In the coming years, a three-site campus will house galleries, museums, artist work areas, and event spaces, all dedicated to nourishing and highlighting the contributions of Denver’s Latino community.
Daliah Singer / 5280
There’s not much to look at among the single-story warehouses that sit just east of I-25 before it curves around downtown Denver. The structures are prosaic; there’s no one around. The only real sounds come from the highway and a few trucks that pass by on the street, ignoring the speed limit.
Spiderwebs glimmer in the corners of the doorway to a brick building on West 12th Avenue in the La Alma Lincoln Park neighborhood. Inside, it’s dusty. Near the center of the featureless gray room stands an easel with four images: renderings of Las Bodegas (the warehouses), a proposed 14,000-square-foot community art space with a recording studio, multimedia art room, classrooms, and a cafe. The drawings are step one in building a vibrant cultural campus that ultimately will span three central Denver locations, each dedicated to showcasing and nourishing the Latino experience through arts, culture, and history.
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The Latino Cultural Arts Center (LCAC) is an idea already 10 years in the making, and it could take another two decades to fully come to fruition. When it does, the nonprofit’s executive director, Alfredo Reyes, believes the sites will become a major destination for people from across the Americas. Right now, though, one needs a vivid imagination to envision what the 32-year-old in woven huarache sandals sees: a bustling venue filled with people of all ages creating art, attending workshops, and mingling at community events.
Reyes wasn’t an obvious choice to lead the protracted process required to build one of the most extensive cultural projects in Denver this century. He’s not an artist or a curator. He started but didn’t complete a doctorate in education research. And he couldn’t have explained a single thing about city zoning codes until a few years ago. What he does bring to the job, which he stepped into in April 2021, is a certain lived experience: Reyes was born in Denver. He’s bilingual. He also observed the lack of Latino arts and culture represented in the places he went around town. “It took a $60,000 education to learn that, as a Mexican American, I have a tradition to be proud of,” Reyes says, adding that he and other Latinos should not feel like foreigners in the cities they call home. “Unless we have a large physical presence in the middle of [Denver]—celebrating our history, celebrating our culture, celebrating our art—people won’t know we’re here.” Fortunately, he isn’t undertaking the massive enterprise alone.
Adrianna Abarca had the idea to build an expansive cultural hub dedicated to Latinos in Denver a decade ago. The 58-year-old grew up on the northwest side of the city, in a pocket of Mexican, Italian, and Jewish immigrants. It’s where her parents met and fell in love—Luis, a Mexican immigrant with no higher education, and Martha, an Irish American girl raised in an orphanage on Federal Boulevard.
In the early 1970s, Luis had a hunch that Mexican food would boom in popularity in the United States, so he launched a tortilla factory and opened La Fonda Mexican Restaurant, which he eventually sold. He also, presciently, realized other eateries might not have the same expertise in Mexican cuisine and would need ready-made ingredients. When Abarca was eight years old, her mom and dad founded Ready Foods in four pastel-hued buildings across the viaduct from what’s now Empower Field at Mile High. One of Ready Foods’ earliest products: Pueblo-style green chile.
Most of the sites the LCAC will inhabit were Ready Foods’ properties. When Ready Foods outgrew its space on Old West Colfax Avenue, Abarca and her father renovated it to be able to house some of their growing art collection. Her parents began accumulating Mexican and Mexican American folk and fine art in the late 1970s. Abarca continued the tradition, and the assemblage of art and books now stands in the thousands; it will make up much of the LCAC’s Mexican Heritage Museum’s permanent collection. “I saw from the example of my parents how you can start with nothing and create something big; I saw that you have to have a vision, but you also have to be bold. You have to be fearless,” says Abarca, who is both the nonprofit’s founder and board chair.
Growing up, Abarca could never find anything written in Spanish or that was culturally relevant at the local library, and she’s fairly certain she never learned about Mexican or Latin American history in school. Despite the fact that 29 percent of Denver’s population—and 18.7 percent of the country—identifies as Hispanic or Latino, there are limited cultural spaces focused on the stories of those communities. “There are less than 25 museums in the entire country dedicated to preserving Latino art,” says Victoria Paige Gonzalez, the LCAC’s marketing and digital infrastructure manager.
