The University of Colorado's predominantly white campus was a culture shock for Ashly Villa-Ortega.
Now a senior, she began studying at CU in the fall of 2015, mere months after Donald Trump announced his candidacy for president. She wanted to get involved somehow, because his vitriolic rhetoric upset her, and she was overwhelmed by the lack of diversity on campus as compared to the Denver schools she'd attended.
She found a student group that offered the solidarity and shared purpose she sought. She joined UMAS y MEXA — a merged organization of the United Mexican American Students and the Movimiento Estudiantil Chincanx de Aztlán, with a mission to engage, empower, and educate Chicano and Chicana students. That October, when CU hosted the GOP debate, she protested with the organization's members and others on Farrand Field, the students' black outfits punctuated by red berets.
Nearly three years later, on a cool night last month, she stood before a packed Chautauqua Community House to welcome the crowd to the first of a trio of events she helped plan to mark the 50th anniversary of UMAS' existence on campus.
Although CU's UMAS chapter might seem diminished in that it is the last remaining chapter of a national organization, members say the work it does remains critical for inclusion and retention of Chicano students at CU, some of whom said they'd feel unwelcome there otherwise.
"The group was addressing everything that I was wanting," Villa-Ortega, now the organization's co-chairwoman, said about her decision to join UMAS y MEXA. "It was being civically engaged, and it was also trying to fight back against any rhetoric that was against any part of my identity, and also many of the other members as well.
"It also seemed to provide a space for us on campus where I was starting to feel like there really wasn't one."
Creating their space
That lack of space for Chicano students was painfully evident during the 1967-68 academic year, when only 28 Mexican-American students attended CU full-time, according to a report in the university's archives.
At the beginning of the next academic year, a group of Chicano students founded UMAS at CU. They drew inspiration from the UMAS organizations sprouting in California and Texas, and they organized amid the national turmoil of the late 1960s.
UMAS quickly became a powerhouse driving the recruitment and retention of Chicano students, not just at CU, but at institutions across the state, former members and founders said. Beginning in its early years, it was an Educational Opportunity Program administered through the university, which would become a point of tension for members who said administrators often implemented policies for those programs without first consulting program staff or members.
In those early years, UMAS members spent their evenings, weekends and spring breaks returning to their communities, meeting younger Chicano students and convincing them they had a place at CU. They advanced a slate of candidates for the student government, formed coalitions with other student organizations and created a welcoming enclave on campus.
In 1969, they proposed a student fee referendum — $5 per semester, per student — to fund scholarships for minority students for 10 years, and the student body approved it.
"This was a very focused effort to bring diverse populations and Chicanos into higher education to open up an avenue of success in society in the future," said Lorenzo Trujillo, a former member who went on to be a lawyer. "... The numbers had increased substantially, and opportunity was provided for students to get a university education and enter into the American workforce ... to pursue the American Dream of having a successful life.
"Without education, it's not possible."
A letter in a 1970 packet provided to UMAS students noted that "one of the long term goals of the UMAS-EOP Program in bringing Chicano students to the University of Colorado is to provide them with the educational tools necessary to bring about significant and enduring changes in the social system of Colorado and the United States. But, during this process it is considered of high priority to keep the Chicano students aware of the beauty of their culture so that they will not lose it as payment for their education."
"We brought our culture with us," said Deborah Espinosa, a former member who went on to be a historian and teacher, among other things. "We brought our music. We brought our food.
"We learned the system of the university and the funding, and we funded our programs to have conferences, to bring poets in, to bring musicians in," she said. "We gave a flavor to the university that they never had before."
Juan Espinosa founded El Diario de la Gente, a CU Chicano student newspaper, because of what he described as inaccurate and unkind coverage from the region's television stations and newspapers, including the Daily Camera. A 1972 El Diario article describes news reports with distorted facts and a focus on the tactics of student activists, rather than the issues being protested, such as lack of parity, the concept that the portion of Chicano students at CU should mirror that of the Chicano population in the state.
"They report what television viewers have become accustomed to, Chicanos marching and chanting 'Chicano Power,'" the article said.
"We chose to tell our own story," Juan Espinosa said.
