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Tuesday, January 18, 2022

“Where We Come From Is Art”: Denver’s Gentrifying Northside Captured Through the Lens and Poetry of Its Latino Youth

Salvador Rodriguez roamed his neighborhood on Denver’s Northside, tasked with photographing him, prompting him to take on class assignments.

The camera phone lens of a North High School student bypassed his friends, looked and looked at the ever-changing professions, and settled on a scene that meant something to him: two men doing landscaping. Were.

Rodriguez holds physical labor in high regard because he knows the pride in executing backbreaking work and the pain of being looked down upon for it. On Saturdays and Sundays, the 17-year-old works hanging drywall in 12-to-14-hour construction shifts.

When Rodriguez thinks about his family and his neighborhood, he thinks of all the hardworking Latinos whose labor keeps his community running, but they are underpaid, underpaid and undervalued.

“I’ve noticed that my community is moving north,” Rodriguez said. “Many of us know what a struggle is, but some of us persist in a struggle and you can’t get out of it. I want to get out of it and help others get out of it.” . I want to be a leader.”

Tim Hernandez is a witness to the pain, promise, joy, hope, struggles of Northside youth. According to a study by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, he is a teacher at North High and a product of the neighborhood—a community with the highest levels of Hispanic displacement nationally—from 2000 to 2010.

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Northside, the Northwest Denver community that includes the Highland neighborhood, has been particularly hard hit by gentrification, with Highland’s Hispanic population declining from 37% of the community to 16% over the past decade, according to U.S. Census data.

“I get to work facilitating cultural knowledge and experience from the same city block, in the neighborhoods students are surrounded by restaurants and businesses and their families work,” Hernandez said. “The gentrification we face – the presence of that pain – is shared, especially among our Latinx students.”

Hernandez works with his students through the spirit of what he calls “Latinux Leadership.” This semester, he wanted to give those students an outlet.

Inspired by the book “We Trust Our Wings” by Colorado Poet Laureate Bobby Lefebvre and photographed by Juan Fuentes, Hernandez assigned 30 students in his “Latinx Leadership” class to walk in their Northside neighborhood, talking to them about And wrote a poem with his favorite picture.

Hernandez and his students compiled the images and poems into a book—pages created in Google Slides and stapled together—called “Our Sacred Community.”

“Art is where we come from,” reads the book’s overview. “Through this book, our students prove it.”

Photo by Daniela Urbina-Valle

The Spear Boulevard Bridge is what connects the Northside to Downtown Denver.

“This place is holy”

Daniela Urbina-Valle, 18, campaigned for the Northside for photo opportunities, but didn’t see many people who looked like her along the way.

The daughter of immigrants – mother from Mexico, father from Nicaragua – Urbina-Valle carried on her parents’ dreams of success. The senior is headed to the University of Northern Colorado next year and wants to fulfill her lifelong goal of becoming a nurse caring for those in need.

While Urbina-Vale talks about her teenage life, she experiences the racism inherent in being brown in an increasingly civilized neighborhood. The cynic stares. suspicious eyes.

While doing her class work, Urbana-Valle said that white neighbors gave her and her classmates a dirty look.

As the first line in his published poems, Urbina-Valle wrote, “We cannot walk without looking down at our neighborhood.”

The North High School senior wants her neighborhood to be affordable enough for hardworking Latinos to live in. She wants white people to stop appropriating her culture – eating Latino food, co-opting her style and traditions – while keeping her people aside.

Urbina-Vale wrote in another poem:

when we worked so hard to build bridges

The foundation built on our backs has been burned down and rebuilt

They will never believe that the empires they have built are weak and will one day break

The assignment gave Hernandez’s student agency to reclaim the neighborhood’s streets as their own – to put words to the struggles they and their families were facing, and also to celebrate the victory.

“My students have gone from feeling like a part of our neighborhood to a landscape that is changing in the neighborhood,” Hernandez said. “My children are the heart and soul of the North in every shape and meaning. Our students were finally able to confirm this for themselves. Even though they go to college at a predominantly white institution, they know when and where they are here to go to church and eat their food—the place is sacred. ,

Latinx students walk south of the Federal...

Photo by Hope Navarro-Alvarez

Latinx students walk south of Federal Boulevard, photographing their community as part of their “Our Sacred Community” project.

“Si Se Puede”

Hernandez said the poems and photos were too beautiful not to share. Images and words about graffiti, murals, community sites, racism, construction, pride and culture captured a mature neighborhood with nuance.

North High teachers wanted their students’ art to extend beyond the walls of their classroom, so they organized a poetry slam at the Radiator, Denver cafe last weekend. The students read their work aloud and sold their poetry books to raise funds for a leadership Latino youth conference they wanted to hold at their school, welcoming students to Denver about issues important to them. to talk in. Student club Somos Mecha raised money for a free community fridge they’re bringing to school to feed hungry students.

On the night of December 12, Radiator was a packed house, buzzing with Latinx students who were overcoming their public speaking jitters and proud family and community members.

Hernandez exclaimed “Yesir!” Shouting worked as a publicity man for his students. After reading each student’s rehearsals, teach them to use the microphone and let them know that the nerves were natural.

Before the event began, Hernandez brought his students outside the tent performance space illuminated by twinkling lights from the cafe’s courtyard. They took a deep breath and chanted “Si, se pude” – “Yes, we can”, before entering the venue one by one.

Teens read about his work at a neighborhood joint, eyes wide open when audience members bid hundreds of dollars on his signed books during the break.

Copies of “Our Sacred Community” are still being sold for $10 plus any charities who wish to contribute, and the full book can be viewed online for free at tinyurl.com/oursacredcommunity.

Taken at Centennial Park, locked in...

Photo by Carlos Rosso

A newly developed apartment building overlooks the community on the north side, away from Centennial Park.

Carlos Rojas, 17, reads his poem about gentrification. Rosas’ father died of violence in the Northside, he said, and the teen was raised primarily by his grandmother.

For the young man, the Northside is beautiful, dotted with self-made Latino businesses.

He shakes his head when he sees that storied institutions have been torn down and replaced by something new, more expensive and without Latino roots.

“They are being replaced by a culture that is not ours,” reads his poem.

Rosas plans to move to the Japan campus of Temple University. After living up north all her life, Rosa wants to see what more the world has in store. He aspires to go into the commercial business and build generational wealth – something he and displaced Hispanics from the north wish they had access to.

“Every old building destroyed has some damage,” Rojas said. “But this place—it’s everything. It’s home.”

“We don’t let each other drown”

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