Denvers gentrifying Northside captured through lens, poetry of its Latino youth

Salvador Rodriguez wandered his neighborhood on Denver’s Northside, tasked with photographing what moved him for a class assignment.

The North High School student’s camera phone lens bypassed his friends, skirted the ever-changing businesses he watched come and go, and settled on a scene that meant something to him: two men doing landscaping work.

Rodriguez holds physical laborers in high respect because he knows the pride in executing backbreaking work and the pain in being looked down on for it. On Saturdays and Sundays, the 17-year-old works 12-to-14-hour construction shifts hanging drywall.

When Rodriguez reflects on his family and his neighborhood, he thinks of all the hardworking Latinos whose labor keeps their community running but go underappreciated, underpaid and undervalued.

“I’ve seen my community change growing up in the Northside,” Rodriguez said. “A lot of us know what struggle is, but some of us just stay in the struggle and you can’t get out of it. I want to get out of it and help others get out of it. I want to be a leader.”

Tim Hernández is a witness to the pain, the promise, the joy, the hope, the struggles of the Northside’s youth. He’s a teacher at North High and a product of the neighborhood — a community with some of the highest levels of Hispanic displacement nationally from 2000 to 2010, according to a study by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition.

The Northside, the northwest Denver community that includes the Highland neighborhood, has been hit particularly hard by gentrification, with Highland’s Hispanic population decreasing from 37% of the community to 16% in the past decade, according to U.S. census data.

“I get the job of facilitating cultural knowledge and experience from the same city blocks I’m from, in the neighborhood the students live in surrounded by the restaurants and businesses they and their families work in,” Hernández said. “The gentrification we face — the presence of that pain — is shared, especially in our Latinx students.”

Hernández works through those emotions with his students in a course he teaches called “Latinx Leadership.” This semester, he wanted to give those students an outlet.

Inspired by the book “We Trust Our Wings” by Colorado poet laureate Bobby LeFebre and photographed by Juan Fuentes, Hernández assigned the 30 students in his “Latinx Leadership” class to walk their Northside neighborhood, photograph what spoke to them and write a poem to accompany their favorite picture.

Hernández and his students compiled the images and poems into a book — pages created in Google Slides and stapled together — called “Our Sacred Community.”

“Where we come from is art,” the book’s overview reads. “Through this book, our students prove it.”

“This place is sacred”

Daniela Urbina-Valle, 18, canvassed the Northside for photo opportunities but didn’t see many people who looked like her along the way.

The daughter of immigrants — Mom from Mexico, Dad from Nicaragua — Urbina-Valle carried the weight of her parents’ dreams of success. The senior is headed to the University of Northern Colorado next year and wants to fulfill her lifelong goal of becoming a nurse to care for people in need.

While Urbina-Valle goes about her teenage life, she experiences the racism inherent in being brown in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. Denigrating stares. Suspicious glances.

While doing her class assignment, Urbina-Valle said white neighbors gave her and her classmates dirty looks.

“We can’t walk down our own neighborhood without being looked down on,” Urbina-Valle wrote as the first line in one of her published poems.

The North High School senior wants her neighborhood to be affordable enough for hardworking Latinos to live in. She wants white people to stop appropriating her culture — eating Latino food, co-opting its style and traditions — while casting its people aside.

Urbina-Valle wrote in another poem:

When the bridges we worked so hard to build

Have been burned and remade on a foundation built on our backs

They will never acknowledge that the empires they have built are weak and will one day crack

The assignment gave Hernández’s students agency to reclaim the neighborhood streets as their own — to put words to the struggles they and their families were facing, and to celebrate the victories, too.

“My students have gone from feeling like a part of our neighborhood in a landscape that is changing to being the neighborhood,” Hernández said. “My kids are the heart and soul of the Northside in every shape and sense. Our students were finally able to affirm that for themselves. Regardless of whether they go to college in a predominantly white institution, they know when they are here and where they go to church and eat their food — this place is sacred.”

“Sí, se puede”

The poems and pictures were too beautiful not to share, Hernández said. Images and words about graffiti, murals, community landmarks, racism, construction, pride and culture captured a neighborhood ripe with nuance.

The North High teacher wanted his students’ art to reach beyond the walls of his classroom, so he organized a poetry slam last weekend at the Radiator, a Denver cafe. Students read their work aloud and sold their poetry books to raise money for a leadership Latino youth conference they wanted to hold at their school, welcoming students from across Denver to talk about issues important to them. Student club SOMOS MECHA raised money for a free community fridge they’re bringing to school to feed hungry students.

