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Nita Gonzáles

Colorado’s only elder-sanctioned Día de los Muertos ceremony was started by Nita Gonzáles’ afterschool program. Now, she’s lending her support to a new aftershool program.

A Gary Community VENTURES COMMUNITY PARTNER

By Will C. Holden

Editor: CHYRISE HARRIS

CREATIVE DIRECTOR: Cierra covington 

“There are no revolutions without poets.”

These are the words of Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzáles. Of many memorable stanzas written and delivered by her father, this is the one that resonates most deeply with Corky’s daughter Nita Gonzáles.

Corky was many things to many people. He was a Denver-born-and-bred leader of the revolutionary Chicano movement. He was a political organizer and activist who pushed for unity as well as economic, racial, educational, institutional and cultural justice for Chicano and Indigenous people across Colorado. He was a world-renowned boxer who ended his career with a 65-9-1 record. He had eight children and 22 grandchildren, many of whom continue to carry on his work.

Nita is one of them.

And once again, she would like you to remember her father was also a poet.

In large part, it’s because she believes his poetry made him the well-rounded person so many came to know and love. She also believes it made her the well-rounded person she still is, capable of leading schools, cultural institutions and businesses — work she continues to do into her 70s.

Nita wants the same for her kids. And when she says “her kids”, she doesn’t just mean the ones related to her by blood. She means all the children of the Chicano Movement, or El Movimiento, who have come to fall under her loving and watchful eye.

That’s why she didn’t hesitate when our team at Gary Community Ventures asked her to join the advisory council for My Spark Denver, a platform launched by the City and County of Denver, Mile High United Way and Gary to expand Denver Public Schools middle school students’ access to afterschool programming. My Spark provides $1,000 debit cards to students whose families qualify for free and reduced-priced lunch so they can enroll in the out-of-school activities most aligned to their passions and interests.

Much like her father, Nita isn’t shy about using her voice and influence to speak up about the parts of My Spark that she would execute differently if she were running it. And rest assured, there are some things she’d do differently. But there are two tenants of the program she consistently praises: the bevy of provider options it offers and putting the choice to select providers in the hands of families.

More than 150 afterschool providers have opted into My Spark, offering kids and parents the opportunity to choose from options like academics and tutoring, athletics and martial arts, leadership development as well as music and art.

Yes, even poetry classes.

In the midst of the ongoing youth mental health health crisis declared by Children’s Hospital Colorado, Nita understands the desperate need for programs that can provide young people with a sense of belonging as well as access to trusted adults. She understands these experiences are not nice-to-have; they’re must-have experiences that build self-confidence, self-awareness and positive social behaviors to help kids navigate life.

She doesn’t provide hypotheticals when talking about the impacts of afterschool programs, either. She doesn’t need to. On a cold evening last November, she invited us along to see for ourselves.

A large crowd gathered as Nita took her familiar place atop the podium at La Raza Park. Shivering as she peered out from under the hood of her jacket, she smiled warmly at the ceremony goers surrounding her.

The event?

The only elder-sanctioned Día de los Muertos ceremony in Colorado — started and sustained by students in one of her afterschool programs more than two decades prior.

Leading up to her speech, Nita beamed about the cultural significance of the event, which continues to connect kids and families to an important cultural tradition born thousands of years ago. She laughed with a community that has both raised her and been raised by her. She stared pensively at the mariposas, alters and photos of generations gone by.

She then opened her remarks with a familiar line.

“There are no revolutions without poets.”

Our team sat down to connect with Nita about the revolution she hopes My Spark can spark for children and families across Denver. This is what she had to say. 

Scenes from Denver’s oldest and only elder-sanction Día de los Muertos ceremony, which originated from an afterschool program at Escuela Tlatelolco.
Photography & Design: CierraAnn Media | MimarieCreative, Venue: La Raza Park

Nita Gonzáles Q&A

You describe your father, Corky Gonzáles as a poet and storyteller first. Do you consciously choose to do so?

I do. You have to understand he was very poor, and he grew up in a very ugly, racist, traumatic time for our city. Boxing really defined him in the beginning, because it gave him a livelihood and opened up his world. It allowed him the chance to travel, to meet different people. People like Father Monahan, a Catholic priest, and my Uncle Bob, who was Robert Sandoval to me until I was 16. That’s when I found out Robert Sandoval was actually Robert Sanderson, an Irishman who wrote for magazines, loved Mexican music, loved tequila and was an avid reader. Meeting those kinds of characters, reading the great authors they introduced him to, that really spoke to my father, to his spirit. It sparked the creativity that I believe defined him. His experiences, his travel, his education, his action, it all informed who Corky Gonzáles became. My dad was then able to share all those things with the world through his writing, his storytelling.

