Downtown Denver skyline with sunset.

Denver’s Chicano Movement & the Espinoza Gang—Then and Now

October 12, 2021

Associate Professor Manuel Espinoza, PhD, teaches in CU Denver’s School of Education & Human Development, focusing on educational dignity. He founded the Right to Learn Undergraduate Research Collective in 2007, which researches the historical and legal origins of educational rights. Born and raised in Denver, Espinoza discussed how the city was central to the Chicano Movement—and how his own family history reflects the struggle for Chicano rights. 

El Movimiento in Denver  

In 1969, three pivotal events took place in and around Denver that contributed to El Movimiento (the Chicano Movement): the Kitayama Carnation strike, the West High School walkouts, and the Denver Chicano Youth Liberation Conference.  

On Feb. 15, Chicana workers chained themselves to the entrance of the Kitayama Carnation Farm in Brighton. Police tear-gassed the women, and they ended a 221-day strike protesting poor working conditions at the flower farm.  

On March 20, students at Denver’s West High School walked out of school to protest discrimination against Chicano students.  

On March 27 – 31, the Denver Chicano Youth Liberation Conference took place in downtown Denver. More than 1,500 students, farm workers, teachers, activists, and community organizers convened to discuss Chicano rights. Ex-boxer and political activist Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales organized the conference to promote Chicano education, liberation, and political empowerment. 

Chicano Power 

While Espinoza is too young to have attended the Denver Chicano Youth Liberation Conference, he embraced the Chicano movement early on. “In a way, I’m like a child of the Chicano Movement because I started calling myself that when I was very young, maybe 7 or 8 years old,” he said. “My uncle gave me a T-shirt that said ‘Puro Chicano,’ and I liked the sound of it.” Espinoza was proud of his heritage. 

Manuel Espinoza
Manuel Espinoza

Espinoza celebrated his Chicano identity in part because of the Denver Chicano Youth Liberation Conference’s manifesto, “El Plan Espiritual de Aztlán” (The Spiritual Plan of Aztlán). “For me, the thing that really lives on is the Preamble,” Espinoza said. Written by Alurista the Poet, the preamble celebrates Chicano identity. “It said we are a people in the midst of a rebirth … We are actually members of the human family, the global family, and that everything that we are—from our skin color to our eyes to our language to the way we conduct everyday life—is something to be treasured, cultivated, and preserved.” 

The Chicano Movement that launched in Denver positively influenced the Hispanic community’s visibility and power. Mexican Americans were increasingly elected for public office in the 1970s, for example. But Espinoza was continuing to see the detrimental effects of discrimination. Poverty, police brutality, lack of education, and incarceration intimately shaped his life. “I come from a family of janitors and construction workers,” he said. “My mother used to clean offices downtown, and I used to work with her. And on my father’s side of my family, there were many, many people who did not reach their potential.” 

That includes Espinoza’s father, who spent 10 years imprisoned in the Colorado State Penitentiary in Cañon City. Espinoza feels his father could have achieved much more if he hadn’t grown up in extreme poverty. “He was very, very smart,” Espinoza said. “When he got out, he had become like a jailhouse lawyer. If my father had had different opportunities …”  

What Is the Value of a Human Life? 

“I ask my students to tell me the value of a life and they all say you can’t put a price on it,” Espinoza said. His own experience, however, proves otherwise. In 1977, Espinoza’s uncle—the one who gave him the Chicano Power T-shirt—was shot and killed by Denver Police at Curtis Park. In 1992, the Espinoza family settled with Denver Police for $75,000.  

“So I say that you can put a price on a human life,” Espinoza said. “My students are quite shocked to think that Denver has been a place where things like that happened.” 

Espinoza is thankful that his generation benefitted from the Chicano Rights Movement. It paved the way for Latinos, including Mexican Americans, to become elected officials in Denver and Colorado (and across the country). Beside creating positive change in politics, El Movimiento also created a response in art and education.  

Espinoza’s own college experience in the 1990s reflected those important societal changes. As a college student, he had Chicano professors who were invested in his success. Years later, when he attended a funeral in Denver for one of his former undergraduate professors, the professor’s wife took Espinoza aside for a personal conversation. “We would talk about you and all the other students,” she said. “You were like the manifestation of our dreams. You are what we dreamed about when we were out there in the streets protesting.” 

Espinoza wants to pass along the opportunities the Chicano Movement provided—to students of all backgrounds. Through his undergraduate research collective, now known as the Right2Learn Dignity Lab, he collaborates with students to promote civic change. Currently, Espinoza and his students are in the middle of a campaign to amend the Colorado Constitution’s education clause. Instead of the original provision for a “thorough and uniform” education, the amendment would “provide for a system of free public schools throughout the state organized according to the principles of human dignity.”   

Many years ago, when Espinoza accompanied his youngest daughter to the Denver Public Library to help her do genealogy research, he realized how much history had shaped his family. “What we found was the Espinoza Gang from New Mexico in the 1800s, and then there was this long gap between that and the murder of my uncle, and then after that there was nothing,” he said. 

He hopes that his family history can change alongside Chicano history—from a story of limited opportunities and ethnic discrimination to one of educational access and individual dignity. “When we’re successful at amending the constitutional clause, I would like to go back to the library and see something positive written about the Espinozas,” he said. “That would, in a sense, change history for my family.”