The perils of forgotten history

Los Seis de Boulder find their way back to CU thanks to a timely piece of art

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A new public art project is dedicated to the memory of Los Seis de Boulder, six Chicano activists who died in bombings just 48 hours a part. The art piece is a rectangular sculpture approximately seven feet tall containing six mosaic tile portraits that has been placed on a concrete slab in front of the TB-1 building just east of Macky Auditorium. The sculpture is the result of a community art project dreamed up and brought to fruition by Jasmine Baetz, a Master of Fine Art student from Canada currently studying at CU.
Joel Dyer

If it’s true that it’s the history we don’t know that dooms us to repeat the mistakes of our past, then familiarizing ourselves with the story of Los Seis de Boulder (The Six of Boulder) at this time could not be more pertinent.

The racism and inequity that once took our nation to the brink has resurfaced with a vengeance. Today, we have millions of our Latinx neighbors living in fear of having their families torn apart by arrest and deportation. We have brown babies being torn from the arms of their mothers and locked in cages. We have sick children suffering from life-threatening diseases being deported from our hospitals back to countries where they will die without treatment. We have tens of thousands of Latinx people being held in tortuous conditions in facilities so overcrowded as to make laying down impossible. We have a president who calls all brown migrants rapists, drug smugglers and MS-13 gang members. And we have a federal government that is treating migrants — most of whom came here seeking asylum after fleeing the violence and severe poverty of their home countries — as if the president’s lies were true.  

The last time this level of racism against Latinx people was so overt it was the 1960s and ’70s. That era eventually gave rise to the Chicano Movement, and Boulder was at the epicenter of this national struggle for social justice and racial equality. 

So, what lessons can history teach us about today’s struggles, and what does a new piece of public art on the University of Colorado-Boulder campus have to do with that history? The answer to both questions is “a great deal.” 

The referenced public art is a rectangular sculpture approximately seven feet tall containing six mosaic tile portraits that has been placed on a concrete slab in front of the TB-1 building just east of Macky Auditorium. The sculpture is the result of a community art project dreamed up and brought to fruition by Jasmine Baetz, a Master of Fine Art student from Canada currently studying at CU. 

Joel Dyer Artist Jasmine Baetz (right) speaks with Steph Boulton, one of the more than 200 people who worked on the Los Seis de Boulder sculpture project. The sculpture is located in front of the TB-1 building on the CU Boulder campus.

In 2017, by chance, Baetz attended a screening of the film Symbols of Resistance, a documentary telling the story of Los Seis de Boulder and what was going on at CU in 1974. Baetz says, “I try to impress upon people how random it was that I went in the room to see it. I got an email from the Women in Gender Studies listserv saying, ‘Hey, this film is screening tonight.’ And I happened to be in my studio in the building next to where it was screening. And I just went over because I wanted a break from the studio. I had no understanding of what the content of the film was. And I think at that point, if I’d ever seen the word Chicano, I didn’t understand what it meant.” 

But the film stuck with her as did the words of the panelists that night, which included Pricilla Falcon, Chicana activist, professor of Hispanic Studies at the University of Northern Colorado and widow of murdered Chicano leader Ricardo Falcon.

Baetz saw Los Seis as something akin to Kent State, only in Boulder. That’s to say she understood the important historical significance of Los Seis and what was happening in the struggle for educational equity and social justice on the CU campus in the early 1970s. What she didn’t understand was why that rich and important history seemed to be missing from the University’s conscience. 

So Baetz did what artists do. She decided to create a piece of art that could honor the sacrifice of Los Seis de Boulder while also serving as a tribute to all those who fight for justice and equity in education. 

From the beginning of the project, which took two years to complete, Baetz was committed to making this public work of art a community effort. She posted flyers and sent out notices that read: 

“You are invited to participate in this community sculpture project that is creating a public art sculpture to commemorate the activism of the Chicano Student Movement, during which Los Seis, as they became known, were killed in two separate and unexplained car bombs on May 27 and 29, 1974.”

Her efforts were successful.

