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MAS 225: Weld's Untold Story

Greeley Tribune article from 11-13-2002


PUBLISHED: November 13, 2002 at 7:29 p.m. | UPDATED: May 13, 2020 at 7:05 a.m.

The signs on the windows said, “No dogs or Mexicans allowed.”

It was 1945 in Greeley, and Dan Solis had just returned from fighting as a paratrooper in World War II.

He was drafted into the military in 1943, parachuted 13 times into enemy territory, got seriously ill when he returned from the war and spent weeks in recovery at a Denver hospital.

But when he got back to Greeley, he wasn’t allowed to go into certain bars, barber shops and restaurants. The signs in the windows were there when he left. But they hurt him deeper when he came back.

“It felt kind of like a slap in the face,” Solis said. “You go off and fight for your country, then you come back and feel like the country doesn’t want you.”

More than 50 years later, Solis says life for Hispanics in Greeley isn’t the struggle it used to be. There are no signs anymore that say, “No dogs or Mexicans allowed.” But the separation and tension between Anglos and Hispanics, the city’s two dominant cultures, still exist.

Unlike Midwestern cities, where the Hispanic population is only beginning to boom, Greeley’s Hispanic story is not new. It’s ingrained, as much a part of the woodwork as newspaperman Horace Greeley and the Union Colonists who founded the city.

In some ways, Hispanics have more of a claim on northern Colorado than the Union Colonists. Before the Mexican-American War in the 1840s, Weld County was on the northeastern edge of Mexico. The state’s name is even evidence of its roots: Colorado means ruddy, or red, in Spanish.

But search the library, browse the Internet, look up files at history museums, and you won’t find much about the story of Hispanic Greeley.

Books about the city’s history contain more than you’d ever want to know about Nathan Meeker, Horace Greeley’s agricultural editor at the New York Tribune, and his dream to create a town full of wealthy, educated, hard-working residents.

But only fragments of history * stories here and there in newspaper articles and academic books * have been told about the other Greeley, the thousands with Spanish surnames who came in search of the American dream.

To many of them, the dream was attainable only through farm fields.

“Trabajo en Colorado,” recruiters for Weld County farmers and companies yelled from bullhorns as they passed by train through towns in New Mexico and Mexico.

Work in Colorado. We need you. You need us.

Needed, yes. But neither the workers nor the employers really wanted each other * not deep down.

Anglos thought Hispanics would be better off outside city limits. Hispanics settled into colonies and neighborhoods that to this day don’t feel like the rest of Weld County. People still call those places “Little Mexico.”

But Weld County’s “Little Mexico” isn’t a small minority on the outskirts of town anymore. Thirty percent of Greeley’s population is Hispanic. In Greeley-Evans School District 6, 45 percent of students are Hispanic.

Greeley’s Anglos and Hispanics are worlds apart culturally, but in some ways, they are coming together: We both eat burritos and hamburgers; we both see signs and billboards in Spanish and English; we both drive the same roads, shop the same stores and send our kids to the same schools.

But now, after 90 years of only a brief mention in local history, it’s time for Weld County Hispanics’ story to be told. Their story here is a part of their story everywhere in the United States.

“Most Hispanics in this country feel a constant struggle between memory and desire,” said Juvenal Cervantes, a Greeley man born in Mexico, raised in Texas and now a chaplain at North Colorado Medical Center.

“The memory is this insistence that you be connected to Mexico, your ancestors, your community. But your desire is to be your own man, to have the American dream.

“We don’t talk about it very much, but this is exactly how we feel.”

Carmen Solis had burritos in her lunch. But she didn’t want her peers to know it.

She desperately wanted friends, but the only way to have them was to hide who she was. During lunchtime at school, that meant hiding what she ate.

“The Anglo kids would look at our burritos full of beans and potatoes, and they’d act like they were sick to their stomachs just looking at them,” Carmen, now 77 years old, remembers.

“If we dropped a bean, they’d come up to us and pick it up with two sticks so they wouldn’t have to touch it.”

A lot has changed in 70 years. Today, burritos are served for school lunches. Mexican children are taught to be proud of their heritage. People are considered more marketable if they can speak Spanish.

Those changes didn’t come without sacrifice.

Carmen was 3 years old in 1926 when her family settled in the Severance area. They came from Chihuahua, a northern Mexican state that borders Texas, where many of Weld County’s Hispanic residents have moved from through the years.

Carmen’s family had moved to New Mexico, then heard about the plentiful jobs in Colorado and ventured farther north.

