• February 5th, 2023
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Richard and Virginia Castro Visiting Professorship Addresses Gentrification


 

By Benjamin Neufeld

 

Metropolitan State University of Denver hosted a series of events recently to commemorate their annual Richard T. and Virginia M. Castro Visiting Professorship.

 

Photo/Foto: Benjamin Neufeld/El Semanario Virginia Castro, one of the first instructors of Chicana/o Studies at Metropolitan State University of Denver and was a social worker and advocate with Denver Public Schools. She also was a partner and supporter of her late husband’s political career and remains active in various community-service endeavors. Virginia is the President of the Auraria Historical Advisory Council.

Richard T. Castro, a Denver native, was a civil rights activist, social worker, lawmaker, and educator. He worked as an instructor in an early version of what would eventually become Metropolitan State University of Denver’s Chicana/o Studies Department. Castro passed away in 1991. The professorship was created in his honor.

 

Virginia Castro, one of the first instructors of Chicana/o Studies at Metropolitan State University of Denver and was a social worker and advocate with Denver Public Schools. She also was a partner and supporter of her late husband’s political career and remains active in various community-service endeavors. Virginia is the President of the Auraria Historical Advisory Council.

 

The annual event is traditionally held at the historical St. Cajetan’s Church on the Auraria campus, near downtown Denver. The occasion featured testimonies from a panel of people displaced from the Auraria neighborhood prior to the construction of the campus, a keynote address from Ernesto Quiñonez, the distinguished visiting professor, a panel discussion between Quiñonez and local community members, and a reception later in the evening. The events all centered around a theme of “De-Gentrification: Recuperando Nuestra Comunidad, Historias de Resiliencia.”

 

Quiñonez is a novelist, essayist, and screenplay writer from Spanish Harlem, New York City. His novels include Bodega Dreams, Chango’s Fire, and Taína. He currently teaches as an associate professor at Cornell University’s MFA program.

 

Dr. Adriana Nieto, chair of Metropolitan State University of Denver (MSU) Chicana/Chicano studies program introduced the event by reading a land acknowledgement, a standard practice for most university occasions, but especially topical considering the event’s theme of gentrification and displacement. However, Dr. Nieto also said, “I wanted to take a quick moment also to acknowledge that there are some groups who are made up of Native American scholars and activists who are pushing back a little bit on land acknowledgements.” She went on to describe how land acknowledgments are often perceived as empty when they are not accompanied by some kind of remedying action, another thematic tie-in to later discussion about how the Auraria campus universities are attempting to repair the damage done to the former Auraria community and its’ descendants.

 

Virginia Castro introduced the panel of Displaced Aurarians: Francis Torres, Sheila Pérez, and Ilsa Porto. All three were baptized and/or attended mass at St. Cajetan’s—where the event took place—a former keystone to their community. Each of these speakers described an idyllic picture of childhood in the Auraria neighborhood: a tight-knit and friendly community perfect for a child to grow up in. “Auraria was a safe and enclosed area,” said Pérez. All three recalled fondly their ability to roam around freely and unsupervised with their friends. Porto described hanging out on 9th Street as being like one big party every day.

 

The expansion of the Displaced Aurarian Scholarship program has provided free college tuition for the children and grandchildren of those displaced from their homes when the campus was built more than five decades ago. The 2021 expansion ensures that all direct descendants of the people who were displaced are eligible for the scholarship. To learn more about the expansion of the Displaced Aurarian Scholarship program visit Metropolitan State University of Denver, University of Colorado-Denver, and Community College of Denver.

 

When plans to redevelop the neighborhood began to form, Torres recalled a sense of denial. She said many of the (later forced out) residents believed that “the government wouldn’t do that to us.” When the redevelopment eventually did take place, the panelists described the loss of not only their homes but also long-term friendships and a valuable network of community support. Once the neighborhood dissipated, it became impossible for anyone and everyone to stay in touch.

 

Photo/Foto: Benjamin Neufeld/El Semanario Guest panel at annual Richard T. and Virginia M. Castro Visiting Professorship event: Dr. Adriana Nieto, chair of Metropolitan State University of Denver, Chicana/Chicano Studies Program; Xochitl “Sochi” Gaytan President of the Denver School Board; Tony Garcia, Executive Artistic Director at Su Teatro; Chalane Lechuga, PhD; Milo Marquez, vice president of the Auraria Historical Advisory Council and Director, CLLARO Latino Action Council; associate professor in the Department of Chicana/o Studies at Metropolitan State University of Denver; Denver City Councilwoman Jamie Torres; and keynote address speaker Ernesto Quiñonez, novelist, essayist, and screenplay writer and associate professor at Cornell University’s MFA program.

 

During a question and comment session following these testimonials, Milo Marquez—the director of the Latino Action Council—pointed out how the displacement which affected the Auraria community is continuing to happen today in communities like Sun Valley.

 

“We need everyone in the community to come together and fight this,” he said.

 

During his keynote address, Quiñonez discussed displacement and gentrification from the perspective of a New Yorker. He began by defining gentrification as a form of urban colonization, a sterilization of history, and a method of class warfare between those with too little and those with too much. He told the story of Seneca Village: a thriving black community which was destroyed because rich people like the Carnegie’s wanted a large park in their backyard—that park being the now world-famous Central Park.

 

Quiñonez emphasized the class component of gentrification. “It’s easy to take [your anger] out on the white girl in yoga pants walking around your neighborhood,” he said. “But they really are not [the problem]. They’re just symptoms…They too are being squeezed by the wealthy.”

 

“So, what can we do?” Quiñonez then asked. He called community organizing effective—but difficult, dull, and slow. At the individual level, he said, “helping yourself” will lead to a stronger ability for you to help others. “When you’re on an airplane, what do they tell you? Put the mask first on yourself and then on the person next to you.” He stressed the importance of education and “making a better living for yourselves and making a better living for your children.”

 

He concluded his speech by reading from his 2005, New York Times published essay The Fires Last Time, which describes the decay of the building and neighborhood he grew up in in Spanish Harlem, New York City.

 

Later in the day, a community panel discussion featuring Quiñonez, Xochitl “Sochi” Gaytan President of the Denver School Board; Tony García, Executive Artistic Director at Su Teatro; Denver City Councilwoman Jamie Torres; and moderated by Milo Marquez, vice president of the Auraria Historical Advisory Council and Director, Latino Action Council; and Chalane Lechuga, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Chicana/o Studies at Metropolitan State University of Denver expanded on the discussion of gentrification and the effect it is having on Denver.

 

Benjamin Neufeld is an Independent Reporter for The Weekly Issue/El Semanario.

 

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