Eracism: Latino history in Boulder County

The rich, untold Latino history of Boulder County, and why we are telling it

Eloisa Martinez (left), mother of Linda Arroyo-Holmstrom, in 1930 in Lafayette
Photo courtesy of Linda Arroyo-Holmstrom

Back then, the signs in the storefronts read, “No dogs or Mexicans allowed.”

Today, unless you’re old enough to have had such images seared into your memory, it’s hard to believe that such hurtful idiocy could ever have existed so openly in our world, but it did. What is surprising to some folks is that these words weren’t posted in the downtown windows of some backwater town in the deep South or somewhere along our country’s war zone that we call the southern border. No, these ignorant, hate-filled messages were taped to the windows right around here. Welcome to Boulder County in the 1950s.

But this is not a story about racism, although that certainly plays into it, and perhaps on a certain level, is even the underlying reason for why we feel compelled to write it. We want to stop being racists.

In a perfect world, we wouldn’t be telling this story at all, because all of us would already know it. We should, but we don’t, and that’s not entirely our fault. We can’t know what a song sounds like until we’ve heard it. We can’t describe or be moved by a painting until we’ve seen it. And in that same sense, we can’t appreciate the contributions and sacrifices made by a people if they have never been taught to us, written down or at least spoken into our collective conscience.

How did we get here? How did Boulder County come to be what it is today? If our history books and photographs and libraries and school curricula are to be believed, Native Americans were here first, for thousands of years, and then white settlers moved in, built a university, and we’ve all been happily climbing the Flatirons ever since. Granted, we have been taught a richer history than that, but it is mostly just a longer version of the same story, a story just as white … washed.

We should have been more skeptical all along, more curious. Does it really make sense that a place that was named Colorado by the Spanish, a place once claimed by Spanish kings and Mexican governors and Mexican land barons, a place fought over by Mexico and the United States for years, would not have a rich Latino history?

Even today, with nearly one out of seven Boulder County residents being Latino — it’s one out of 11 in the city of Boulder — and approximately 25 percent of the county’s residents under the age of 18 being Latino, there is virtually no written history of when, how and why the Latino community came here. There is almost no place to go to find out what contributions Latino families have made to our communities over the last 150 years. It isn’t that there haven’t been any. In fact, the opposite is true. There have been many contributions and sacrifices made by the Latino community that have helped create and shape this county. The problem is that they have been made invisible.

It is a complex issue. The simple explanation is that the contributions and sacrifices made by Boulder County Latinos have been ignored for decades because those who write the history tend to write their own story. Since the act of compiling historical achievements is primarily reserved for the dominant culture of the day, in Boulder County, where whites make up more than 80 percent of the overall population, and have for a long time, it is the white story that gets told.

Is this missing Latino history the result of racism, systemic or otherwise? Is it just a fluke that it got lost along the way? Could cultural differences and language barriers have played a role in the erasing of Boulder County’s Latino history from our modern-day understanding of our past and our children’s textbooks? The answer is probably yes to all of these questions.

But that isn’t what is important now.

What is important at this point is that we defeat our ignorance of the rich Latino history of our county. We all stand on the shoulders of those who have come before us, no matter their color, the language they spoke or their country of origin. We are who we are as a community, 300,000 strong, because of the contributions and sacrifices of many different cultures over the last 150 years, none more significant than that of Latinos.

Is it fair to say that we all have an obligation to know the full and accurate history of our county and our communities? We think it is.

Such knowledge makes us closer and more tolerant of one another. It enriches our lives on many levels. But there is another reason, an even more important reason why this story must be told. It is unfair and damaging to Boulder County’s young Latinos to not know or be taught the important contributions that their families and culture have made in our communities.

The research has shown as much. When children are taught a false history in which their people’s positive contributions and sacrifices have been dissected from the story of the place they live, they cannot help but feel disconnected and therefore less committed to the community as a whole, and nothing good can come from that.

We all need roots. Without them the wind can blow us wherever it wants. Without roots to our culture and history, we are leaving it to others to define who we are.

If our Latino youth are unable to define themselves because we have not given them the tools to do so, including an accurate historical account of their culture’s positive and significant influence and accomplishments within our communities, then the mainstream media and politicians and those who would still put such signs in storefronts will define them in one crime photo, one 30-second news spot, one whoring border-security speech, one racial slur at a time. They will be portrayed as “illegals” trying to game our economic system, as gang members, as job stealers, as anything less than what they are, our neighbors.

The powers that be will label these young men and women as outsiders using 100 different names for it, each designed with the misguided belief that political correctness is somehow a substitute for equality.

The research also tells us something else, something worse. The less that young Latinos know about their own positive history and influence within their community and country, the more likely they are to become the caricature they see themselves being portrayed as.