Baetz says that more than 200 people eventually worked on the sculpture in some capacity, including creating the many tiles that make up the mosaic portraits of Los Seis. If you look closely at the finished work, you’ll see the names of some 60 or so of those who worked on the piece written on small individual tiles within the mosaics.  

For now, the sculpture’s location at TB-1 has only been granted on a temporary basis. But many hope this will be the sculpture’s permanent home. It is the perfect place.

The statement that encircles the sculpture’s base reads, “Dedicated in 2019 to Los Seis de Boulder & Chicana and Chicano students who occupied TB-1 in 1974 & everyone who fights for equity in education at CU Boulder & the original stewards of this land who were forcibly removed & all who remain.” And it adds “Por Todxs Quienes Luehan Por La Justicisa (for all those who fight for justice).

For most people familiar with the story of Los Seis, this work of art is a long overdue acknowledgment of their sacrifice. For those who lived the story in the 1970s and for those now willing to hear and understand that story, this piece of art can and should serve as a permanent reminder of what happens when inequality and racism become the law of the land and the victims of that inequity are left with no option but to confront it head-on at all costs.

Forty-five years ago, Boulder was a hotbed of political activity. Years of anti-Vietnam War activism coupled with the pursuit of racial justice and women’s rights had put the CU campus and Boulder on the government’s activist watch list. And they watched no groups more closely than those within the Chicano Movement.

Thanks to a number of new student-aid programs launched in 1970, the number of students of Mexican heritage on college campuses exploded, and Colorado was no exception. 

For the first time, students from the San Luis Valley, Pueblo and the greater Denver area were arriving on campus in record numbers thanks to these new Educational Opportunity Programs. Activists within the growing Chicano Movement acted as recruiters across the state in an effort to get as many young Chicanos as possible into colleges under the programs, which provided money for books, tuition, food and housing. 

By 1973, there were nearly 1,500 student members of UMAS (United Mexican American Students) on the Boulder campus and they were, to say the least, politically active. But not everyone approved of the school’s changing demographics. 

Joseph Coors was a CU regent in those days, and his beer company had been the target of a very effective national boycott started by Chicanos over its lack of Mexican-American employees and anti-union stance; Coors’ support of conservative politics in general; and his backing of grape growers who fought against the boycott organized by Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers in the 1960s.

As a result of these tensions, according to BW’s past interviews with a number of those UMAS students from the 1970s, things began to change on campus around 1973. These former students claim CU administrators and trustees had decided that there were too many Chicano activists at the school and that the University began trying to reduce their numbers by any and every means possible, ethical or not. 

According to those who were there, they say the University began to lose the aid files of Chicanos without explanation. Badly needed stipend checks failed to arrive on time and some students who fell behind on their tuition while waiting for their money were told to leave school. This tinkering with student aid only added fuel to the already growing fire of the Chicano Movement. 

Eventually, frustration erupted into action over the aid situation coupled with demands from the UMAS students that two university-hired staff members be fired. 

On Monday, May 10, 1974, eight students, including Neva Romero (one of Los Seis), went to TB-1 early in the morning and barricaded themselves on the building’s third floor and refused to leave until their demands were met. By evening, a larger group of UMAS students and supporters had gathered in front of TB-1. This group then decided to take over the main floor of the building. 

The next day, now holding the entire building, no one knew exactly what to expect. There were police with rifles on nearby rooftops but no one seemed willing to negotiate with the students over their demands and the phone lines were cut.

The occupation went on for days, then weeks. School finally let out for summer but the Chicano students stayed, still holding the building. And then things took a turn that no one could have foreseen.

At 9:47 p.m. on May 27, the students occupying TB-1 heard, and felt, a massive explosion, as did most of the residents of Boulder. Emergency vehicles rolled south past the university and up Baseline Road toward Chautauqua Park. A few hours later the tragic news arrived at TB-1; Neva Romero and fellow Chicano activists Reyes Martinez and his girlfriend, Una Jaakola, had all been killed in a massive explosion while sitting in Martinez’ car behind Chautauqua Hall. Their body parts, along with pieces of the car, were blown out over several blocks.

