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In search of a movement 

Looking for a Latino uprising in the cradles of community leadership

Ever lose your keys?

You spend an eternity searching through your couch cushions and jacket pockets, saying to yourself, "They've got to be here somewhere."

Searching for a Hispanic/Latino/Chicano movement in Colorado Springs feels somehow similar. It should be here, some mass of people pushing for better education, help for immigrants, more opportunities.

For one thing, Hispanics comprise Colorado Springs' largest minority, making up 12.7 percent of the population, according the U.S. Census Bureau's 2005-2007 American Community Survey.

For another, brown power's long been present in the region, which was Spanish territory dating back to the 1500s. The area's first permanent settlement, Colorado City (now Old Colorado City), was founded in 1859 and survived on dry-land agriculture techniques developed by the Hispanic settlers of the San Luis Valley. It benefited from Mexican trade that came via the nearby Santa Fe Trail.

By the early 1900s, the area that is now America the Beautiful Park was a Hispanic neighborhood, with residents likely working in the warehouse industry, the cattle yards and in service jobs.

"We've always been here," says Joe Barrera, a local activist and former professor. "And yet we've always been on the margins."

Today, there are lots of reasons why they'd want to change that.

According to the Colorado Department of Education, 44 percent of the state's Hispanic youth drop out of high school before graduating, compared to 18 percent of white kids. Mayor Lionel Rivera is the only Hispanic on City Council, and no El Paso County commissioners are Hispanic.

The immigration issue, also, should be hot. Already under a new program, 19 El Paso County sheriff's deputies have been trained and sworn to perform the duties of deportation proceedings. That means if you're arrested for a crime in this county, and your deputy thinks you're here illegally, the sheriff's office can investigate your status and send you packing. In the past, only U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials had that power.

In addition to performing its own deportations, our county also uses its jail to house detainees arrested by ICE officials for no other crime than coming here illegally. It's one of only four Colorado county jails doing so, and Sheriff Terry Maketa has said it could generate $3 million for the county in 2009.

Look to Denver and Pueblo, and there are community leaders advocating for Latinos' rights and interests. Up north, immigrants can turn to Centro San Juan Diego, the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition, Rights for All People and El Centro Humanitario for help. Those looking to improve job prospects can go to one of two Mi Casa offices for job training or financial assistance. Getting involved in politics is as easy as contacting the Latina Initiative or other groups, like the Colorado Democratic Party Latino Initiative. Educational issues are addressed in progressive schools and by the group Padres y Jovenes Unidos. Issues and services are the venue of Latin American Research and Service Agency (LARASA) and Servicios de la Raza, and churches are active.

In Pueblo — more than 38 percent Hispanic, according to the Census — the Pueblo Hispanic Education Foundation helps make sure kids get a crack at real careers. Immigrants and others can seek help from the local Mi Casa office, Posada and Pueblo Catholic Charities.

Both Denver and Pueblo also have strong Hispanic chambers of commerce. The Pueblo Latino Chamber has nearly 1,000 members; Denver's Hispanic Chamber says it's the second-largest chamber of commerce of any kind in the state, with 2,200 members. Come September, Denver will host the annual national convention and business expo for the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

Here we have Mi Casa services, but no local office. Our Latino Alliance got people excited a few years back, then followed other community-building organizations to the tank. Not so long ago, the Colorado Springs Hispanic Chamber of Commerce called it quits. Hardly anyone noticed.

So what's up? Where's our stinkin' movement? It must be around here somewhere.

At the grassroots level

"This [isn't] about immigrant rights; it's about human rights," Nita Gonzales says, pausing for emphasis. "We're getting larger in numbers, and we have a responsibility to come together."

Gonzales, the daughter of late poet, boxer and 1960s Chicano civil rights activist Rodolfo "Corky" Gonzales, has the eloquence to make anything she says sound like a rallying cry — even when she's just speaking to 30 or 40 people in the back room of a library, as she is on this July day.

Gonzales and other Denver-area leaders are in Colorado Springs to promote the Colorado Latino Forum, a Denver-based political organization trying to extend its reach across the state. The Forum formed recently, fueled by outrage in Denver's Hispanic community after former Sen. Ken Salazar was appointed by President Barack Obama to be the secretary of the Interior, and Gov. Bill Ritter chose Michael Bennet to replace him. Bennet, who had been superintendent of Denver Public Schools, was subsequently replaced by Tom Boasberg. Though Salazar is Hispanic, Bennet and Boasberg are white.