Thousands of other New Mexican and Mexican families heeded the same call to Colorado in the early 1900s. In New Mexico, the economy was crumbling. In Mexico, people wanted to flee the political upheaval of the Mexican Revolution.

So when they heard the recruiters yell from trains, “Work in Colorado,” and saw advertisements on fliers and in newspapers, they came. Between 1910-1930, more than a million Mexicans arrived in the United States; 45,000 of them came to Colorado.

The work they found was hard, the kind few wanted to do.

The hardest work was in sugar-beet fields. Beet workers were called “stoop laborers” because they had to stoop over the crops * hoeing, separating, weeding * to get the biggest yield at harvest time.

Dan Solis arrived in Weld County around the same time his wife’s family did. They also came from Chihuahua, settled in Kansas for a few years and then left for Colorado for the same reason: to work in the beet fields and find a more prosperous life.

The family settled near Windsor, where Dan learned to speak English alongside German-speaking children who had moved to Colorado with their parents.

Germans from Russia were the first to work in northern Colorado beet fields. For 150 years, they had maintained their cultural identity as they farmed in Russia. But they started leaving for the United States when the Russian government went back on promises it had made to their ancestors in the 1760s.

When Mexicans came to work in the beet fields, they were in the same boat as the Germans from Russia: strangers in a foreign land, unfamiliar with the language, misunderstood by the people in their new communities.

“The teachers used to yell at the Mexican and the German kids, IStop speaking that stupid duck language,’ ” Dan Solis said with a chuckle. “They thought we all sounded like a bunch of ducks.”

The comment sounds callous now. The context of American culture at the time seems callous. In the early 1900s, Americans were strongly nationalistic. President Teddy Roosevelt proclaimed there was no room in the country for anyone but 100 percent Americans, not “hyphenated Americans.”

When the Germans from Russia arrived to work in northern Colorado beet fields, Greeley residents were hesitant to accept them. What would become of the tranquil, educated city if working-class foreigners arrived?

In 1900, Greeley boasted an educational level of 12 grades for all residents, compared to the national average of four years of school. Musical clubs and theatrical companies brought high-class entertainment to Greeley.

“A coming problem,” read a November 1913 editorial headline in the Greeley Tribune. “Foreign born population in certain instances does not accustom itself to American ways * What will be the result?”

In some ways, it was easier for German Russians to assimilate into American culture. They had white skin, and they had come to the United States to stay. Many Germans from Russia also made and saved enough money to buy their own land, therefore moving up on the social ladder. By 1926, they owned 40 percent of farmland in Windsor.

Mexicans and Spanish-Americans, on the other hand, were migrants. They migrated north each spring for field work, then went back home during the winter.

Sugar companies paid for workers to move back and forth between northern Colorado and Mexico. Beginning in the 1920s, employers decided to discourage migration to save money.

The Great Western Sugar Company, Weld County’s largest sugar manufacturer, built colonies where Mexican and Spanish-American workers could live year-round.

But the company still held its Hispanic employees at arm’s length: The colonies were built on the outskirts of Weld County towns along U.S. 85 * Wattenberg, Fort Lupton, Gilcrest, Johnstown, Milliken, Kersey, Gill, Greeley, Eaton and Ault.There were enough small adobe houses in the colonies for about 50 families. Like sentinels, the homes stood in straight rows, all the same size, all the same design.

But the colonies weren’t as bare as they look in old black-and-white photographs. They were self-governed by their own police departments. They had their own water rights, their own gardens, their own churches in one-room adobe buildings, where crowds of worshippers often had to stand through services.

In Greeley, Great Western located a colony northeast of town along the Poudre River, at current-day O Street and 25th Avenue. People called it Spanish Colony. It was the beginning of the barrio that eventually spread to all of north Greeley.

While some Hispanics settled, others continued to migrate. Dan’s and Carmen’s families were migrants of a different sense. They moved from town to town in Weld County, going where the work was during the growing season. Their lives were wrapped up in beets, carrots and potatoes.

Dan even got his name from the farm. His real name is Jose Cayetano Aniceto Solis.

“One time I was working in the fields with my brothers,” Dan explained. “A farmer came up to us and asked us what our names were. I wouldn’t tell him my name. I just didn’t want to say anything. So the farmer said, II’ll call you Dan.’

The name stuck. Dan thought he sounded more American.

But he was an American all along. And he and other Hispanics like him were about to prove it.

For many Hispanics in Weld County, the years of World War II and the Korean War brought them pride because they were called upon to serve their country. But they also felt shame.

