SF Heritage on the road: Latinos in Heritage Conservation’s Congreso 2022

May 6th, 2022 No Comments »

Congreso 2022 banner in the atrium of History Colorado.

By Kerri Young

For the first time since the start of the pandemic, I took SF Heritage on the road to attend Congreso 2022 in Denver, Colorado, a bi-annual gathering from Latinos in Heritage Conservation (LHC). Hosted at History Colorado on April 28-30, Congreso offered three days of rich content spotlighting efforts to preserve and protect Latinx heritage across the United States. The fourth since LHC’s founding in 2014, the gathering, according to the organization, provides “a forum to amplify regional efforts, successes as well as challenges, with the goal of building a culturally and geographically diverse movement for all American Latinxs.”

It was a privilege to gather with my SF Heritage predecessors Desiree Aranda and Laura Dominguez, who helped co-found LHC and now sit on its board of directors. In a session focused on the organization’s history and mission, Desiree described how, after attending a gathering hosted by Asian and Pacific Islander Americans in Historic Preservation (APIAHiP), she and Laura started envisioning what a network of Latinx heritage might look like, which set them on the road to what is now LHC. To me, this story exemplified how those taking charge of preserving the places important to their communities are inspiring one another, and the how gatherings like Congreso and APIA Historic Preservation Forum are providing crucial spaces for knowledge-sharing.

Issues facing Latinx place-based advocacy, Desiree enumerated, include practitioners working in silos, communities facing displacement, and Latinx sites not being recognized locally and nationally. LHC is already doing much to alleviate these issues and has more exciting things to come. This year, Sehila Mota Casper became LHC’s first official director and paid employee, after years of being a 100% volunteer-run organization.

Below are just a few scenes and reflections from my time at this exciting and inspiring gathering:

Posing with LHC co-founder Desiree Aranda (left).

Ladies of LHC: Valerie Delgadillo, Tiffany Narváez, and Sara Delgadillo.

Moving exhibits about El Movimiento & The Borderlands (in English and Spanish) at host-site History Colorado spotlighted stories of women amid the shifting geopolitical history of southern Colorado.

In her opening remarks, Executive Director of History Colorado Dawn diPrince highlighted the need to diversify state and national registers, citing a significant disparity between cultural group populations and their proportionate representation on the National Register of Historic Places. Likewise, only 3.9% of Denver’s state register focuses on BIPOC communities or women.

Desiree Aranda names a few examples of work around the country that have laid the groundwork for LHC’s Latinx preservation efforts, including SF Heritage’s 2013 Calle 24: Cuentos del Barrio.

  • Several speakers highlighted the importance of preserving legacy businesses and fostering community and culture through food and drink. In “Innovative Strategies to Preserve Denver’s Latino/a Heritage,” Northside Councilperson Amanda Sandoval talked about supporting Latinx legacy businesses amidst increasing gentrification and displacement, especially when many longtime business owners do not own their buildings, and in “Regional Perspectives: Cultural Landscapes, Environment, and Conservation,” the City of Tuscon’s Lane Santa Cruz talked about working with longtime business owners to protect and preserve Latino culinary heritage. Newer Latinx-owned businesses in Denver like Raíces Brewery are intentionally creating spaces for the community to gather, and VP of Development Tamil Maldonado shared the business’s goal of becoming a reference center for those interested in learning about Latin culture.

 

Lane Santa Cruz from the City of Tucson spoke about community challenges that came with Tucson being named UNESCO’s very first “City of Gastronomy” in 2015. This includes rising costs, leading to an increased risk of displacement for local Latinx legacy businesses. Similar to efforts in San Francisco to help preserve legacy businesses, Santa Cruz is working on creating micro loans for businesses and a model for supporting workers to carry on legacy businesses. La Doce Barrio Foodways and a Food Business Land Trust are other community-led initiatives in Tucson that are solutions for community agency. 

Dr. Sarah Bronin introduces former Secretary of the Interior and current Ambassador to Mexico, Ken Salazar, who addressed Congreso attendees virtually from Mexico City. When it comes to retaining identity, Salazar emphasized how “indifference is our greatest enemy.”

Lucha Martinez de Luna on preserving community murals in what is now La Alma Lincoln Park Cultural District.

  • In “Innovative Strategies to Preserve Denver Latino/a Heritage,” Lucha Martinez de Luna talked about the rich history of murals painted by the community in Denver’s La Alma-Lincoln Park. Painted starting in the 1960s, many are threatened and have been painted over, and the Chican@ Murals Project is actively working to preserve the murals that remain. Only a few days ago, on May 4, 2022, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named “Chicano/a/x community murals across Colorado” one of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in 2022, which will bring crucial visibility to this community effort.

 

  • Discussions covered local and national Latinx documentation projects, including the National Park Service’s Latino Theme Study and the City of Denver’s Nuestra Historias Context Study. In discussing the latter, Jenny Buddenborg reinforced the importance of historic context statements in helping to recognize places in Denver meaningful to the “Mexican American, Chicano, and Latino” community, and to guide more research and historic preservation work. However, multiple sessions also touched on the fear of documentation work ending up on the shelf and unaccessible. In “American Latino Heritage Initiative Retrospective,” Dr. Antonia Castañeda spoke about how, despite the incredible amount of work that went into the creation of NPS’s Latino Theme Study, the community does not currently know what is being done with it. “These government-led efforts do not necessarily help the community,” she said. She pointed to a historic site survey produced in the 1990s called “Five Views,” which included documentation on 100 sites in California significant to the history of Mexican-Americans. When Dr. Castañeda and her fellow scholars revisited it twenty-five years later in their research for the Theme Study, most of its 100 sites had been lost. However, in “Democratizing and Documenting Latinx Heritage,” Laura Dominguez discussed an LHC initiative called the Abuelas Project that is helping to remedy this accessibility issue. One of the project’s goals, Dominguez said, is creating a clearinghouse “to gather documentation in one place and hold city and state leaders accountable to help use,” including theme studies, surveys, nominations, etc.

