Casa Mayan celebrates 40th anniversary

Photo: Alex Tomme - CU Sentry


   Walking along 9th Street Park, CU Denver students are greeted by two rows of petite, Victorian houses sitting alongside the grassy median. These buildings, which now house organizations and offices, were once residential homes. Even before CU Denver was established, people immigrated far and wide to find shelter and comfort in the Auraria neighborhood.

 These buildings have a storied history to go alongside their age. In 1934, Ramon and Carolina Gonzalez bought the white house at 1020 9th Street. Here, Gonzalez started a Red Cross relief sewing station to teach her neighbors how to make clothes. She and her husband provided the homeless community with food and work. In the late 1940s,  they turned their home into a restaurant and named it Casa Mayan to celebrate and honor their own indigenous roots. The restaurant attracted many walks of life, and the Mexican cuisine was pretty good, too.

 The restaurant, a place known for more than just its food, shut down in 1974 by Auraria Higher Education Center (AHEC). Nine years ago, Gregorio Alcaro cofounded the Auraria and Casa Mayan Heritage. Alcaro, who also serves as executive director and community outreach director, is the grandson of Ramon and Caroline.

 The non-profit organization is a minority grassroots, arts and humanities, historic preservation organization. “Our mission is to promote and preserve the history, the people, the places and events of pre-campus Auraria,” Alcaro said. “That’s 200 years of multiethnic history.”

 The organization preserves the history through tours, workshops, historical research, theatre performances, exhibits, special events, and urban design. The arts are a better outlet for some because they can connect and relate to members of Auraria’s traditional cultural heritage, whether it be through paintings, music, film, or theater.

 “It’s more engaging and it allows us to open up our feelings,” Alcaro said. “The arts allow us to deal with personal stories and intimate feelings. It’s a bridge for some of the hard issues.”

 It’s important to Alcaro to preserve 200 years of  history because he finds that the history of Auraria tends to be inaccurately represented. “If you do not have an accurate narrative, then we could perpetuate negative behaviors and stereotypes against people and the land,” Alcaro said. “We are searching for truth. When we have inaccurate information, we are committing injustices against people who are still alive and their ancestors. We use Casa Mayan’s spirit of hospitality, encouragement, equality, and generosity to those means.”

“I would love to see CASA transform the entire community”

 With the organization housed on campus, it’s likely to attract and interest students and members of the community, which will help keep the history alive.

 “[The] overarching mission is making history relevant. We want to learn from the mistakes of history,” Alcaro said. “That’s important for students as they are trying to be problem solvers and make the world a better place.”

 About a year ago, students in a class taught by Dr. James Walsh, a senior instructor in the political science department, were assigned to shadow an organization and write a report.  Together, the class had collectively thought to start an organization that would be sustainable on campus. After talking to a few possible groups, student activists joined forces with Casa Mayan to build a new kind of campus discourse—under this partnership, Casa became CASA, or Casa (Mayan) for Auraria Student Action. They started the organization that would keep the spirit of the center, all while applying the principles and lessons of Casa Mayan to their own lives.

 The Gonzalez family wasn’t the only one forced to vacate 9th Street Park decades ago—others who were likewise displaced from Auraria remain active members of the local social justice community, and are today collaborating with students from CU Denver, Metro State, and CCD in the building that used to be the Casa Mayan restaurant.

 CASA’s primary project going into the Fall 2016 semester is the Auraria Disorientation Guide. Disorientation guides have been cropping up across college campuses nationwide, most of them working to advance human rights in their local communities and generally “decolonialize the student mind.”

 While some guides aim to abolish the more toxic strains of greek life from their universities or inform students how to get in contact with people like department heads, school regents, and state senators, CASA’s guide resists a simple definition.

  A mission statement for the curation of the guide—which is currently ongoing—does not try to place any restrictions on how Auraria might become disorientated: “We are working to piece together artwork, narratives, and alternative frameworks for looking at the role of higher education and our participation within that institution. We seek to realize student and community agency on campus and in the greater Denver area, and we need your help.”

 Coby Wikselaar, a political science student at CU Denver, is one of the many people spearheading CASA’s growth on Auraria and curating the disorientation guide as well as a new  media collective consisting of podcasts, webcasts, written pieces/articles, and photo essays. “Our umbrella theme is gentrification,” Wikselaar said, speaking to Denver’s current socioeconomic climate as well as the one that resulted in the displacement of the Auraria community.

 Gentrification is when people of higher social class are able to utilize resources that people of lower class aren’t, causing many to be displaced. Through CASA, Wikselaar and Wasalaam hope to tackle these issues and educate the community about the past and how their work and sacrifice has affected the campus today.

 “The more I learned about the non-profit organization, the more I realized that [they] needed our help,” Wasalaam said. “What we’re focusing on right now is exploring the issue of gentrification through different perspectives while informing the wider community of what the actual issues are.”

 CASA continues to work with CCD and Metro and hopes to work with AHEC to ensure Casa Mayan remains a safe space for many community members; another primary goal is to  build a stronger alliance between the three institutions.

 “The big goal of working with Casa Mayan was to bridge some of the cross cultural gaps that exist on campus,” Wasalaam said. “I would love to see CASA become big enough to transform the entire community.”

 The disorientation guide has equally diversified CASA’s interests. “We’re hoping to work with groups like Black Lives Matter, Denver Homeless Out Loud, and 9to5,” Wikselaar said about CASA’s future goals. “We want to create a place where students can talk about consent, racism, self-care, meritocracy, gender, identity—anything and everything.” The guide is accepting submissions of creative writing, nonfiction essays, visual narratives, and many other genres through Sept. 1 , 2016.

-Dilkush Khan & Taylor Kirby

Edited: 08/19/16



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