Today, Su Teatro Cultural and Performing Arts Center, Museo de las Americas, the Chicano Humanities and Arts Council, and Biennial of the Americas all call Denver home, but Latin American art and history still feel like an afterthought at many other organizations, Abarca says. “It’s been frustrating trying to work with the existing institutions and steer them toward acknowledging us. It takes so much energy, and I’d rather put that energy into creating something we control,” she says. “It’s essential that the stories be told in our voice and from our perspective, because history gets rewritten with a lot of inaccuracies or biases.”
Since 2017, when Abarca registered the LCAC as a nonprofit, she has been elevating Latino voices despite the lack of a physical space. The organization has hosted art exhibitions, concerts, and events in partnership with institutions as varied as History Colorado Center and Museo del Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City and opened a store, Hijos del Sol (on West Eighth Avenue), selling artisan wares handmade by Latinos. But Las Bodegas will be the LCAC’s first brick-and-mortar hub. Less than a mile to the northwest, the original strip of Ready Foods buildings will become the LCAC’s headquarters. The final piece of the trifecta will be located at West Eighth Avenue and Decatur Street, in Sun Valley. Ready Foods’ current salsa plant and other processing facilities will relocate, and the structures here will eventually house a museum, artist live/work spaces, an expanded retail shop, and a professional academy for visual, culinary, and performing arts and music.
The LCAC’s sites are centrally located but separate from most of the city’s other museums and galleries. However, by erecting them at these locations, Abarca and Reyes are reconnecting the historically Mexican American neighborhoods of La Alma Lincoln Park and Sun Valley—reuniting what I-25 divided in the mid-1960s and fortifying the neighborhoods’ Latino identities even as the areas continue to change.
Countering gentrification and shifting the city toward a more equitable cultural landscape doesn’t happen quickly. It’s part of the reason Abarca chose to transfer the day-to-day operations and fundraising for the LCAC into Reyes’ capable—and more youthful—hands. “My goals and intentions have always been to share what I’ve learned with other people, particularly younger generations. And to build them up and to offer them opportunities,” Abarca says. “I love that Alfredo has an understanding of what it is to be the child of immigrants.” In fact, it was his family that set Reyes on the path to leading the LCAC.
As the world collectively lamented the loss of millions of people to the novel coronavirus, Reyes grieved a personal sadness: the deaths of his parents. First his pops, in April 2020. Then his momma, in April 2021. They didn’t contract COVID-19, but Reyes considers them among the millions of casualties indirectly tied to a pandemic that, in the United States, disproportionately sickened and killed Black and brown people. He believes the virus and the fear that came with it hastened their deaths.
At the time of his father’s passing, Reyes was working as the LCAC’s director of operations and programs—a position he’d secured after being introduced to Abarca while he was earning his master’s degree in educational foundations, policy, and practice at the University of Colorado Boulder. In the midst of his distress, he had an idea. “I wasn’t the only one that was going through grief. There were thousands of people dying, tens of thousands, across the country,” Reyes says. “[I realized] we don’t really have the language or the strategies in our community to talk about mental health, to talk about grief, to talk about loss.” He turned to his cultural traditions instead: Día de los Muertos is a Mexican holiday that celebrates the deceased, in part by building marigold-laden ofrendas, or altars, to honor them.
The LCAC launched its ofrendas program in 2020 with $15,000; the public could buy altar kits filled with pieces handmade by artisans in Denver, Mexico, and Peru and participate in a series of events designed to bring the community together to talk about grief, but also about art and health. This month, boosted by a $203,000 grant from the Caring for Denver Foundation, the initiative is marking its third year by adding workshops and expanding its associated arts and mental health programming into Denver-area schools.
“There are very few places to learn about our history, to learn about our culture, to know how to embrace that,” says Carlos Martinez, president and CEO of the Latino Community Foundation of Colorado, which is providing technical assistance and grant funding to the LCAC. “By having those kinds of institutions in our communities, it really helps adjust the equity issue in many different ways. And it gives people a sense of belonging.”
Even without a place to call home, Reyes and the LCAC team have been building on the success of their ofrendas program to develop that sense of community close to home and throughout the Americas. The nonprofit has brought artists from across Latin America to Denver for residencies and sent local Latino artists south to broaden their experiences. Youth are a focal point, and the LCAC is in the midst of the third iteration of its Public Arts Mentoring Program. Furthermore, in September, it hosted the Viva Southwest Mariachi Festival; the nonprofit also collaborated with Metropolitan State University of Denver, with which it shares a music rehearsal and performance space, to assemble the first All-State Youth Mariachi Ensemble.
