Eduardo Lucero was working the burrito stand with his very pregnant wife and 12-year-old son the day things came to a head.
“I looked over to my left and saw a wedge formation of police,” he said. “And I told my wife, ‘They’re going to get us.’ And I looked to the right and saw another wedge. I said, ‘It’s a pincer move.’”
On a summer day in 1981, Denver police were clearing people out of the park because this event — the annual commemoration of the community’s takeover of the park back in 1970 — didn’t have a permit. It would turn into a day and night of tear gas and dogs, bricks and bottles, beatings and arrests.
Within a few years, the city closed the park’s pool forever, filled it in, covered it up, and the community lost something it would never get back.
This is a “The past is never dead. It’s not even past” story.
It’s a story about a green city block on West 38th Avenue between Navajo and Osage streets that was at the center of Denver’s Chicano movement in the 1970s.
Just about anyone around there will tell you the name of the park is La Raza Park, but the sign says Columbus Park. That’s part of this story too.
The park was named Columbus in recognition of the Italian-American community that dominated the neighborhood for decades. The restaurants along 38th and the park name are some of the last remnants of Denver’s Little Italy.
Mexican-Americans have also lived in the neighborhood for a long time, but by the 1960s, they had overtaken the Italians. As their numbers increased, their political power and sense of themselves also changed. People began to organize around educational disparities, around the lack of job opportunities, around the killings by police of unarmed young men in the community.
Corky Gonzalez founded the Crusade for Justice in Denver in 1966. That the community should have control of the institutions — the schools and parks and community centers — that serve it was an important tenet of the Crusade for Justice and the broader Chicano movement, and it was implemented in La Raza Park.
The lifeguards at the park were mostly white, the children and families using it mostly Chicano. In 1970, community activists took over the park. In his book on the Chicano movement, “The Crusade for Justice,” Ernesto Vigil describes young people tearing down the fence and jumping in the pool, where they taunted police who tried to arrest them. Over two seasons, they staged “splash-ins” and taunted the lifeguards, and when the white lifeguards quit, Chicano teenagers who had been training for this opportunity moved into their jobs. By 1971, the park was effectively under the control of the Chicano movement.
Activists staged similar takeovers at Lincoln Park, renaming it La Alma, and Curtis Park, which they renamed Mestizo Park.
In a 2014 interview with La Madre Tierra, a Latino environmental organization, Arturo “Bones” Rodriguez, who was one of the organizers of the takeover and who ran the pool there, quoted the Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata: “The land belongs to those who work it.”
The actual takeover of the park was for jobs for youth, but it also had a social-political agenda: if we could have a space that reflected our culture and what we define as a Chicano. It was developing a new man and a new woman, based on our historical raíces, from indigenismo to the mezcla of our people from Europe to Africa to China and so forth. That was one thing that we really promoted in three square blocks, a sense of community, a sense of a peoplehood and how we could transform it.
This was when people started calling the park La Raza Park.
La Raza means simply “the people,” but it’s a powerful idea in Mexican and Chicano identity. “La raza cósmica” represents the mixture of all races in the Latino people. In Latin America, the day we mark as Columbus Day is Día de la Raza. “La Raza” could be considered the opposite of Christopher Columbus. It does not celebrate the colonizer, but the colonized, the people who emerged from and survived this cataclysm.
Lucero, now 73, moved to Denver as a young boy and later became involved in the Crusade for Justice. Following the crops, his family came north from New Mexico and settled in with relatives in the Northside. He remembers being at the park nearly every day in the summer.
Before the community took over the park: “The pool was filthy. There was broken glass. The park was run down. They were not taking care of it at all,” Lucero said.
And after: “We cleaned it. We painted it. We started having community forums. … It became a political gathering place of the Northside.”
Juan Espinosa, now retired from the Pueblo Chieftain, was a student at the University of Colorado Boulder in the early 1970s. He co-founded El Diario and worked as a photographer for United Mexican American Students (UMAS) publications. He remembers La Raza Park as the place for young, politically aware Chicanos. People would come from around the city and around the region to be there.
