Moises Sandoval
Moises Sandoval

Fellowship Title:

Latinization in Brighton: A Painful Odyssey

Moises Sandoval
December 29, 1977

Fellowship Year

One day this past fall in Brighton, Colo., Police Officer Rudy Vialpando went to investigate a complaint that a resident was burning trash in violation of city ordinances. The officer, according to his sergeant, told the offender, an Anglo, that he would have to give him a citation. The Anglo replied:

“You write me a citation! A Mexican write me a citation! You know, if it were not for me, your parents probably wouldn’t have survived because it was persons like me who put your mother and father to work.”

Around the same time, Brighton held a City Council election which pitted an Anglo against an Hispano, Max Rodriguez, in one ward. Terry Lucero, an honors graduate of Brighton High School who is now director of a recreation center, stood outside the polls all day and counted Anglos and Hispanos. At the time the polls closed his tally showed 20 more Anglos than Hispanos. Immediately, he informed Rodriguez: “You lost by 20 votes.” The count revealed that Rodriguez lost by 17!

These incidents show that in Brighton, a farm-market town of 13,500 inhabitants 20 miles north of Denver, name and color of skin weigh heavily in the way people think and act. After more than half a century of daily interaction between the Hispanic and Anglo communities, Brighton has yet to overcome prejudice. A mayor’s committee which reviewed relations between the two communities following a violent confrontation between the police and Chicanos in 1974, concluded:

“It has become evident that the tensions that Brighton faces now and has faced in the past have a very deep and significant background, i. e. prejudices that exist both in the Anglo community and in the Chicano community.” The committee added that “prejudice was evident not only in the Police Department but in the general citizenry as well.”

Brighton was settled by German and Russian immigrants. The first homesteaders arrived after 1859. When the railroad went through in 1871, the village developed around a station stop. Incorporation occurred in 1887. The Germans and Russians were followed by Italians and Japanese, the latter arriving after 1900. The Hispanic people, most of whom were from southern Colorado and New Mexico plus a scattering of Mexican immigrants, first appeared in the 1920s. They soon became the largest minority, now 30 percent of the city’s population.

The Hispanics did not come uninvited; they were recruited aggressively. And the dynamic in operation was the same one which even now moves people northward from the Southwest and from across the border: they were needed for labor no one else wanted to do. Yet the people who performed that labor were not welcomed.

The one pivotal event which led to large-scale immigration of Hispanics to Brighton and other South Platte Valley agricultural areas occurred in 1866. That year, according to Dr. James S. Taylor’s landmark study of Mexican labor in the U.S., sugar beets were grown experimentally for the first time in the Platte Valley. However, it was not until Congress passed a protective tariff in 1897 that the industry began to flourish. Beginning with Loveland in 1900, sugar factories began to go up in many small Valley towns. The Brighton factory went up in 1917, the same year that Kuner-Empson Canning Co. moved to Brighton. Together, these two industries created a market for large numbers of farm laborers.

Beet-growing requires labor which Taylor described as disagreeable, dirty, monotonous and repetitive. Thinning forced the worker to crawl on all fours. Hoeing and topping had to be done in a bent posture. The work day was 12 hours long and the heat of summer — I can testify from personal experience — was searing. The gaps in beet operations were filled by picking peas, beans and cucumbers for pickles. So the sugar factories and canneries were complementary industries.

Recruited by scores of labor contractors who combed through the barrios of the Southwest, distributed thousands of booklets published in Spanish and paid the fares for workers, the Hispanos came in massive numbers. For instance, fares were paid for 14,500 persons who came to the Platte Valley by train, or auto from 18 states in 1926, according to Taylor. By 1944 in the Brighton area alone, there were jobs for 3,400 farm workers, wrote local editor W. Carl Dorr. Among the earliest arrivals to the Brighton area was Lee Montoya, of Cimarron, New Mexico, who first came with his family to work in the beet fields in 1929 when he was 12 years old.