Students aligned with the United Farm Workers; organized boycotts of nonunion lettuce and grapes in the University Memorial Center, a major campus hub; and marched on Regent Hall with demands for a Chicano studies program and an administration plan to reach parity.
David Antonio Garcia described the CU UMAS chapter of the late 1960s and early 1970s as a dynamic, multidimensional organization: "It was a very sophisticated organization, had hands reaching out to Denver and beyond."
By 1971, there were hundreds of Chicano students on campus; Juan Espinosa said the number topped 1,000. A university administrator credited UMAS, as well as other minority student groups on campus, with sparking a remarkable effort to recruit minority and disadvantaged students, according to the university report — but the growth was not without backlash.
The late Ricardo Falcon, a founding member of UMAS who is considered a martyr for the Chicano movement, went on to become the assistant director of the program, but he was placed on a 90-day probation when administrators accused him of threatening a student, a charge the student denied, according to the university report. Falcon was fired in the spring of 1972, after an audit of the program but for officially unspecified reasons. According to the archives of La Cucaracha, a Chicano newspaper Juan and Deborah Espinosa founded in Pueblo, Falcon was fired because of his support of Chicano rights and affirmative action.
UMAS members protested his firing, and the following two years ushered in increased tension between the university and the organization, as students said they felt they were losing control of the group they'd built and encountered problems with the payment of their financial aid packages.
Tensions escalated until May 1974, when students occupied Temporary Building 1 — still standing on campus today — to demonstrate for increased student control of the program. Their occupation lasted 19 days.
"My personal theory is that the rapid growth really shocked the university," Juan Espinosa said. "... I don't know if you understand what a privilege we felt it was to attend that university. To be rejected by that university was crushing."
That same month, two car bombs exploded at Chautauqua Park and on 28th Street. The blasts killed six students and activists, including UMAS members, who were in the cars. Authorities speculated that the victims had accidentally detonated the bombs, but UMAS members said that wasn't true and that they'd been targeted for their high-profile work in the Chicano movement.
"I just feel like the burden of these explosions has been on the students, and a stigma on UMAS, when I think it should be reflected on the university," Deborah Espinosa said. "(The university) made a lot of mistakes, when they really had some wonderful leadership and wonderful students, highly motivated and ready to go to work. We did, and now we can reflect back on what happened and our experience there. It is bittersweet, but we're very proud."
A university spokeswoman said the era was marked by political and social turmoil, and the early 1970s saw increased levels of student activism at universities across the country.
"We cannot speak for the administrators who were here nearly five decades ago, but we can say that student leaders from that time spurred changes that are still being felt today," spokeswoman Deborah Mendez-Wilson wrote in an email. "UMAS and other student groups served as the impetus for universities and colleges across the country to launch greater outreach, recruitment and educational programs to support historically underrepresented students.
"By the late '70s, CU Boulder had started offering its first ethnic studies courses," she wrote. "Today, our ethnic studies department is one of only four nationwide offering doctoral programs. What continues to resonate today is that CU Boulder is committed to building a more diverse and inclusive campus community for students of all backgrounds, including students who identify as Latino, Latina, Latinx, Chicano, Chicana, Chicanx and Hispanic."
Despite the devastation of the bombings, UMAS was able to effect a multi-generational ripple of education through the Colorado community, former members said.
"Most of us are now retiring, but we lived what UMAS espoused: Get your education, return to your communities and do work for your communities," Juan Espinosa said of UMAS founders and leaders.
Flo Hernandez-Ramos, another former member who later helped found and lead public radio station KUVO, added, "We can now see the fruits of our struggles. We have a lot of Latino lawyers and politicians and people who were educated and people who have become doctors, and that was what we were striving for."
"We've got a long way to go, but we've come a long way"
Back at the first UMAS anniversary celebration, crickets chirped, and a cool breeze danced across the porch, where the overflow crowd sat, and through the open doors into the Chautauqua Community House.
Fifty years after the founding of UMAS and 44 years after the bomb blasts, community members and both current and former UMAS members mingled before a screening of "Symbols of Resistance," a film exploring the martyrs of the Chicano movement.
For many, including Juan Espinosa, the site of the event was poignant.
"It was rewarding to see a large crowd, and not necessarily a Chicano crowd, at Chautauqua for the viewing," he said, referring to it as the site of one of the bombings that killed six Chicano activists and students. "The location is what made the moment."