On the night of Dec. 12, the Radiator was a packed house, buzzing with Latinx students overcoming their public speaking jitters and proud family and community members.

  • Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

    North High School teacher Tim Hernández, center, gets his students excited before their presentation of the poetry reading of their book Our Sacred Community at The Radiator Cafe in Denver on Dec. 12, 2021.

  • Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

    North High School students Leiana Cano, 17, left, and Sophia Vasquez, 16, center, look over a copy of their poetry and photography book entitled Our Sacred Community during a poetry reading at The Radiator Cafe in Denver on Dec. 12, 2021.

  • Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

    North High School student Carlos Rosas, 17, reads to the audience during a poetry reading of their book Our Sacred Community at The Radiator Cafe in Denver on Dec. 12, 2021.

  • Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

    North High School student Marc Escobar, second from right, claps for his fellow student Matein Casta–on, left, after his reading during a poetry reading of their book Our Sacred Community at The Radiator Cafe in Denver on Dec. 12, 2021.

  • Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

    North High School teacher Tim Hernández, center, leads his students during a poetry reading of their book Our Sacred Community at The Radiator Cafe in Denver on Dec. 12, 2021.

  • Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

    North High School students Hope Navarro-Alvarez, 16, reads her poem from the poetry and photography book entitled Our Sacred Community during a poetry reading at The Radiator Cafe in Denver on Dec. 12, 2021.

  • Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

    North High School students Sophia Vasquex, 16, and Leiana Cano, 17, right, clap in support of their fellow students during a gathering for the poetry reading of the students' book Our Sacred Community at The Radiator Cafe in Denver on Dec. 12, 2021.

  • Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

    North High School students Viridiana Sanchez, 17, left, and Hope Navarro-Alvarez, 16, center, look over a copy of their poetry and photography book entitled Our Sacred Community during a poetry reading at The Radiator Cafe in Denver on Dec. 12, 2021.

Hernández acted as his students’ hype man, shouting “yessir!” after each student’s rehearsal reading, teaching them how to use a microphone and letting them know that nerves were natural.

Before the event kicked off, Hernández brought his students outside the tent performance space illuminated by twinkle lights off of the cafe’s patio. They huddled, took a deep breath and fired off a chant of “sí, se puede” — “yes, we can” — before filing into the venue one by one.

The teens read their work about their neighborhood in a neighborhood joint, eyes widening when audience members bid hundreds of dollars on their signed books during breaks.

Copies of “Our Sacred Community” are still being sold for $10 plus any donations people want to contribute, and the whole book can be viewed for free online at tinyurl.com/oursacredcommunity.

Carlos Rosas, 17, read his poem about gentrification. Rosas’ father died due to violence in the Northside, he said, and the teen was raised primarily by his grandmother.

To the young man, the Northside is beautiful, dotted with self-made Latino businesses exuding dignity.

He shakes his head when he sees storied institutions torn down and replaced with something newer, more expensive and without Latino roots.

“They are being replaced with a culture that isn’t ours,” his poem reads.

Rosas plans to attend Temple University’s Japan campus. Having lived in the Northside his whole life, Rosas wants to see what else the world holds. He aspires to go into commercial business and build generational wealth — something he and the displaced Hispanics of the Northside wish they had access to.

“With destruction of every old building comes some loss,” Rosas said. “But this place — it’s everything. It’s home.”

“We don’t let each other drown”

Hope Navarro-Alvarez lives up to her name. Hernández described the 16-year-old as the soul of their classroom, and she confessed to being a relentless optimist.

Navarro-Alvarez’s poem represented togetherness, helping neighbors and celebrating community.

“We are a strong one,” Navarro-Alvarez wrote. “One that can make a change in this world. We are also a beautiful one, one where we share our laughter, our joy, our frustrations, our tears.”

The 16-year-old said the Northside is filled with good memories of friends, family and the innocence of youth. She captured a photo of her classmates walking past a Safeway, their backs to her as they marched down the street with the confidence of young people surrounded by friends.

“I loved this photo because when I look at it, it looks like a memory,” Navarro-Alvarez said.

The teen is the daughter of Mexican immigrants and said she grew up poor but happy.

“My parents never let us know we were poor,” Navarro-Alvarez said in an interview. “They loved us so well, and we are happy as long as we have each other.”

As a community, Navarro-Alvarez wrote, “we don’t let each other drown.”

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