It is as historian Howard Zinn once said: “History is important. If you don’t know history, it is as if you were born yesterday. And if you were born yesterday, anybody up there in a position of power can tell you anything, and you have no way of checking up on it.”

• • • •

Sometimes we have a journalistic obligation to do a particular story. And sometimes, though rarely, that reason can rise to something even higher, a moral imperative. We believe that helping to rediscover and disseminate Boulder County’s missing Latino history rises to such a level. We don’t want people who have paid the price, who have earned their place in our community history, to be left out anymore. We don’t want a fourth of our children to feel discarded and disconnected from the place they live. We don’t want to do it wrong anymore.

Latina History Project intern Ana Gonzalez Dorta, left, films Eleanor Montour in front of Montour’s aunt’s house during a Latino history tour of Lafayette on July 29. | Photo by Jefferson Dodge

For these reasons, we believe that of all the untold stories in Boulder County, perhaps the most important is that of the contributions made by Latinos in our community for more than century. It is important because we now understand that not telling it causes great harm.

A century and a half ago, it was Spanish speakers from New Mexico who first discovered gold in the Denver area near Cherry Creek. Their discovery opened up the white migration to the Front Range, including Boulder County. It was Latino migrants who arrived decades ago to work in the coal mines of Lafayette, Erie, Louisville and south Boulder. Latinos labored at the sugar beet operations in Longmont and other parts of East County. They worked and lived in Boulder as well. They helped build the local economy that became our foundation for growth and future prosperity.

And they sacrificed mightily along the way, at the hands of company thugs willing to kill them to keep them from organizing unions and racist Ku Klux Klan members who just needed someone to hate. And when they weren’t being physically harmed, they had to tolerate the signs in store windows and the glares of the unenlightened.

Today, Boulder County is predominantly white. And affluent.

Yet even so, there are still those among us who view Latinos in our county as the people in the background, harvesting or preparing our food, busing our tables, cleaning our houses, washing our dishes, mowing our lawns.

They deserve more recognition than the stereotypes we allow to persist. They have earned more recognition than that over the last 150 years as vital members of our community.

This is a story that needs to be told, has to be told, and we feel that Boulder Weekly is in a unique position to do so. We are the only paper that distributes throughout the entire county, and we’re just idealistic enough to tackle a story that will take many months, not days, to tell, and may wind up being measured in years before it is finished.

When we realized that that the Latino history of our county was missing, we had a journalistic obligation to help rediscover it for the benefit of our readers. We also wanted to help return something important to our Latino neighbors, something that had been taken from them.

Fortunately, we have been given the opportunity to do just that, thanks to the Boulder County Latino History Project recently launched by a local retired professor, some interns, a group of volunteers and several community groups.

Not to mention the Latino men and women of Boulder County, some with lengthy family histories in our community, who are eager to finally tell their stories.

• • • •

When Marjorie McIntosh, a professor emeritus of history at the University of Colorado Boulder, became interested in the role that the Latino community had played over the years in Boulder County, naturally, she went looking for some books, some written history. She found very few accounts. So she set out to rectify that situation. To tell the stories that hadn’t been told.

McIntosh is reluctant to take much credit for the project that has ensued.

“We’re building on the work that’s already been done,” she says.

And to some extent, that’s true. The project McIntosh launched is relying in part on some recorded audio interviews from the 1970s that became two films, Los Imigrantes and The Boulder Chicano Community: Where is it? There are photos taken by local Latino families decades ago. She lists as a predecessor the Boulder Hispanic Families Project, an exhibit at the Boulder Public Library last year, and the oral history project compiled by Oli Duncan of Longmont in 1988, which became a book called We, Too, Came to Stay. In part, it was a response to the predominantly Anglo-centric history of Longmont titled They Came to Stay.

Retired CU history professor Marjorie McIntosh, left, tours downtown Lafayette with Eleanor Montour, center, and videography intern Ana Gonzalez Dorta. | Photo by Jefferson Dodge

But for the most part, it seems McIntosh is being modest, because by all accounts, there has never been much documentation of the history of Latinos in Boulder County, and she and her community partners have taken on the task of preserving that culture.

The goals of the project are ambitious, and what they have already accomplished is impressive. Eleven interns and about 30 adult volunteers have been working this summer to record interviews with a variety of Latino community members and compile existing historical materials. In addition to videotaping 60- to 90-minute conversations with more than two dozen subjects, the interns themselves were interviewed about their experiences, in an effort to compare and contrast the younger and older generations.

The project is focusing primarily on Boulder, Longmont and Lafayette, and an intern videographer has filmed walking tours of each community in which long-time Latino residents visited sites of historical significance.