The students inside TB-1 were devastated. Their friends were gone, and they couldn’t understand how or why it had happened. The next two days were long and filled with sadness and confusion, and then the unthinkable happened again; another massive explosion shook the windows of TB-1.

On May 29, in the parking lot of Pudlik’s Liquor near what is now a Burger King on 28th Street, four more young Chicano activists familiar to those in TB-1 were in a car that mysteriously exploded in a nearly identical fashion as what had occurred only 48 hours earlier.

This time the lives lost belonged to Francisco Dougherty, Heriberto Teran and Florencio Granada. The fourth man, Antonio Alcantar, was very seriously injured, suffering terrible burns and losing a leg in the blast.

Inside TB-1, shock turned to fear and anger. Six of their own, Los Seis de Boulder, had been lost in explosions that no one could explain and that were simply too bizarre to have been some kind of freak coincidence. 

Finally, following the tragic deaths of Los Seis, the CU administration called and negotiated an end to the standoff, giving in to most of the student’s demands and promising that no one involved in the occupation would be prosecuted. Still, it was a hollow victory. 

So, what was happening in Boulder in 1974 that could possibly explain the tragic deaths of Los Seis? There are several theories to explain the deadly explosions.

Chicano leader Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales had launched his nationally influential Crusade for Justice in Denver in 1967. Having grown weary of trying to work on Chicano issues within the established Democratic Party, Gonzales eventually concluded that Mexicans should fight for self determination over their historical lands in the Southwest. Following a shootout between some members of the Crusade and Denver police that included an explosion, Gonzales and his organization landed squarely on the radar of law enforcement authorities, including the FBI. 

As the Chicano Movement grew and became more influential within the community, it was only natural that there was plenty of crossover between the Chicano activists within UMAS on campus and the larger Chicano Movement in Colorado, including the Crusade.

Part of the history of 1974 that has been mostly lost to time is the fact that a bomb was going off somewhere in the U.S. on average every four days throughout that year. These explosions were blamed on the Black Panthers, the Weathermen, the Puerto Rican Independence Movement, the American Indian Movement and numerous Chicano organizations, including the Brown Berets, the Crusade for Justice and the CU Chicano activists. 

Virtually all of these bombings were conducted at times when people would not be injured. Today they would be called terrorism. But 50 years ago, they were considered a tactic for garnering media attention in a world that was largely deaf to the voices of people of color. 

Few who walk the Pearl Street Mall today have any idea of what was happening here in 1974. The Boulder Courthouse was bombed that year. The CU police annex and the university president’s house were bombed. A local elementary school was bombed because it was considered to be discriminating against Spanish-speaking students. 

And, of course, the other two bombs that killed Los Seis.

To understand the controversy around the Los Seis bombings requires yet another dip into history, this time concerning the FBI’s COINTELPRO operations.

As previously described, the country was coming apart at the seams in 1974. The Vietnam War was still winding down and many groups had been formed around racial and geographical identity for the purpose of forcing long-overdue political change. These groups, particularly those seeking self-determination over certain lands within the U.S., were viewed as a serious threat by the U.S. government at the time and still today. Thanks to the Freedom of Information Act and a lot of great work by journalists over the years, we now know that the FBI’s COunter INTELligence PROgram, COINTELPRO, was in full swing in numerous locations during the 1960s and ’70s. 

In South Dakota, for instance, the FBI’s use of this program is blamed for dozens of deaths on the Pine Ridge Reservation, where the Bureau’s efforts to disrupt the American Indian Movement (AIM) were a priority. 

COINTELPRO was a hideous, albeit effective tactic from the government’s point of view. It preyed upon the natural paranoia that exists within groups organized to bring about radical political change that required secrecy and potential violence. 

For instance: Imagine the FBI orchestrating the arrests of 20 activists at the same time at a meeting, but then letting just one person go after an hour while holding the others for days or weeks. Then later the FBI puts that same activist in the back of an FBI car, and drives them past places where they will be seen and recognized. And finally, a paid FBI plant within the activist ranks starts spreading the rumor that the person who got out early and was seen in the car must be an FBI spy. Mix in a little fear and paranoia and the next thing you know that perfectly innocent person turns up dead, likely at the hands of one of their own. 

