Commentary

For Authenticity and the Real Pueblo, Drive South to the Actual City

Gus' Tavern and Gagliano's Italian Market & Deli, two of Pueblo's iconic haunts, sit under the smokestacks of the former Colorado Fuel & Iron Steel Mill, now Evraz.
Gus' Tavern and Gagliano's Italian Market & Deli, two of Pueblo's iconic haunts, sit under the smokestacks of the former Colorado Fuel & Iron Steel Mill, now Evraz. John Rodriguez
If two white developers wanted to honor Black Denver by opening up a new Rossonian jazz club in Highlands Ranch, outside of the chaos that anything darker than Chantilly lace causes in parts of the greater metro, many would have a problem with that.

So when two Denver developers opened Fuel & Iron Bar, a Pueblo-themed restaurant, why are Colorado media and high-profile Puebloans celebrating this kind of gentrification?

To bring you up to speed, last month two Denver developers, Zach Cytryn and Nathan Stern, opened a Pueblo-themed bar and restaurant in Denver called Fuel & Iron, a reference to the city’s industrial roots. While Colorado media covered it like a celebration of Pueblo culture, as Denver media does so often, they missed how offended many of us were that our ethnicity and heritage were reduced to a bar serving green chile poutine.

These two developers also plan to open a food hall and apartment building in downtown Pueblo sometime later this year.

To understand why appropriating our brand is a problem, you first have to understand Pueblo as a people. I am the product of immigrants from Mexico, Sicily and England. Some worked at “The Mill” — aka Colorado Fuel & Iron. My Italian side of the family were farmers who found a plot of land to work a century ago. Today, they are Pueblo chile growers.

In Pueblo, my lineage and heritage aren't unique. Family, faith and community guided those industrious immigrants to build a better life in Pueblo. I believe this is what makes Puebloans both proud of where we came from and still frustrated to see Pueblo struggling since the decline of steel production in the late ’70s.

You might think I would be ecstatic that two Denver developers — one of whom says he discovered Pueblo allure after college — want to create a Pueblo-branded restaurant and bar. But that is the problem.

Even if the idea had come from two Puebloan James Beard winners, they would still be Puebloans. There is a stigma that Pueblo’s brand is only palatable if it’s distilled and reduced by outsiders.

Both in Pueblo and Denver, the Fuel & Iron idea and concept represent opportunities unavailable for Puebloans. It’s outsiders using us to sell you on Pueblo.

I get it. Pueblo has a stigma. You don’t think we see the racist memes. Or hear how you say how dangerous it is in the neighborhoods, our barrios, from which our families forged a better life for us. They worked in the smelters that now carry on as a brand for developers who didn’t even know Pueblo or its people or their struggles or pride.

After five decades of stagnation, there is a palpable tension toward Pueblo’s ineffective leadership and its inability to address issues like having the highest rate of unemployment or the highest per capita death rates for COVID in Colorado. Pueblo has some of the highest rates for suicide…for drug use…for alcohol abuse…and the list goes on.

Critics of this essay will say Fuel & Iron is about pushing past those unresolved problems and stigmas and celebrating our industrial heritage, and that these two are allies. But my question is, with all this Pueblo pride, why isn’t it a Puebloan doing this project?

I’m not opposed to growth. What I’m opposed to is growth when Puebloans were historically merely the labor cut off from entrepreneurship and investment.

Pueblo today is where Denver was decades ago, and if we have learned anything from Denver’s rocket growth, it’s that who gets to determine the narrative of our neighborhoods is as important as who moves into them. Our originality is at risk if it’s left to Denver to decide what’s original.

When Puebloans are so desperate for anything good, they become blinded to monorail saviors and the rest of the state who like to think of us as little more than chile-flavored curiosity, claiming they discovered what’s good in Pueblo and only they can fix us.

A Pueblo-themed Denver bar is insignificant compared to our rust-belt hangover, but it symbolizes how our own leaders, our business chambers, new-to-Pueblo carpetbaggers and some of Colorado see us — a people to be exploited.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t patronize Fuel & Iron. Patronize? Yes. But if you crave authenticity and the real Pueblo, actually drive to Pueblo.

Understand why Gagliano’s Italian Market & Deli, Gus’ Tavern, Eilers' Place and others are significant to the West. Have a slopper and a schooner at Gray's Coors Tavern and look and see Pueblo’s pride on its walls. Eat at Mill Stop and get served real authentic food at a real counter. Or visit our churches, like Mt. Carmel Church, St. Joseph’s, St. John’s, and see how faith guided Latino, Greek, Italian and Slovenian families through persecution and hardship.

If there’s Pueblo pride still left, then we must learn not to be exploited by something else named Fuel & Iron. We are more than a marketing brand to be gentrified with industrial aprons serving distilled bar food palatable to gawker’s palates.

We are Pueblo. We built the fucking West. We are one of the last original cities in Colorado. Have some of that Pueblo pride. It’s time that we, not Denver, own our future.

John Rodriguez was the publisher of Pueblo's PULP Newsmagazine from 2012 to 2020. He is a lifelong Puebloan, and his family traces its roots back generations.

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