Do you believe the exposure to all the experiences your father had is something we should provide to more young people?

We must find ways to give our kids the exposure to all the things that my dad had, that I had. My dad got his values from his family, his teachers. And they were foundational. But he was able to build upon that — to find things that sparked his creativity and gave him purpose. And the things he was drawn to were those political kinds of poetry, the theater, the writings about people that spoke up, that stood up against injustice. And he did it all within the context of our people — of the community who raised him. There is no Chicano Movement without his exposure to those things, and I’m not the person I am without his exposure to those things. And it wasn’t just my father. I call so many members of El Movimiento cultural historical archeologists. They taught us to read books about education from people like Paulo Freire, the great Brazilian philosopher. They told us to read poetry from Spain’s García Lorca. They made me read all of the classics from people like Dickens, but also from women like Emily Brontë. I was exposed to all of that. We have to provide that for more of our children.

You are quite the cultural historical archeologist yourself. From what we understand, you’ve also become an expert on Día de los Muertos. Can you tell us more about the ceremony?

Día de los Muertos is a 3,000-plus year old ceremony created by the Aztecas, who look at death from a very different perspective — as do most Indigenous people of this hemisphere. They believe that the spirit, the energy of those who have passed remains with us in different ways. And so they institutionalized that belief in this ceremony where they would ask their ancestors to return to them. And they made it a fiesta. They’d erect structures, they’d eat their favorite food, drink their favorite drink. They’d gather their favorite flowers and mementos to make the space more welcoming for their ancestors. And then they would perform the ceremonial dance, the singing and the music to honor their ancestors and welcome them. This ceremony gets performed all night, and then in the morning, the ancestors are sent home. You continue that circle. When people in the United States heard about this ceremony, they thought it was this fantastic thing. But they’ve misinterpreted it. We just view it as this Mexican holiday or Mexican Halloween; we’ve not properly recognized this ceremony or understood the responsibility of taking on the spiritual tradition behind it.

 

Nita Gonzáles speaks at Denver’s oldest and only elder-sanction Día de los Muertos ceremony, which originated from an afterschool program at Escuela Tlatelolco.
Photography & Design: CierraAnn Media | MimarieCreative, Venue: La Raza Park

We also understand that Colorado has only one elder-sanctioned Día de los Muertos ceremony, and that it began as part of an afterschool program at Escuela Tlatelolco, a school your father founded that you ran for many years. Can you tell us the story behind that?

One day during the 1981 school year, this group of students marched into the principal’s office — my office — to complain that we were teaching them this history, this culture, these traditions, but that we didn’t practice any of them. And they were right. So I said, “OK, you pick one, because there are many traditions.” The one that intrigued them most was Día de los Muertos. And so my challenge to them was, “You research it, and tell me what you learn and what you want to do.” They did a great job. They found out that it was really held in August, but that it was co-opted by the Catholic Church, which is when it became associated with All Saints and All Souls Day in November. They did that to attract the indigenous and Mexican population to Catholicism. That’s colonization at work! It was a way for the church to convert Indigenous communities to Christianity. So that’s why it’s now held on November 1 and 2.

How did you take that student research and turn it into a Día de los Muertos ceremony?

After their report, I got in touch with Enriqueta Vasquez, a well-known activist and author in northern New Mexico, who was involved with Reies Lopez Tijerina and the Land Rights Council. She brought the whole idea of a danza to the region and hosted a sundance for many years. I asked her how we might perform a Día de los Muertos ceremony the right way. She instructed me that I would have to go to New Mexico to the elders and ask permission — they call it La Palabra — to perform the ceremony. But she warned me that once I did that, it would be a commitment. I would have to host this ceremony until someone else agreed to take it over. Long story short, we’ve been doing it since 1982 in La Raza Park. And the students were foundational in starting and maintaining it. They made the flyers for it, they made the food, they did all the preparations. They’re the ones who got the word out, who attended with their families. And they still do all of that to this day. Now they do it as an out-of-school activity with their own kids!

How has the ceremony evolved through the years?

We used to just do it just at La Raza, but since then we’ve incorporated a march. We now begin at the Troy Chavez Memorial and end at La Raza, dropping marigolds along the way. Whatever the weather, we don’t care. Sometimes we have large crowds, sometimes it’s really cold and we have small crowds. And we always do a community dinner where we feed all who attend for free. Everyone from community members to sponsors to different organizations, folks come and decorate, hang lights, bring heaters, and it all happens every year through generous support and donations from our community. It will always be that way — driven by the community. We won’t commercialize it.

