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Mural Stories in Denver’s West Side

Below, read and listen to community members telling stories of Denver's early murals by clicking on the Soundcloud play buttons for each story.

Zapotec Designs in La Alma Lincoln Park

In the late 1960s, activist, and artist Emanuel Mart​ínez painted one of his first public murals—a decorative Zapotec design—on the outside of his unit in the Lincoln Park Housing Projects, along with other tenants of the building. The same day it was painted, the director of Denver Housing Authority threatened to evict his family, but other residents watching the exchange between Mr. Martinez and the director shared responsibility for the mural:

“They said well, if you kick him out, you have to kick us all out of here because we helped too…there was like, maybe 60 people out there, I mean he can’t throw us all out… I had the support of the people.”

Mr. Martinez’s mural Zapotec Designs, Lucha Martínez de Luna is seated on the right with her sister, 1969. History Colorado.

Tenants signed a petition and not only agreed that they all wanted the mural but people from both housing projects wanted him to paint murals on their buildings as well. Even though Mr. Martinez was not commissioned or formally approved to paint the mural, DHA waited until his family moved out to remove the paint because he was well-supported by the community. Through collective power, housing project tenants were able to beautify the building and mark public space on their own terms.

Aztec Sundial in Highland

Andy Mendoza is another Chicano muralist whose entry into painting murals in 1974 was when a priest at his church Our Lady of Guadalupe (one of Denver’s first Spanish-speaking churches that welcomed Mexicans) encouraged him to paint something embracing his culture:

“I went up to him one day and I said ‘I’m Spanish like you,’ and I do have Spanish blood in me, but not like him, and he said ‘No, no, you got a beautiful culture, go study your culture, come back and tell me what you want to paint.’”

Mr. Mendoza and his brother then decided to paint an Aztec calendar in the church’s rectory with black-light paints. People would come to the church at night to see the mural glowing through the windows. In fact, United Farm Workers co-founder Cesar Chavez saw the mural when visiting Denver and asked Mr. Mendoza to paint murals at the UFW headquarters. Even though there were pressures to assimilate to Euro-centric culture, muralism served as a way to share and connect with cultures that existed well before European colonization of the Southwest.

Click here to see the Mendoza brothers’ Aztec Sundial on the interactive mural map.

Mr. Mendoza and his brother painting their mural in Our Lady of Guadalupe for a news article in The Sunday Denver Post. Courtesy of Andy Mendoza.

Significance of early murals

In talking about the Chicana/o/x Mural Movement of the late 60s and early 70s Lucha Martínez de Luna described how murals were rooted in the community’s rich and fluid history across time and from multiple points of view:

“There were different narratives being told, the murals were painted by the community… The idea of the murals… was about permanence, sense of place, being in this space, belonging to this space, and owning it.”

The Chicana/o/x Mural Movement is a continuation of indigenous traditions of storytelling, and includes everyone tied to the land and community.

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