Art

Photographer Juan Fuentes Records Old Denver's Dying Culture

Juan Fuentes honors the Westwood community with a mural of portraits from the neighborhood.
Juan Fuentes honors the Westwood community with a mural of portraits from the neighborhood. Courtesy of Juan Fuentes
Juan Fuentes takes photographs that some folks might call gritty, but if you look closely at his portraits of what he calls “Old Denver” — tattooed cholos, lowrider cars, weathered faces from Denver’s urban Chicano diaspora, kids playing on the street — you’ll see the loving way he captures a culture that is slowly drifting away in the face of gentrification. It’s a project he dives into with absolute love for his close-knit community.

In addition to his chosen work of documenting a way of life, Fuentes gives back in other ways, by working with nonprofits providing assistance to underserved communities. You might find him wheat-pasting a photo mural in Westwood or creating a beautiful multicultural board book in collaboration with Colorado Poet Laureate Bobby LeFebre for the civic health club Warm Cookies of the Revolution.

What inspires Fuentes to continue in this line of work, displaying his photos and maintaining the participatory Old Denver instagram (use hashtag #OldDenver to have your photo featured in the feed)? And where is it going in the future? Fuentes shares all the answers via the Colorado Creatives questionnaire.
click to enlarge Juan Fuentes relaxes beneath one of his barrio portraits at ReCreative Gallery in 2019. - COURTESY OF JUAN FUENTES
Juan Fuentes relaxes beneath one of his barrio portraits at ReCreative Gallery in 2019.
Courtesy of Juan Fuentes
Westword: What (or who) is your creative muse?

Juan Fuentes: My community.


Which three people, dead or alive, would you like to invite to your next party, and why?

Che Guevara, Rosario Castellanos and Dave Chappelle. I’d like to be at the table for the 3 a.m. conversation between these revolutionaries, who’ve all made such an impact in the different avenues toward the liberation of oppressed peoples. A Marxist militant, a poet and a comedian walk into a bar.... Seems like the beginning of a great story.
click to enlarge A page from a collaborative board book created by Juan Fuentes and Colorado Poet Laureate Bobby LeFebre for Warm Cookies of the Revolution. - COURTESY OF WARM COOKIES OF THE REVOLUTION
A page from a collaborative board book created by Juan Fuentes and Colorado Poet Laureate Bobby LeFebre for Warm Cookies of the Revolution.
Courtesy of Warm Cookies of the Revolution
What made you pick up a camera in the first place?

Walking around this city that raised me and noticing how much of it was disappearing. Felt an urge to document.

What makes Warm Cookies so great? Explain your role with the organization, and why you do it.

Warm Cookies of the Revolution is a great organization because of its approach to getting the community engaged and involved in civic issues. Their events and programming are always fun and creative, but also push people to realize that they can activate change. I am just a contributing artist, and have been fortunate to be part of a handful of events and projects.
click to enlarge An elder peers out from under his straw hat in a portrait by Juan Fuentes. - COURTESY OF JUAN FUENTES
An elder peers out from under his straw hat in a portrait by Juan Fuentes.
Courtesy of Juan Fuentes
What’s your dream project?

My dream project will be a deep photographic dive into the story of my family. From our roots in Chihuahua, Mexico, to the migration into the United States and how that has molded our identity and the idea of home.

Denver (or Colorado), love it or leave it? What keeps you here — or makes you want to leave?

Love it. It is home; it is my heartbeat. I love this city and the community i’ve been able to help build. There’s a lot of change happening that would make a lot of people want to leave, but I want to keep roots here and make sure I can influence some of that change or help save some of the culture that is left.
click to enlarge Juan Fuentes documents lowriders at night. - COURTESY OF JUAN FUENTES
Juan Fuentes documents lowriders at night.
Courtesy of Juan Fuentes
What's the one thing Denver (or Colorado) could do to help the arts?

Refocus and dive deeper into the history of Chicano murals. There are deep roots here in Denver, and while murals have become trendy and wallpaper for gentrification, the history goes back to the Chicano Movement in the ’60s and ’70s, and the artists that were part of it. Education and support for Brown and Indigenous artists could help Denver with its identity crisis and further establish the history of this land through visual art.

Who is your favorite Colorado Creative?

Jolt: He’s an unapologetic visionary, and his art speaks for itself.
click to enlarge Kids from the ’hood pose for what will become a mural. - COURTESY OF JUAN FUENTES
Kids from the ’hood pose for what will become a mural.
Courtesy of Juan Fuentes
What's on your agenda now and in the coming year?

Right now I have a book coming out with Colorado's Poet Laureate Bobby LeFebre and Warm Cookies of the Revolution. I’ll be creating a photo mural with students from the American Indian Academy this month. I’ll be one of many artists exhibiting for a fundraiser in April with REVEL, an organization helping teens and young adults with autism spectrum disorder to live well-balanced, meaningful lives. I’ll be having an exhibition with Houston photographer Colby Deal at Alto Gallery in May. An exhibition at RedLine through their Epic Program along with youth from Arts Street is also happening in May. We’ll be having a Cinco de Mayo celebration in Westwood with D3 Arts, along with a lot of other community programming throughout the rest of the year.
click to enlarge More portraits from the Westwood neighborhood. - COURTESY OF JUAN FUENTES
More portraits from the Westwood neighborhood.
Courtesy of Juan Fuentes
Who do you think will (or should) get noticed in the local arts community in the coming year?

Mica Garcia de Benavidez: Director of the Cultural Arts Education Institute at Su Teatro and managing director at Su Teatro.

Santiago Jaramillo: Muralist and co-founder of D3 Arts.

Benjamin Rasmussen: Photographer and co-founder of Pattern Denver.

Follow Juan Fuentes on Instagram, as well as his Old Denver Instagram page.
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Susan Froyd started writing for Westword as the "Thrills" editor in 1992 and never quite left the fold. These days she still freelances for the paper in addition to walking her dogs, enjoying cheap ethnic food and reading voraciously. Sometimes she writes poetry.
Contact: Susan Froyd