Longform

Smoke and Mirrors

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His mother, Thomasa, also came from Mexico. She met and married Gregorio when he worked for the railroad in Denver. Haro doesn't remember much about her other than her quiet laugh. When he was five, Thomasa caught a cold that turned into pneumonia. Gregorio was afraid to take her to the hospital because authorities might discover their illegal-immigrant status, and Thomasa died at her home on Larimer Street.

Juan spent many of his days at the Little Flower Community Center, where he and the other kids wrestled on the floor mats and took turns boxing with the only pair of gloves. Haro recalls the hot meals of macaroni and mashed potatoes as "one of the highlights of my childhood."

He did well in school, especially in history and math, but he dropped out in the tenth grade after a Manual High School teacher publicly teased him about not having the 25-cent textbook fee. In 1947, at age seventeen, Haro joined the Army. He was trained as a paratrooper and stationed in Japan as a military policeman during the war-crimes trials.

During a furlough in 1951, he married a woman from Denver's west side. He left the service a year later and bought a green-and-white clapboard home on West Exposition. He and his wife were the first Hispanics on the block. When they moved in, a neighbor put a "For Sale" sign on the lawn.

With his military background, Haro wanted to be a police officer or firefighter, but each time he applied, he was told there were no openings. He also tried to join the plumbers', carpenters' and electricians' unions but was rejected by all three. When he applied to be a city bus driver, a supervisor told him, "The company already has one Spanish kid working here. But if he ever quits, I'll be glad to hire you."

So Haro worked at a foundry, for a produce company and as a contract driver with the Tenneco Oil Co. He even bought into a neighborhood tavern. In 1967 he leased a Chevron station at 32nd Avenue and Perry Street. A few years later he bought a Phillips 66 station at West Eighth Avenue and Kalamath Street. He was 37 years old. He had a good business, a nice house and two boys. He had done well for himself. He was happy.

By this time, the civil rights movement had taken root and was beginning to blossom in Denver. Chicanos had lined up behind a charismatic and articulate ex-boxer named Rodolfo "Corky" Gonzales, who'd gained political notoriety as a Democratic Party organizer. Gonzales, also the author of the poem "I Am Joaquin," was known as a man who could inspire his people.

When Gonzales was fired as director of the Neighborhood Youth Job Program in the spring of 1966 for allegedly hiring too many Hispanics, Haro attended a support rally. As the fierce-eyed activist stood at the microphone, Haro found himself impressed. Gonzales said things about discrimination and cultural pride that needed to be said.

Haro introduced himself, and Gonzalez invited him to attend a meeting of Los Voluntarios, a Hispanic political group within the Democratic Party. Haro had never been active in politics, knew little about fundraising and had few high-powered contacts. But he was loyal, dependable and hardworking. If someone told him to be at a certain place at a certain time, he would be there. He also knew what it felt like to be poor and discriminated against. And like others at the meeting, he was tired of hearing stories about police harassment and hiring quotas. So he joined Los Voluntarios.

Not long afterward, in November 1966, the Crusade for Justice was born. Gonzales, who had broken from the Democrats as his tactics became more confrontational, was unanimously elected leader. Two years later, Haro became vice chairman.

Among other things, the Crusade helped organize the Poor People's March in Washington, D.C., supported Chicano rights nationwide, led demonstrations against police shootings, supported high school walkouts over discrimination, led "splash-in" protests to improve barrio swimming pools, sponsored demonstrations on Mexican Independence Day and opened a school and community center.

But with those strides came conflict. Crusade members felt they were under constant surveillance by police, federal and even military agents bent on destroying their organization. Clashes were frequent. Among the worst was the March 17, 1973, gun battle, riot and explosion outside Crusade headquarters, at 1567 Downing Street. A police officer was critically wounded and a Crusade member killed by police that day, with dozens more injured and as many as sixty people arrested.

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Harrison Fletcher