Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez's Denver roots run deep. Her mother grew up in a housing project in the old Auraria neighborhood before being displaced to Sunnyside by the 150-acre campus that stands there today. Gonzales-Gutierrez spent most of her life in West Highland, where she attended North High School, just like her mother and her mother's mother.
Her father's side of the family is also deeply connected to the city, dating back to legendary Chicano leader Rodolfo "Corky" Gonzales, who grew up in the barrios of Denver, became one of the top three featherweight boxers in the world and then used his platform for political activism. His alternative school, Escuela Tlatelolco, grew out of the Chicano movement as a way to provide quality education for Latino students with a dual-language curriculum that focused on cultural heritage and social justice. That tradition was carried on by Gonzales-Gutierrez's father, who at one point ran a youth program for at-risk teenagers and gang members.
But Gonzales-Gutierrez doesn't usually bring up her family on the campaign trail — not for any lack of familial admiration, but because she wants people to accept her on her own merits. She's in a competitive three-way Democratic primary to replace term-limited Dan Pabon in Denver District 4.
"My dad is his son, and my dad raised us with not riding coattails and that you earn what you earn on your own merits. You are the work you do, and that's how I lived my life," she explains. "I think that's why I chose to take the route that I did. My type of activism was working within the systems. ... I knew the work I was doing was just as important."
Even though Gonzales-Gutierrez was surrounded by political activists who were often at odds with the government — Corky Gonzales came out early against the Vietnam War— she chose to go into public service. The Larimer County District Attorney's Office gave her an introduction to the criminal justice system when she served as a victims' advocate in college, and that's where she decided to start working within the system to create social change.
After graduating from Colorado State University, Gonzales-Gutierrez spent a year as a line staff member in Denver's female youth corrections facility, where she monitored and supervised incarcerated girls. She says nearly all of the girls who came through that facility had been sexually abused, and their trauma was a major factor in their path to incarceration. That reality drove Gonzales-Gutierrez to get involved with crime prevention and home-placement programs for at-risk youth.
She was a juvenile caseworker for eight years for Denver Human Services. And for the past five years, she has been the director of the Denver Collaborative Partnership, which acts as a one-stop shop for families touched by the juvenile corrections or child-welfare systems to help them access health resources, food assistance, counseling and other services they may need. She also works with homeless children and provides early intervention services for runaways who are reported to the Denver Police Department.
"I was working in communities with families as a caseworker in their homes. I'm out helping them look for their kid that ran away. I wasn't just sitting in an office at a desk doing paperwork. I've actually been boots on the ground working in communities," Gonzales-Gutierrez says.
Gonzales-Gutierrez prefers working behind the scenes, however, and running for elected office never crossed her mind — until Donald Trump won the presidency. She remembers worrying about what President Trump would mean for her family and for the families she works with every day, predominantly minorities. Before Trump's inauguration, she joined the Emerge Colorado program, which trains Democratic women on how to run for office, and decided that she would fight to maintain progressive minority representation for her Denver district.
"I'm not running on the fact that I'm Latina and I expect other Latinos to vote for me just for that reason, but what I hope people will see is that I have a different perspective on things because of the experiences I have had as a woman and as a woman of color, and that representation is important to have at our Capitol," Gonzales-Gutierrez says.
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After years of working with Denver's most vulnerable, Gonzales-Gutierrez says she wants to use her experience to halt the revolving door of the criminal justice system, particularly for people of color and the mentally ill, who are incarcerated disproportionately. Prevention is key to her platform, and it starts with high-quality public schools, affordable housing and access to health care. That also means potentially revising the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights (TABOR) so that the state can raise adequate funding for these programs, she notes.
"Education, especially, is the foundation for our kids and for other people's kids to have a good start, and right now we're doing a terrible job," Gonzales-Gutierrez says. "A lot of it is because we're hindered by funding because of things like TABOR. It impacts how we can fund our schools and how we can pay our teachers so that we have quality education for all our kids, regardless of where they live. ... Because of school choice, that hasn't always been true."
Two other candidates are running in the Democratic primary for Pabon's seat in House District 4, which comprises the Berkeley, West Highland and West Colfax neighborhoods. Amy Beatie, executive director of the Colorado Water Trust, is an environmentalist who's devoted her career to saving the state's rivers; with $92,000 raised at last count, she's far outstripped her opponents. Ed Britt, who works in public administration for the University of Colorado, raised about $5,000 but has spent roughly $2,000 more than he has taken in.
Gonzales-Gutierrez has raised $39,000, which includes a $1,000 contribution from the American Federation of Teachers.