One night in 1972, while he was still in Boulder, he got a call to head down to the park. The police were planning to make a show of force against people violating the park curfew.
Espinosa describes the police “lined up on one side and like a forced march they pushed people out of the park. People were running, and people were taking people in and hiding them in their yards.”
There were dogs. There was tear gas.
“This wasn’t a political rally,” he said. “This was just people who lived in the neighborhood using the park because it was a pretty dense part of the neighborhood.”
Espinosa took pictures of police officers abusing two young women spread across a patrol car and soon found himself under arrest in the back of a paddy wagon.
He said the police took his film and then took him and a dozen other people in the back of the van on a “rough ride” for about an hour. He later pled no contest to interfering with a police officer.
These types of confrontations became commonplace in the early 1970s. Sometimes there were shootings and fire bombings in the neighborhood. Plenty of people weren’t happy with the situation. With the Hispanic vote divided between two candidates, Italian-American tavern owner Eugene DiManna was elected to what was then the District 9 council seat in 1971. According to Vigil, DiManna told police, “I want them Mexicans out of the park, and if you have to break heads to do it, then do it,” and he criticized the city administration for “handcuffing” the police. Vigil writes that DiManna would personally call in sweeps of the park and even had his own code name, Ocean 9.
Chicano activists circulated petitions for a recall in what would prove to be a years-long process riven with legal challenges. Sal Carpio, one of Denver’s first Hispanic elected officials, finally replaced DiManna in 1975.
Diane Medina, 59, grew up in the neighborhood and moved into a house on Navajo across the street from the park in the mid-70s. Her mother still lives in that home, and she lives next door. Not everyone in the community agreed with the Crusade for Justice’s approach, but in her mind, the Chicano movement taught her to question the status quo by the examples set in the park and around the community.
“It caught my attention in that the folks who were talking looked like me,” she said.
Medina said she usually wasn’t allowed to go to the park. Newspaper accounts describe drug-dealing and youths who antagonized police, but in her memory, the trouble never started with the people in the park. It started when the police showed up.
Sitting in the park, she points to the playground in the northeast corner of the park at 39th and Navajo, the corner that has always held the playground, and describes police approaching the park from the north down Navajo, shoulder to shoulder in their helmets and gear, such that the first thing they hit was the playground.
“And you can imagine the parents of those kids watching the police coming that way,” she said. “It’s kind of scary. My parents saw a lot of stuff like that. I saw a lot of stuff like that. This community saw a lot of stuff like that.”
The memories of police brutality cannot be neatly separated from the good memories of the park, but what Medina most wants to remember is the feeling of pride and the feeling of being cared for by the community.
“It will never be the same, but I want it to have that same family, friendly, safe feeling that I had when the swimming pool was here because I really believed the people who worked here sincerely, truly, with all of their hearts cared about the community,” she said. “They would always be cleaning and picking up and making sure that you were safe when you were here. I saw that on a daily basis.”
Every year, there would be a “grand opening” to celebrate the anniversary of the takeover of the pool. This was a big party with food and music and dancers and speakers. No one had ever gotten a permit for this party, though technically gatherings of 25 or more people needed one.
In 1981, the police decided to break up the party, not at night to enforce the curfew, but in the middle of the day. The ostensible reason for this was the lack of a permit.
Lucero said hundreds, maybe thousands, of people — including parents looking for their children — were given less than five minutes to clear the park before the police moved in. He describes a “frenzy.”
“They started throwing tear gas, and people started throwing things back — bricks, bottles,” he said. “Then they let the dogs loose on everyone, on little kids. It was pandemonium.”
Lucero made this video about the riot:
Medina remembers this day as well, though in her mind it blends in with other nights.
People came running from the park to her parents’ house.
They asked her father for water to clean their eyes and huddled on the porch for safety. A police officer marched into the yard and demanded that he make all the people on the porch leave.
“And my dad said, ‘I will not do that. This is my property. You need to leave.’ And I was so proud of my dad because my dad was quiet, a hard worker, but when he stood up like that … I was so proud of him.”
