by Maggie Sava
WRIT 1733: Human Rights/Humans Write | Professor John Tiedemann
She was at home playing with her four-year-old daughter, Jennifer, and her one-year-old son, Paul, when the phone rang. It was the fall of 1974, and her two older children, Randy and Julia, were at school for the day. After settling the kids, she answered the call to find a man on the line.
“Hello, Mrs. Atencio. My name is John, and I am a member of the Parent Teacher Association. I am calling you today to discuss a volunteer opportunity.”
“Oh, I see. May I ask what the opportunity is exactly?”
“Well, as I am sure you are aware, Denver Public Schools have recently begun integration programs that…”
She interrupted. “Oh yeah, I have been hearing a lot about that lately.”
“Good, good. Well, you see, we need parents to observe the schools in a monitor role to make sure that all students are receiving the appropriate treatment at their new schools. We are reaching out to you because we know how involved you have been in the PTA before, and we need representatives for Hispanic students.”
“You don’t understand. Atencio is my married name. I am not Hispanic; my husband is.”
“Mrs. Atencio, we are in desperate need of volunteers. We believe that you are especially qualified for this. It is just once a month. We really need your help.”
She paused. “Okay, okay. I am happy to help. What do you need me to do?”
∗ ∗ ∗
My grandparents, Cheryl and Sam Atencio, met when they were only 18 years old. Cheryl had moved to her parents’ new home in the new upper-middle-class development of Applewood, Colorado, after transferring from Hood College, a women’s college on the East Coast, to the University of Colorado Denver. Her background was about as middle-class as it could get. Initially, her parents bought a new home that was constructed after World War II, but they ended up moving from one suburban town to the next as her dad’s job required. Before Colorado, they lived in New Jersey, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Iowa. Meanwhile, Sam’s family settled in southern Colorado and New Mexico during Spanish colonization. Sam was born in Sante Fe shortly before his family moved to Denver to pursue better job opportunities. They settled in one of North Denver’s Hispanic neighborhoods.
Cheryl and Sam first saw each other at a bar in North Denver. Cheryl’s friend, who was pregnant at the time, begged her to go out dancing. Cheryl agreed, so they went to Denver and wound up at a rough 3.2 bar, since 18-year-olds could buy 3.2 beer at the time. There, Sam approached Cheryl and asked her to dance. Cheryl refused unless he danced with her pregnant friend first. He obliged, and from that night on, Cheryl and Sam were inseparable. When the two brought up the idea of marriage less than two months later, neither of their families supported the idea. At the time, the proposed union of the teenagers was considered a “mixed marriage.” Sam was even kicked out of his house and forced to stay at the YMCA. Despite the resistance, they wed in 1965, six weeks after they met.
Early on, the two had no money. They hopped from house to house in North Denver, one of their first being a dumpy little two-story house built behind someone else’s lot on Perry Street. Cheryl was always pregnant, so they had to keep moving as they outgrew houses. By the time they found themselves at the house at 3934 Tejon Street, they already had seven-year-old Randy, five-year-old Julia, three-year-old Jenn, and a fourth child on the way. St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, the family’s parish, was down the street from their modest house. Nearby was the fire station and the police station. Police helicopters flew over the neighborhood at all hours of the night, shining their spotlights through the windows in tireless searches. A bar or liquor store could be found on practically every block. Cheryl did not fit into the neighborhood. A fair-skinned, red-haired Norwegian girl with a middle-class background stood out, and the neighbors were suspicious of her until they met Sam.
Across 38th Avenue, a busy thoroughfare, was the neighborhood elementary school, Bryant Webster, where Julia and Randy went to school when they were not being bussed to Gust Elementary School. Being Hispanic students in the 1970s, Julia and Randy were sent to a white school across town for half of the day as a result of Denver’s attempt to increase diversity and level the playing field for minority students. Although they were considered Hispanic, the kids did not fit into any category. Being half white and half Hispanic, Randy and Julia were stuck between two worlds. Cheryl cringed when her children returned home to tell stories of how they were called “honky” at Bryant Webster because they had a white mother and how, at Gust, they were referred to as “beaners” because their skin was brown. Fuming on the inside, Cheryl comforted Julia and Randy, explaining to them that those were not nice words and that they should not use them to refer to other people.
“Sticks and stones may break my bones,” she would remind them. “But words will never hurt me.”