The Forum, led by activist Estevan Flores, is laying down roots, electing a board and gathering donations. The meeting here is to see if local Latinos might join to help achieve its goals, such as getting more Latinos elected and appointed, training future leaders, and pushing policy on topics like immigration and education.

Victor Torres, a Harrison School District 2 board member attending with his two young children, sounds enthusiastic: "We need something like this here," he says. "Our Hispanic families are looking for doers!"

But for the most part, Springs residents are quieter than the Denverites and Puebloans in attendance. Jennifer Trujillo-Sanchez is among the more cautious locals, and for good reason. She founded the Democratic Latino Initiative of El Paso County in 2007; today, after lots of hard work, it has 20 to 30 members, and only five or six active. Getting more people involved is difficult.

"What I've found is different about the Latino community in Colorado Springs, compared to Denver or Pueblo, is we're very diverse," Trujillo-Sanchez says. "[So] you can't just outreach to Mexican-Americans, and you can't just outreach to Puerto Ricans."

Away from the meeting, others tell the same story. Demetria Martinez, a 24-year-old spunky undergrad, got involved in multiple service groups here after leaving the Army. She says she was immediately struck by differences between Anchorage, Alaska, where she grew up, and Colorado Springs. People of different races here seemed so separated, and inside the Hispanic community, the poor didn't connect with the rich, the old weren't hip to the young, the recent immigrants and the fifth-generation residents were on different planets.

On the Fourth Judicial District's Educating Children of Color committee, she tries to build more of a network — to convince kids to finish high school, go to college and give something back.

"Today's leaders need to teach tomorrow's leaders, or else they're never going to learn," Martinez says.

Educating Children of Color focuses largely on the achievement gap between whites and Hispanics, which goes well beyond graduation rates. Minority children often lag behind whites throughout their education, and some may face additional challenges like learning English, which is a particular struggle for the children of immigrants.

And then there are cultural barriers, and attitudes that are often unwelcoming, if not outright hostile. In these arenas, the Pikes Peak Immigrant and Refugee Collaborative strives to help.

The daughter of two immigrants — dad from Japan, mom from Mexico — program leader Megumi Nakamura knows the struggles of starting over in a strange land. She brings together locals with immigrants to encourage dialogue, dispel myths, build bridges and hopefully make the process of relocating here more pleasant.

"I think one of the things we need to focus in on is solidarity between the different movements," she says. "We talk about a Hispanic movement, but until there's solidarity between an education reform movement, an immigration reform movement, health reform, we're not going to see change."

In politics and business

It sure looked good earlier this decade. Hispanics ruled many city institutions. There was Mayor Lionel Rivera. Luis Velez was Colorado Springs police chief and Manuel Navarro was chief of the Colorado Springs Fire Department. José Aponte headed the Pikes Peak Library District and Joseph Garcia was president of Pikes Peak Community College. Nearby, Ken Barela was the mayor of Fountain.

They're all gone except Rivera.

"Maybe it goes in cycles, where you have the right people at the right time," the mayor says. "Maybe we're in a lull."

But, Rivera notes, leaping into politics isn't always enticing. (He, of course, is facing an ethics investigation that threatens to stunt his political career.) He encourages other Latinos to get involved, but finds they often aren't interested. They don't want to commit the time. They're not interested in media scrutiny. When people get out of their comfort zone enough to run for office, it's usually because they're passionate about an issue, he says.

What can Latinos be passionate about these days in Colorado Springs, he asks? Hispanic businesses do fine, with or without a chamber. Construction is down and manufacturing is lacking for everyone, so an immigrant community isn't likely to grow and become more vocal by rallying behind jobs. Education is an issue, he says, but advances are more likely to come through one-on-one mentoring, as he does with a local Latino boy through Big Brothers Big Sisters, than systemic change.

"Maybe Hispanics aren't dissatisfied enough with the way things are going enough to get involved in politics," Rivera says.

Barela resigned his position in 2004 as mayor of Fountain to spend more time with his family. He says that even if a new wave of Latinos comes along, they may not birth a movement. You can be proud of who you are when you're in political power, he says, but you can't push only issues that affect Latinos, because you'd "alienate" everyone else.

"The best role models are those who are doing their job based on the merits of the job," he says. "You want to be a role model; you don't want to be an advocate."

The place for a movement, he says, is outside of politics. But he doesn't see one forming here. Too many competing interests and cultures. Too much dissent over who should lead; who really represents such a diverse group of people.

