I’ve noticed that most of the groups I hang out with in my new city are helmed by Asian Americans. I’ve joined social-oriented groups spearheaded by Asian Americans, foodies who enjoy Asian food, activist groups geared toward racial equity, you name it. This means I tend to find myself around a lot of other Asian people, as well as other people of color. Back in college and high school, most of my friends were also Black or Brown, because simply not being white was a key factor in how we connected. This means that I know the kinds of conversations people of color have with one another. One of the most common things my friends of color say is how white Colorado is. Or how white the I.B. program was in high school. Or how white the Cheyenne Mountain area of Colorado Springs is. Or how white Fort Collins is. Or Denver metro area. The list goes on and on, but you get the idea.
As a whole, Colorado is 87.5% white. That is 10.6% above the United States average of 76.9%. Colorado Springs is 78.8% white and Fort Collins is 88.6%. Nationally, Colorado has significantly more white people than cities like New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Hawaii, New Orleans, Albuquerque, D.C., Houston, and other cities mostly on the coasts and South/South West region of the U.S. Denver, by big metropolitan U.S. cities, is fairly white. These statistics are a broad generalization, there are certainly pockets and cities within Colorado that are less white or have a substantial population of people of color, but it’s the statistical minority.
Sidenote: It’s important to mention that when people of color comment on how “white” a place is, it’s not entirely about a numerical percentage of white. It is more about “whiteness.” Whiteness is the characteristics and the norms of white culture. Whiteness is a social construct. Whiteness defines who can be white. For instance, the common example is how Irish people in the 19th century were not seen as part of the white race because they did not fit the definition of whiteness at the time. Whiteness is a problem because it often enters a space and dominates it. It establishes norms that position whiteness as superior and anyone who doesn’t adhere to those norms is inferior. For Colorado, yes, it is statistically white dominated, but also dominated by a white culture that marginalizes and “Others” people of color.
A professor back in college said something in class that has stuck with me ever since. He knew that us students of color often lamented about how white the school was and how uncomfortable we often felt just walking around Fort Collins.
We shared stories about how we would get yelled at in the streets of Old Town, how the bars would be filled with white students who stared at us like we were foreigners, and that the only time we could be around other people like us were in tiny tucked-away offices called the cultural centers. We would always exclaim, “Colorado is so white!” and that was our shared bond between the groups students of color. We were culturally, religiously, and linguistically different, but could hear that sentence and know that we were coming from the same place of experience.
The professor knew that. After all, he had been a CSU student many years before us when it was statistically even more white. He began his lesson by acknowledging the common phrase used by us students of color and then paused. He asked us to think of it differently and countered that common phrase by saying, “Colorado was made white. Colorado never used to be this white.”
When we talk about Colorado’s formations, particularly around race, it is most appropriate to start with the people who were here first. There are a lot of issues on how society currently addresses indigenous people’s issues, but I want to address the generalization of violence. In other words, we tend to generalize the genocide of Native Americans. We understand that violence was pervasive across our nation and the world, but we rarely name specific tribes, people, counties, and cities. In part, it’s due to the struggle of fulfilling a school curriculum and covering all the important national historical events that leave local events on the wayside.
However, by generalizing the violence that happened to Native Americans, it becomes less personal. We can look at ourselves and our city without the weight of our own history. The violence becomes more palatable because we don’t look at our statues and our mountains as stained with blood.
Accordingly, let’s talk about Colorado’s history with Native Americans. Colorado was most certainly first inhabited by Native Americans. The Ute tribe were the first indigenous group in Colorado and “[their] people lived here since the beginning of time.” On the Southern Ute’s website, they write how:
The Ute people lived in harmony with their environment. They traveled throughout Ute territory on familiar trails that crisscrossed the mountain ranges of Colorado. They came to know not only the terrain but the plants and animals that inhabited the lands. The Utes developed a unique relationship with the environment learning to give and take from Mother Earth.
