The first Europeans to arrive in what is now Colorado were from Spain, and their immigration to the region changed the cultural fabric of the Southwest for centuries to come. Since then, people with Hispanic roots have helped shape Denver into the vibrant and diverse city that it is today.
Hispanic people are the largest and one of the fastest-growing groups in the state, according to census data, with one in five Coloradans and one in three Denverites claiming Hispanic heritage.
This article pays homage to Denver’s Hispanic and Latino leaders past and present, including local entrepreneurs who are making waves today.
Guadalupe “Lupe” Briseño
Inspired by the larger Chicano rights movement, Lupe Briseño created the National Floral Workers Organization in 1969 and organized a 221-day strike. Prior to the strike, the mostly Mexican American staff at the Kitamaya floral plant in Brighton, Colorado, were subjected to long hours without overtime pay in a hazardous environment.
Even though it was Briseño’s first job, and she had no experience in political organizing, Lupe and others refused to back down from the plant’s intimidation tactics, holding a peaceful protest for eight months. The women chained themselves to gates and were tear-gassed by police, but received national recognition for their actions, inspiring others to continue the fight.
Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzalez was a Colorado Sports Hall of Fame inductee that was also an entrepreneur and a poet.
In the 1960s, he became a leader in El Movimiento – the movement for Chicano civil rights – and founded the Crusade for Justice, which was not only about civil rights but about “art, music, vision, pride, culture, and the value of participation.” He helped to create the Ballet Chicano de Atlan, El Teatro Pachuco, and Escuela Tlatelolco, a school for Chicano children.
Elizabeth “Betty” Benavidez grew up in Denver’s La Alma Lincoln Park neighborhood and was a mother of four, a manicurist, homemaker, and community activist. She marched with her husband, Waldo, and their friend, civil and farm worker rights activist Cesár Chavez before being elected to the Colorado state house in 1970.
Benavidez advocated for improved living conditions of residents, bilingual education, adequate healthcare for women and children, and for state colleges to allow more opportunities for minorities. The first Latina to be elected to the Colorado legislature, she did so at a time when it was unheard of for Latinos, women – and especially young wives and mothers – to be elected. She paved a path for others like Polly Baca, Ramona Martinez, Candi CdeBaca, and Lucia Guzman.
Francisco “Paco” Sanchez came to Denver from Guadalajara, Mexico, in 1948, working as a performer with his wife, Hilda Maria. Filling a void in the local media scene, he launched Denver’s first Spanish-language radio station, which was an instant success.
After becoming a US citizen, he sought to improve the lives of other Latinos and immigrants, founding the Good Americans Organization, which gave minorities access to loans through a credit union, opening doors to banking and home ownership. The organization also went on to create local housing projects for low-income families. Sanchez was elected to the Colorado House of Representatives in 1968.
As a civil rights attorney working for the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund, Federico Peña worked on cases pertaining to civil rights and voting before being elected into the State House of Representatives and later became Denver’s first Hispanic mayor (when he was sworn in in 1983, he wore a bullet-proof vest because there were so many death threats from racists who didn’t want a Hispanic mayor in office).
Peña is credited with revitalizing the city’s slumping economy by bringing the Colorado Rockies baseball team to Denver as well as creating the project that would become Denver International Airport, which is one of the country’s busiest airports today. He also served as US Secretary of Energy and US Secretary of Transportation.
Local Businesses to Support in Denver
Tortilleria Las III Americas: Using a traditional nixtamalization process, this family-owned tortilla shop makes fresh, preservative-free corn and flour tortillas. They also make tamales, tacos, menudo, and other traditional delicacies.
Ana Marina Studio: As a Mexican immigrant, Ana Marina designs and crafts unique jewelry pieces that celebrate her culture and heritage and are designed to make the wearer feel empowered and celebrated. Ranging from fun acrylic skulls to cast silver calla lilies and beyond, Marina’s unique pieces are attractive and attention-getting.
Writers Kali Fajardo-Anstine and Bobby LeFebre: Novelist and Denver native Kali Fajardo-Anstine won the American Book Award for her book Sabrina & Corina in 2020, while her most recent novel, Woman of Light, is a national bestseller. Bobby LeFebre is an award-winning poet, performer, and cultural worker. He is Colorado’s youngest and first Latino poet laureate.
Food Truck Cholo Ass Vegan: David Alires makes traditional Mexican dishes with a twist: His food is all vegan. With plant-based versions of pozole, tamales, tacos al pastor, and carne asada, he is making waves with his philosophy of “intersectional veganism,” which focuses on the rights of every being that is marginalized.
Cultura Chocolate: A bean-to-bar chocolate making company in the predominantly Hispanic neighborhood of Westwood, Cultura Chocolate makes beverages like drinking chocolate, atoles, coffee, and aguas frescas. They also serve a light food menu featuring their house-made masa and the shop is home to Hecho, a community collective focused on preserving cultural identity.
From September 15 to October 15, the nation celebrates Hispanic Heritage Month, a time for those with Hispanic roots to share their cultures and traditions.
Where to stay: Kimpton Hotel Monaco Denver