∗ ∗ ∗
Cheryl peered anxiously through the window, watching the sidewalk as the sunlight began to recede. Behind her, one of the babies began to cry, pulling her attention from the glass. She crossed the living room of the small house on Tejon Street, leaving her perch to check on her babies.
She took turns watching the front walk and working on dinner. Finally, she heard the shuffling footsteps of two kids on the front porch and opened the door to find Julia there with a neighbor boy. She was tired from chasing her toddlers around all day. Her fatigue was compounded by frustration when she noticed that the sun had mostly set and the city street was getting darker and darker. She thanked the neighbor boy who walked Julia from the bus stop each night and gave him some change just as Sam’s car pulled into the drive. Sam was coming home from his job at the Department of Transportation to have dinner with his family and rest for a bit before leaving to go to his second job as a valet at a country club. Now that everyone had made it home, Cheryl could serve dinner.
The concerns Cheryl had about her daughter’s safety and her difficult school day were not alleviated as she watched Julia struggle to keep her eyes open during dinner. Cheryl questioned why her kids had to be bussed forty-five minutes to a different school every day. Randy and Julia were not even on the same bus schedule. Originally, both kids went to Bryant Webster in the morning and Gust in the afternoon, but when Randy hit third grade, he was forced to change his schedule. While Randy went in the mornings, Julia went in the afternoons, and so he was not there to walk her home at night.
After cleaning up after the meal, Cheryl went to the living room, where Sam was resting. Suddenly, she vented. “How much good can they be doing these kids when they drop first-grade girls off at a bus stop two blocks away from their home at night?”
“I mean, think about it. They lose at least an hour every day. Julia is only six! Thank goodness there is that neighbor boy to walk her home.”
“I suppose they think they are doing them a service. I mean, they mix in all the students from the other school, so maybe they are getting a better experience. More diversity.”
“I hardly think they are getting anything out of this. Heck, I wouldn’t want to be going to either school! You wouldn’t believe what it’s like in Bryant Webster, Sam. It’s terrible. I saw it back when I visited Randy’s second-grade class. Some kids don’t even have shoes to wear!”
“What do you want me to say? Schools are falling apart around us, Cher, and the kids are taking the brunt of it. There are no other options, not since the redistricting from desegregation made us leave Smedly.”
“I still can’t believe they made us leave that school. Now the kids have to cross 38th with all that traffic just to get to school. It is so dangerous! That court order completely turned these kids’ life upside down. I just don’t know what to do. How are they supposed to make friends? At which school will they have a chance to play with the other kids? I just don’t think it’s good for them. Especially for Julia. She is so young and so smart. I don’t want her miss out on anything… .”
∗ ∗ ∗
At the start of desegregation, the schools needed to accommodate the new students, which required much preparation and training to explain new policies and ensure that they were properly applied. The school board used volunteer parent monitors to make sure that students were accepted into their new classrooms and treated equally by the school. The request made by the Parent Teacher Association for a representative for the Hispanic students was not one that Cheryl could comfortably turn down. She had already headed an effort to restart the PTA at Smedly Elementary, where Randy went before the redistricting. That challenging project made her well aware of the inner workings of the schools and all the help they needed.
Like her children, Cheryl went downtown to a new school. Monitors were not allowed to volunteer at their neighborhood institutions, so she was assigned to a poor school that was close to the low-income housing projects near Colfax Avenue and Federal Boulevard. As the acting representative of the Hispanic population at the school, she had to drive there once a month. She observed everything intently, including classes and teacher performances, and filled out special rubrics that were filed at North High School. Cheryl was frustrated by the limitations of her position. As an unwanted visitor, Cheryl knew she could not see what the school was really like day to day. She suspected that teachers and students were on their best behavior during the monthly visits, and she did not have the chance to understand the true climate of the school. Try as she might, she could not get beyond the surface of the situation. Hispanic families were wary of her serving as their spokesperson, and with good reason. She was young and white, and she could not relate to the experiences of the students she was supposed to represent. During her days at the school, she was made aware of the glaring differences between her schooling in a middle-class suburban neighborhood in New Jersey and the urban Denver school in which she found herself. In spite of all the training and preparation the monitor organization provided and her Spanish surname, she never felt as though she had the clout to honestly speak for the students she believed needed stronger support and a better learning environment. Nothing was more frustrating to a young activist dedicated to bettering her community than knowing that she could not really help.