The focus on youth is purposeful. Reyes remembers well being a teenager growing up in Denver’s Baker neighborhood, where he had to learn to be Mexican and American at the same time. He spoke Spanish at home and English at school. After being teased for wearing cowboy boots, he asked his dad to buy him a pair of Nikes, but today he says he always had a sense of pride about his heritage, even if it took years of education and travel for him to learn “to be comfortably different,” he says. He wants the LCAC to be a place that reflects the broad and divergent experiences of his people and helps them feel more secure in their places in this country. “Latino history, Latino art, Latino culture,” he says, “is American history, American art, American culture.”
From the rooftop of the LCAC’s future headquarters on Old West Colfax Avenue in June, Reyes’ green-brown eyes scan the urban landscape. Meow Wolf’s neon sign glows nearby. The football stadium to his left is quiet in the offseason. The LCAC’s two other sites are visible in the distance.
“It’s motivating to be out here,” Reyes says. In his imagination, the concrete viaduct to his left is covered in striking murals. The 100-year-old building below him has been remade into the LCAC’s modern main attraction with lively galleries, a Mexican heritage museum, a boutique hotel, a bustling restaurant, and meeting spaces. His office would overlook all of it.
It’s unclear when, exactly, that vision will become reality. Back when Abarca was still laying out her dreams for the LCAC, the opening of this location was going to be the budding institution’s big reveal: the center’s showpiece in the heart of the city. But the site’s success is dependent on the LCAC team’s ability to raise more than $25 million and on the adjacent Stadium District plan, a 20-year undertaking that will see the build-out of a 58-acre, mixed-use neighborhood to Empower Field’s south.
In the midst of the pandemic, Abarca and Reyes did what most business owners did: They adapted. They turned their attention temporarily away from this site to Las Bodegas, which has a more approachable $4.5 million price tag. The renovated warehouse will now serve as the city’s entrée into this ambitious project. It’s been a much slower process than either Reyes or Abarca projected, but momentum is picking up. The zoning approvals came through in late winter, more than a year after they were first submitted. The LCAC launched video and in-person tours of the warehouse space in August to solicit feedback from the community. The nonprofit continues to host and collaborate on events, including a successful series of night markets under the viaduct this past summer. And U.S. Senator Michael Bennet included the LCAC on a list of 62 Colorado projects that could receive a chunk of $82 million in federal appropriations funding; the various bills were working their ways through Congress at press time, but if approved, Las Bodegas would be well on its way to reaching its fundraising goals with an infusion of $2.5 million.
“LCAC is going to add to the complexity of Denver’s cultural community,” says Heather Nielsen, the Denver Art Museum’s chief learning and engagement officer and a co-chair of the Denver Commission on Cultural Affairs, on which Reyes also sits. “How they’re thinking about the work in interdisciplinary ways is really powerful. It’s not just, We’re going to be a museum. It’s actually more like: We’re going to be an incubator, and, We’re going to work across sectors.” Nielsen is impressed that the LCAC is asking important questions about how to be a training venue for young people and how to integrate health and wellness into the work. “From my vantage point as somebody who’s been in museums for many years,” she says, “I think that is really the future.”
The future, of course, is still a little unclear for the LCAC. Reyes brings a childlike optimism to the myriad challenges ahead, but it’s balanced, ever so slightly, by his academic practicality. He’s playing the long game. “LCAC has always been something bigger than all of us,” he says. “The mission and vision is that, 100 years from now, our history, our culture, our art, our accomplishments will be celebrated and shared.”
How to Support the LCAC
Ofrendas: The Collective Healing Power of Art
Purchase handmade altar pieces or join a class or documentary screening. The kickoff event will be held at Levitt Pavilion on October 9.
Holiday Shopping at Hijos del Sol
Get a jump-start on your gift lists at the LCAC’s artisan boutique; from jewelry to pottery, all of the pieces are handmade by Latino artisans.
This article was originally published in 5280 October 2022.
Daliah Singer is an award-winning writer and editor based in Denver. You can find more of her work at daliahsinger.com.