them, the art exists at the whim of building owners, especially artwork on private property. So, Martínez de Luna’s organization—whose mission is to promote, protect, and preserve the legacy of Chicano muralists across Colorado—is working against the clock.

She knows there’s no way of recuperating the art once it’s gone. When asked just how many murals were made or still exist, she couldn’t give an answer. “Everytime I drive through a neighborhood, I remember a place where there was a mural and it’s just not there anymore,” she says. “It’s heartbreaking.”