Located on Morrison Road in Denver’s Mexican Cultural District, members of the Rise Westwood Collective are quietly starting a revolution. What began as a collaborative, pandemic-era project launched by a small group of food vendors has since beget a thriving cultural hub that supports a diverse array of BIPOC-, Latinx-, and women-owned businesses. The collective’s events—which include its popular monthly Veggie Viernes event, a celebration of all things vegan—showcase the culture of the Westwood community through food, art, live music, youth activities, traditional Aztec dance performances, artisan vendors, and more.

Damaris Ronkanen, the owner of Cultura Chocolate, is the collective’s founder. Her Mexican-inspired, bean-to-bar chocolate company opened its first storefront at Rise Westwood around the same time the pandemic hit. “Without knowing when things would return to normal, I soon began to realize many of my fellow small business owners were in similar situations,” Ronkanen says. “Early on in the pandemic, it became clear that resources and support were limited and unattainable for small businesses like mine.”

Because of the economic disruptions resulting from COVID-19, Ronkanen wanted to create a path forward for her community, and by forming the collective, microbusinesses like hers could combine resources and expertise while selling products together. “Initially, the Rise Westwood Collective started out by creating a collectively shared online ordering platform where, once a week, we offered curbside pick up outside of Cultura Chocolate,” she says. “This allowed our collective partners to still sell their products even when most selling opportunities were lost due to the pandemic.”

Rise Westwood Campus is a cultural hub in its own right. The space was purchased in 2015 by Re:Vision, a nonprofit focused on activating sustainable urban gardening programs across southwest Denver, and includes a café/retail shop, art gallery, urban garden, and the vibrant, mural-filled outdoor gathering center of the Plaza de Mexica, painted by D3Arts co-founder Santiago Jaramillo. In the art gallery, a wide-open and industrial space curated by D3Arts, the walls are lined with paintings inspired by Frida Kahlo. In each reimagining of Kahlo’s iconic self-portraits, the artists convey the pride she took in her Mexican heritage through small details—from the assortment of flowers in her hair to the traditional Mexican jewelry and clothing she wears.

David Alires and his wife Jessica Lemke are partners of the collective, serving up vegan Mexican comfort food from their Thornton-based food truck, Cholo Ass Vegan at Veggie Viernes. Alires says he wants the name, as well as the food, to speak for itself and ultimately empower people to eat healthier and support vegan fare. When Alires and Lemke themselves went vegan, they rediscovered their passion for cooking and loved the process of creating vegan variations of the traditional Mexican dishes that they knew and loved. Alires marinates small-batch seitan for their vegan carne asada and al pastor dishes, and also sells his vegan meat wholesale to restaurants and food trucks.

Before joining the collective, Alires tried to establish a similar Chicano/Latinx pop-up event in March 2020, but with the rise of COVID-19, it shut down almost completely. Since then, Alires has introduced numerous vendors to Veggie Viernes, and says the collective has been nothing but welcoming. “We aren’t from Westwood or live down there, but they invited us into their space,” he says. “It’s been all love from everyone. Part of the allure of joining Rise Westwood Collective was to see everyone working together, trying to build each other up and bring each other clients and not worry about competition.”

For Ronkanen, this was exactly why she created the collective. “While initially just food-based businesses, we began to include other local artisans and artists in our collective,” she says. Cultura Chocolate and D3Arts, a local arts nonprofit, have since developed a strong partnership that focuses on creating community-focused cultural events. Ronkanen says that these events help preserve and honor the culture and history of Westwood while creating economic opportunities and combatting displacement and gentrification.

What to Eat at Veggie Viernes

At this monthly event, the array of vegan fare will satisfy any craving for food that tastes as good as (or better than) the meat-eater’s version. On a sweltering summer day, treat yourself to a brewchata ($5) from Cabrona Coffee or their tasty Agua Fresca ($4), including seasonal flavors like hibiscus, lime, watermelon, and pineapple. Order the deep-fried arancini risotto balls ($12) from the Easy Vegan, or if you’re craving comfort food with a twist, try Cholo Ass Vegan’s mouthwatering seitan carne asada tacos ($3/each) or the fuego elote—grilled corn on the cob slathered in vegan mayo then topped with Takis Fuego and cilantro ($4). Dig into the sandia ($4) from Besitos Chamoy—fresh watermelon dusted in tangy, chili-lime salt and drizzled with their signature glittery Chamoy sauce. To balance out the savory dishes, try the subtly sweet Bourbon Pecan Cookies ($3) from Just Indulgence, another one of the lead organizers of Veggie Viernes. The next Veggie Viernes event takes place on August 20th, and all these vendors are ready to sling delicious vegan dishes once again.

Veggie Viernes takes place every third Friday of the month until October 2021 at Cultura Chocolate, located on the RISE Westwood Campus at 3472 Morrison Road. 

Want more from RISE Westwood Collective?

Check out the Las Noches de Frida annual dinner series and fundraiser hosted in Re:Vision’s cultural hub. This event, which seeks to honor the legacy and political activism of artist and cultural icon Frida Kahlo, is “put on by the community, for the community” to help support the budding arts district in Westwood and its residents.

Guests are treated to a delicious meal created by local chefs, artwork inspired by the life of Kahlo, guest speakers, and several performances by local groups, such as In Lak’ech Denver Arts and Folklorica Dance Team. Tickets are sold individually and by table, with prices starting at $60 per ticket, $220 for a table of four, or $300 for a table of six. VIP tickets include a specially curated gift bag from the event partners.

The final dinner date and topic: August 14 is Politics & Art.