When they returned to the United States, they realized they had changed, but the people back home hadn’t.

“When I came back from the service, I was bitter,” said Ivan Vasquez, a Loveland resident who spent part of his childhood in Milliken and fought in the Korean War.

“I wanted to fight the system that kept me and other Hispanics down. But the only way I knew how to fight was with my fists. It took me a long time to realize I had to fight with my head.”

Dan Solis, who was a paratrooper in World War II, speaks of his military service with pride. He married Carmen in 1940; two years later, he was drafted into the military. He served a total of three years and nine months, and his experience shaped his life.

To this day, he won’t get on an airplane because right before the war ended, he almost got on a military plane that crashed, killing his best friend.


Weld's Untold Story, continued

Dan flies an American flag outside his north Greeley home every day. In the corner of his living room hangs a portrait of his son, a Marine. On a table sits a small bronze statue of an eagle, with miniature flags on each side: one Mexican and one American.

But Solis’ first allegiance, he’ll tell you, is to the United States. The 83-year-old still remembers the first time he spotted U.S. land from a transport ship after the war ended.

“We heard music from the radio before we saw land,” he said.

“It was IMoonlight and Roses.’ The soldiers were all dancing. When we landed at Fort Lewis, Washington, we were kissing the ground because we were so happy to be home.”

But the hearts of Hispanic soldiers sank when they returned to their hometowns. Life there hadn’t changed much for them. In fact, their social status had become even more ingrained.

Because of a shortage of workers during World War II, companies recruited more Mexicans to work American farm fields. Between 1941-1945, Mexico sent 220,000 “braceros” * a word derived from “brazo,” the Spanish word for arm * to work on U.S. farms.

After the war ended, the migration continued. In 1945, the second largest migration of Mexicans to date arrived in the United States.

For Greeley resident Sal Salazar, returning from the Korean War was a wake-up call.

Growing up, he said he felt insulated from the Hispanic struggle. He had a light complexion, passed down to him from his Spanish-American ancestors.

“The kids with dark brown skin had it a lot tougher than I did,” he said. “In a way, I had it made because I looked white. I became a teacher’s pet.”

When Salazar was a child in the 1930s, Hispanic men would gather at the gazebo in Lincoln Park in Greeley and talk about their immigration experiences. Salazar remembers listening to their stories.

He also remembers walking through downtown Greeley with his grandfather and seeing the signs on storefronts that said, “No dogs or Mexicans allowed.”

“I asked my grandpa what those signs meant,” Salazar said. “But he wouldn’t tell me.”

The day Salazar returned from fighting in Korea in January 1951, he returned to the colony in Kersey where he had grown up. Suddenly, the struggle of his people penetrated him.

“I felt like I had crossed some sort of line when I came home,” Salazar said. “There was this invisible circle drawn around the towns of Weld County. You felt like the white people wanted to keep Mexicans as stoop laborers in the beet fields. It made me feel bitter.”

But it also motivated Salazar and others like him to do something. The story of Hispanic Weld County was about to turn a corner.

The faces painted on the building are still vivid. They tell a story, even decades after the people they portray moved through the political upheaval of 30 years ago and went on with their lives.

Eddie Guerrero stands in front of the Al Frente de Lucha Center in north Greeley and names each person on the colorful mural.

Al Frente de Lucha means “the front of the struggle.” That’s where the people in the mural were during the Chicano Movement of the 1960s and ’70s.

“That’s Jose Calderon,” Guerrero says as he points to the mural. “There’s Ricardo Falcon, Eddie Ludi “

To the average Anglo resident of Greeley, these names don’t ring a bell. But to people in Guerrero’s generation, they are heroes.

They weren’t pie-in-the-sky super heroes like today’s Michael Jordan or Mark McGwire. They were everyday people * some of them kids, really * who saw injustice and decided to stand up against it.

Some, like Ricardo Falcon, paid for what they believed in with their lives. Others, like Priscilla Falcon, Ricardo Falcon’s wife, are now professors and teach about the movement that defined their lives 30 years ago.

But some, including Guerrero himself, lead quiet lives, still in Weld County and making a living at normal, everyday jobs.

Looking at them now, it’s hard to believe they were involved in what was considered a radical movement at the time. They were only one voice in an era of political activism that included the Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam War protests.

But Chicanos, who took their name from the Aztec pronunciation of “Mexicano,” had their own niche: They wanted the memory of where they came from, and they wanted the American dream.