“The discrimination and segregation were so great that there were signs on the doors of barbershops, cafes and stores which read, ‘White trade only,'” recalled Mr. Montoya, now a garage owner in Brighton. However, other Platte Valley towns were no less prejudiced. Taylor, in a volume published in 1932, quoted a local observer: “There is no place for a Mexican to eat in Longmont except at the Mexican billiard hall…A Greek proprietor ordered out of his restaurant a descendant of the old Spanish American family for which one of the counties of Colorado is named.” Still, Brighton was the only town with deed restrictions. They read: “These lots shall not be sold to people of the colored race or to people we know as Mexicans.” The objective, once Hispanics started settling in Brighton, was to keep them in their own part of town — an unpaved section in the northeast side.

Little had changed when my family moved to Brighton in 1944. Hispanics were segregated in the local theater and in the schools. Only exceptional students could advance to the Anglo classrooms. Violence between the two communities had been common since the beginning and, even in the 1950s, it was not always safe to walk the streets. One of my brothers was badly beaten by a carload of Anglos he had never seen. Fortunately, the situation was beginning to improve by then. A young Anglo who knew our family witnessed the beating and reported the license number of the assailants car to the police. They were convicted of assault.

But the dream of segregation lingered. Lee Montoya, who was the first Hispano to serve on the City Council, recalled: “Businessmen, one of them a banker, came to me trying to sell the idea that we should move the Spanish people a mile out of town and help them to build a community out there. The businessmen said: ‘Your people should be segregated by themselves. That way you could be together.”‘ By then — the 1950s — Hispanics had been able to buy or rent in many parts of town. They wanted no part of such a scheme.

Already, the Hispanics were beginning to glimpse new promise in themselves which the Anglo traditionally did not recognize. Taylor quotes a beet grower in the South Platte Valley in the 1920s: “The Mexicans are an inferior race and we mustn’t expect them to move up the scale in less than three or four generations.” I heard a similar assessment in the mid-1940s: “The Mexican is incapable of anything beyond common labor,” said our employer one time as he surveyed his pickers. Yet, even then the Hispanics were walking off the fields for better jobs.

The farm workers began drifting away with the outbreak of World War II as labor shortages forced employers to forget their prejudices. In 1944, many fathers were already working in the meat-packing houses in Denver, on the railroads, government or war industries while their wives and children remained in the fields. Returning soldiers brought new skills or acquired them under the G. I. Bill. They were in no mood to return to the fields.

The growers then got Braceros from Mexico. In 1945, 500 German war prisoners and 525 Jamaicans were also in the Brighton area, according to Dorr. When the much extended Bracero program ended in 1964, the growers were left with migrants and Indians. But each fall that the migrant stream recedes southward, some are left behind and these try to get into other employment. In 1977, the migrants’ earnings were so low that 10,000 did not make enough to return to Texas, reported the Colorado Migrant Council.

Mechanization has greatly reduced the number of farm jobs. Machines now top beets and pick peas and beans. In 1977, according to the Brighton Job Center, there were 1,800 field workers in the area. That is 52 percent of the number present in 1944. However, the field workers today are all migrants, according to the employment service — 1,300 Mexican Americans from Texas and 500 Kickapoo Indians who have dual citizenship by treaty in both the U.S. and Mexico. Of those who toiled in the fields in the 1940s and 1950s, all are gone. Lee Montoya, who served 22 years on the Brighton City Council and whose wife works in a migrant education program, says he does not know of any who still work in the fields.

I recently spent three weeks seeking out my co-workers and everyone I found had improved his or her social and economic condition. This is as true of those who got an education as it is of those who didn’t. For instance, Tony Trujillo, a husky construction foreman, talks somewhat ruefully about his lack of education. But he lives in a large, tastefully furnished split-level home. The pickup and car in the driveway are not old. His wife works at the check-out counter of a Safeway supermarket and his comely daughter, June, has just opened her own barbershop, named Vanishing Locks, with a substantial loan cosigned by her father.

The former pickers of Brighton have scattered as far north as Montana and as far south as Santiago, Chile and from New York to San Francisco. Among them, I found a dentist, a college vice president, an assistant dean of students at a university, a few college professors, many teachers, several school administrators, a home-building contractor, a few tradesmen, several store managers, barbers, beauty shop operators, restaurant owners and landscapers. At least two of these alumni of the fields have their Ph.D.’s and dozens have master’s degrees. A surprising number of these former field workers or their children have married Anglos.

