Pushing back against gentrification
Community leaders and scholars discuss ways to reclaim Latino heritage in Denver.
The work of restoring Latino communities besieged by gentrification is underway in Denver, but there’s still a long way to go, civic leaders and scholars said Tuesday as they discussed the city’s troubling history of displacing longtime residents of traditionally Hispanic neighborhoods.
“(Gentrification is) everywhere,” said Denver City Council President Jamie Torres, who took part in a panel discussion at Metropolitan State University of Denver titled “De-Gentrification: Recuperando Nuestra Comunidad, Historias de Resiliencia (Taking Back Our Community, Stories of Resilience).”
“It’s pervasive, and it’s one of the hardest things to stop,” she said.
Denver’s history of redlining — denying financial services such as home loans to people who live in certain neighborhoods — created conditions ripe for gentrification, panelists said. And a 2019 report from the National Community Reinvestment Coalition bears that out, stating that the city led the nation in the number of Latinos displaced from rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods.
“What you’re doing is you’re erasing their history,” said novelist Ernesto Quiñonez, an associate professor at Cornell University.
Quiñonez, this year’s Richard T. and Virginia M. Castro Distinguished Visiting Professor at MSU Denver, said gentrification happens when a disadvantaged group is taken over by a more powerful group. It’s enabled by financial and legislative tools that are designed to disempower communities, Torres added.
Quiñonez recalled a teacher he had growing up in New York. She gave all the children with Hispanic names white names instead, so Maria became Mary, Ernesto became Ernest. He described this experience, in addition to realizing that all the best jobs and schools were in white neighborhoods, as crushing to his self-esteem.
“When your self-esteem has been crushed,” he said, “it’s a sort of gentrification of the soul.”
Xochitl “Sochi” Gaytan, president of the Denver Public Schools Board of Education and an MSU Denver alumna, recalled her experience as a real-estate agent when she saw developers take over Latino communities because she thought they viewed the land as more valuable than the people living on it.
For Indigenous communities, the value they place on the land is spiritual. “The land is sacred to us not because of money but because our ancestors are buried there,” said Tony Garcia, executive artistic director of Su Teatro. “That’s the basic conflict.”
While Latino communities in Denver have been hit hardest by gentrification, Black and Asian communities have been impacted as well, Torres said.
But there are hopeful signs that work is underway to reclaim historic neighborhoods.
Garcia expressed excitement that Su Teatro will soon own the building that the cultural and performing-arts center leases on Santa Fe Drive, where so many of the buildings are owned by developers. “This is a space that will continue to be there for generations,” he said.
Torres and Garcia pointed to the Chicano/a/x Murals of Colorado Project, which has been working to restore and preserve murals by Chicano artists.
“Murals were the first places we started to express ourselves and say, ‘This is where we belong,’” Garcia said.
Gaytan, meanwhile, applauded the work of Denver Public Schools Superintendent Alex Marrero, who she said is being thoughtful about gentrification and segregation in Denver. He’s working to diversify the teacher population so it more closely resembles the student population, Gaytan said.
What are the steps that everyone can take to ensure that Denver retains its diverse and vibrant roots?
That depends on what you have access to, Quiñonez said. If you can run for office, do it. If not, research candidates and vote for those with anti-gentrification views.
Gaytan and Torres agreed that the Board of Education and the City Council need better representation from people with diverse and intersectional backgrounds.
Education is key, as well. Torres empowers communities of color by making sure they know the zoning codes and laws, what changes are being proposed and by helping them organize.
As a professor, Quiñonez educates his students so they have better opportunities in their futures.
“I try to help students succeed in their studies, and once they get their degrees, their quality of life will be higher,” he said. “And because now they have this education, their children will be better off and their children’s children, and that gives them more of a fighting chance against gentrification than if they didn’t have this education.”