The group reflected on the history of UMAS and where it's headed now. Philip Hernandez, one of the founders, said he hopes to impart to students that they have a foundation on which to build.
"We've got a long way to go, but we've come a long way," he said.
The next night, people gathered at Norlin Libraryfor a curated display and photo show, and afterward they rallied at Temporary Building 1, the site of the 1974 demonstration.
And on the final night, people danced, played music and performed at Su Teatro Cultural and Performing Arts Center in Denver.
"People do want their history preserved," said Linda Arroyo-Holmstrom, who serves on the Chautauqua board of directors and helped the students organize the events. "They do want people to know that they are a viable part of this community and have always been in the history of Colorado, even before it was a state, especially Latinos."
Megan Friedel, the new head of CU's archives, is working to collect UMAS historical documents and artifacts in the archives. She helped the students compile the anniversary photo exhibit, and she envisions forming an advisory committee with current and former UMAS members to oversee future collection development work. The bulk of UMAS' records have been stored for years at the archives on the Colorado State University-Pueblo campus.
"The decision was made that that would be a safer environment in which to tell that story," she said, adding that she's issued an apology on behalf of the archives because not all of UMAS' early members considered it a place where they could tell their story.
Friedel said she has worked with UMAS members who have concerns, and she is committed to creating a respectful, safe space within the archives for the organization's history to be documented.
"It is a really important part of Colorado history, even beyond the university," she said.
Today, 11.4 percent of CU's student body is Latino/Hispanic students, according to 2018 fall census numbers. Current UMAS members still talk about the idea of parity. In 2017, an estimated 21.5 percent of the state's population was Latino/Hispanic people. They also talk about the continued work needed to make the university welcoming to all.
Amairany Casillas-Alcala, the other co-chair of the organization, said her first year at CU in particular was lonely because she felt like she needed to change to fit in with those around her, she said.
Teresa Hernandez, a former UMAS member and current CU staff member and UMAS adviser, said underrepresented students don't always feel reflected by the CU or Boulder communities.
Johanna Maes, a senior instructor in the School of Education and visiting ethnic studies lecturer, said CU's culture is still hostile to students of color, but pockets of work on campus are making it better.
"It's ironic that we exist in a university that I don't feel values the same thing that we do," Maes said. "There's pockets of programs and departments on our campus that I feel are similar, but it's not across the board, and I think it's going to be a long time before it becomes that way."
She said the next university president — whom the regents are in the process of selecting now — will have a critical effect on the culture of the university system and each of its campuses.
Mendez-Wilson, the CU spokeswoman, pointed to ongoing work to reduce financial and other barriers for under-represented students, including: the four-year tuition guarantee that locks in rates for incoming students; the CU Promise program, which covers the cost of tuition and fees for incoming Pell Grant recipients; growing investment in financial aid programs; the First Generation Grant; need-based institutional aid for undocumented students; and the LEAD Alliance program, which provides participation scholarships in combination with academic and social support to increase student success.
CU is committed to building a more diverse and inclusive campus community for students of all backgrounds, she said, and over the past 10 years CU has seen a 100 percent increase in the number of first-year Latino, Latina and Latinx students.
"It is disappointing to know that some of our students have faced discrimination or have felt unwelcome anywhere on our campus," she said. "We encourage any students who believe they have faced discrimination to report such instances to the Office of Institutional Equity and Compliance. (That department) can assist in finding resolutions and connecting students to additional resources. Our Don't Ignore It campaign also encourages students to consider reporting instances of discrimination and harassment."
David Aragon, CU's assistant vice chancellor for diversity, learning and student success, said UMAS has a special and unique history on campus and it has the university's support as it adapts to the contemporary challenges students face.
Casillas-Alcala said she's passionate about UMAS and honoring its legacy before she graduates in May.
"We're still trying to carry out that legacy that other students left for us and trying our best so that students who are in the same boat feel comfortable enough to be a part of higher education, whether it be at CU or not," Casillas-Alcala said.
"Empowerment through education is one of the greatest tools we have to better ourselves, our communities, and, overall, the world."
Cassa Niedringhaus: 303-473-1106, firstname.lastname@example.org