"So I went and had myself sworn in," Merida says.

That afternoon, she appeared before now-retired Denver District Judge Larry Naves and took the oath of office. Merida says she tried to call Moss before the meeting to tell her, but couldn't reach her. So she arrived early, pulled Moss aside and showed her paperwork certifying that she was now the boardmember for southwest Denver.

Moss was shocked and angry. "I felt totally ambushed," she says. "I thought we had a relationship. I thought she respected me. I didn't see any of that in that action."

Andrea Merida cuts the ribbon on a new Learning Landscapes playground at Doull Elementary in southwest Denver.
Anthony Camera
Andrea Merida cuts the ribbon on a new Learning Landscapes playground at Doull Elementary in southwest Denver.

In the end, the Lake plan passed anyway, in a four-to-three vote that split the board along now-familiar lines, with Merida, Kaplan and Arturo Jimenez voting no. Even so, Merida says she felt justified. She thinks her presence on the board prevented other members from offering an amendment to the Lake plan that would have closed the beleaguered but beloved school altogether, a scenario she feared would happen.

Several people applauded her. "Andrea, you are a profile in courage," a Lake parent named Janine Vanderburg posted the next day on a blog she started dedicated to saving the middle school's International Baccalaureate program.

"You are our heroine!" posted former state legislator Polly Baca. "With eloquence and fidelity you demonstrated a commitment to doing the 'right thing' in the face of extreme hostility."

Others saw it differently. A Denver Post editorial called Merida's move "shameful," "embarrassing" and "unprofessional." Online newspaper Education News Colorado was even harsher: "Before you pull a nasty, mean-spirited, back-stabbing stunt, make sure something substantially beneficial will result," wrote editor Alan Gottlieb. The fact that the Lake plan passed regardless made Merida look selfish, he added, like "a four-year-old ripping open her Christmas presents on December 23."

Former city councilwoman and political consultant Ramona Martinez says she might have done the same thing. "I'm not going to judge her on what she did that night," Martinez says. "I'm going to wait to see what she does in her whole term."

Merida's supporters say Denver has been too quick to label her as a troublemaker. If people knew the real Merida, they say, they'd think differently.

At 43, Merida is short and stocky, with black hair that falls just past her shoulders and a keen sense of fashion. She's articulate and well-read. Her voice is loud, and so is her laugh. While Merida is often the first to disagree, she's also the first to make a joke. And when she greets people she knows well, even city councilmen and school principals, she kisses them on the cheek. When she says goodbye, she adds, "Love you."

Merida is also proud. She's proud to be Latina. She's proud to be from southwest Denver. And she's proud to have learned the kind of tough lessons that come from hardship, struggle and making mistakes.

Born in Rochester, New York, Merida is the daughter of Latin American immigrants who came to the United States in the 1960s as economic refugees. In the early 1970s, her father, Jorge, came to Denver for a conference on community organizing. At the time, Jorge, a smart man who finished high school at age eleven, worked with local school districts on busing issues and had spent a year helping migrant farm workers who were living in slave-like conditions stand up to their employer.

Although Jorge was supposed to stay in Denver for only two weeks, he liked it so much that he extended his visit to a month. One day, he heard John Denver's "Rocky Mountain High" on the radio. "I thought, 'This is my theme song,'" he says now. A year later, in 1973, he quit his job and moved his family with him. Merida was six years old.

Her parents settled in west Denver and worked two or three jobs each so they could afford to send Merida and her three younger brothers to Catholic school, because they believed religious schools were better than public schools.

Merida was a whiz, having learned to read and write in English and Spanish at age three. But that made her different than other Hispanic kids at school, most of whom didn't speak any Spanish. "There was this culture of suppression," she says. "Anything that seemed too immigrant, anything that wasn't Americanized, was something very negative." Merida spoke Spanish proudly. "That was the identity of my family."

Merida excelled in school and was accepted to the exclusive Bishop Machebeuf High School, then located in Park Hill. She says she was one of three Latino kids in the school. She was also a few years younger than the other freshmen, having started school early in New York. But after tenth grade, Merida decided to leave Machebeuf.

"I remember walking through the halls, going to classes and people purposely sticking their feet out, trying to trip me, calling me 'spic,' and just being really racial and ugly with me," she says. For eleventh grade, she enrolled at Abraham Lincoln High School in her neighborhood in southwest Denver.

Lincoln was much different, both socially and academically, but Merida stuck it out, throwing herself into academics and becoming the editor of the school newspaper, The Lincoln Log. She graduated two years later, at age sixteen.

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