Laura Dominguez on the beginnings of LHC’s Abuelas Project, a multi-year preservation initiative to collect, curate, and amplify stories about places that matter to Latinx communities in the U.S. and Puerto Rico: “We wanted to create an accessible archive.” 

Raúl Grijalva, Third Congressional District of Arizona and Chair of the House Natural Resources Committee: “The role of historic preservation is to keep truth alive…there is nothing wrong with letting that truth be told..as our [Latinos] role increases, so does our responsibility.”

Words from several speakers highlighted learnings and challenges in their work.

On what can other communities learn from their projects:

Jenny Buddenborg: Historic context statements assist in citywide surveys, and can be replicated in other communities. Community engagement undertaken in Denver’s survey can also be replicated.

Annie Levinsky, Historic Denver: “The community is fatigued. The [La Alma-Lincoln Park] historic district was a five year process, but we have to find ways to take burden off communities… we can’t expect people who have jobs and lives to dedicate the time to these efforts.” Cultural district efforts have been more successful as it’s more of a community effort rather than fighting individual buildings.

Lucha Martinez: “I would encourage people to slow down, even though there is a sense of urgency and people wanting to be “woke.” If we slow things down, we are going to hear stories we haven’t heard before. If not you will hear from the same people and the same stories…this takes time.”

On getting into leadership positions to affect change:

Amanda Sandoval: “We need champions and awareness in public office to help get things done, and we need more tools in our preservation tool box.”

Belinda Faustinos, a member of the American Latino Scholars Expert Panel that advised the creation of NPS’s Latino Theme Study: “Until you are in the position to make sure that change can happen, it can’t happen…you need to find the champions that can help get things done…need to influence local officials to affect change.”

Dr. Estevan Rael-Gálvez, also on the expert panel: “By changing the board you change the policy.”

Dr. Antonia: “The local level is the first level of resistance…most people are not trained in historic preservation, so it’s a challenge. We have to educate people who work for the city, state, etc.”

Beatriz Soto, Protégete, Conservation Colorado: “We need faces like ours in decision-making bodies. Look at the boards and commissions in your town, your expertise is needed, we need the leadership of Latinos. It’s not just running for office…yes YOU have the expertise.”

Ean Tafoya of Green Latinos: “I agree that people should try to get on boards, but also these people need to be paid. People deserve to be compensated. We created an environmental justice fund -though small, it’s a symbol of support for community. We paid people for focus groups. These consultants for government get paid thousands of dollars for the same poor work, and they then say “who should I reach out to?” Are we going to keep hiring the same consultants? Maybe it’s not just Latinos you have to reach out to to get across the finish line, you need to reach across cultural groups to create allies.”

On intangible cultural heritage:

  • A focus of the sessions was Denver’s La Alma-Lincoln Park, the city’s newest historic cultural district and a milestone on the local level for preserving Denver’s Latino/a and Chicano/a heritage. One of Denver’s oldest residential neighborhoods, it was home to many important events and leaders connected to the Chicano Movement. In “Innovative Strategies to Preserve Denver Latino/a Heritage,” Historic Denver’s Annie Levinsky talked about how the period of significance for the district, 1870s-1980, which is unusually long in order to cover the wide range of architectural and cultural histories there. Community engagement included creating flyers to distribute throughout the community, and Historic Denver hired consultants to create a context statement for community. The organization partnered with the City of Denver to write the application for cultural district designation; predating this was work to revise historic designation guidelines to include cultural significance. The Lincoln Park area had been surveyed before, but like many San Francisco city landmarks and historic districts, documentation focused mainly on architecture and not on sites of cultural significance to the Latino community. Keys to the cultural district’s success included:
    • Deep outreach and community partnerships
    • Long period of significance (1870-1980)
    • Inclusive interpretation of integrity (include all the layers of change on buildings, that is how community used the buildings!)
    • Application of new cultural significance criteria
    • Development of custom design guidelines that embrace the layers of change (so community could continue to use the buildings as they want to be used)

Annie Levinsky: “We can bend preservation tools to have them do what the community wants them to do…we learned that the tools didn’t bend as much as we had hoped to protect murals in La Alma-Lincoln Park, but it moved the needle.” 

Exploring La Alma-Lincoln Park was one of two field sessions offered to Congreso attendees, and I enjoyed going out into the sunshine for a special walking tour with Levinsky and other speakers.

Lucha Martinez de Luna describing an endangered mural on the side of Denver Inner City Parish, across the street from La Alma-Lincoln Park.

The family of La Alma Lincoln Park resident Cathy Prieto welcomed the LHC group to their home with water, pan dulce, and other sweet breads.

Lucha Martinez describes the “La Alma” mural, a centerpiece of the local park that was painted by her father Emanuel Martinez in 1978.

Finding a small mural in La Alma Lincoln Park neighborhood depicting the concha (“shell” in Spanish), a symbol used by LHC for its logo.

Overall, Congreso exemplified the importance and urgent need to preserve and protect the heritage of our country’s cultural communities, including Latinx communities. The conference, as LHC’s board co-chair Dr. Sarah Gould asserted at the gathering’s opening, is about “asserting our rights of belonging,” and Congreso’s sessions illuminated the role that historic preservation is playing and can play in these efforts. Congratulations to LHC for organizing a fantastic gathering!

Gratitude shared with new LHC Executive Director Sehila Mota Casper, at Congreso’s closing reception at the Museum de las Americas in Denver. 

With new friends including Roselia Banuelos and Mikaela Selly.

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