Barela, who once chaired the Hispanic Chamber, says even that organization — whose mission should have been so straightforward — had interested parties pulling it in different directions.

So nowadays, networking in the Latino community happens in places like the InterConnect Internet café, on East Platte Avenue. At 5:30 on one June evening, the women's group is already well underway, with Latinas, one by one, presenting their businesses to a group of peers. Afterward, the room erupts with activity as women run from table to table checking out the wares and chatting up friends: a broadcaster, a woman selling jewelry, another selling fresh tamales.

Dinah Lopez owns this café and runs it with the help of Cynthia Samaniego-Perry, the manager. Both immigrated from Mexico and once worked at Atmel Corp., Lopez as an electrical engineer. The idea was to give immigrants a place to contact their loved ones. Lopez thought it would be beneficial to have a place for Latina business owners to meet and give each other moral support and advice.

"I think we need to empower from below," she says.

This is the future of the Hispanic movement here, she says. Little groups. Little communities. Fighting for a single cause. More business opportunities, or more rights for immigrants, or better education. One of those things, but not all of them. Try tackling the whole problem, she says, and it becomes insurmountable and tangled with competing visions. She's chosen one goal, economic prosperity for local Latinos, and she's focused.

"If we don't address how to be financially independent, then how are we going to become a powerful group?" she asks. "If the great majority of us are still depending on nonprofit organizations, or feeling victims of the system, or feeling victims of the Republicans, as long as we have that sense of victimhood, how are we going to grow as a group?

"So, I feel like we have been represented for far too long as being victims. And you don't erase it by just telling people, 'Don't look at me as a victim.' You do it by becoming an empowered person."

Throughout the nonprofit sector

If you were a Hispanic kid in mid-century America, Carmen Abeyta says, empowerment was often a foreign concept. Growing up in Montrose, she learned to be terrified of her native tongue. If she let a Spanish word pass her lips at school, the teachers would whip or spank her. If she ate her mother's tacos in front of the white children at lunch, they would taunt her.

And yet Abeyta remained proud of who she is. At the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs in the 1970s, there was a small, tight group of Hispanics at UCCS devoted to the cause of equality. Even as she was raising two young children and caring for a brother on dialysis, she worked with student groups. Her husband picketed in the Chicano Rights Movement.

"Today, when students tell me they don't have time to be involved, I say, 'No, you have the time,'" she says with a laugh.

Decades later, Abeyta still volunteers. She chairs El Cinco de Mayo, Inc. which stages the most important local Hispanic celebration of the year, and gives scholarships to promising young Latino college students. She sees UCCS kids who feel a deep need to further the Latino cause, and others, of course, who simply don't.

Kee Warner, a UCCS sociology professor and associate vice chancellor for diversity, says campus enthusiasm can't solely catalyze a Colorado Springs Hispanic movement, anyway. The Springs has no large Latino neighborhood, and there's no predominantly Hispanic City Council district, so you don't get any activist representation in local government.

Only one time in recent years have residents taken activism to the streets in a high-profile way. On May 1, 2006, protests of federal immigration policy spread across the nation. There was one here in Memorial Park, organized in part by the Immigrant and Refugee Collaborative, and thousands of people attended.

"They're there," says Eric Popkin, professor of sociology and dean of summer programs for Colorado College, who's known for taking students and political types to the Mexican border. "Just not tied to particular organizations in ways I'm used to in other cities."

Today, though, Popkin says he doesn't see how Colorado Springs could have a vibrant Hispanic movement. Because enforcement has ramped up considerably since 2006, undocumented immigrants are too terrorized by the threat of deportation to come out of the shadows.

And in the shadows, many turn inward, to the church.

A number of local Catholic and Protestant churches are home to significant Latino populations. Catholic Charities of Colorado Springs has its Family Immigration Services program, offering English as a Second Language courses, education about American customs and laws, even outings to help newcomers learn the basics of shopping, going to the doctor, visiting their children's schools, and getting by at work.

Our Lady of Guadalupe is arguably the Springs' most important Hispanic church; of its 2,000 families, roughly 80 percent are Hispanic. Here, people network about jobs, school, immigration problems.

"If there's anything that needs to be done, they go through the church to get it done," says Deacon Ernesto Romero, a hardy man with a voice that booms and Rs that roll. "They feel safe in a church."

