By Joseph Rios
Growing up in the neighborhood where the Auraria Campus is now located, Frances Torres doesn’t remember ever hearing the name “Auraria.” She grew up thinking of herself as a “Ninth Streeter,” she said.
The Auraria neighborhood in which her family lived was targeted starting in 1965 by the City of Denver as an urban-renewal project, a method of revitalizing areas of “blight.” By the mid-1970s, the majority-Latino population had been displaced to west Denver neighborhoods as construction began on the campus that today houses Metropolitan State University of Denver, the University of Colorado Denver and Community College of Denver.
Torres’ family was displaced in the early 1970s when she was 19, she told a virtual panel that convened Wednesday to discuss the history of the Auraria Campus.
“The lifestyle that we lived in Auraria was very comfortable, very safe, very cohesive and not like some of the reports I have read from some of the local authors that we were drowsy people or apathetic people, because we weren’t,” she said.
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20th Century Displaced Aurarians: Honoring the Past to Plan for the Future Cinco de Mayo Panel and Discussion was held via Zoom on Wednesday. It featured three Denverites whose families were affected by the construction of the Auraria Campus: Torres, an Auraria Historical Advocacy Council member and displaced Aurarian; Virginia Castro, an Auraria Historical Advocacy Council member and community activist; and Jamie Torres, a Denver City Council member. Also on the panel was Ean Thomas Tafoya, an MSU Denver alumnus and activist. The event was designed to increase awareness about how institutionalized discrimination created the conditions to build the Auraria Campus and discuss the legacies of those decisions.
While many Denverites are concerned about contemporary issues of gentrification and displacement, the history of the Auraria Campus highlights how these issues are not new but are ongoing social processes in Denver, said Jamie Torres, whose grandmother grew up in the Auraria neighborhood and attended St. Cajetan’s Catholic Church before being displaced for the campus.
“There is still definitely this tangible reaction and linkage that people have to their family stories as it relates to the Auraria Campus. It influences my work to this day because we’re still talking about displacement,” she said. “What I want current students and current conversations to focus on as it relates to Auraria is that families are still being displaced in Denver.”
Because her grandmother was displaced, Jamie Torres was able to utilize a Displaced Aurarian Scholarship to attend UCD. The three schools housed on the campus established the scholarship program in the 1990s to provide free tuition for four years of college for those who lived in the neighborhood between 1955 and 1973, along with their children and grandchildren. Torres recalled bringing her grandmother to campus to sit in the church and listening to her stories about being in the choir and the memories she held of attending Mass.
WATCH: 20th Century Displaced Aurarians: Honoring the Past to Plan for the Future Cinco de Mayo Panel and Discussion
MSU Denver alumna Castro remembers vividly the era during which Auraria’s Latino communities were displaced.
She was a Nursing student in the late 1960s when what was then Metropolitan State College of Denver was located near Civic Center. She joined other Chicana/o students in organizing a United Mexican American Students national activist organization as the Chicano Movimiento, a civil-rights movement led by Latinos.
At that time, she told the panel, the college’s all-white student government advocated for a new campus in the Auraria neighborhood. The student government, Castro recalled, asked students to vote “yes” on a 1969 bond that would pave the way for the new campus. But after being visited by an activist from the west side of Denver, Castro and other students learned about the gentrification that the bond would cause.
Castro and other activists went door-to-door in Auraria talking with residents about the possibility of their homes being turned into a college campus. And as the neighborhood became more interested in what would happen, the Coalition for the Betterment of the Westside was formed. The activist group was made up of more than 30 organizations, including churches, schools, action centers and more, that all advocated to preserve the Auraria neighborhood.
“Everybody organized around this,” said Castro, who moved to the west side in solidarity with displaced Aurarians and remains an advocate shaping the Auraria Campus’ relationship with community members.
“It was from the heart, always, from the beginning, and the story has never ended,” she said.
Panelist Tafoya graduated from MSU Denver in 2012 with a Political Science degree and is a member of the University’s Community Mending and Engagement Board. It was important to hold the virtual panel on Cinco de Mayo to keep the history of Auraria alive, he said. In his role on the board, he often hears concerns from community members that the campus’ history is being lost.
“We need to remember this is about people. We’ve made it about buildings for a very long time, and even displacement and gentrification, right?” Tafoya said. “They don’t have the word ‘people’ in it. We need to really remember that part.”
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