She found herself in the same, uncomfortable in-between space her children occupied at school. She was too white to fit in with the Hispanics at the schools, yet she still had a Hispanic family and was a part of the community. Like Randy and Julia, she was often reminded that she did not belong. One day, she was sitting at the back of a classroom observing when she noticed the teacher’s assistant looking her over. When Cheryl looked back at her, the teacher’s assistant said something under her breath in Spanish that made Cheryl blush. She may not have spoken fluent Spanish, but Cheryl had spent enough time in the barrio to know when she was being called a nasty name.
She once said, “It was like being a fish out of water.”
∗ ∗ ∗
It only made sense that Cheryl would volunteer as an advocate in the schools. Cheryl converted to Catholicism when she married Sam and became fiercely loyal to her faith. The couple served the church community by being on the parish council, kick-starting and running the food bank, and taking donations to be deposited at the bank after mass on Sundays each week. Being a young, poor couple, they knew what hard work meant. They were constantly striving to create better conditions for their growing family.
Cheryl and Sam’s civic engagement also extended beyond the walls of the church; they became activists for their neighborhood. Idealistic and hardworking, Sam and Cheryl were active in every way possible. As they became leaders in their community, their house became a meeting place. Their political work predated the 26th Amendment that lowered the voting age, which meant that they were laboring for the Democratic Party in their part of the city before they could even vote. As their activism increased, they garnered attention as a motivated couple that was excited about the new forms of cultural and political empowerment emerging in a number of different communities. Their own community was in the midst of the Chicano Movement, which offered people a new opportunity for self-identification. Hispanics were tired of being mislabeled and assigned stereotypes. Community leaders were giving Chicanos and Chicanas a voice. Sam and Cheryl saw these leaders speaking from the pulpit of the neighborhood church asking for support such as food donations for migrant workers. As long as it wasn’t okra. They were sick and tired of okra.
Eventually, Cheryl and Sam were elected precinct captains, and they attended all important meetings in Denver. They became involved with policy writing and platform organizing. Their dedication had them traveling through the projects to pass out materials and brochures, all with their little ones following along. The campaigns they organized and contributed to even helped elect Pat Schroeder, the first Congresswoman from Colorado.
Despite positive political changes and momentum within their community, Cheryl and Sam found their neighborhood becoming less safe and less welcoming. Big changes were occurring in the house on Tejon Street. The family welcomed a fifth child, Noah, into the world in the fall of 1975. The house was proving to be too small. Julia, Randy, and Jennifer had to sleep in a room in the basement, while Paul and Noah slept together in a room upstairs near the master bedroom. They were outgrowing the house, and the state of the neighborhood was a heavy toll on them. Across the street was a halfway house, and the helicopters still kept them awake all night. Two blocks down, a law office that served the poor community had been blown up by a splinter group of anarchists whose graffiti littered the neighborhood declaring, “Free Kiki.” Even the family house was not immune from the dangers of the neighborhood.
On one occasion, Cheryl and Sam woke to Julia and Randy banging on their bedroom door early on a Saturday morning. As they drowsily answered their door, the kids excitedly whispered, “Mom. Dad. There is a strange man sleeping on our couch.” Confused and alarmed, Cheryl herded the kids into the bedroom as Sam grabbed a baseball bat to confront the intruder. A heavily drugged man awoke at the prodding of the wooden bat, unwilling to leave his place on the couch. Sam had to call the police. When the policeman arrived, he assumed that the drugged man was a friend who had stayed over after a wild party.
“That’s ridiculous!” Cheryl exclaimed. “You think we would throw a party here? And then call the police to get rid of the guests?”
After much convincing, the officer finally believed that the intruder was a stranger and that he needed to be removed. Cheryl and Sam found out later that there was no follow-up from the police because the intruder was convicted and imprisoned for murder.
The fear and painful awareness left by that incident led Cheryl and Sam to realize that no matter what good they were doing in their community, they could not let their family pay the price by raising their children in a dangerous place. After spending more than an hour on the bus traveling between schools, and then coming home to an unsafe neighborhood, the children were going to struggle to thrive in school. Without the means to go to the private elementary school on the University of Denver campus, Julia would not be challenged enough academically. As long as she kept bouncing between Bryant Webster and Gust, she would have to make up the study time she missed while riding the bus. Bussing could not address the young students’ needs, and the family could no longer carry the burden placed on them.
