Editor’s Note: We have changed the children’s names in this article. The quotes are real but to allow the children to speak openly and honestly, we told each child and parent their real names would not be printed in the PULP.
In a place separated by the Fountain Creek and the only access points being bridges from downtown, the East Side of Pueblo is an area that has been burdened with the social stigma of violence and low expectations. There might be a lot of statistics that back that stigma, but there’s much more to the picture.
On paper, Pueblo and the east side have similar characteristics when compared to major metropolitan cities. Crime rate in Pueblo is comparable to Compton, California. Where Compton has a higher murder rate, according to City-Data, Pueblo has higher rates of property crime (i.e. burglary and vandalism). And Pueblo has a higher rate of assaults, such as rape and battery.
Recently, The New York Times released a mapping of poverty in America, and it revealed that the east side, specifically, is among the highest levels of poverty in the country. It showed that about 45 percent of the population, on average, is living beneath the poverty level in the east side, which means about half the families in Pueblo are making less than $22,050 a year.
Then, there’s the school system. The east side has one of the worst rated elementary schools and one of the best rated elementary schools in Pueblo, according to non-profit GreatSchools, but the populations of the schools don’t consist of all east siders.
Parkview Elementary School is on the lower end of the ratings, and consists mainly of students who live in the east side, while Fountain International Magnet School is rated the best in Pueblo, but many of the kids are commuting from other neighborhoods in Pueblo.
For a place that looks so unappealing on paper, there are rays of hope—many of the talented kids can go as far as any other kids, if given the opportunity. Everyday of the week, many of these kids, who show a great amount of potential, are often seen at El Centro del Quinto Sol or simply The Center. El Centro is a recreation center, run by the city of Pueblo located in the focal point of the east side, right off of Seventh street. It’s completely free to the public and offers a variety of programs.
It’s a place where kids can go when they want to feel safe. It’s a place where kids can go to find someone to talk to. It’s a place where kids can make new friends. It’s a place where kids can escape the streets. The Center isn’t the end-all place to escape the crime life; it just happens to be a place where the escape is possible.
Denzel Espinoza, a 17 year old student at East High School, is a hard working student who plans to own and run his own business one day.
He manages to escape the streets by simply just going into The Center to play basketball. Like many here, the ability just to do what other families take for granted impacts the kids coming to The Center.
“The experience in the east side can be bad at times,” Espinoza said. “There’s a lot of shootings and violence, but stuff like that doesn’t really happen at The Center.”
Despite the negative experiences that surround Espinoza, he still focuses all of his energy on school and hopes to keep grades that could land him in a school like Stanford or Syracuse.
“Not all my friends come to The Center, but the ones that do don’t really ever get in trouble,” Espinoza explained.
Espinoza admitted that he’ll hang out with friends outside of The Center and they don’t always have the safest ideas of fun, but says he’s the one that often gets them to change their minds.
There are also kids that have moved around with their parents in search of an affordable place to live and have found their way to the east side.
Eddie Hernandez, a 10 year old student from Park View Elementary, had to make the abrupt change from Pueblo West to the east side, but he looks at the situation with a positive outlook.
Hernandez doesn’t have to go to The Center; he also trains in mixed martial arts at a gym off Fourth Street, but he likes going to The Center. And it’s obvious he’s disappointed when he has to go home.
Even though Hernandez hasn’t been on the east side for very long, he explained that The Center is his favorite part about Pueblo.
“I was living in Pueblo West before we had to move to the east side,” Hernandez said. “But I like it better here. I really like The Center.”
Hernandez dreams of being in the NFL someday, or maybe an MMA fighter, but it order to get there he said he has to join the Air Force first. And like Espinoza, he knows his grades will have to be good.
There are a lot of kids like Espinoza and Hernandez on the east side, but their stories get lost in the statistics. With initiatives like the Eastside Redevelopment Project and the Fountain Creek Project, there’s hope that the area will stand a better chance of being more than just the crime numbers. An addition to the center in the form of a skatepark may also help transform the neighborhood.
Other kids have different opinions of the east side. Sisters Alexandria and Alisa Esperanza used the word “ghetto” to describe their home, but it’s what they like about it.
“It’s pretty ghetto,” Alexandria Esperanza reiterated. “But I haven’t experienced anything dangerous on this side of town.”
The girls’ family thought it was important to make a move out of the east side for their kids to get a better education. Alexandria’s parents moved her and her sister to Cesar Chavez Academy, in hopes of avoiding trouble and crime, while getting a better education.
“My idea of the east side is somewhat good,” Alisa said, but “people on this side of town tend to be mean and smoke a lot.”
Alisa is only 12 years old, but she doesn’t think CCA pushes her to get good grades. She continued to explain that she has always strived to do well in school, even though her grades don’t always show it.
For Alisa, it wouldn’t matter where she grows up. Her plans are to work in the medical field because she’s motivated by seeing her mom do so well.
Many of the students are faced with the challenge of finishing school, because their parents and siblings have found decent jobs without having a high school diploma. Alisa seems to be in this similar situation.
“No one around me tells me to go to college,” Alisa said. “Not my teachers or my family, so I don’t know what I’m going to do when I get older.”
Alexandria seems more certain about her future. She wants to do criminal profiling, so she has her mind set on college. She might not know where she wants to attend college, but the fact this eighth grader has her mind on college is unique and admirable. I have to ask myself, “Are we lowering expectations by being surprised that Alexandria wants to attend college when others in middle-class and affluent neighborhoods might take higher education for granted?”
Even though these kids were all interviewed at The Center, was it just a coincidence that they all have positive futures planned out for themselves? I’m not sure. What remains is the sense these kids need to be mentored in the right way and led in the right direction. College or a trade school should be a goal for many here but it is a luxury, not something many feel they can bring to fruition.
There are stigmas that exist with the east side. One where all the girls get pregnant early, eventually resorting to welfare and government assistance. For the boys, it’s a life of gangs and not much else outside of putting their money towards nice cars.
The stigmas seem to be reinforced with the run down look of business buildings off Fourth street and an adult video store located alongside a string of bars.
Then, a block away, there’s an old-looking building with half the letters missing from its sign– The Center looks like it fits in the stigma, but it doesn’t. Inside The Center and on the faces of many of the children, exists the drive to fight the stigmas and to have a better life for themselves. The children know it’s up to them.
When you hear them speak, they understand their future is on their shoulders entirely. Some have loving, caring parents, but without the means to support continued education or to provide them with new experiences other families can offer. Here, fighting the stereotype means having a better life. There are others who have it much harder and are practically on their own with no support. When they turn 18, they will truly be on their own.
The Center’s purpose isn’t necessarily to solve these concerns but to provide an opportunity for a better life. Even if for only a few hours out of the day, the kids can go to The Center to feel safe and be around friends and adults who want to see them reach their full potential.
For many here, it’s not about finding a way out; it’s about escaping an uncertain and limited reality.
Disclosure: Felix Cordova works part-time at the center.