Brighton, however, seems to have taken little notice of this progress. In W. Carl Dorr’s, Looking Back, a booklet billed as an historical account of the development of Brighton and its surrounding community from 1859-1976, the Hispanics are mentioned on only two of the booklet’s 64 pages and that lone article attempts to cover the history of the Spanish-speaking people from Don Juan de Onate’s entry into New Mexico in 1593 to the present time.

Similarly, Brighton does not reflect a degree of latinization proportionate to the number of Hispanic people in the city. A consultant hired to study ways to alleviate community tensions said:

“Spanish surnamed citizens are grossly under-represented both in the City Council, and in city employment as well as in managerial positions; consequently, they have very little voice in city government.” Similar observations were made about the absence of Hispanos in the school system and in county employment.

Progress has been made in the past three years. But the city’s affirmative action report issued on March 15, 1977, shows that only 12 of 81 city employees are minority males and only five are minority women. Most of these employees are in lower level jobs. Only one of seven city councilmen is Spanish surnamed. The same ratio applies on the Board of Education. Dr. Wilbur Hawkins, the superintendent of schools, has made an aggressive effort to increase the number of Chicano teachers in the school system — the area’s largest industry, with an annual budget of $9 million. He has been able to increase the percentage of certified Hispanic teachers from 4.8 in 1975 to 12 in 1977. But that’s not even half the number of Hispanic teachers there should be in the system to be proportional to the Latin enrollment of 25 percent.

The City Council also established a Community Relations Commission to deal with tensions between the Anglo and Hispanic communities and between the Hispanics and government, especially police authorities. Police Chief Don Jarvis is credited with having done much to eliminate bias in his department after some initial troubles when he first took office in 1973. The city also began contributing $5,000 toward the operation of a recreation center utilized almost exclusively by Spanish-surnamed youth and allocated to the center one of the municipal job slots authorized by the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, a federal program. But much remains to be done.

Even the parish council of St. Augustine Catholic Church lacks a majority of Hispanics even though they are over 50 percent of the parishioners. Father James Purfield, the pastor, indicates that tensions exist there too. One source of irritation is a Mariachi choir, which plays and sings Spanish hymns in two of the main Sunday masses each month. Another is the use of the former church, left vacant when a new one was built a few years ago. The Brown Berets, a Chicano organization, have been using part of it as a cultural and recreation center for Hispanos and some of the Anglo parishioners object to that. Also, there is a residue of bitterness from a 1973 confrontation in which the Brown Berets occupied the new church to force the pastor and archdiocesan chancery to negotiate several issues. The resulting agreement included a commitment by the pastor to offer a weekly Mass in Spanish.

Hispanic leaders say that improvements are made only in response to confrontation or crisis. The same observation was made by outside consultants in the wake of the 1974 police-Chicano confrontation. Further, Chicano leaders say that the lessons learned from such painful experiences are quickly forgotten. For example, the city terminated its token funding of the Art Atencio recreation center at the end of 1977 despite the consultants’ insistence that recreation opportunities must be provided to keep the young people off the streets. Also, the City Council voted to reduce the budget of the Community Relations Commission and to curtail its freedom by placing it under the city manager, although the councilmen were finally persuaded to give the present arrangement another six-month trial.

Yet the troubles are not over. In the spring of 1977, cowboys — as Anglo high school students are called — and Chicanos fought each other outside the high school. Several police cruisers responded and quickly separated the combatants. However, some of the participants had to be maced. As the melee cleared, Sgt. Art Quintana said he found a youth choking on his own blood. However, prompt first aid saved his life. Charges were filed against seven combatants — four Chicanos and three Anglos.

Sgt. Quintana said the Police Department still receives calls asking: “Please send an officer to my home but don’t send a Mexican. I just don’t like Mexicans.” Similar calls are reported by the city manager and the superintendent of schools, said Sgt. Quintana, who heads the Police Department’s community service unit. Symptomatic of the polarization which still plagues the community is a statement by Ray Romero, assistant dean of special services at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley but a resident of Brighton. He states flatly that he has many good Anglo acquaintances but no real Anglo friends.

