With a unanimous vote from the Denver City Council, a decades long fight has ended: the park on 38th Ave between Osage and Navajo streets will officially be known as La Raza Park. Councilwoman Sandoval’s effort to rename the park marked at least the third official, and the least controversial, attempt. While past efforts were met with strong opposition from the Italian community, vocal public opinion has changed in recent years.
Following the death of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police and the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, monuments associated with slave owners, the Southern Confederacy, Christopher Columbus, and similar figures have been renamed, taken down by government officials, or torn down by protestors across the country. Locally, this renewed the debate about the park, which has been known informally as La Raza park for decades. Other North Denver discussions, including potentially removing the “Vikings” as North High School’s mascot were met with more opposition and those conversations have since subsided, though last October South High School changed their mascot from the Rebels to the Ravens. A city commission created by Mayor Hancock received suggestions including changing the name of the Oriental Theater in Northwest Denver as that term is considered offensive to many in the Asian-American community, but city officials noted that changing the names of private venues was outside the city’s authority. Governor Polis also created a commission to look at renaming state parks and monuments.
Few of those changes and potential changes had the long history of the fight to create La Raza Park though. For over forty years, the Latino community and former councilmembers in North Denver pushed to change the name. Part of the previous pushback had been a prevalent story that the Italian community raised money to name the park in the early 1900s. While researching the history of the park for an article in the July 2020 issue of The Denver North Star, no evidence could be found of such a donation. Councilwoman Sandoval, in her remarks during the hearing, indicated that she also now believes the contribution didn’t occur, removing a hurdle for renaming.
As a note of the changing times, Denver Parks and Recreation Director Happy Haynes said the department received 45 emails in support of the change and 16 opposed. At a public hearing in late December, speakers were (virtually) lined up in support, including North Denver legislators Sen. Julie Gonzales and Rep. Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez, University of Colorado Denver history professor Cameron Blevins, and others. Blevins addressed the concept that renamings erase history, encouraging council and the community to be looking forward instead of back. “What kind of community do we want to be today?” Blevins asked rhetorically. “What kind of values do we want to celebrate today?”
Only one person spoke in opposition and focused less on Columbus specifically and more on the role the Italian community had in North Denver historically. Richard SaBell said he lived down the road “most of my life” and called the name change “an extreme affront to the Italian community” saying the Latino community has over 2 dozen landmarks in the area, including the pavilion in the park, and the park name was one of only two left honoring the Italian community. SaBell said Sandoval’s effort to rename the park would “Diminish and erase” Italians’ history, asking. “Please help us protect our heritage.”
After the speeches, there was little discussion from council except praise for Sandoval’s effort and a discussion of the meaning of “La Raza,” with councilmembers making clear they acknowledge the translation meaning “The people” and not the more controversial meaning of “The Race.” Councilman Paul Kashmann, who represents the Wash Park area in East Denver, supported the name change and said he would like to see the city find a different way to honor the Italian community.
A spokesperson for the Denver Parks Department said that a new sign has been ordered for the park and Councilwoman Sandoval said she hopes to hold a public dedication and blessing for the park in the spring or summer.
“This renaming honors the legacy of so many who have fought for public space that welcomes them and reflects their needs,” said Sandoval in a statement after the vote. “I am honored to have carried this petition forward on their behalf.”