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//Columbus Park in Sunnyside could be getting an official name change to La Raza Park, reflecting how the Chincane community in Denver has referred to it for decades. Photo by Esteban Fernandez | este.fdez20b@gmail.com

Months of hard work paid off for Councilwoman Amanda Sandoval as a vote to refer the matter of renaming Columbus Park to La Raza Park passed unanimously by Denver’s Parks and Recreation Advisory Board on Nov. 16

A petition to rename the park was circulated over the summer and was signed by 700 Denver residents, well past the 300 required to bring the issue up for discussion in front of the board.

La Raza just means “the people,” but for the Chicano community, the term became a revolutionary call during the 1970s, one that encompasses the experience and identity that ties the Chicano community together. 

Sold to the City of Denver in 1906, the block nestled between 38th and 39th Avenues and Navajo and Osage Streets was originally referred to as Navajo Park until its official dedication on Columbus Day in 1931. Though Sunnyside was once Denver’s Little Italy, by the ’60s it had become a predominantly Chicano neighborhood. It wasn’t until 1970, however, that the park became central to the social issues of the neighborhood when residents began to protest the injustices they faced. Though they made up a majority of the population in the neighborhood, Chicanos were discriminated against and had fewer job opportunities. In fact, all the jobs related to the park were filled by white residents. Adding to these grievances, employees would not clean the park, leaving dirty bathrooms and broken glass and often closing the pool just to avoid upkeep. 

For several years, residents of the Sunnyside residents felt frustrated by what they saw as a pattern of neglect when it came to Chicano neighborhoods and recreational spaces when compared to their white counterparts. Neglect was not the only frustration though: Residents also noticed undue attention directed toward their community, culminating in the deaths of many unarmed Chicanos at the hands of police. 

It was this oppression and inequality that led to the splash-ins at the park pool. Chicano residents would tear down the fence and rush the pool, refusing to leave, and taunting police to jump in the pool after them in order to arrest them. Things came to a head one day when residents threw two staff members into the pool. The constant demonstrations and unrest caused the white lifeguards to quit, allowing Chicano teens to take those jobs instead. Arturo Rodriguez was hired to lead the park’s recreation programs in 1971. And in 1972, it was Rodriguez who gathered with other local residents to hold a ceremony where they unofficially rededicated the park as La Raza.

For decades, the park has been central to the local Chicano community. Not only as the center of political and social activism in the ’70s, but also as the site of the yearly Cruise Down Federal and ceremonies and gatherings of the local Aztec community.

Renee Tacome, who grew up dancing Mestizo style at the park, views it as a space that is not only important to the Chicano community but also sacred to its origins as Indigenous Arapahoe land. She views it as a symbol of cultural resilience.

“It’s important to dismantle Columbus and the white supremacy that has harmed us. It is important to remedy the harm that has been done,” Tacome said.

But not all residents agree. Resident Richard Sabel considers it an affront to the Italian-American community, and also feels it is unfair for the city to take something he sees as part of the Italian-American community and give it to another.

“It is also unethical to diminish and erase the historical significance of the park to the Italian-American community and the consequent acknowledgment of the contributions of the Italian-American community at large,” Sabel said. 

Tim Hernandez, who is a lifelong resident of Sunnyside, said he grew up in the park having only ever referred to it as “La Raza”. He feels that there is power in what we choose to remember, and it’s important to honor the meaning of the park. More importantly, he said it’s necessary to honor the term La Raza and its significance to a community that exists within a system that perpetually works to oppress it.

“Our community’s experiences are powerful in and of themselves, and they deserve to be recognized in our community spaces,” Hernandez said.

The board voted to recommend that Columbus Park be renamed La Raza Park. Executive Director Happy Haynes will now take that recommendation before Denver City Council in the form of an ordinance proposal that will be voted on in December after a public hearing.