Chicanas: Nurturers and Warriors

 

The Making of Chicanas: Nurturers and Warriors
By Rowena Alegría, Chief Storyteller

When History Colorado embarked on its Year of La Chicana project, agreeing to partner was easy. The Office of Storytelling would create a companion film to accompany their exhibit, to celebrate unsung Chicana sheroes. No problem.

The first challenge was to determine which of so many amazing Denver Chicanas to include in the film. The list we started with was pages long. Some of the women were part of the social justice movement, others were not. All had fought for our community in spaces where we had for too long been missing: politics, education, business, healthcare, the arts. Ultimately, we knew our tiny team with such limited resources could never hope to include everyone worthy; this was a short film and not a mini-series. And honestly, thanks to the pandemic, not everyone was willing or available. We finally included a spectrum of women who represent our very best in a variety of areas, with the continual hope that we’ll be able to make many more stories that include some of the voices we didn’t capture here in future projects. Believe me, we hung onto that list and add to it continually. (See Denver’s First Chicano/Latino Historic Context, coming up soon.)

The next challenge arose as we began to conduct interviews. The Chicana story is complicated. Although the Census would like to lump us together under a single manufactured label, the reality is we come from many different backgrounds, different places and different cultures. Even those most likely to identify as Chicana might have come from California or Texas, New Mexico or somewhere south of the Rio Grande, which others call Rio Bravo. Some of us have near indigenous connections from any number of nations, others more distant or European or African. And on and on.

Read More About the Making of Chicanas: Nurturers and Warriors

We couldn’t possibly begin to do any of these stories justice without acknowledging First Nations peoples or touching on colonialism. And what kind of Chicana story would be complete without an explanation of how the border crossed us? COVID made it even more complicated.
With in-person interviews no longer an option, we researched and researched some more. We interviewed Regis University Provost and now also State Historian Nicki Gonzales to help us pull it all together. We dug into archives including those at History Colorado, the Western History Collection at Denver Public Library, the Library of Congress, The Denver Post and more searching for images to illustrate a history that goes back centuries.
The problem is, when a people’s history has been ignored or denied, overlooked and dismissed, for as long as ours has, this is not an easy task. We so often find ourselves recreating a history that should have been there but isn’t. That’s why the Office of Storytelling exists, that’s why our work is so vital.
In our individual home offices, I think every one of my team members – then four of us, and now just three – danced when we discovered that DPL has a digitized collection of historic paintings. We collectively cheered when the Gonzales family provided video images of Corky in a boxing ring. And we sighed when we had difficulty tracking down the city’s own historic film about the West High Blowout.
In the end, after seven script changes and rounds and rounds of edits, the hour-long documentary premiered at the Denver Film Festival — how exciting is that? The screening sold out overnight, as did an advanced screening at History Colorado.
 
Even though their Year of La Chicana project had wrapped, it seemed fitting to share the film there first.
The demand prompted a third and final showing of the film on the big screen thanks to Regis University.
 
And what was the response? Cheers filled the halls. Audience members said the film brought them to tears. There’s incredible power in seeing the story of your people told by your people on a big screen — especially when it’s a story of such significance. 
 
The clamor for more of these kinds of stories was loud, and we’ll be looking at taking up community members who offered to put together a small steering group to help us find additional support and funding. Stay tuned.
 
Meanwhile, in addition to the documentary, we put together individual stories about each of the women featured in the film. You can also find them here.
 
Nearly three years ago now, we launched the Office of Storytelling to tell the stories of those who have been left out of the city’s official history. Since then, we’ve created nearly 400 films, none of them as long or complicated as Chicanas.
 
We learned much in the process and found some amazing resources along the way, including Carlos D. Flores, the artist responsible for the incredibly beautiful Chicanas title image; the maps of ink drawn on parchment and water colored, then set into motion one to another; as well as the treatment of individual portraits of each of our amazing Chicanas; and the closing credits. The original photo portraits were made by photographer extraordinaire John Sunderland, with the exception of one, which was made by Storyteller and Producer Emily Maxwell, whom I’ll get to shortly. John also tracked down literally dozens of photos for us in The Denver Post archive. Finally for the extended team, José Guzmán created the dynamic intro and polished the film’s sound and images until they shined. To each of you, a tremendous thank you.
 
The film includes a long list of credits because so many others contributed their time, energy and archives to helping us cobble together this history. To each of them, our heartfelt gratitude.
 
To the small but mighty Storytelling Team without whom this film would not exist: Roxana A. Soto, Emily Maxwell and now “emeritus” Amanda Zitzman. Your hard work and dedication are a marvel. I am grateful to work shoulder to shoulder with you each day.
I’m positive I drove them all crazy with my changes and additions. I Am Denver, but I am also Chicana, and this story is mine, too. I couldn’t be more proud to share it with you.
So, what does it mean to be a Chicana in Denver? We interviewed Latino Cultural Arts Center founder Adrianna Abarca, former SBA Director Patricia Barela Rivera, healthcare activist Charlene Barrientos Ortiz, activist Nita Gonzales, State Senator Lucia Guzman, former City Council President Ramona Martinez, performer and activist Yolanda Ortega and Denver’s godmother of Montessori Martha Urioste to discuss what it is to be a woman born in this country, with strong Mexican and Indigenous roots and a life dedicated to social justice.
 
Enjoy!