Exploring La Raza

Lisa Olken has never eaten menudo. She's a guera ("white girl") who doesn't speak Spanish and has never been south of the border. The traditions involved in quinceañeras and Mexican weddings and funerals are foreign to her.

But that didn't stop her from producing, directing, writing and editing La Raza de Colorado: La Historia for Rocky Mountain PBS. (She isn't black, either, but she made a documentary on jazz in Five Points, and she filmed Colorado's slopes even though she doesn't ski.)

In the first segment of the two-part La Raza, which previews Tuesday, June 21, on the Auraria campus before airing at 9 p.m. on Monday, June 27, on KRMA/Channel 6 and other outlets, Olken takes viewers on a ride from the Spanish ships to the Zoot Suit Riots in Los Angeles. She shows culture clashes triggered by so-called Manifest Destiny and outright fighting in the Mexican-American War. She also examines conflicts with the Ku Klux Klan, as well as the role of Chicanos in both World Wars.

"It's American history, not just Mexican-American history," Olken points out. "The biggest challenge is trying to fit 400 years in one hour -- not only the events, but the personal stories surrounding those events."

And that's not the only challenge. In the last half of the twentieth century, the word "Chicano" was used to define people born in the United States to parents of Mexican descent. But Chicanos were here long before Colorado was a state; they're people who have struggled with their identity for centuries, their makeup a mix of Native American and Spanish blood. Over time, they've referred to themselves as Spanish, Spanish-American, Mexican, Mexican-American, Hispanic, Chicano and Latino. La Raza traces the route of Colorado's Chicano ancestors, who followed the Santa Fe Trail up to Denver in the 1800s. They filled various roles, but despite longstanding contributions, their place in mainstream society has often been contentious. Immigration remains one of the state's most divisive issues.

To tell their story, Olken relied on the memories of people such as Abelardo Barrientos "Lalo" Delgado, who died last July of cancer, just a few weeks after being interviewed for the program. Delgado was a poet, an activist and a founding member of Denver's Chicano Humanities and Arts Council, which is still active today, more than 25 years later. During his talk with Olken, Delgado related how the Mexican rebels under Pancho Villa used to raid his uncle's little ranch.

"We didn't have that much but our little ranchito. Villa would come and take all our beans or our flour or whatever and just leave an IOU," he said. In response, his uncles joined the revolution. Delgado also talked about the term "wetback," referring to Mexicans whose backs were wet from swimming across the Rio Grande. "The real wetbacks," he noted, "were the Europeans, who crossed the whole ocean and got really wet."

Putting the hour-long special together took Olken about a year -- a period that did not make her an expert, she says, but helped her grow as a person.

"We're all incredibly similar except for our skin color and the way we were brought up," she says. "It's sad that we're trying to identify ourselves by our skin color and where we come from, even today." She didn't interview gringos for the piece because she wanted to tell Chicano history through Chicano eyes. "Sometimes history challenges our notion of what we learned in school and what we didn't learn in school. History gets rewritten all the time."

Decide for yourself, but expect to be moved. Says Olken, "I feel changed. I'm so full of pride for everything Chicano now."

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Luke Turf