Article & Photos by Joe Contreras, Latin Life Denver Media
Mrs. Lujan sits on her rocking chair in her North Denver bungalow home packing and looking over heirlooms of days gone by. She is moving, it is time to say goodbye to what once was. Next to her on the table is a photo of her deceased husband. She talks to his spirit, played by Angel Mendez Soto, that she knows is still with her.
They reminisce of what the home they have lived in for more than 50 years has meant to them, their children and their grandchildren. “We were the first Chicano family in the neighborhood. Soon others followed. They came from Southern Colorado, San Luis, Nuevo Mexico and some from old Mexico. We knew everyone on the block our kids played and grew up together,” says Mrs. Lujan, played by Yolanda Ortega.
Off stage a young “Veterano”who is alluded to as Corky Gonzales, played by a convincing Art Razo makes cameo appearances making brief speeches about cultural identity, civil rights and the indigenous roots of the land. In the background video clips of North Denver homes and businesses, past and present, are displayed during scene transitions. The play is as funny and endearing as it is serious. The cast is superb throughout.
Through it all two young couples, both DINKS (double income, no kids) are vying to purchase the home Mrs. Lujan has put up for sale. One couple is Chicano, Luna & Teo played by Molly Gallegos & Ben Martinez, the other Anglo’s, Megan & Sean played by Cary Seston & Seth Palmer Harris.
They both have apprehensions about buying the house but for different reasons. The Chicano couple is concerned about the changing demographics of North Denver citing the influx of Anglos and the out of control development happening in the area with the tearing down of the traditional homes in favor of minimalistic ones. “Many of them are just so ugly” says the wife. “I’m not sure we still belong here” she infers.
The Anglo couple is also concerned about the area. The home is in the Sunnyside neighborhood, but to them its LoHi, (Lower Highlands) and no one is going to convince them any differently.
They wonder about some of “sketchy” areas of the neighborhood including the Quigg Newton Projects, but are impressed by all the commercial development seeing it as a sign that those questionable areas will soon be wiped out.
What follows is a culture clash of identity and stereotypes. The Chicano couple claiming the Anglo’s know nothing of the area they are moving into and the Anglo’s stating, “Well forgive me for not having grown up in the ghetto,” and so it goes as the argument escalates.
Both couples are represented by Chicano real-estate agents, Delores & Felipe played by Iliana Barron and Phil Luna. They both work at the same company. “It bulldoze or get bulldozed” says the flirtatious Felipe to his female counterpart talking about all the money being made on the multi unit complexes built where single homes or duplexes once stood. “Which side do you want to be on?” he asks her.
The play written by North Denver’s own Bobby LeFebre and directed by Hugo E. Carbajal opened Thursday night at Denver Su Teatro Performing Arts Center to an enthusiastic sold out audience. In fact the entire opening week is sold out.
In the printed program for the play Lefebre talks about “Gentrification” calling it a cliché that has lost all weight and relevance in the conversation of Denver’s cityscape. “We know what it means. We know what it feels like. We know what it has done to us,” he writes adding, “We watch as long standing Denver residents scratch at its ever present side effects, liking the open wounds with nostalgia-turned resentment, so many of our neighborhoods have become graveyards to yesterday. Places where culture and history have been buried unceremoniously; places we only seem to speak about in the past tense.
For many in the audience that was true as they shared memories of their experiences in North Denver, having lived there at one time, of attending North High School, Horace Mann or Skinner Jr. High. Most have moved away but still have a nostalgic sense of what it meant to be associated with North Denver.
Chris Montoya said her family was the first Chicano to move into the Sunnyside area decades ago. “The white kid’s parents would not allow them to play with us but when they saw we were getting A’s in school and their kids weren’t we were suddenly best friends,”
“I thought this play really told the truth about what is really happening in North Denver and around city,” said Susan Benavidez. “It’s crazy, there is so much development and so many people moving in that there is not enough space for everyone, not even for parking,” she said.
Patricia Barela Rivera said that she loved the play but was very concerned about the effects all the displacement means for Latino communities.
A concern echoed by Su Teatro Executive Director Tony Garcia who wrote, “While the wealthy meet at country clubs and hotels, we come together at institutions such as church basements and community centers. We create cultural centers. We share food and passages. We organize street fairs, festivals in the park. We occupy a collective space. When that goes away, in many ways the opportunity to come together also goes away. We are able to live in silos, the same as the rich. We have more access, but now there is a monetary amount attached to it. We can pay for that sense of community at the ball park a high end concert of a fancy restaurant, but it is not the same. Do we really think mainstream institutions will carry our story, or memory, our legacy? We are visitors in our own neighborhoods,” states Garcia.
Cary Seston, who plays Megan, the Anglo wife told Latin Life Denver, “This play is like an heirloom of the spirit and legacy of the North Denver community that once was that is now being passed on to those who cherish those memories and legacy” she said adding, “I have heirlooms that my grandparents have passed on to me and I know what those meant to them and now to me and so I feel I know what this play means to those who have been part of North Denver’s history.”
