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The art sign at Jeff Madeen's Blo Back Gallery in The Grove Neighborhood in Pueblo, Colorado. (Photo PULP)

Minority Majority: Pueblo Hispanics must redefine what it means to be Hispanic in the Steel City

Sometime in this last decade, the City of Pueblo hit the inflection point where there were more people of Hispanic origin than of White according to the census.

The number, 49-percent of persons of Hispanic origin in 2010, ticked quietly to 52-percent in 2017. Pueblo County as a whole is 42-percent Hispanic origin.

Pueblo is and will be a ‘Border Town’– a confluence city of cultures and people where it’s normal and unsurprising to meet a family with a Slovenian-Irish-Greek-Mexican-German-Italian origination story or some combination thereof because of the number of immigrants needed to work the mines and mills for production of American steel.

In less than 50 years Hispanics have gone from being no more than a quarter of the population and marginalized in many ways of Pueblo life. What Hispanics will for the first time will be forced to define is what it means to be Hispanic in Pueblo, in the ways of culture, sports, civic life, philanthropy, and faith.

After steel and the industrial era of Pueblo collapsed, Pueblo began commodifying the nostalgia into heritage tourism and it found another worldwide brand – Pueblo Chile. From the Pueblo Chile license plates, TV shows featuring Coor’s Tavern and The Sunset Inn sloppers, an official brand for Pueblo Chile, and reputation for its food – Pueblo has changed its narrative from an industrial western town towards a dustier version of a border town, with an adobe fort, traders from various nations and more copacetic spirit towards indigenous peoples.

It’s a positive image but the focus on only Pueblo Chile has dominated, even pushed aside other aspects of Hispanic life to be reduced down to a Fiesta Day Parade and Tex-Mex La Cocina dishes.

This is the space Pueblo Hispanics will have to settle in to change. What is Pueblo beyond Pueblo Chile for Hispanics?

I don’t know that answer but I know today just the name Hispanic, or Latino, Chicano even LatinX isn’t enough to describe some Puebloans.

Like the confluence point where the Fountain Creek mixes with the Arkansas River, Pueblo is much the same, a multicultural town made up of various nations, immigrants and indigenous peoples.

Hispanic-Slovenian, Vietnamese-Mexican, Italian-New Mexican, Mexican-Anglo, Navajo-Mexican American – the combinations change but the effect is the same. None of which is unique to Pueblo except the affinity that Pueblo sees itself as a place of confluence.

Maybe that’s why Hispanic culture in Pueblo is muted beyond the tourism angle. For many Hispanics, myself included, either you’re white or you’re Hispanic and with that comes the racial predetermination that you are, well, – not American but Mexican-American, from the barrio or “east side,” which is not something that should be looked down on.

This space is where Pueblo Hispanics will be challenged to retain their heritage but also redefine what it means to be “Pueblo.”

You can see this playing out now in “The Grove,” one of Pueblo’s oldest neighborhoods, which sits above the Arkansas River and Fountain Creek confluence. Because of its position between downtown Pueblo and CF&I, the neighborhood was a likely spot for immigrant families to live, worship and enjoy life. Today, however, like other old neighborhoods in Pueblo it’s tired, not broken, just tired from the weight of steel’s collapse.

There is progress. In a span of just a few blocks underneath the redesign of I-25, sits Mt. Carmel Church, one of the oldest parishes in Pueblo and today a predominately Hispanic parish. A few blocks north, a sizable redevelopment of the Alpha Beta Meat Packing Plant is happening.

The Alpha Beta Plant is transitioning into an industrial center but with planned amenities for food and arts. There’s also the Blo Back Gallery and Jeff Madeen’s effort to offer a home to a rotating cast of local and multicultural artists. His building has a big metal “ART” outside of it. With the I-25 reconstruction, The Grove is being forced to change structurally and with it socially as well.

The familiar Grove – The Star Bar, Mt. Carmel Church, a Sonic, a Slovenian Church Hall, Clark’s Spring Water, ABC Plumbing, Animal Kingdom, Fox’s Garden Supply and Outer Limits Comic Books – might be just names of businesses to you, but if you feel Pueblo for what it is, these are old stalwarts of a very cultural and industrial Pueblo.

Mt. Carmel and “ART” of Blo Back are the two Pueblos, the two very different worlds, one mostly Hispanic and the other considered generally white, one familiar and one new – are meeting in the name of progress.

Church and art are similar in a way, as they struggle to attract new people through their doors. But here in the Grove, Pueblo’s modern racial division lies, not in hate, not in gentrification but rather in the distance of culture.

I think some in the white art world may not walk into Mt. Carmel and see the beauty of faith, the dedication to family and the perseverance of belief in God to guide you through this life.

And I think some of those familiar, Hispanic parishioners look at a screaming red sign “ART” and say, “Ey, it’s nice having that in the neighborhood but I ain’t spending money on art in Pueblo, and it’s not my Broncos.”

Just as the Fountain Creek and the Arkansas River become indistinguishable miles downstream, Pueblo too, will have to go through another merging of cultures for it truly to grow and Hispanics must ask themselves what are they if old definitions don’t apply to the new majority.

If The Grove can become where the Mt. Carmel parish is rebuilt to its glory days because of the infusion of opportunity and youthfulness into the neighborhood and if lovers of the arts can support Hispanic culture and its creators, the ones that are too often ostracized, unsupported and ignored – Pueblo’s future is bright.

If the Star Bar is full on the weekend with young LatinX’ers after a good night at The Blo Back Gallery – Pueblo’s future is strong.

If the St. Joseph Hall and the Mt. Carmel school host community nights, dances, lectures and film nights offering multicultural halls for an emerging city – Pueblo’s future is encouraging.

If “The Grove” is the place where young people start families across from the porches of ones celebrating fifty years of marriage and the smell of tortillas waft through the air as Bronco flags fly on Sundays as a folksy guitar is strummed next to the River Arkansas – Pueblo will be redefined just fine.