Rudy Gonzales on Servicios de la Raza's Four Decades of Work and its New Home

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After providing community health and services in Denver's Sunnyside neighborhood for decades, Servicios de la Raza moved this week to a new home at 3131 West 14th Avenue. To do so, the organization had to sell its buildings at 41st Avenue and Tejon Street, which meant the removal of the "Privavera" murual, which had been a landmark there for more than three decades. But the move should be a good for Servicios, says executive director Rudy Gonzales, who spoke with Westword about its work and about the challenges facing the population its serves -- as Denver neighborhoods continue to change.

See also: Jerry Jaramillo's Sunnyside Mural, "Primavera," Is Gone But Not Forgotten

Westword: How did Servicios de la Raza get its start?

Rudy Gonzales: Servicios de la Raza was founded in 1972 by Chicano and Chicana activists -- kind of a cross-section of community members came together. Some were activists in the community, some worked for city agencies and some were members of Crusade for Justice at that time, which was the civil rights organization which was founded and led by my father (Corky Gonzales.)

They came together and developed a mental health model to provide mental health services to, in particular, Spanish-speaking populations here in Denver, which was a Chicano population at that time -- we didn't have a big immigrant community. With a two hundred thousand dollar grant from Richard Nixon's administration -- which provided thirteen grants throughout the country, especially in the Southwest in an effort to shore up support from what at the time the government called Hispanic communities -- Servicios was formed.

Out of those thirteen, Servicios is the only one that survives today. If you were Chicano, we were very tight-- we didn't have the numbers we do today that we did in the seventies. If you were Chicano/Chicana, you either had your first job here at Servicios, or you got services from here, or you sat on the Board of Directors here.This agency has been part of our community for 42 years. Servicios had its first storefront around West 38th and Navajo Street and moved over to 42nd and Tejon when the (Catholic) Archdiocese helped purchase the building.

So Servicios began as a mental health organization?

Yes. This was before managed healthcare came in -- Servicios started with mental health, extended to include a substance abuse programming, then youth programming, then emergency services programming, then domestic violence programming. Because it was before managed care, the revenues that came from Medicaid and also self-pay for mental health and substance abuse really allowed Servicios to thrive and grow dramatically. At that time and for many years, it was the only agency providing culturally-responsive services, especially with bilingual services. It thrived.

At that time, we had a very large Latino community here in Northwest Denver. I think in the late '80s we were 63 percent of the community. The agency has been through five executive directors in 42 years -- it will be 43 years in March of 2015. I'm the fifth executive director, and I was hired to lead the agency in November of 2008. At that time, as everyone pretty well knows in Denver, Denver was experiencing a lot of people moving here. And that growth was obviously changing many Denver neighborhoods.

In 2008, the gentrification of this neighborhood was in full-swing -- not in Sunnyside, but south of West 38th Avenue. We knew it was going to be coming north. For some of us it is our fault -- we sold our properties for a good price. The parents and grandparents who bought here and came here in the '50s and '60s and '70s and '80s -- this was our conception of the American dream. From those barrios in West Denver and East Denver and the poorer areas, Northwest Denver was the culmination of a dream of home ownership.

There were good homes, brick homes. For most of us Latinos, our wealth is tied up in our homes. There's a lot of systemic issues in this country that are still extremely relevant and prevalent in our lives. We are worse off than we were before the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Think about that.

Many of the children and the grandchildren who sold the homes and got good prices for them ended up moving out of the neighborhood. Then they couldn't afford to come back and can't afford to come back and live here now. Moving to Aurora, Northglenn, East Lakewood, Arvada, East Wheat Ridge -- that's where Servicos's numbers are really growing. What Servicios really advocates for, engages with on and struggles with is -- we don't have access to the same credit or dollars that the dominant society does. There are huge disparities of wealth in this country. We can't fix our homes up, we can't improve our homes or improve the landscaping or pay the taxes that continue to go up when income is not going up or matching inflation. We're making less than we did ten years ago. There are a lot of issues in this country that stem from real disparity, institutional racism, bias and marginalization -- especially with communities.

Essentially, the community that Servicios is/was serving was moving away from the Northside neighborhood where you (were) located because they couldn't afford to be there anymore.

That is the struggle we (Servicios) are seeing. This is one of our main issues -- people come into our community who have credit, who have access to dollars and are able to increase the land value immediately and exponentially. It started to happen about three years ago and started to creep across West 38th Avenue and into Sunnyside.This started a big transition period. We started to lose the communities that we served -- so I started to look at selling the buildings on 41st and Tejon. We needed to move to a more central location and be more accessible for our communities.

Even though we are serving more than just our community -- we serve a contingent of East African Immigrants and we serve a lot of caucasian people who came in during the Great Recession. Even though Denver has probably rebounded the best across the country from that, we had a lot of people coming in. In 2009, 2010 and 2011 we started seeing people who used to donate to us coming in for services. The Board of Directors identified this and finally decided that we needed to sell the buildings that Servicios was in in Sunnyside and use the surplus dollars that we were able to get to sink into another property that was more centrally located. So Servicios is moving across town to Southwest Denver to serve its shifted community?

We're five months delayed, but we're finally going to move. We're moving to our new location at 3131 West 14th Avenue, right off of Colfax and Federal. We'll be a block and a half off of major transfer stations for RTD and lightrail, on the same block which is on the same block as the new library. The new Denver Public Library (will be) named after my father, Corky Gonzales -- which is a piece of serendipity that I love. We are also on the cusp of the largest Latino district in the city, with 74 percent in West Denver. We'll be on the cusp of the two poorest communities and neighborhoods, not only in the city but in the state -- Sun Valley and Westwood. We'll be near the largest array of pubic housing in Denver -- there's Casitas, Sun Valley, Westridge, Westwood.

It is a match that may turn out to be a little overwhelming for us, because we're going to be packed with people. We offer six large program areas, two sub-programs and out of that, almost 35 service areas. So we are the largest culturally responsive one-stop service agency in the state of Colorado. There is not another agency that does what we do, primarily in the community as well as all other demographics of poverty and color.

It's great that Servicios's new location will be so close to the community you serve and have instant access via public transportation. But it is also pretty indicative of some of the growth and change happening in the city seems to be leaving Denver's lower income communities behind.

For us, leaving here (the Northside) is very emotional. I worked here as part of the summer youth employment program when I was 17. My boss was Judy Montero. People like Arturo Jimenez worked here and got their start here. It has been an incubator for Latino professionalism and Latino leadership. We civically engage -- all of our councils and boards and task forces. We help develop and create policies and procedures and practices that are humane and socially just; We help our communities of color, poverty and oppression. So, Servicios has been that incubator for many years for the Latino community.

It is hard for us emotionally to leave this area -- but we had to open access because we were starting to lose that access. That was the number one reason we had to move -- access to our services by communities of poverty. With the surplus dollars that we got out of the sale of our old building -- and it was considerable -- we were able to sink it into the new-old building. It's a 1968 pre-stress two-story building and we were able to use that money to do some serious rehab. We're still not finished. But it will be an awesome building. We'll be right by the Corky Gonzales Library and we'll be setting up an MoU (Memorandum of Agreement) with them to utilize all of their state-of-the-art technology, their computer lab and their classroom space. The library itself is 28,000 square feet, the second largest in the system.

Be my voyeur (or better yet, let me stalk you) on Twitter: @cocodavies

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