Scenes from Denver’s oldest and only elder-sanction Día de los Muertos ceremony, which originated from an afterschool program at Escuela Tlatelolco.
Photography & Design: CierraAnn Media | MimarieCreative, Venue: La Raza Park

Why do you think it’s so important to engage students holistically — beyond the hours from 9 AM to 4 PM?

I’ve always had a strong belief — and various studies have confirmed it — that 80% of any child’s learning happens outside the school. While school has its purpose, it’s also critical to understand that society impacts families and communities outside the classroom — sometimes in very negative ways. For instance, in order to survive, you now usually need two working parents, many of whom are often unable to pick up a kid right at 3 or 3:30 p.m. So what happens with our kids in the meantime? I always felt like we have buildings, we have space, we should be doing something more holistic with our kids. We should be providing safe spaces that help spark a young person’s creativity or athletic ability or just their sense of wonder. It’s not just about engaging kids when they’re sitting in a classroom at a desk, but engaging them when they have the freedom to move around and make their own choices.

How did you try to engage your students in those out-of-school hours when you were leading Escuela Tlatelolco?

We worked with the YMCA, the Boys and Girls Club and the Scouts programs. We offered ballet, theater, art classes, film classes, sewing classes, cooking classes, newspaper classes, poetry classes. We had a print shop where kids could learn how to make t-shirts and posters for marches. We always provided meals and snacks throughout their time with us at no cost to the student, which is how it should be. We even had before-school programs, and we’d have adults or teenagers who volunteered their time who would mentor our kids, asking them, “Did you do your homework? Do you have any questions? How can we help you?” And I saw the difference all of that made for our young people. The kids were a productive part of our community and not running wild everywhere. 72% of our students went on to postsecondary education. To this day, I can point to graduates who are filmmakers, teachers, professors, business owners in our community. They developed a sense of purpose that they carry with them to this day.

There are lots of afterschool and student enrichment programs to which you could lend your name and support. Why did you choose My Spark Denver?

It spoke to what I believe in, my values, and what I think ought to be happening. Most importantly, I saw it giving parents the ability to have a say. Do you know how empowering it is if you have direct access to afterschool dollars and you and your child get to choose what they want to do? Not to have someone say, “This is what you should do” or “We’re only going to offer this” or “We’re going to decide for you.” It’s so incredibly important to have respect for our families. So that part of My Spark — where it provides $1,000 directly to families to use however they want — made a difference for me. 

I also understand that you’re pushing the My Spark Denver team on some things. What do you think the program could be doing better?

I would prefer, long-term, to have some sort of authority running this program — like a Denver Health Authority or a Denver Preschool Program — so it gets the bulk of its funding from the government but retains its own autonomy. Then we have to worry less about someone who doesn’t like the program getting elected and getting rid of it. I’m also disappointed that we have to start this program one grade at a time. Sure, it’s great we can offer it to middle schoolers, but what about high school and elementary children? For me, I would’ve started this program with elementary and moved to upper elementary, because that’s where I see kids and families struggling the most. I also wonder if we should’ve started this specifically in communities along Denver’s inverted “L”, because they’ve been deprioritized for far too long. I worry a lot about our males too. I will never say we should deprioritize our females, but I’m seeing a lot of disconnected young men. I worry about that. I also constantly worry about the marketing for these programs and whether we’re reaching communities using language and approaches that truly invite them in. I think we need to continually monitor that.

You’ve often talked about the importance of disagreement as we try to iron out solutions to social problems through programs like My Spark. Why are you OK lending your support to a program you don’t fully agree with?

I believe we’re in the midst of a struggle for our humanity. Is what prior generations left us perfect? Of course it isn’t. The work isn’t done. Maybe it never will be. The question you have to ask yourself is what are you doing to improve your community? Don’t complain “Biden this, Trump that.” How do we come together as smaller groups around issues in our communities? That’s where we see promising work getting done. Because there are ripples that happen in our communities that can permeate out. Being in conversation, in dialogue, in debate is crucially important. A lot of the time, I’m going to think you’re full of it. But you’re still a human being. And maybe I’ll see it your way sometimes. Other times, I’m still going to tell you that you’re full of it, and maybe you’ll say the same to me. But we have to keep coming to the table and having conversations. That’s the only way to get anything done.

Enroll in My Spark Denver

My Spark provides eligible Denver Public School middle school students a $1,000 debit card that can be used to pay for youth programs like sports, music, art and more.

Become a My Spark Provider

My Spark providers offer some of the most important services in our city to young people, and are eligible to receive $1,000 payments from afterschool program participants.

Get Involved with Servicios de La Raza

Servicios de La Raza is a long-time sponsor of Nita’s Día De Los Muertos ceremony. They’re cultivated a thriving Colorado Latino community, and there are many ways to support their mission.

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