They wanted to be included in U.S. culture and politics, and they wanted recognition that their ancestors were part of the lifeblood of the United States. After all, the Southwest, from California to Texas, used to belong to Mexico.

In Weld County, the Chicano Movement meant marches and walk-outs, pushes for bilingual education and welfare rights.

Some critics accused the Chicano Movement’s followers of jumping to conclusions, looking for prejudice under every rock.

But see it from their perspective, and the movement looks different. Some, like Sal Salazar and Ivan Vasquez, had fought in World War II and Korea. They remembered how they felt when they returned home, rejected and scorned by the Anglos for whom they had fought.

Others were sons and daughters of a generation that had experienced injustice. They weren’t going to accept a third-class status in life without fighting for something better.

After he returned from Korea, Salazar got a job at Monfort, where he worked as a meat cutter for 13 years. He was invited to take part in a training program for labor union leaders, and his passion for activism and the Chicano Movement was born. He got involved in efforts to build a youth center on Greeley’s north side. It took seven years, but the Jesus Rodarte Cultural Center was finally built on A Street.

“The people against us were very straight with us. They told us, IGo back to Mexico, you dirty Mexicans,’ ” Salazar said. “But I was completely convinced that I was doing the right thing.

“We always seemed to be happy with crumbs of people’s respect and government’s budgets. A lot of us got involved to say we weren’t going to settle for crumbs anymore.”

Not all Hispanics were involved in the Chicano Movement. Some steered clear of it because they didn’t feel as though they were part of the social structure that took on the fight. One of them was Moises Aguirre of Greeley.

Today, Aguirre is a soft-spoken man who runs a successful Spanish Bible bookstore called Palabras de Vida, or Words of Life, out of his garage in Greeley. He has a Bible college degree and has served as the pastor of a Spanish Baptist church in Greeley.

But back in the ’60s, Aguirre was a different person.

Aguirre moved to Greeley from Corpus Christi, Texas, in 1964, when he was 13 years old. Like Hispanics before them, Aguirre’s family came to work in the fields. His father had died when he was 10, and his mother couldn’t drive, so they weren’t migrants. They had come to Greeley to stay.

Like other Hispanics in Greeley, Aguirre quickly figured out his social status. In school, Aguirre said his social place was even lower than his Hispanic peers.

“Hispanics who had been here a long time thought we were the outsiders,” he said. “They were the elite; we were the newcomers. They lived in the city; we worked on the farm.

“Every day on the school bus, we’d get in a fight with a city kid. Sometimes it was easier to get along with the Anglos than the Hispanic kids from the city.”

Aguirre developed a reputation as a tough guy, somebody you didn’t want to cross. Some of his peers were involved in the Chicano Movement, and they asked him to join in the effort. But Aguirre didn’t.

“I remember some of the protests and uprisings in Greeley,” he said. “But I didn’t agree with how they were going about doing things. I didn’t care to change the world. I just wanted the world to leave me alone so I could grow up.”

But other Hispanics grew up because of the Chicano Movement. Guerrero, whose family settled in Ault, was only in high school when he got involved in it. At the end of his sophomore year, he attended a Mexican Independence Day celebration in Denver and came back with new ideas.

“I was really touched by it,” he said. “For the first time in my life, I felt connected to who I was. My Anglo friends made fun of me for this new-found identity. Just to spite them, I formed a student group for Hispanics.”

In December 1971, the group organized a three-day march down U.S. 85 from Ault to Denver. Their purpose: to express their desire for bilingual and bicultural education.

The march started with 14 students in Ault and gathered 200 by the time it reached Denver.

“Here it was, wintertime, and we’re marching down 85, trying not to get hit by a semi truck,” Guerrero said, laughing about it now. “Parents would come out and give us shoes and coats and food. It was the first time adults started taking us seriously. For a while they thought our activism was just a phase.”

But it wasn’t a phase. Their activism took a more serious turn when 22-year-old Ricardo Falcon, a student at the University of Colorado who was involved in protests and marches in Weld County, was killed in 1972 on his way to a Chicano political party convention in El Paso.

Riding in a car that continually overheated in the New Mexico desert, Falcon and others stopped at a gas station in Orogrande, N.M.

Station owner Perry Brunson told the travelers not to spray water on the car radiator because he wanted to charge for it. Falcon argued with Brunson and followed him into his office where the argument turned violent.

Brunson fired four shots, two hit Falcon in his chest. He got up, took a few steps and died * Colorado Chicanos’ first martyr.

Brunson was tried on manslaughter charges and acquitted.

During the trial, he admitted calling Falcon derogatory names.