When they were forced onto reservations, they could not hunt and gather like they [used to]. This resulted in the loss of the generationally passed on knowledge about the land and Ute vocabulary. Furthermore, the invasion of European colonizers brought along disease like smallpox and cholera that desolated the tribe. Conflict continued between the Ute tribe and Spanish colonizers when they captured the Ute people and forced them into slave labor. Through conflicts with the Spanish and escaping their enslavement, the Ute acquired horses that became a core part of their tribe.
The introduction of Zebulon Pike’s marked a turn for the Ute people. With Pike’s so-called “discovery” of Pikes Peak in November 1806, more European colonizers moved westward. The Southern Ute Indian Tribe discuss this impact, writing that:
What they did not take into account was that the land was already inhabited by the Ute people, who considered the land their home.
As westward expansion increased and eastern tribes were displaced and relocated to barren lands in the west, pioneers began to travel west. Gold and silver were discovered in the San Juan Mountains and the Utes soon found themselves in a losing battle to retain their homelands.
As the pioneers moved westward, treaties and agreements between the U.S. government and regional tribes formed. These treaties signaled a governmental involvement in taking away rights from the indigenous people. Although, the introduction of colonizers and pioneers starting in 1492 had already destroyed a way of life that involved a loss of lives and languages. Treaties continued to reduce the Ute’s land, which in turn, reduced the area they were able to hunt and gather for food from. This led to periods of starvation for the Ute people and an immensely significant event involving Nathan Meeker.
Nathan Meeker was an Indian agent to the White River Ute reservation in 1878. Meeker wrote in an article published in the American Antiquarian that the Ute people “[were] savages, having no written language, no traditional history, no poetry, no literature . . . a race without ambition, and also a race deficient in the inherent elements of progress. Vermin abound on their persons…” So, Meeker was a piece of shit. Meeker clearly looked at the Ute people, which he was granted the power to oversee, with disdain and abject racism.
Meeker’s disregard for Native land and way of living was evident when he tried to locate the agency headquarters in Powell Park. Powell Park was part of the Ute’s reservation and was used for maintaining and holding their horses along with serving as hunting and fishing grounds. The Ute refused to give up this land. Meeker took their objection as an insult and sent called Washington D.C. to send the army to deal with the tribe, stating that he had been insulted and forced out of his home.
I’m going to pause here because a lot of the things I read described the Ute as retaliating or going on a rampage against the Meeker family. But in a way, I see it as them defending themselves. They were defending their honor because this man was following a long pattern of trying to take away their land. They were also defending their history as hunters, horsemen, fishers and they were defending their right to be seen as human beings.
After word got out that Meeker called D.C., Ute Chief Douglas and his men killed Meeker along with Meerker’s men on September 29, 1879. [source] They also took Meeker’s wife, Rose, and daughters hostage. In all this, a peaceful Ute Chief, Chief Ouray, helped negotiate the surrender for Rose and her daughters. Rose Meeker sought revenge on all Ute people though. She wrote to the Denver Tribune in 1879 in response to the events saying:
Now we Colorado people are getting somewhat tired of this farce… And we invite the miners, the ‘cow boys’ and all other good people to see to it that these Indians never leave Colorado soil alive by simply putting a rope necktie around the necks of each, which is to fit close and snug, thereby relieving these murderers and their fiends at Washington of any further anxiety.
This was her call, not just for the Ute’s land, but for their blood. She was requesting violence. The sum of this event resulted in the confinement of all Ute people to reservations in 1882. They were not allowed to return to the Pikes Peak area until 1911, twenty-nine years later.
This is just an episode of a long history of oppression against Native Americans in Colorado. There was also violence that happened in Colorado like the Sand Creek Massacre in 1864 where 165 Cheyenne and 200 Arapaho people were killed with another 200 wounded. Two-thirds of those people were women, children, and the elderly.
Colorado, cannot have existed without incredible violence and displacement of Native Americans. Colorado used to just be land that was used harmoniously by indigenous people until settlers arrived. The displacement of indigenous people on reservations and the domination of land by white pioneers kicked off the making of a white Colorado.