Their decision to leave the city was affirmed by a visit from a close family friend and Catholic nun, Sister Jane. She sat them down and advised them that their place was not in the barrio. They had to continue God’s work by raising their children in a healthy environment. Cheryl soon realized that the visit from Sister Jane was a gift from God, and because of a promotion Sam received at work—a second blessing after Sister Jane’s advice—the family was moved to a safer neighborhood in the suburb of Westminster, Colorado.
∗ ∗ ∗
At the time, housing equity was still an equal rights issue, and developers needed to demonstrate diversity in new building projects. The Atencios were seen as the perfect way to show such diversity. The builder of the Countryside development eagerly welcomed them into their community. The company bought their house on Tejon Street, taking the impossible-to-sell property off of their hands and making it possible for them to put a down payment on a newly built house in the Fox Meadows neighborhood. The relief they felt in getting the house of their dreams outweighed any frustration they may have had in once again becoming the token minority. One night, before the official closing, the family took the keys to their new home and camped out on the floor. They all felt as though they were in a mansion. They roamed the four bedrooms, three bathrooms, and huge yard in which the kids could play freely. They prepared beds on the floor and lay down to sleep. They were struck by the calm that fell over the home at night and the stars they spied in the sky through the window—the same stars they had never been able to see in the heart of the city.
“Mom, mom, mom! Look at the sky! It’s so pretty! Is that what space looks like?”
“Yes, Julia. Those are constellations out there. See that one shaped like a spoon? That is the Big Dipper. Isn’t this lovely, Sam? I don’t think the kids even knew what stars were before!”
“It’s beautiful. There aren’t even street lamps out here. I feel like we moved to the country. It is too quiet though. How are we supposed to sleep with all this quiet?”
“I can’t get over how much space there is either. And did you see all the neighborhood kids out playing today? They looked like they were our kids’ ages. It is so nice to see kids out in the neighborhood.”
“I bet they probably know some good babysitters too.”
Cheryl chuckled. “You’re right. I can’t wait to invite all of the parents over for drinks. You know, I bet there are a lot of young families out here. With the kids and all. And they have a neighborhood pool. Oh, Randy, Julia, Jenn, and Paul are going to love that. And Noah, too, once he is bigger.”
“It’ll be great. I can already tell.”
Of course, money was still an issue. They had to scrape it together where they could, not wasting anything. Every drop of gas was precious. Shower time had to be provisioned among the seven of them, with close attention to the use of hot water. Julia still could not attend advanced math classes because there was no way to travel to a different school every afternoon. Nonetheless, they weren’t fretting the challenges ahead of them just yet: their budget, the long commutes to work, and Randy’s appointments at the Colorado Hearing and Speech Center in Southeast Denver. Rather, they all anticipated that spring, when they would be fully moved into their new home in the suburbs, where Randy, Julia, Jennifer, Paul, Noah, and eventually Jill and Haileigh would be able to play and explore in the yard and throughout the neighborhood with the other kids.
Life was bound to change, and a family that was used to growing pains knew that it was part of the deal. Their Hispanic friends and neighbors from Tejon, with whom they would play cards and drink beer on weekends, stopped visiting. Cheryl worried that her friends believed that the family had sold out by moving to the suburbs. Of course, they still came for baptisms, communions, and other important family parties, but it was just not the same. Cheryl and Sam also found a huge difference in community activism. In the city, anyone with an interest and a willingness to work was accepted to the cause and could quickly climb the ladder. Out in the suburbs, there were fewer organizations, and involvement was more competitive because everyone wanted to give their free time to volunteer in the schools, churches, and food banks. Cheryl and Sam’s political life changed as well. Two of the most adamant young Democrats in North Denver left the party in the wake of the Roe v. Wade court ruling, when they were told that they were not true Democrats if they did not believe in abortion. Their faith led them to be shut out, and they were forced to adapt once more.
After adjusting to a hectic urban life, Cheryl found returning to the suburbs truly bizarre. It took a while to get used to the free time; however, she soon learned to embrace her new lifestyle as a stay-at-home mom like all the other moms in the neighborhood. They had a babysitting co-op, and Cheryl and Sam and their kids all found friends their own age. It was dreamlike for Cheryl—an extended vacation from the hardship and need she had witnessed in Denver. The family became outside observers of the transformations happening in the city, experiencing it all from a commuter’s distance.
