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La Raza Park’s Next Step As A Historic Cultural District

Decades of hard work paid off for Denver’s Chicano community on July 24 when the City Council voted unanimously to make La Raza Park in the Northside a historical cultural district.

“Now we have a third cultural historic district in Denver, which is strange to me,” said District 1 Councilwoman Amanda Sandoval. “Ninety-seven percent of the historic districts or landmark structures that come through City Council are predominantly white men and that’s not Denver’s history.”

According to Sandoval, the history of this park dates back to 1906, when it became “one of the first parks in Northwest Denver.”  It was originally called Navajo Park. In 1931, the park was renamed Columbus Park, honoring Sunnyside’s Italian American population. As the community demographics changed from Italian American to Chicano, people started calling for the park name to change too. La Raza means “the people” in Spanish. The term encompasses the experience and identity of the Chicano community and became a revolutionary call in the 1970s. 

Arturo Rodriguez, a member of Denver’s La Raza Park Legacy Preservation Project, said that individuals started calling the area La Raza Park far before the official name change in 2020 because they did not believe Christopher Columbus was a hero due to how he mistreated the Indigenous people.

“We believe we were right, that Columbus was not a hero and that he should not be recognized,” Rodriguez said. 

Rodriguez’s goal is to now amend the La Raza Park application to become a cultural historic district to include Native American history. He said it’s important to acknowledge the park stands on Native land as the City Council does.  

“Before every public meeting, they acknowledge that we are on Native land and we acknowledge the first peoples,” Rodriguez said. 

Annual events held at the park include live performances from Grupo Tlaloc, an Aztec dance group that performs in celebration of the Summer Solstice. Additionally, other popular events are Dia De Los Muertos, La Raza Park Day and Cruise—“a big celebration with lowriders”—and the Chicano Pride Ride.

Diane Medina, who has lived directly across the street from La Raza Park for more than 40 years, says it has been a part of her whole life. The park has been through significant changes throughout the decades and she has witnessed how politics, community members and time have transformed it. She described the park as a place where people gather to socialize and celebrate the Chicano community. It’s now often buzzing with people playing music, eating and connecting until closing time at 11 p.m. 

It hasn’t always been a joyous scene at the park. Medina said in the past tensions rose between police and community members. In 1970, Chicano community activists took over the park and staged “splash-ins” at the park’s former pool. 

“In 1970, we spray painted the walls at the swimming pool and we wrote the name ‘La Raza Park,’” Rodriguez said. “We did not know the history of the park completely—we did not know that Navajo Park was the name until 1930 or probably we would have gone back to rename it Navajo Park.”

By 1971, the Chicano movement effectively controlled the park. Every year after, there would be “grand opening” events, celebrating the takeover of the pool with live music, dancers and speakers. These grand openings caused tension between the community members and the police, which “started having real strong arm kind of tactics,” according to Medina. 

During one of the annual grand openings, Medina said officers came marching in and tear-gassed the park while kids were still playing on the playground. 

“Then they just started swinging and arresting people,” Medina said. “It was just a mess.” 

The pool was later filled in and covered up without public notice. Now, a 45-foot tall Kiosko modeled to look like Mayan and Aztec pyramids stands as one of the park’s most recognizable features. Denver artist David Ocelotl Garcia painted murals on the ceiling in 2016, titled “El Viaje.” As part of the historical cultural landmark designation, the Kiokso will receive regular inspections and the murals and other art will be protected. 

La Raza Park’s resiliency throughout the decades has allowed individuals to have a place to celebrate culture, community and form a sense of pride in identity. 

“It highlighted an era of Denver that’s probably not talked about,” Sandoval said. “We had segregation. We had pools for whites only, and colored water fountains and segregated schools and that’s not in mainstream media. And so this story tells a different story of a lived experience for people of color.”

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