In a somewhat similar fashion to Native Americans, Latinx populations are recognized but are also simultaneously relegated to the margins. To varying degrees, Coloradoans are at least aware of Latinx populations. Pueblo has a distinctly Hispanic name, Colorado’s “famous food” is green chile, and nearly one third (30.5%) of Denver’s population identifies as Latinx or Hispanic. However, the prevalent “white-centric Colorado” perception subsumes the history of people of color on this land.
My experience in elementary history taught me that this land was first occupied by Native Americans. We didn’t delve into the history of Latinx people in the U.S though. Of course, we went over the wars, territory battles, and the formation of our States as they are today, but it was always focused on geography and policy, not on people. Specifically, what all these changes meant for Latinx people when their lands were taken away.
Colorado has been divided up in many ways depending on who was claiming the land. Between the 1600’s and 1845, the borders shifted from indigenous tribes, the French, Spanish, Mexican, Texas, and U.S. territory. One of the last big defining shifts was the Mexican-American war that lasted from 1846 to 1848. The U.S. administration at the time was pursuing a Manifest Destiny belief to conquer more land and spread across the continent. As a result of this war, Mexico lost around one-third of its territory. The land that Mexico surrendered was “…ownership of California, half of New Mexico, most of Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and parts of Wyoming and Colorado.” The U.S. gained a majority of the land that makes us the current-day West.
This division left 80,000 Mexican people north of the newly established border. They were given the choice to go back to Mexico or to stay where they are and become American citizens with the accompanying civil rights through the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Ninety percent of the Mexican people chose the latter and became American citizens. However, the U.S. created a loophole and “the United States Senate deleted the entirety of Article 10, a section meant to guarantee land rights for citizens living in the new borders.” While they offered U.S. citizenship, the rights that they promised were comprised. History Colorado writes out this exploitation by saying that:
According to the treaty, a Spanish or Mexican title should have been sufficient to prove land ownership. However, the United States exploited the difference between Mexican and American documents, and families often lost their land as a result. Losing land often forced people into poverty, creating a division of wealth based on race and ethnicity.
Even though the government stated that the people who stayed in America could be citizens with equal rights, that was later proved false. Through property loss and lack of ability to gain wealth, the government built a caste system that held Mexican Americans economically inferior. Mexican Americans were also exploited through property procedures that required them to appear in an English-speaking court in order to keep their property. This meant they needed to travel to court, which required money and time, and either needed to speak English or hire English representation. Predictably, this resulted in many Mexican Americans losing their land.
The seizure of land was met with resistance though. The Society of Mutual Protection of United Workers was founded in 1900 in the San Luis Valley. This organization protected Latinx people from losing their land and was committed to honor, justice, and protecting livelihoods. It is the oldest Hispanic organization in the country and still operates today. Tierra O Muerto (Land or Death) was a slogan used during the Chicano movement in the 1960s. The organization that created this slogan, La Alianza, called the land that was previously Mexico, Aztlán. Aztlán was the “ancestral and mythical homeland of the Aztecs in Mexico.” The land that they called their homeland was promised to remain protected, but then taken away. Part of this movement strived to reclaim their land and bring attention to the discrimination and economic blow-back caused by property loss.
This still impacts contemporary cases like with the case of La Sierra. In 1960, a man named Jack Taylor bought 77,000 acres of land. Previously, Mexican Americans had been granted the common rights to use the land but when Jack Taylor bought the land, they suddenly could not use their ancestral land for the first time. It was only until 2002 that “the Colorado Supreme Court recognized the rights of land-grant heirs to graze livestock and gather wood there.” It took forty-two years to regain the right to use land that was originally rightfully theirs.
These fights are not solely about land, but about livelihood and economic opportunities that are the foundation for how people thrive in America. Taking that away is another step in ensuring that they cannot become economically successful and another method of keeping a racial caste system in place. Not only that, but it’s a denial of ancestral history and a continuation of oppression of indigenous people.
The fact that this was directly related to America’s belief in Manifest Destiny is a clear example of the deliberate will to increase power. A power that was often charged with white Anglo-Saxon racial dominance over indigenous people. And so, many of the actions motivated by Manifest Destiny can be read as the will to expand and make a dominant white Anglo-Saxon nation.