Activists filed a lawsuit against the city, but a jury rejected their case in 1984 with a finding that the police and community members were equally at fault.
That same year, the city demolished the pool.
There were reasons: The pool was old, and its pumps failed constantly. It cost less money to build a new pool at 44th and Navajo, and that was all the money there was for pools. Other parts of town needed pools too, you know.
Vigil notes bitterly that the pool was allowed to deteriorate under the watch of Carpio and that it was demolished under Federico Peña, Denver’s first Hispanic mayor.
In return, the community — eventually — got the kiosko, the pyramid-like structure that sits in the center of the park today. It was dedicated in 1990, and earlier this year, Denver artist David Ocelotl Garcia completed beautiful murals inside it.
Sig Langegger, a geographer who did his dissertation on the use and control of public space in Denver, draws a connection between the closure of the pool and the gentrification that is currently sweeping through Highland, Sunnyside and Berkeley.
Depopulated of ‘threatening’ Latinos, La Raza Park could more easily be appreciated by middle-class newcomers as a visual amenity and a space of restive solitude. In discussing the park with me, Denver Parks and Recreation employees always emphasized how the grass is green and how it is now maintained as a visual asset along the commercial corridor of West 38th Avenue. When I asked middle-class newcomers about North Denver Parks, most of them, first admitting that their preferred outdoor experiences were hiking and skiing in the nearby mountains, mentioned how well kept they seemed. This is how formal regulation facilitated La Raza Park’s transformation from a vibrant Latino zócalo for Northside Latinos into a quiet visual amenity for middle-class newcomers.
Langegger also connects the closure of the pool to the rise in gangs a decade later. Social reformers going back to Jane Addams have advocated for parks and recreation programs to give teenagers the sense of self-worth they need but might otherwise find in less wholesome places.
Back in the 1972, after confrontations between police and community members at La Raza Park, Chicano activist Rudy Garcia wrote in an op-ed in the Denver Post that people concerned about violence on the Northside should advocate for more parks, not more police.
Give Chicanos parks and recreation facilities comparable to Washington Park and in the end it will prove less expensive than bombed buildings or the lives of policemen, Chicanos or bystanders. … Give our young people what they need and the trouble will subside.
La Raza Park was home to swimming and diving teams that were a source of neighborhood pride.
But in 1984, pool manager Charlotte Rodriguez told the Denver Post the new Aztlan Pool was overcrowded and mostly attracted younger kids. The pool was smaller than the closed La Raza Park pool, and it didn’t have any diving boards. Teenagers weren’t going there.
Councilwoman Debbie Ortega proposed formally renaming the park La Raza-Columbus Park in 1988 but in the face of intense opposition from the neighborhood’s Italian-Americans, the City Council voted 7-6 to reject the change.
Medina said La Raza Park remains an important place historically, politically, even spiritually.
But it’s not the same.
“There’s no laughter,” she said. “The kids are not here. It became very quiet. … It’s what you see now.”
Medina watches from her window, as she has for 40 years, and she calls the city when she sees a need or a danger, and she doesn’t stop until something happens. Picnic tables. Benches. Wood chips to replace the sand in the playground when she saw that another nearby park got that treatment first.
Now the neighborhood is changing again, with middle-class white families moving into the area. Blocks of new townhomes with rooftop decks replace one-story bungalows with front porches. Brewpubs replace corner bars. For the first time in decades, Latinos are no longer a majority in these neighborhoods.
And there is a new effort afoot to change the name. Councilman Rafael Espinoza of District 1, elected last year, is circulating a petition to again formalize a hybrid name. He said the city should rename the park both to honor its history but also for pragmatic reasons. It might be confusing to people who don’t know the area and are trying to find La Raza Park to see a sign that says Columbus Park.
And a hybrid name recognizes both the Italian-American and the Chicano history.
“It’s not appropriate to erase the history of one with the other,” he said. “And my view is that you don’t get one without the other. … There are multiple layers of history there, so let’s do the right thing.”
Medina said she’ll advocate for the name change, but it doesn’t really matter what the city does or doesn’t do.
“It’s going to be La Raza Park until I die,” she said.