Latinx Heritage Month graphic

“Pedro Menendez Aviles founded St. Augustine, Florida, 55 years before Plymouth Rock.

In 1875, Casimiro Barela helped to write the Colorado Constitution.

Leadership is both our heritage and legacy.”

-Federico Peña

Latinx leaders have helped shape Colorado from its very inception—since way before we became a state in 1876. So Latinx Heritage Month  (September 15-October 15) seems an appropriate time to learn more about the key roles they have played in our state’s history.

Back in 1598—more than 400 years ago—Juan de Oñate claimed all of the Rio Grande del Norte’s river drainage for Spain. That was just the beginning of Spanish territory in what we now call Colorado. (The state name comes from Spanish for “colored red.”)

Over the centuries that have followed, Latinx leaders helped build and improve our state in many important ways—certainly more than we can fit into this blog. But we’ve selected a few extraordinary Coloradoans to highlight today whose names we should all know, but many of us probably don’t.

I’ll admit my own lack of historical knowledge as well. Here’s a name I didn’t recognize until a colleague gave me a helpful tip…

Casimiro Barela—Father of the Colorado Senate

(Photo credit: Latino History Project)

Originally from New Mexico, Barela settled in Trinidad, Colorado, in 1867, where he worked as a rancher and newspaper publisher. His career in public service started at age 22 when he was elected as Trinidad’s justice of the peace—then county assessor, territorial legislator and eventually Sheriff of Las Animas County.

In 1875, Barela was named as a delegate to Colorado’s constitutional convention—the group tasked with writing a constitution for the nascent state. He suggested that this critical document should be written in English, Spanish and German so that more people could understand it. When Colorado became a state the next year, its constitution was published in all three languages. He also secured the first civil rights bill for Spanish speakers, which required that all laws be written in Spanish as well as English.

“You may say that ignorance of the law does not excuse the breaking of it. I say it is the only excuse.”

-Casimiro Barela

Just a year later, he was elected to the newly formed Colorado senate, where he served for 37 years holding numerous offices—including president of the senate. He was eventually nicknamed the “father of the Colorado senate” due to his longstanding service and influence. Today Barela’s is one of 16 stained glass portraits still hanging inside the state capitol in Denver.

Guadalupe Villalobos Briseño

When Guadalupe (Lupe) Briseño’s four children were old enough to go to school, she went to work at the small Kitayama floral plant near her home in Brighton, Colorado. She saw firsthand how the workers—mostly Mexican American women—were mistreated by the plant management, and she was ready to do something about it.

She started organizing the workers, eventually establishing the National Floral Workers Organization (NFWO). Briseño got fired for her role in organizing the workers, and the move to unionize met staunch resistance from the plant’s owner. But the women banded together and decided to strike, rather than quit.

Their protest went on for eight grueling months. The NFWO demanded that “women, as well as all laborers, be treated with the respect and dignity that they deserved.” In the end, they didn’t achieve all of the goals they set—but the strike was still considered a success, and working conditions at the plant improved.

As organizer of the strike, Briseño’s hard work and bravery demonstrated the power of Latina leadership in Colorado’s Labor Movement. Her dedication to workers’ rights earned her a spot in the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame in 2020.

Of course, she wasn’t the only activist and organizer to emerge in Colorado in the 1960s. Her strength and spirit gave other Latina Coloradans a clear example for leadership and activism, and helped lay the foundation for the Colorado Chicano Civil Rights Movement.

Throughout the 1960s and 70s, activists fought to end discrimination, secure civil rights and gain political and social power through education, culture and the arts. As Latinx rights organizations were founded in Colorado, leaders such as Richard Castro and Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales played key roles in the state’s Chicano movement. (Keep reading for more links on El Movimiento below…)

“You know, maybe we who went on strike didn’t get the benefits of what we were fighting for, but other people did and that’s good.”

-Lupe Briseño

Federico Peña

OK, this is one Colorado leader—and US cabinet secretary—who most Coloradans have heard of (at least if you’ve ever driven on Peña Boulevard to Denver’s airport). But did you know that, as an attorney, Peña represented Latinx students and teachers before the US Supreme Court in the “first tri-ethnic desegregation lawsuit” in the country? A trained civil rights lawyer, he worked for the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund, focusing primarily on civil rights cases and voting issues.

(Photo credit: Latino History Project)

And all of that was before he was elected to the state house of representatives, and eventually became Denver’s first Latinx mayor. In that role, he championed efforts to reinvest in the city’s infrastructure to spur economic growth, which included the beginning of plans for what would eventually become the new Denver International Airport. He is credited with revitalizing the city’s economy through projects like the new Denver Convention Center. Another major accomplishment: bringing the Colorado Rockies Major League Baseball team to town in 1993.

Of course, talking about Latinx history in Colorado wouldn’t be complete if we didn’t recognize the systemic racism and inequities people have faced since the state’s early days—and still face today. “There were some people who said that Denver wasn’t ready for a Hispanic mayor,” Peña told Thunder Ridge Middle School students this past January. But that didn’t stop him. “In 1983, when I was sworn in, I had to wear a bullet-proof vest,” he recalled. “There were so many death threats against me.”

In 1993 during the Clinton Administration, Peña was appointed US Secretary of Transportation. As part of the president’s cabinet, he implemented the first international aviation policy for the United States since the 1970s, opening aviation markets around the world. Then four years later, he became the US Energy Secretary, where he developed and implemented a comprehensive national energy strategy.