When I was in London at the Daikon* release party, I talked to some Asian Europeans about Colorado. I mentioned how Denver, our state capital, doesn’t have a Chinatown or really any kind of “Asian town” and they were shocked. They had commented how London’s Chinatown is small, but “at least they had one…”
Then I found out, Denver did have a Chinatown. It was just burned down in anti-Chinese race riots.
I was going through my Twitter feed and I came across this tweet:
I sent the tweet to myself in an email (something I always do when I come across an article that I want to save for later). About a week after that, I met up with some people from the Asian Pacific Development Center for a history trivia night. After a fun night of losing horribly at trivia, one of the people running the show stood up and mentioned they were going to do a tour of the old Chinatown that weekend and talk about the history of the riots.
Unsurprisingly, on a hot Saturday morning, I was walking along a big pack of fellow Asians in downtown Denver.
The history of Chinese Americans in Colorado is not unique. It follows a pattern of exploitation that the foundation of United States was built on. That pattern is the use of people of color to provide fundamental labor, goods, and services involving enforcement, exploitation, and/or inhumane discrimination.
In this case, Chinese Americans moved to Colorado as railroad workers and miners in the 1870’s. They built a community in Lower Downtown Denver that provided laundromats, groceries, house cleaners, and other services for the Denver area. This Chinese community grew to 1,400 people and “Denver’s Chinatown was once the largest of its kind in the Rocky Mountain West.” It’s important to note that they provided these services to anyone, not just the Chinese community and these largely domestic services were paramount to the majority male Denver population.
They were cheap labor though and ridiculed as such. The Rocky Mountain News called Chinese immigrants monsters, wasps, pests, heathen, and celestials. The Chinatown was nicknamed “Hop Alley,” which stemmed from sensationalized Orientalist perceptions that the Chinatown area was “exotic” and ghetto for its opium dens and prostitution. The anti-Chinese sentiment was fueled further by the distorted idea that the Chinese were taking all the jobs, even though they were working the unwanted jobs and providing necessary domestic services.
Sounds familiar to some current-day rhetoric, doesn’t it?
The anti-Chinese sentiment reached a peak on October 31st, 1880 with Denver’s first race riot and “one of the worst anti-Chinese incidents in the American West.” It began in a pool-hall where two Chinese men were chased out of the saloon and assaulted. This led to a mob of 3,000, mostly Irish, workers burning down the businesses and homes in Chinatown and assaulting Chinese people.
The damage from the riot is estimated at $53,000, which is more than $1.3 million in today’s currency. The Chinese consul in San Francisco requested reparations from the government, but they denied the request. The violence also resulted in the death of Sing Lee which Mark R. Ellis describes here:
When the mob found Sing Lee, a laundryman, they pounced on him, kicking him as he lay on the ground. The helpless laundryman was dragged down the street with a rope around his neck and eventually was beaten to death.
On our tour, we walked in silence along the path that Sing Lee was dragged down. It was a long and somber path. Nowadays, the St. Patty’s Parade celebrates every year down the same street where the Chinatown used to stand, burned down by Irish workers. There’s a small plaque on the side of a bar that summarizes the events and names the few white Denverites who came to the Chinese people’s rescue. That’s all that signifies this history took place. On our tour, we paused at the sign but quickly left because someone had thrown up on the sidewalk in front of the plaque.
The riot that destroyed the Chinatown, the lack of reparations to the Chinese owners, and The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 led to the decline of the Chinese population across the nation and subsequently, Denver’s Chinatown.
The tour ended at a Black-owned tea shop in Five Points. We squeezed our group into couches and chairs in a basement room lined with bookshelves overflowing with Black-authored books. A familiar smell of worn books wafted through the air as people took turns perusing the shelves. Between laughs and conversations with the owner, we questioned what Denver would have looked like if we had been allowed to just live. Imagine a community of Asians who had more than a century to build wealth and long prosperous businesses. We could have buildings that still existed with our long histories, food with direct roots to our past, and had the ability to become a substantial population. And that chance was taken away from us.