By the end of 2014, the ultimate goals include writing a book and creating an extensive website to preserve the oral histories, as well as an effort to incorporate more local Latino history into curricula in the county’s school districts. In addition, participants are scouring old community directories and census records to plot the location of families with Latino surnames on maps of the three cities. A separate map will be made for each decade.

McIntosh says one of the most striking things that has emerged from the project so far is the parallels the young interns have found with their older interview subjects.

“The struggles faced by earlier generations of immigrants are the same struggles faced by immigrants today,” she says, citing challenges finding jobs, feeling like they fit in and dealing with the language barrier.

Granted, overt racist acts are less frequent than they used to be, “but there’s still discrimination in Boulder County,” McIntosh says, adding that the most surprising element of the project for her has been “the extent of racism in Boulder County, how long it lasted. And it’s still present, although in less visible ways.”

• • • •

Several participants have shared stories about how Latinos used to be treated in Boulder County. After the Korean War, Latino American soldiers — who had been treated as equals in the military — came home to the signs equating dogs and Mexicans in Longmont store windows. There was segregated seating in churches, and Latinos had their own pool halls, baseball teams and shops. In the 1930s, when the Ku Klux Klan was highly active, especially in Longmont, many Latinos were deported to Mexico, even some who were born here. Before 1960, Latinos were expected to step off the sidewalk when a group of Anglos approached, McIntosh says.

And in a more recent example, in 1980 Longmont police shot two Latino youths to death with questionable motivation and were accused of opening fire without justification. The high-profile case resulted in the formation of El Comité to work with local leaders on how to interact with the Latino community.

Carmen Ramirez, president of the Latino Task Force of Boulder County, the nonprofit group that helped McIntosh secure grant funding for the project and connect to key members of that community, agrees that while racism is less extreme than it used to be, it is still alive and well in Boulder County.

“You don’t have the signs in the windows that say no Mexicans or dogs allowed, but you sure can feel it when you’re ignored by a clerk, or followed by a clerk throughout the store, or when you have a teacher that says, ‘You people don’t value education,’” she says.

Elvira Ramos, director of programs for The Community Foundation, the group that provided $6,500 to the Latino History Project so that the interns could receive stipends, concurs. And not just because there are very few Latinos in leadership positions. She says her own son was stopped by police in Lafayette for no reason while walking down the street.

“While there may not be signs in the windows, the lack of people in leadership positions … and these stories of these profiling things that are still going on — I’d like to think things have changed, but nonetheless, there are still elements of that bias going on,” Ramos says.

When she and her son moved back to Boulder after five years in Brownsville, Texas, the 13-year-old boy asked, “Mom, why are the only Latinos I see in Boulder the busboys?”

The interns themselves also share contemporary tales of how discrimination has evolved.

Ana Gonzalez Dorta, the intern videographer, says a family friend who is Latino married an Anglo man, and their child is white. Once, police officers began questioning the woman because they suspected her of kidnapping the boy.

And Dorta, a Venezuelan, recalls being searched by authorities on her way back from a Mexican vacation, presumably because of her skin color and where she flew in from. She says they pored over her belongings for an hour looking for drugs.

Dorta says she’s still frustrated about the 1980 shooting death of the two young Latinos in Longmont, especially when there is an effort to put up a statue for an elk shot by local police officers, but opposition to erecting a memorial to those young men.

Intern Deisy de Luna shares a story from a fellow Latino intern who drives a low-rider pickup and was pulled over by Boulder police for no apparent reason. A black friend was in the passenger seat. Four squad cars responded. The cops reportedly kept asking the young Latino why he was so nervous.

Veronica Lamas, a first-generation college student who just graduated from the University of Colorado with honors, says that after listening to and transcribing the interviews, one thing that struck her was that some subjects talked about how difficult it was to be a Latino at CU, and in her view that hasn’t changed — it’s still hard to feel accepted in a university where there is so little ethnic diversity.

Growing up, Lamas says she was always told that she should go to community college, because that’s where she was most likely to succeed.

“I was a rebel, because I said no, I’m going to CU-Boulder,” she says.

Her voice goes quiet when she describes what it was like when her father was deported 13 years ago, when she was a little girl. He’s still in Mexico.

“One day you have everything, because my dad was the main support, and then he’s gone,” Lamas says. “A lot of people have similar stories that are never told.”

And telling those stories is what the project is all about.

“The only way for things to change is for people to know about this,” she concludes.

• • • •

The interns say the importance of the project lies in reminding non-Latinos — and their own community — of the formative role Latinos played over the past century in Boulder County.

“We are here, we are part of America, we are part of history,” Dorta says, praising the effort to incorporate more Latino culture into local curricula. “The only difference is the skin color. Inside, we’re all people, we’re not dogs.”

She repeats a line used by a colleague, the fellow Latino intern who was pulled over while driving his lowrider truck. He’s from New Mexico, and he likes to point out that his home state used to be part of Mexico, so his family members “didn’t cross the border, the border crossed them.”