“There are millions and millions of Hispanics like me, whose ancestors go back hundreds of years. We have a very unique perspective. We have been contributing for generations and generations.”

-Federico Peña

Polly Baca

Raised in Greeley, Colorado, it seems like there’s almost no important position in Democratic politics that Baca hasn’t held. In 1968, as National Deputy Director of the “Viva Kennedy” campaign she helped Senator Robert Kennedy run for president. She has also served under four US presidents:

  • As a public information officer In the Johnson administration for the White House Inter-Agency Committee on Mexican Americans
  • As Rocky Mountain states coordinator for Jimmy Carter’s 1980 presidential campaign
  • As special assistant to Bill Clinton for consumer affairs, and as director of the US Office of Consumer Affairs
  • As a national co-chair of Catholics for Barack Obama in the 2012 presidential campaign
(Photo credit: Latino History Project)

Baca broke a number of glass ceilings throughout her career. Here in Colorado she served as both a state representative (1975-1978) and state senator (1979-1986)—making her the first Latina in the country to serve in both chambers of her state’s legislature.

Her résumé includes a long list of other firsts:

  • First woman elected to chair the Democratic Caucus of the Colorado House of Representatives (1977)
  • First minority woman—and first Hispanic woman—elected to the Colorado State Senate (1978)
  • First Hispanic woman to be nominated by a major political party for the United States Congress (1980)
  • First Hispanic woman to co-chair two National Democratic Conventions (1980 and 1984)

She went on to serve as vice chair of the National Democratic Party for eight years (1981 to 1989). Baca also helped found the National Council of La Raza (now called UnidosUS), which has become the largest national Latinx civil rights and advocacy organization in the US.

As if all of that wasn’t enough, Baca also worked as regional administrator of the General Services Administration of the Rocky Mountain Region—and served as executive director of the Colorado Hispanic Institute.

She now sits on the Board of Governors for Colorado State University, and continues to be a strong advocate for underserved communities in our state.

Latinx Heritage—All Year Long

Of course we can—and should—recognize and celebrate the accomplishments of Latinx people, their culture and civic contributions throughout the year. So I invite you to learn along with me this Latinx Heritage Month… and in the months to come. Here are a few ways to get started.

Learn More Colorado History

History Colorado has a great virtual exhibit on El Movimiento: The Chicano Movement in Colorado, which is part of its broader online exhibition La Gente: Colorado’s Hispano History. You can also head to downtown Denver to visit the History Colorado Center and see the powerful El Movimiento exhibit in person. (You’ll find it in the Colorado Stories core section of the museum.)

Attend a Performance

This fall, get tickets to see a show by Su Teatro. Their mission? To “promote, produce, develop and preserve the cultural arts, heritage, and traditions of the Chicano/Latino community; to advance mutual respect for other cultures; and to establish avenues where all cultures may come together.”

In October Su Teatro is performing El Corrido Del Barrio—”one of the most important stories in Su Teatro’s [50 year] history.” It’s described as a “moving and comedic tribute to community, family and life” in Denver’s old Westside neighborhood (where the Auraria campus now stands).

Keep the Celebration Going

As you travel around the state, take time to learn about both historic and current Latinx leaders and communities in Colorado. If you’re paying attention, you’ll see their fundamental influences—intellectual, civic and artistic everywhere you go—and learn some Spanish language along the way.

You can also share your own stories and family memories through History Colorado’s We Are Colorado project. The goal is to be a “place of belonging for all Coloradans.” I think that’s an aim we can all contribute to… and benefit from.

Come to FRCC

Each of our campuses has activities planned for Latinx Heritage Month—and we hope you’ll join us!

Boulder County Campus

2121 Miller Drive in Longmont

What: Latinx Leadership Panel

When: October 5, 2021 | 5:00 PM

Where: Classroom Building, Community Room

Join Student Government for a lively panel discussion on the importance of cultivating Latinx leaders for the next generation, featuring special guest speakers from around the community. Snacks and drinks will be provided.

Larimer Campus

4616 S. Shields Street in Fort Collins

What: National Latinx Heritage Month Kick Off

When: September 22, 2021  |  10:30 AM – 12:30 PM

Where: North Quad

Come celebrate the beginning of National Latinx Heritage Month at FRCC with an outdoor event that will have music, games, activities, food and more!

What: Wolf Talks—Mental Health in the Latinx Community

Date: October 6, 2021  |  10-11 AM

Where: Blanca Peak 143

Join us in an open conversation about the importance of mental health in the Latinx community and how to overcome the barriers people may face when accessing mental health resources.

Westminster Campus

3645 W. 112th Avenue

What: Come eat lunch with us! We’re having the restaurant La Unica Birria de Res come to campus to give out free food to FRCC students.

When: September 15, 2021  |  11 AM – 2 PM

Where: Just outside Entrance 2 (near the Rotunda)

What: Mixer for LEIA—FRCC-Westminster’s leadership program for Latinx students

When: September 24, 2021  |  11 AM – 1 PM

Where: Snowy Peaks room (C0578)

Who: Open to all students who want to learn more about the LEIA program

What: Come play Lotería for prizes! Have fun playing this traditional card game that has been passed down for many generations. You could win Beats Flex wireless earbuds, Google Chromecast, an Amazon Fire Stick and more…

When: October 4, 2021  |  Noon – 1 PM

Where: The Rotunda (near the cafeteria)

Front Range Community College is committed to inclusive excellence, educational equity and advancing opportunity for all. We hope you’ll join us for one of our events this month.

Welcoming. Respectful. Inclusive. Together, we are FRCC.

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