We were driven out and told we are not wanted here. Another step in a long history of how white people wanted Colorado to become white.
I overheard a comment from someone the other day about how they supported anything that would clean up an area of Denver that is commonly described as “ghetto.” I immediately scrunched my face up because I knew what that was code for. I knew that when white people say a place is ghetto or should be cleaned up, it often is code for removing the people of color from that area. And in fact, this is what that person was referring to. Whoever they were talking to was trying to build a café that they knew would intentionally bring in a white hipster college crowd and “uplift” the area.
Yeah, this section is about gentrification and one of the prime places to discuss gentrification is with Five Points in Denver.
Five Points started in 1880’s as an upper-class neighborhood predominantly for white businessmen with a couple of Black families. As the city expanded, white people moved to newer properties and between 1911 and 1929, Five Points housed 6,000 Black people and became a focal point for community activities. It was filled with churches, businesses, newspapers, after-school clubs, and sports. It was home to the first black drugstore owners in Colorado, the only Denver fire station open to Black firefighters, and was the only place where Black jazz musicians could stay if they were playing on tour in Denver.
Five Points also held 75% of the Latinx population and a Japantown that formed from the influx of Japanese migrants fleeing internment camps. In a lot of ways, Five Points was the home of communities that were neglected by the government and oppressed by the white nation. This was also during a time when the Ku Klux Klan was “stronger in Colorado than any other state.” It makes me a little emotional to think about all the history on those streets. There was so much hatred, systemic oppression, and overt racism, but also, so much strength and resistance from people who dug their heels in and tried to make a home in a place where everything was against them.
The Colorado Fair Housing Act of 1959 was enacted and rescinded some of the legal structures that upheld racial segregation. Since Five Points had been neglected for so long by government funding and described as “unfit for human beings,” many people of color chose to move to recently evacuated white neighborhoods. These neighborhoods had better infrastructure because they had been taken care of by the white owners who were now fleeing to the suburbs.
Nowadays, there’s a bit of lingering regret within the Black community about leaving Five Points, but I think that regret is unwarranted. They deserved livable conditions and Five Points could not provide that. And not because they were not responsible for their neighborhood, but because the government was not giving them the same benefits and funding as the white neighborhoods. Plus, Five Points is still one of the more Black-populated communities in Denver, so it’s not like it was completely deserted.
But now, Five Points has become one of the biggest cases of gentrification. From 2000 to 2010, it was one of the fastest gentrifying neighborhoods in the country with a 27% jump in white people moving in.
There’s always rebuttals about gentrification that are always along the lines of, “We should uplift communities and it’s beneficial for everyone if a neighborhood is safe,” and “Why can’t white people move into historically black neighborhoods, isn’t diversity good?”
First, gentrification does not benefit all people. The restaurants, new buildings, and businesses don’t translate to widespread uplift. Colorado Trust writes:
…these material gains don’t benefit the whole community. A large survey in Philadelphia found that living in a gentrifying neighborhood meant a slight improvement in overall self-reported health—except among black residents. They were more likely to report poor health than residents in neighborhoods that weren’t gentrifying.
Another study of preterm births in New York City found a similar divergence by race. White mothers benefited from living in a gentrifying neighborhood and had fewer preterm births. Black mothers living in the same neighborhoods had more.
That narrative that white people moving into a neighborhood is beneficial for everyone is truly only beneficial to the white folks moving in. This is one aspect of the phenomenon of privilege where those who have political privileges tend to universalize the benefits and opportunities they receive. In other words, privileged people are often unaware of their privilege and assume all people have the same access to opportunities and benefits that they do. A more cynical outlook would say they are aware of their privilege and don’t care because all that matters is that they benefit.
Addressing the second rebuttal, gentrification cannot be reduced to feel-good diversity because gentrification “valu[es] growth over people.” Diversity and building community between different people is a nice multicultural sentimentality but ignores, again, the material gain gap that forms between people of color and white people. Also, gentrification tends to eradicate history and raises housing rates, which then pushes the people of color out.