∗ ∗ ∗
Today, my grandmother, Cheryl Atencio, is still passionate and spirited. She is a loving matriarch. She leads her large family of seven children and thirteen grandchildren and our combination of fair-skinned redheads and olive-skinned, dark-haired cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents. In Countryside, our family is still growing and changing: some kids leaving, some moving back, and now some grandchildren growing up in that very same neighborhood. For us grandkids, we have always known that we belong together, and the idea that we all came from a mixed marriage would never have occurred to us. However, my mom, Julia, and my grandma still take occasional trips to Denver, which bring back memories of those tumultuous times and give them an awareness of the many changes their communities have undergone.
∗ ∗ ∗
Cheryl gasped. “Julia, Julia, slow down. Do you remember when we used to live here on Perry Street? Probably not. We lived in that house behind someone’s back yard, behind their plot. It was before the house on Tejon. Goodness, do you see that house? It is huge! I have never seen such a large house on Perry Street before. But, you know, even down at the Sunnyside projects they are tearing down the plots and building an up-and-coming neighborhood.”
“Wow. Look, it’s for sale. Let’s stop and grab a flyer. Maybe they have an open house, too.”
“Oh, do you think Maggie will be upset if we are late to pick her up? It is almost noon.”
“Nah, she won’t care. She has things to do on campus anyway. Let’s take a look. They must have torn down one of the old houses. I think this new one takes up two of the original plots.”
“You know, your dad wrote a grant once to tear down some of the dilapidated houses. He wanted to use the space for the whole community, though. Maybe a community garden or playground or something. He just wanted to open up more space for everyone. It was so cramped here, you wouldn’t believe it.”
“That must have been a long time ago. I don’t think I remember that.”
“It might have been before you were born. Or you could have been a toddler.”
“I wish I remembered that. What I do remember is taking the bus for what seemed like forever. That was terrible. You know, Maggie still jokes about how I can’t spell some words. One time, she asked how to spell “squirrel,” and I just said, ‘squa-errl.’ It’s too bad I missed all those phonics lessons.”
Cheryl paused. “Yeah, that was a crazy time for us. At least we had the chance to move. I mean, the time to do those things is when you are young. Things get complicated as you get older. Do as much as you can when you have the energy and the time. That’s what I say.”
Images provided by author.
A NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR
When I received the assignment to write a historical narrative for my Honors Writing and Rhetoric course: Human Rights, Humans Write, I dove into the most human histories that I knew: those of my family. Perhaps it was an excuse to explore the stories that were shared around the table at family dinners. Nonetheless, I discovered the importance of the small stories contained in our individual lives and how they open up pathways into our shared history.
I will admit that there were some self-indulgent motivations behind this piece. In the name of research, I was able to interview my grandmother and discover details about her life I had not heard before. I called her on the phone, emailed her, and spent time at her house cooking with her. I was given special access to her collection of family photos and newspaper clippings, and through these I was able to share in the experiences of my family.
Beyond a new appreciation for all the experiences and hard work of my grandparents, my greatest take-away from this process is that there is no such thing as a mundane life. No person’s story is too “ordinary.” The amazing narratives of history are lived out in the everyday lives of normal people. From this, I learned that you can never know someone too well. As you delve further into the details of someone’s history, you start to find important novelties. It took me 19 years to fully uncover this part of my family’s past, and I am well aware that there is so much more to discover in their stories. I hope to carry these lessons with me, and I believe that these messages are at the core of my work as a student, reader, and writer.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Maggie Sava is a sophomore studying English and Art History in the class of 2018. She is from Westminster, Colorado. She enjoys reading, fashion, tennis, museums, art, and road trips. Maggie is also a huge fan of Fall Out Boy and tried to go see them at Magness Arena for her first concert. Unfortunately, she got sick just before the show, and although she insisted on going and convinced her mom she felt fine, she only made it long it enough to see the Plain White T’s. Maggie ended up going to the hospital, where she discovered that she had appendicitis and went into emergency surgery at 1am. She lived but has still, regrettably, never seen Fall Out Boy in concert.