Nevertheless, hopeful things are happening in Brighton, and they involve Hispanos who began their working lives in the fields. At the high school, the principal — John Nuanes — knows the experience of the dropout first-hand. He quit the same school a few months before he was scheduled to graduate in 1947 and joined the Army. He says his parents were too poor to send him to college and he hoped to serve his hitch and then go to college through the G. I. Bill. Instead, he became a career soldier, serving 20 years, including a stint as a sergeant in Army intelligence. But during the last ten years he went to college at night and by the time he retired he had his degree. He carried mail for a while and then taught school, continuing his studies until he had a master’s degree in secondary school administration. Then he became an assistant principal and finally returned home to Brighton as the top administrator in the same high school where as a student he was refused admission to the Spanish Club because he was Hispanic. He also recalls having to wear bib overalls and being ostracized for it by his fellow students. “To this day,” he said recently, “I do not own a pair of jeans.” John has received praise from community leaders, both Anglo and Hispanic, for his firm but fair administration.

Art Quintana was a super militant, the founder in Brighton of the Brown Berets, the toughest of all Chicano organizations, and he was up front in many confrontations. Today he is a sergeant in the Police Department heading the community relations unit and is on the Board of Education. He began working in the fields at the age of four and, like other children of the poor, missed many days of school because he was needed to help supplement family earnings. At 16 he walked off the fields and began doing odd jobs in town — cleaning bars and restaurants. He also saw service in the Armed Forces as a desirable experience, but a few weeks after he joined the Marines his father died and he was given a hardship discharge so he could help his mother pay some large debts. No sooner had he paid off her bills by working in construction than he was drafted into the Army. After his discharge he went to college for three years, then worked as a recreation counselor and then joined the Brighton Police Department, where he has worked 5 _ years. A local bank tried to lure him away to take a very desirable position as a loan officer. After much soul searching, Sgt. Quintana decided he could best serve the community by remaining a police officer. The number of top city officials who sought to persuade him to stay, including the city manager and police chief, is an indication of the high regard in which Sgt. Quintana is held.

Joseph Garcia has probably done more to put Hispanic people to work than anyone else in Brighton. As the director of the Brighton Job Center, the local state employment office, this personable, aggressive young Chicano knows his people, actively seeks them out to put them to work and is constantly trying to open new opportunities. As a result he can take justifiable pride in an admirable unemployment rate of only 4.6 percent. Like the others, he started his life in the fields and went on to become an employment recruiter for the state employment service, combing through the Southwest in search of agricultural workers. He is proud that his staff is 85 percent Hispanic although he admits that disgruntled applicants have sometimes alleged reverse discrimination. However, he insists that his staff must be able to speak Spanish because of the large number of hispanic clients. Joe, 38, said he is the youngest person named to head a Colorado job center. His record in putting people to work is among the best in the state. He has enabled many people to get off welfare and into productive jobs. The keys to his success seem to be that he really loves his work and cares for the people.

Exciting things are also happening in the county courthouse, located in Brighton. Until recently one could see only token brown faces. Now they are in every department and on every county board or commission. One of them is Harold Suazo, who has a master’s degree in public administration and heads the Purchasing Department, the highest ranking county employee. The person achieving all these changes is a broad-shouldered, mustachioed Hispano named Pete Mirelez — the first Chicano ever elected to the Adams County Commission. Pete not only has the best educational and administrative background on the County Commission but is probably the best qualified person to run for county commissioner in Colorado, a job which does not pay enough to draw candidates with high education or top executive experience. Pete, a former potato harvester, has both. He is only a few credits shy of a master’s degree in psychology and is the former director of the Office of Economic Opportunity’s Migrant Division in Washington. He also was a local executive director of the War on Poverty, the founder and director of the Colorado Migrant Council and had his own management consulting firm. His Washington experience showed him, he said, how power is brokered and how the bureaucracy works — knowledge which is essential in getting support for local projects.

Since coming home to work at the local level, at substantially lower pay than he was getting in Washington, Pete has received several offers from the Carter administration. But he has turned them down because he feels he can be more effective on the local level and because he wants his children to grow up in an environment where they can be close to their roots.

It took all of the political savvy he acquired at the national level to win election in 1976 in a county where Hispanics are only 25 percent of the population and are still not fully accepted by the majority. He had to spend many times more money on the campaign ($15,000) than his opponent and other candidates. Yet, he won by less than one percent of the 75,000 votes cast. And Pete was the incumbent, having been appointed by the governor to fill an unexpired term. Had that not occurred, he doubts that he could have won.