Ramos says she’s proud that the interns say the project has “inspired them to take action and become leaders themselves.” And there is a dearth of Latino leaders. She points to figures compiled by The Community Foundation indicating that, based on surnames, only two of the 105 elected officials in Boulder County are people of color. Studies also show that only 51 of the county’s 770 volunteer members of official governmental advisory boards and commissions — 7 percent — are people of color.

Ramirez says she hopes the Latino history project does for young Latinos what it did for the interns, helping them realize the importance of their cultural heritage.

“It’s not for kids to see themselves, but to see themselves as contributors, because it really does a lot for selfesteem when you feel like you have pride in your culture, you have pride in what your community contributes to this community, and that’s not spoken of,” she says. “I hope this shines a light on how much of an asset Latinos are to Boulder County.”

Boulder native and retired teacher Linda Arroyo-Holmstrom, who serves on the advisory board for the project and was one of the adult volunteers, got to mentor one of her former students, intern Irle Hernandez, and was also interviewed about her family’s long history in the area. She helped organize the Boulder Public Library exhibit last year, but that effort did not have the lasting impact that the current project does.

“That’s why I wanted to get involved, because it’s going to be archived,” she says. “I want future generations to know about our history and contributions and accomplishments.”

When McIntosh is asked why she felt obligated to take on this project, she replies, “Latinos, themselves, need to know about and honor their own heritage and contributions to this county over the past century. Especially for young people, to have a positive sense about their own culture and what Latinos have done for this community over multiple generations.”

She adds that “the members of the wider community need to recognize that Latinos have been important contributors to Boulder County for a century. Latinos have been almost invisible in our historical understanding of the county. We need to recognize that the economy of Boulder County depended on the labor of Latinos.”

And once again, McIntosh downplays her role.

“The power of this project is that it’s being done by Latinos themselves, with wide participation from many individuals and community groups,” she says. “I couldn’t do it, but I could help others do it.”

• • • •

It’s July 29, and McIntosh and Dorta are on their last of three community tours, following prominent local Latina Eleanor Montour as she visits some of the historic downtown Lafayette buildings that played a role in the community and her life. Montour’s mother, Alicia Sanchez, founded Clinica Campesina, and a local elementary school is named after her.

Eleanor Montour in front of the elementary school that bears the name of her mother, who founded Clinica Campesina. | Photo by Jefferson Dodge

As Dorta’s video camera rolls, Montour visits Cannon Mine Coffee, which is housed in a building that used to be a grocery store where Latino miners like her grandfather and uncles shopped because they could get credit until payday. She pauses and leans over the large heat grate in the center of the floor at the counter, recalling how she and others would stop in just to warm up.

At the site of the original Clinica Campesina, Montour recalls how her mother offered free physical exams to kids on the local sports teams if their families couldn’t afford health care. Then it’s on to the city’s first two Catholic churches, where Montour says Latinos sat in the back. There weren’t signs indicating the requirement, like at the churches in Longmont, she says, “but we knew where we could go and couldn’t go. There was safety in numbers. There was safety in being among your own. I never stayed with a babysitter that wasn’t family.”

Walking farther down the street, they pass a beautiful garden, and Montour notes that Latino families employed sustainable practices before it was in style, because they were so poor.

“Recycling, organic gardening, that’s nothing new,” she says. “We just never publicized it.”

The group passes the empty lot where the original Sister Carmen Community Center once stood, as well as Joe’s Market, where young Latinos learned to count by figuring out how many pieces of penny candy they could buy.

At one 125-year-old house, Montour stops and greets a cousin whose family has lived in the home for 66 years, and recounts a story about her midwife aunt once curing Montour’s one-month-old son’s stomach ailment with a mysterious black liquid, despite her husband’s protests about listening to that “witch doctor.”

Just down the street is the house where Montour grew up. She recalls one person in the neighborhood being particularly racist.

“We couldn’t step on their grass,” she says.

The last stop on the tour is the school named after her mother, Sanchez Elementary, where a digital sign provides information in Spanish about obtaining health care for children.

And then Montour recalls something that her mother used to tell her when she was a little girl.

“My mom would get so mad when I’d say, ‘I can’t,’” she remembers, a big smile spreading across her face. “She’d say, ‘Of course you can!’”

Editor’s note: This marks the first installment of an ongoing series of articles about the rich Latino heritage of Boulder County. We don’t plan to duplicate the work of the Latino History Project or regurgitate it, but conduct our own interviews with some of the Latino community members who participated in the project — and retell some of the compelling stories in the history of that community. We’re not sure yet how many parts this series will have, but shining a light on this local heritage is long overdue, and we believe raising awareness about it will only make our larger community stronger and healthier. The current website for the project is