Parishioners here tithe to an outreach program that helps families in crisis with food, money for rent, even funeral costs. And Romero helps in other ways; he recently sponsored two undocumented children trying to get on the right side of immigration law.

But Romero says the church can't solve every problem.

In other cities, this is where handfuls of other nonprofits might come in, groups like Centro de la Familia. Family therapist Mary Ann Carter still remembers returning to Colorado Springs in the mid-1990s, after five years away, and suddenly finding Mexican families waiting on the stoop of her office, hoping she — as a Spanish speaker — could help them navigate legal issues.

"There was this pretty little lady with a bag of tamales, and she said to me in Spanish ... 'I came to talk,'" Carter says, explaining that the woman planned to pay for her services with the tamales.

At first, Carter and Sandra Hernández, her friend and colleague, tried helping people for free. Later, they wrote a grant. Then they applied for 501(c)3 nonprofit status, seeing it as a part-time side project. But Centro de la Familia took over their lives. These days, the women, staff and volunteers provide everything from parenting classes to counseling for domestic abuse.

"The clients we serve are so grateful," Carter says, tears welling in her eyes. "The level of appreciation is so great."

Yet, Carter will leave Centro soon. After all these years, she's exhausted. She and Hernandez plan a smooth exit, with someone else — or several others — taking over Carter's duties.

Centro isn't the only Hispanic-centered organization in transition. Denver-based Mi Casa offers some classes here, helping people learn finances and business basics to help them launch careers or ventures. But Mi Casa must raise $40,000 in the Springs and Pueblo by the end of the year, and a significant chunk of it by the end of August, to continue Southern Colorado operations. CEO/executive director Christine Marquez-Hudson says Denver has long paid for its southern neighbors, but it can't manage the costs anymore.

"We really need the support," she says, her voice taking on a melancholy tone. "Or else, we might not be able to support that program."

And lastly, the press

If nothing can work in isolation, than it stands to reason that what the Hispanic community needs is a voice, a way to reach people and bring them together.

Hispania News was founded in 1987 by Bob Armendariz, who thought it was high time Latinos had a voice, a vehicle to connect through, and a way to see a Spanish name in print that isn't under the headline "Crimestoppers."

The paper continues today, but Hispania News isn't the only act in town anymore. In 2001, Rosalinda Silva moved from Mexico, after graduating from college with a communications degree. She thought she'd stay a few years, learn English, work in her field, then go back. Things did not go according to plan. Silva took a while to learn the language. In the meantime, she couldn't find a professional job, and ended up working her tail off as a maid in a hotel.

"I decided to do my own business," she says, then laughs at herself. "I didn't realize I had to sell."

Besides hawking ads, there was the grind of doing everything herself — writing articles, doing layout, dealing with printing and distribution. After a few false starts, she created Extra, a glossy monthly magazine focused on family, relationship, humor, entertainment, and health and beauty. The magazine is written almost entirely in Spanish and includes a business directory in the back.

Though some have told her the magazine is fluff, she says there's a higher purpose. People who come here, she says, don't understand the culture. They don't understand that domestic abuse isn't tolerated, or that sex is addressed openly. Once people communicate culturally, she says, she hopes other Americans see the value of immigrants. They come here without anything and want everything.

"Hispanics, we are very good consumers," she says with a laugh.

Her fear is that immigrants won't speak up for themselves. She thinks the class systems so prevalent in Mexico and South America have led people to believe oppression is natural. Or maybe the community somehow still feels new and small. Then again, maybe the younger generation so desperately wants to assimilate, not stand out.

Which, of course, would make it hard to find.

Where was that, again?

So maybe a Latino movement hasn't been sitting on the kitchen counter, obvious and overlooked.

Nor is it a complete figment of our collective imaginations. In a way, it's everywhere and nowhere. Little twitches in pockets of our city. Not an organized movement, per se. But not stiff with rigor mortis, either.

"The biggest challenge with the Latino community in Colorado Springs has just been kind of an invisibility," says Warner, the UCCS professor, who gets his Chicano heritage from his mom's side. "I don't think there's been the sense of, hey, this is part of what Colorado Springs is. [It] is Latino communities, those that have been here for generations, and those that have just arrived, or have moved in from other parts of the country."

That's too bad, he says, because the future is multicultural. It's global. That's as true here as anywhere else.

"This is the world that we need to be building for ourselves, in my opinion," Warner says. "It's a world that is really kind of reaching out and embracing and bringing things in, because it makes us smarter, it makes us more beautiful and it is the future."

stanley@csindy.com

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