He won through hard work, an intelligent strategy and an articulate presentation of his views. He went door-to-door twice and sent mailings to every voter, to say nothing of the many rallies he attended. However, the biggest winners were the Hispanic people so long kept out of county employment. Yet those he has supported for county jobs are not simply brown faces — they are the best qualified applicants.

Lee Montoya was the pioneer among Hispanics who have done well in Brighton. Invited by the city’s power structure to run for office in the 1950s, he served 11 terms on the City Council, including 10 years as assistant mayor. His proudest accomplishment was to bring city services to the northeast side of town where the Hispanics were concentrated. He said he went from door to door getting signatures on the petitions necessary and then fought hard to get them approved by the Council. He continues to serve on several city boards and is a respected leader. The city even named a park in his honor. Yet, he did not always have the same measure of acceptance. After he married and settled in Brighton in 1938, he went to a school for airplane mechanics in Kansas City. But when he graduated, he could not find a job. He went as far as Detroit and Buffalo, N. Y., on interviews, but everywhere he said the answer was the same: “We do not hire people of Mexican descent.” He finally succeeded in getting a job as a mechanic after World War II broke out and did the same kind of work in the Army, but when he returned home after the war prospective employers told him to go back to the fields. At the urging of his wife, who worked in the fields during the first lean years, he started his own auto repair shop. Now he has to turn business away and his customers are 75 percent Anglos.

Though the Anglo in Brighton has not yet fully accepted the Hispano, he certainly has acquired a yen for his food. There are four Mexican restaurants and a tortilla factory where a few years ago there were none. And the customers are just as likely to be Anglos as Hispanos. When I was in high school, my 9th grade civics teacher criticized people who ate tortillas as if eating them somehow made one a bad citizen! But last year, when the county fair for the first time featured a fiesta day, the three Mexican restaurants which had the food concession sold out all their spicy delicacies and the fiesta was the best-attended day of the fair. County Commissioner Mirelez said 500 came to the Mariachi Mass and 900 to the concluding dance.

IMAGEPete Mirelez
County Commissioner
IMAGEJohn Nuanes
High School Principal
IMAGELee Montoya
Community leader


Something else which has proved popular is the bilingual education program. Art Quintana said that at first there was the usual grousing by some of the Anglo parents. However, when they saw that the students were enthused, they bought the idea. A subsequent survey of parents showed that 82 percent favor bilingual education. Thus the school district has started a bilingual program even in two of the schools which by law were not required to have it.

Ironically, Spanish seems to be fading out even as the school authorities recognize its importance in educating Hispanic children. Ray Romero, who is as proud a Chicano as one can find and who has served his people in many ways, including the Board of Education and on the farm workers’ picket lines, admits that his children do not speak Spanish. The same is true of almost all of the families I visited.

Thus the two groups are finding common ground. “I feel,” says Ray Romero, “that the young Anglo is much more receptive to us as Chicanos, probably because we are much more Anglo than we were 30 years ago. I hope we don’t become completely like them, but we are learning many of their ways, traditions and values.”

Meanwhile, the human tide pressing against the border 700 miles to the south sends a steady rivulet of Hispanics to Brighton. They come because they find there an identifiable Hispanic culture where they can feel at home and because there is economic opportunity, especially in agri-business. But unlike native Hispanics, who took many years to move into the cities in many cases, the illegal alien takes only an average of three years to melt into the anonymity of the cities, according to officials at the Brighton job center. Business and industry, it seems, have discovered how to exploit the cheap labor of the aliens who have heretofore been agriculture’s exclusive property.

IMAGERay Romero
assistant dean
IMAGEJune Trujillo
barbershop owner
IMAGEJoseph Garcia
Job Center director


Received in New York on December 29, 1977


Moises Sandoval is an Alicia Patterson Foundation award winner on leave from Maryknoll Magazine. His fellowship subject is latinization in the U.S.: a study of the Hispanic population explosion and its implications for the nation’s foreign and domestic policies. This article may be published with credit to Mr. Sandoval as a Fellow of the Alicia Patterson Foundation and to Maryknoll Magazine. The views expressed by the author in this newsletter are not necessarily the views of the Foundation.