By Rebecca A. Hunt
Editor’s note: The print version of this story erroneously stated the location of the building as West 23rd and Tejon Street. In fact, the building is at West 33rd Avenue and Tejon Street. The error was made during the editing process and not by the columnist.
As our Northside has evolved we are losing many of the iconic institutions that marked us as a community of diverse people. What replaces the old businesses becomes the norm for the new residents, and memories of earlier uses fade.
This is true of the block at the corner of West 33rd Avenue and Tejon Street. Now it is home to Ash’Kara with Señor Bear in the corner space that once housed Gerald Natale’s Tejon Drug Company drugstore. Then, from 1999 to 2005, Lucía Guzmán and her wife, Martha Eubanks, ran Lucía’s Casa de Café, a coffee shop that was a gathering place for community activists. Guzmán was also an activist and later a state senator representing the Northside. But before that, the building became Rosa Linda’s Mexican Café, a place that was legendary in the neighborhood.
Rosa Linda Aguirre arrived in 1969 from Monterrey, Mexico. She came from a family in which her sister owned a restaurant. But she never thought that she could do it as well until she met Virgilio (Virgil) Aguirre, who immigrated in 1961 from Michoacan. After they were married, Virgil worked at the concrete plant in Chaffee Park and Rosa Linda looked for ways to supplement their income as they raised their growing family that eventually included five kids. All of those children, but especially eldest son Oscar, helped out in the restaurant over the years.
An opportunity came up to buy the building at the corner of Tejon and 33rd. As she worked out how to launch her project, she got a lot of negative reaction from people who did not think that a Mexican immigrant woman could make a go of a restaurant, especially since she did not have any experience.
When she bought the building in early 1985, she got a loan at a 23% interest rate with a balloon payment that came due in December of that year. Since she had just opened the restaurant in January, that was a big risk to take. Rosa Linda told me, in a recent interview, that she prayed a lot about finding the money for the loan and pledged that if she succeeded she would give back by feeding a good meal to seniors, those who were disabled and anyone else who needed help.
Not long after the café opened, a man walked in and said he was there to try the best burrito in Denver. She was perplexed until she saw an article in Westword that described a conversation with a local artist who said that the new restaurant had outstanding food. After trying the burrito, Westword editor Patty Calhoun gave Rosa Linda’s burrito the 1985 Best of Denver award. By December the flood of sales raised the money to make the payment.
The first year the restaurant served free meals to 175 people on Thanksgiving. By 2008 they were serving at least 3,500 and by 2015 that number had risen to 5,200-6,000 per year. Soon community members, friends and family were working together to put on the annual feast. A years-long partnership with the Highland United Neighbors, the Registered Neighborhood Organization for Highland, brought in turkeys and other supplies in the weeks before each Thanksgiving. Local politicians and many others helped cook and serve food.
In 2015 Virgil and Rosa Linda took their first vacation in years. They came back and announced that they were ready to retire. Since none of the kids were able to take over the café, they determined that it was time to close. It was a hard decision for them and for the neighborhood.
Rosa Linda and Virgil still live in their house next to their building, which they still own. Oscar recently moved back to Denver and started the Tejon Food Company based on his mother’s recipes. Her chorizo and her red salsa mata gringos are being served in area restaurants including El Noa Noa on Santa Fe. Oscar is thinking of trying to have a pop-up version of the café, serving some of Rosa Linda’s favorite recipes.
If you are interested in learning more about Rosa Linda, visit the city’s I Am Denver documentary series at https://denvergov.org/Community/Neighborhoods/Office-of-Storytelling. An article about Lucía Guzmán was printed in the November 2021 North Star.
Dr. Rebecca A. Hunt has been a resident of North Denver since 1993. She worked in museums and then taught museum studies and Colorado, Denver, women’s and immigration history at the University of Colorado Denver until she retired in 2020.