Seston said she felt it was important that Anglo’s see this play so that they can learn and respect the area’s history and its residents. “They should not show up and make themselves comfortable without any acknowledgement of what proceeded them. I hope they come,” she said.
Playwright LeFebre writes in the program that this creation of monkers like “Lo-Hi” and RiNo are but a message that reads, “thank you, but this is ours now?” You know, “this is ours now,” like the Westside neighborhood that was pushed aside to become the Auraria Campus, “This is ours now” like the northern half of Mexico. “This is ours now,” like the land that became the “New World.” This modern “Columbusing” is no more than a repetition of a pattern of land grab and displacement that our communities have been experiencing for generations. LeFebre & Northside are featured in recent articles on Westword and Denverite
Latin Life Denver has covered the issue of gentrification extensively over the years including a five page 2014 feature article in Latin Life Denver Magazine; “Denver For Sale! A Tale Of Two Cities” also an article by Councilwoman Debra Ortega on “Gentrification & “Affordable Housing” Other Latin Life Denver articles you may find of interest: Citywide Committee to Address Impacts of Gentrification on Denver Schools & Their Rich Cultural Histories & Gentrification To Some, Economic Development To Others, But At What Cost? North Denver Symposium, Also, Culture Clash! Gentrification vs. Economic Development, Day 2 of World Latino Film Festival, plus, As Denver Gentrifies, Which Neighborhoods Are Losing Public School Students?
On a personal note as a lifelong Northsider myself I could completely relate to Bobby Lefrebe’s production of Northside. It is in many ways, my story.
Growing up in the Berkley neighborhood at 38th & Utica I went to the local public schools Alcott Elementary, Skinner Junior High and North High School. Elitch Gardens was just across the street. Small mom & pop shops lined Tennyson Street. That is totally gone now as a new generation of millennial’s now dominate the area.
I kicked around the Northside moving here and there before settling in to my current digs at 32nd and Zuni St.
As in the play the home I wanted was highly sought after by investors as it was in foreclosure, one of many throughout the metro area that had become victim of the housing crisis of post 2008.
At the time the neighborhood was known as Little Mexico, Little Juarez. Every small business in the area was Mexican owned and operated. There was Aztec Sol restaurant down the blocks with a Mexican shoe repair shop and tiendita (small grocery store on either side). A block the other way a cluster of shops occupied the buildings where Tony P’s Pizzeria and Gallop Coffee Shop now reside. There was the Panaderia (bakery) Rodriguez Restaurant, A Mexican hair Salon, a carniceria (meat store) and other Mexican business that stretched up to 32nd and Clay. The Holiday Movie Theater founded by media pioneer Paco Sanchez was still operating back then. Many served as a hangout for North High kids that had nowhere else to go. That was just a little more that 10 years ago, my how things have changed and so quickly. All of it is gone. There is an exception here and there but for the most part it has been erased.
Now days when I tell people where I live they respond by telling of parents, friends and others including themselves, who used to live in the area. Saying my Grandma or aunt, or other relative or friend used to live on the Northside. It seems like everyone has or had a connection to the Northside.
Living on 32nd Avenue, from my porch I see the daily parade of new residents marching up and down, walking their dogs, going to the various hipster restaurants now lining the avenue. They look at me as an oddity, like they are surprised to see a Latino still in the neighborhood. It makes me uncomfortable, I do not feel welcome at those hipster joints nor do I enjoy being there so I stay away. They walk to entertainment, I drive. Like Tony Garcia noted I have become a visitor in my own neighborhood.
One day, a few years ago, posters showed up on telephone poles announcing the neighborhood was for “Whites Only!” Well, that infuriated many longtime Northsiders including Bobby Lefebre who along with many supporters was soon marching up 32nd Avenue, bull horn in hand protesting the despicable postings as ignorant and racist.
As in the play I only got my home because the former owner, Mr. Rivera, was Chicano. He had lived here for decades. Mr Rivera proudly showed me the garden and patio areas he created for his mother that lived with him along with the rest of his family.
He saw the gentrification coming long before the rest of us in the neighborhood. His life had fallen apart and he had to sell his home. Despite dozens of high end offers from developers and investors he offered the home to me because he was concerned the area would soon lose its cultural identity. “I can see that the Anglo’s will soon be coming in a taking over everything here and I don’t want to see that happen to my home. I am selling it to you under the condition that if you ever sell it, it will be passed on to another Latino family. Otherwise I will hunt you down. We laughed. He used to come around once a year to visit and make sure I was still here.
But no matter, I am not going anywhere for the foreseeable future. I love to travel the world but for me there is no place like home. Denver’s Northside!
Northside plays at the Su Teatro performing Arts Center at 721 Sante Fe Drive through June 30th.
For tickets visit www.suteatro.org or call 303-296-0219
Remaining Performance Dates:
Thursday, June 20 at 7:30pm
Friday, June 21 at 7:30pm
Saturday, June 22 at 7:30pm
Thursday, June 27 at 7:30pm
Friday, June 28 at 7:30pm
Saturday, June 29 at 7:30pm
Sunday, June 30 at 2:00pm