The point I’m trying to make with all this is that gentrification is just another method of pushing people of color out and making Colorado white.
Five Points garnered national attention in November 2017 when the company Ink! Coffee put up a sign saying, “Happily Gentrifying the Neighborhood Since 2014.” This hits at the core for people of color who were experiencing the rising housing costs in Five Points. It is like spitting on the face of the person you are evicting from their home. Or having the St. Patty’s Day parade on the street where death and violence happened to your people and celebrating the people who did it. This gentrification is forcing people from their homes, from the place where they resisted the government, internment camps, and the KKK, and it’s telling them that their history and land is insignificant to white material growth. It’s celebrating the victors while erasing the history.
If this post has taught you anything so far, it’s that land, businesses, and communities being taken away from people of color, without regard to history or humanity, is not new. Land and homes have been taken away from Native Americans, Mexican Americans, Chinese Americans, and Black Americans intentionally to force them into the margins.
That intentionality is key. Acts of violence have been used on people of color by white people to eliminate them and push them out of the state.
Colorado is white now because it was forced that way. Colorado was not white, it was first the land of Native Americans. The culture was a symbiotic relationship with the land and the prevailing violent culture of whiteness was brought over by the settlers and pioneers. Colorado was land of Mexico and Mexicans who lived here before it was ever part of the U.S. and under a false promise, they took that land away. When Chinese immigrants came, they were economically and violently forced out of the state because of racist Orientalism. Now we see and can literally hear in the rhetoric that “ghetto” areas are not “good” areas. And so, the people of color leave and the “good” white people move in.
Knowing this history is significant because, for people of color, we have to remember our discomfort in Colorado is not a fluke. Tony Romero is a University of Denver law professor who looks at racially restrictive housing and he commented that “Denver has long seen itself as post-racial… [but] [w]e are a city that is deeply invested in maintaining racial differences.” The discomfort that we have in Colorado can be traced to a history of displacement and forced removal.
When I comment on how “white” a place is, it means I feel isolated. I feel uncomfortable and feel like I don’t belong. And it’s maybe not a big of a stretch to say that I’m being made to feel like I don’t belong because people don’t want me here. Whiteness as a culture has decided who are “good” people, which neighborhoods can be occupied by what people, and what Colorado should be perceived as. And that is white. People of color disrupt that centuries-long vision of a white Colorado.
This line of thinking brought me back to something the same professor said. The mere existence of people of color in this nation is an act of resistance.
People of color have had to fight to own a house, to vote, to be seen as citizens, to drink from the same water fountains, to go to school, and often for their lives. I say that last part looking back to Chinese American history with Sing Lee and Vincent Chin, but fully knowing that the fight to just stay alive is very much a current day issue with Black Lives Matter. More so for Brown and Black people, just living in the U.S. as a person of color is resisting a mountain of political, racist, economic oppression.
Thus, I look at the few people of color I come across in Downtown Denver and the groups of people of color I hang with and I smile a little. We share stories about how we googled “Asians Denver” just to be around the few Asians who live here. We excitedly talk about how the H Mart in Aurora sells this particular Korean food item or how there’s a tiny market on Federal that has really good banh mi. We laugh cynically about how we know the same people because the social circles are so small. We don’t have much here in Colorado. But what we have is cherished. What we have are little acts of resistance. In a state that, for centuries, has tried to make itself more white and continues to do so, we still have our little circles and our little shops. And the younger people of color I hang out with, I think we have that millennial optimism to make ourselves bigger, have an influence, and change the culture in Colorado.
- Colorado and the West: Native American History in Colorado: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4GganvNOjWA
- La Raza de Colorado – El Movimiento: https://www.pbs.org/video/rmpbs-specials-la-raza-de-colorado-el-movimiento/
- Colorado Experience: Justicia y Libertad: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xz3MEi57H14
- The Invisible People of the Pikes Peak Region: a Conversation with John Stokes Holley: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y5-ByBL6zos
 https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/denvercountycolorado/PST045216 and https://www.outtherecolorado.com/gallery/colorados-most-iconic-foods/