After Falcon’s death, the Chicano Movement in Weld County followed a life of its own. Hispanics accused emergency personnel of ignoring 911 calls from north Greeley. They accused the city of Greeley of slighting the north side of improvements like sidewalks and street lights.

They thought law enforcement had been negligent when two Hispanic brothers hanged themselves in jail after being arrested on charges of robbery and attempted auto theft.

Protests at the University of Northern Colorado sparked confrontations between police and Chicano activists. Hispanics cried injustice when the Weld County Board of Commissioners decided to make major cuts to the county’s welfare programs.

In the midst of conflicts with police, Chicanos called for the resignation of then-Greeley Police Chief John Parkinson.Change did come in some areas. Bilingual education is part of public schools, although not everyone is convinced it’s a good idea, and politicians have made attempts to get rid of it.

In many ways, though, the Chicano Movement’s battles still continue. Last fall at a public meeting in north Greeley, Hispanics accused Greeley police of singling out Hispanics for traffic stops and arrests.

The north side of Greeley is still the barrio it has been for decades. Some proposals have been made to improve it, including a proposal for the Mercado del Norte project, a district for Hispanic-owned businesses designed to attract shoppers from across Greeley, not just the north side.

But progress on the project has been slow, and Greeley residents, Hispanics and Anglos alike, disagree about how successful it will be.

Like their murals on the wall at Al Frente de Lucha, Guerrero and others involved in the Chicano Movement are still around. Some are still fighting for Hispanics in Greeley. But they’re not an organized front anymore.

Issues still come up, such as the elimination of Fiesta Day at the Greeley Independence Stampede and teen-pregnancy billboards featuring a Hispanic woman, which some decried as racist.

But Guerrero, for one, doesn’t think the activism of today is the same as it was in the 1970s. The political climate has changed, and Hispanics face different obstacles.

“The Chicano Movement stopped some of the injustice,” he said. “But there are other problems within the Mexican community. The divorce rate is high. The suicide rate is high. Alcoholism is high. There’s got to be some point where we realize that our actions affect our entire community.”

Still, nothing irks Guerrero more than hearing young Hispanics say they made it on their own, as if no one before them paved the way for their success.

“The youths of today are coming in after the Chicano Movement tore down the walls,” he said. “But freedom isn’t free. Someone has to fight for peace. I wonder who will fight for it now, though. It’s much too easy to go home, sit in front of the TV and think it’s someone else’s responsibility.”

It’s a hot day in late July, and two women walk into the Department of Motor Vehicles in downtown Greeley.

One is there to get an identification card. The other is there to help her.

The man behind the counter speaks Spanish, but the Spanish-speaking woman needing a driver’s license doesn’t understand him. He repeats his instructions. She looks to her friend for help.

“I don’t even think I can help her,” her friend explains in English with a shrug. “She’s from Venezuela. I’m from Mexico. We don’t really understand each other’s Spanish.”

Today’s Hispanic population in Weld County is a reflection of those who came in the early 1900s. Their families started out as farm workers, settled in Greeley and other towns, struggled to learn English and assimilate to Anglo ways and sent their kids to public schools.

They are the second and third generations of their families to live in Weld County. Some still speak Spanish. Others have let the ties to their language and culture loosen, and they feel as comfortable around Hispanics as they do around Anglos.

But there’s also a new generation of Hispanics: Central Americans, South Americans, Mexicans. They flee similar circumstances * political upheaval, natural disasters, low-paying jobs. And they seek the same thing * better lives for themselves and their children.

The promise of a better life drew them to Weld County 100 years ago. And it continues to draw them today.

As much as life for Hispanics in northern Colorado has changed in the last century, some things remain the same.

There are things that bring Hispanics and Anglos together * a common love for the same kinds of foods, a common desire for our children to be successful, a common concern for our cities’ futures.

But some things still keep us apart. We worship in different churches. We shop in different stores. We stay within the invisible boundaries of “our sides” of town.

The same could be said of anywhere, whether the dominant cultures are Asian and black, Hispanic and white. But to some, there’s something different about Weld County. Some unspoken rule, some invisible wall, which keeps the worlds apart from coming together.

“People who have moved here say they’ve never seen the divide between Anglos and Hispanics so blatant, so black and white as it is here,” said Eddie Guerrero, the Chicano activist who has lived in Weld County most of his life.

“You know, though, it’s blatant and it’s subtle at the same time. It’s blatant because the Hispanics feel it every day. But it’s subtle because the Anglos can’t see it.”