These are the kind of deadly, dirty tricks that COINTELPRO employed and likely still employs albeit under a different name. The government claims that it officially ended its decades-long COINTELPRO operations in 1971, which it admits were designed for surveilling, infiltrating, discrediting and disrupting domestic political organizations. But the evidence suggests otherwise.

COINTELPRO also fabricated evidence in order to arrest and imprison leaders of these groups. Such was the case for AIM leader Leonard Peltier when the FBI fabricated ballistics evidence to secure his conviction. And this happened in 1977, long after the program was said to have been dissolved. There were also numerous mysterious killings of activist leaders in the first half of the 1970s that have never been reasonably explained, including Los Seis and their fellow Chicano leaders Ricardo Falcon, Luis “Junior” Martinez and Carlos Zapata.

The Chicano Movement, including people from CU and the Crusade for Justice, had close ties to AIM during the period of armed conflict in South Dakota. Considering the FBI’s operations regarding AIM and its claims that Chicano Movement activists were responsible for a series of bombings in Boulder and Denver at the time, it makes sense that the FBI would have deployed its COINTELPRO operations among the Chicano activists on the Front Range. But any documents that the Bureau had regarding its surveillance and efforts to disrupt the CU and Denver groups is said to have been destroyed in a fire. So, for now, we are left with three theories of what happened to Los Seis.

The law enforcement version of events is that the young activists blew themselves up accidentally while setting the timers on bombs they intended to plant at nearby locations. Space does not allow for a full examination of the criticisms of this theory here. But issues concerning the handling of the crime scene and the actions of the FBI and local police and first responders in the days and hours before the explosions do challenge this perspective.

There is also a theory that turf wars within the Chicano Movement itself could have led to Chicano on Chicano violence resulting in the deaths of Los Seis. But that theory has no evidence to support it and, even if true, would likely have been attributable to FBI COINTELPRO operations.

And the final theory, which has long been the most accepted within Chicano circles, is that the government, by way of COINTELPRO, killed the six young activists by planting bombs in their vehicles or by rigging the timers on bombs that were going to be used as a form of protest to go off prematurely. The ultimate goal for the FBI under this scenario being to disrupt the growing Chicano activism on the CU campus, the Front Range, across Colorado and the nation.   

The Chicano Movement was born in response to the long-held racism and inequitable treatment of people of Mexican descent living in the U.S. — some who immigrated here legally, some who did so without proper documentation and some who were born here after the border had crossed them. 

Los Seis de Boulder are considered martyrs within the past and current Chicana/Chicano Movement because regardless of the circumstances that led to their tragic deaths, they died fighting for justice for their people. That point is not arguable.

It is good that CU is allowing these six young Chicano activists to be honored by the sculpture in front of TB-1 and much good can, and needs, to come from it.

On a recent afternoon I asked 225 people walking past the sculpture if they knew who the people in the mosaics were or the story behind the art. A staffer in TB-1 knew because she had taken the time to research the story after the piece was sited. Another university employee from the archive department also knew the story because of her position of employment. But the other 223 people — mostly students but also some faculty — had no idea who Los Seis were or the story of the TB-1 struggle for educational equity. 

That is why this piece of art is so important to this campus and this town and this country. If the history of what occurred in the 1960s and ’70s in the struggle against racism and inequality for Latinx people is lost or forgotten or simply unknown, then we are surely doomed to repeat that history. 

If we can learn the lessons from our past, perhaps we can change our current course away from the horrible racism that has overtaken our government and too many of our citizens by using the voting booth instead of more drastic measures. If so, then perhaps the deaths of young innocents can be avoided this time around. For many, that is the message and importance of this sculpture. It is the history we don’t know. It is the history we must learn. 

The sculpture will be officially dedicated on Friday, Sept. 6.

Everyone is invited.    

ON THE BILL: Los Seis de Boulder; Community-created sculpture dedication and celebration. Sept. 6, 2 p.m., TB-1 building, CU campus east of Macky Auditorium and west of the Rec center at 3:30 p.m., Speakers and a screening of the film Symbols of Resistance at Case Auditorium.