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Northside Memory Project Brings People Together to Remember

Flo Hernandez-Ramos knows how to decorate. Stepping into her home, one’s eyes are immediately drawn to an impressive array of brightly colored art and textiles featuring flowers, Frida Kahlo, and the Virgin Mary. Google Maps may call her neighborhood Sunnyside, or maybe even the Highlands, but to Hernandez-Ramos it’s just the Northside.

“My husband and I have lived in this house for four years and lived in the Northside since about ‘73,” she said.

Flo Hernandez-Ramos/Photo by Helen Driesen

It’s no secret that North Denver has seen a boom in gentrification over the past several decades. Residents who can afford the city’s often eye-popping rent hikes are moving into town not knowing much about the character of the communities that were here before. A desire to preserve that history and ensure that it’s available for future generations is what has led to the creation of History Colorado’s Northside Memory Project.

The project is people-focused, consisting of workshops that encourage current and former Northside residents to take a step back in time and relive their own personal histories in order to potentially create a museum exhibit out of experiences that are shared. History Colorado has carried out the same process in twelve different communities thus far, including Pueblo and San Luis Valley.

Leading the project is Marissa Volpe, who serves as History Colorado’s Chief of Equity and Engagement. A Denver transplant, she originally moved to the area to teach within Regis University’s bilingual theology program. Volpe first learned about the importance of sharing oral history from her Hispanic relatives on nights spent at her maternal grandmother’s house.

Marissa Volpe and Flo Hernandez-Ramos/Photo by Helen Driesen

“It seemed to all happen mainly after dinner. The guys would maybe go watch something and the women ended up around the table, and we just had tea and cookies and just shared stories,” she said. “And that, I think, is so powerful.”

Unlike Volpe, Hernandez-Ramos has been in Colorado for her entire life. She was born in Lamar in 1950 and attended college at CU Boulder before going on to work at KUVO radio. For 23 years, Hernandez-Ramos spent weekdays working as KUVO’s president and CEO, but her real passion was her weekend gig – programming and hosting KUVO’s Cancion Mexicana.

After connecting through a mutual friend, Volpe and Hernandez-Ramos set out making flyers, posting on social media, and reaching out to community members in hopes of bringing the Northside Memory Project to life. Their first workshop, held at North High School on a Saturday morning in late June, drew roughly 100 current and former Northside residents.

This is the project’s goal – to piece together a collective history of the Northside that is honest, authentic, and unifying – and History Colorado accomplishes it with a tried and true process. For the first workshop, attendees sat in small groups and were asked to draw, from memory, their homes in the Northside and share among themselves. Participants were then encouraged to take turns stepping up to a microphone to share memories with the entire group. Topics ranged from the ultra-specific, like the type of tree that grew in someone’s grandmother’s backyard, to more common shared memories, like favorite long-gone shops and restaurants.

“Once you get into that physical space, your brain is activating memories and senses. We want the smells and the sights, and the places of significance,” Volpe said. “And then we share them and what’s so neat is, somebody may mention something, and then it triggers, ‘oh, my gosh, the pool, I have all these memories of the pool,’ and then we have a collective history.”

Next, maps of the communities are created to show the interconnectedness of the unique stories being shared. At a future event, participants will be encouraged to bring in photographs and documents to be scanned for the exhibit. History Colorado will also be taking oral histories of different community members – Hernandez-Ramos and her husband gave theirs last week – and planning, what Volpe calls, a “share-back celebration,” usually featuring various art forms put together by community members, to mark the opening of the exhibit.

“We know that, for especially communities of color, it has been art that has been translating history,” she said. “Whether it’s through murals – our rich tradition of murals in Colorado – oral histories, many times music or literature – all those have been ways to preserve.”

According to Hernandez-Ramos, many of the people who came to the memory jogging workshop don’t actually live in the Northside anymore, and instead traveled in from surrounding areas like Commerce City, Arvada, and Thornton for the event. Indeed, gentrification has displaced many families over the decades. The Northside was once a tapestry of Italian, Mexican, Scottish, and Polish cultures, to name a few, but these groups didn’t always live in perfect harmony.

“Where there was at one point in time a clash between the Italian culture and Mexican American culture here in the Northside, at that gathering, they were very amicable,” Hernandez-Ramos said.

“You know, it’s not always easy history,” Volpe said. “There’s a lot of pain, there’s been discrimination, there’s been racism, there have been growing pains, in terms of changes in demographics and folks coming in. But really, we’re there to create that safe space for listening and then preserving.”

There’s a lot to be preserved but, to residents who have watched the Northside transform beyond recognition over the decades, newer residents don’t seem to know or care about their neighborhoods’ rich histories. Hearteningly, some newer residents without any generational ties to the area took an interest in the event. 

“I think there’s also a desire for folks coming in to know where they are, right?” she said. “It’s not just a fancy zip code. It’s not just nice coffee shops and yoga studios. There’s this deep, rich history of organizing, of activism.”

After witnessing just how much the Northside has changed over the last few decades, Hernandez-Ramos cites Dia de los Muertos – a holiday that celebrates the memories of relatives who have passed away instead of mourning them – as a metaphor for what happens to culture when it’s co-opted instead of preserved. According to Hernandez-Ramos, non-Mexican Americans once rejected the holiday, but now you can buy Dia de los Muertos cards at the Hallmark store.

“So, you know, you hold on to it, but at the same time you see it sort of escaping you and being taken over by something else,” she said. “It’s an evolution.”

The Northside Memory Project will host its collection workshop from 10 am to 12 pm at North High School on August 20th.

“It’s changing so rapidly,” Volpe said. “We want to preserve it, but we also want to dream about what the future can be.”

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