- Nathaniel Minor
- Listen To The Story
Just a few years before Corky Gonzales started his Crusade for Justice for Denver’s Chicanos, Jennie Sanchez was just trying to get her kid brother into a proper first-grade classroom in Center, Colorado.
The town of about 2,000 sits deep in the heart of the rural San Luis Valley, about four hours southwest of Denver. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, Mejicanos, as Sanchez and other long-time Hispanic residents refer to themselves, weren’t allowed into the Anglo first-grade classroom. Instead, they were relegated to the “baby class” underneath a staircase where they drew in coloring books most of the day.
Sanchez, a high school dropout herself before eventually earning her GED, knew the value of a good education. She was determined to get her brother out of that class, and that meant a trip to the superintendent.
“I marched myself into that classroom,” said Sanchez, who at 85 still calls Center home. “And I said, ‘This is my brother and he does not want to be in baby class. And he's not gonna be in baby class.’ ”
It was a radical thing for a Mejicano to do at the time. Most worked for Anglo farmers in the fields that surround Center. “We were totally segregated and treated like second-class citizens,” Sanchez said.
The next day, the superintendent told Sanchez that her brother would move to the upstairs classroom. It was an early win for Sanchez, and two other Mejicano families who made similar requests. It set the stage for decades of political battles that, for a time, were largely drawn on racial lines. By time it was all said and done, Sanchez, her brigade of Mejicanos, and a few sympathetic Anglos, took control of Center. Their story is documented in a new book co-authored by Sanchez.
If you end there, it’s an inspiring story of civil rights and self-determination. But life in Center is more complicated than that. Because while the story of Center is about confronting racism, it’s also about what happens when those without power get it — and don’t let go.
For the first few decades of its existence, there was no racial conflict in Center — the town was almost exclusively Anglo. Then, just before World War I, a railroad line was built that helped move crops out to market and brought in many Mejicano families from northern New Mexico to work the fields. Some of the families had been in the region since before the Mexican-American war, when part of Colorado still belonged to Mexico.
The town was nearly perfectly segregated — Mejicanos on the east side of Worth Street, Anglos on the west side. Mejicano homes didn’t have indoor plumbing or electricity for years. There was another tiny little enclave of Mejicanos in another corner of Center called Chinatown.
— Matt Hobbs
“It was the Anglos that named it Chinatown,” Sanchez explained, because one of the families that live there had “slanted” eyes. “That's how deep that racism [was]. Because nothing was better than just white.”
Racial discrimination was common across the San Luis Valley and the American Southwest. Dave Pacheco, 80, grew up near Center in neighboring Del Norte. When he was in high school, he went on a date with an Anglo girl — an exceptionally unusual occurrence in the 1950s. She had never been to a swimming pool, so they went to one nearby.
“I wasn’t allowed in,” Pacheco said in his small home near La Garita. “That was probably the most embarrassing time of my life. … I don't know if she understood what happened, but I certainly did.”
The pool only allowed Hispanics in one day a week — the day before it was cleaned. That date was the last time he saw her; he left for a summer job herding sheep in the high country. When he came back at the end of the season, she had moved away.
“Those kind of things happened,” Pacheco said with a shrug. He ended up leaving the area, and went on to a career as a state trooper in the Denver metro area.
Even the movie theater in Center was segregated.
“If you dare cross that they asked you to leave,” said Adeline Sanchez, no relation to Jennie. Growing up, Adeline and other Mejicanos learned not to push the boundaries. She identified with the stories coming out of the South.
“You hear about the blacks, that the blacks had to sit in the back and Anglos sat in the front of the busses,” she said. “That's how you were made to feel.”
Where others were initially hesitant to act, Jennie Sanchez was taught from a young age to not let others push her around. That was crystallized in one defining moment. As she tells the story, a Mejicano man was walking down a sidewalk in Center as an Anglo girl was approaching on a bicycle. He didn’t step aside, and she fell off. He was arrested.
The incident was the talk of the town, including at Jennie’s grandparent’s home next door to her own. The entire family read Spanish-language newspapers from New Mexico, and The Denver Post and prided themselves on being politically active. Her grandmother looked her in the eye, Jennie remembers, and said, “ ‘Jennie, don't ever let anybody do that to you.’ ”
As she grew up, Jennie got involved with local Democratic politics. In the early 1960s, Jennie’s husband Uly ran for town board. He won — by two votes. But, as Jennie recounts decades later, he was the lone Mejicano on the board and little more than a token.
When Congress passed the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act, Jennie’s activism shifted into a higher gear. She and other local Mejicanos started an organization, the Saguache County Community Council, that received a federal grant to run the then-new Head Start program. It was the first organization in town with significant resources not under the control of local Anglo leaders. “They didn’t like that,” said Mary McClure, who ran the Head Start program for decades.
Jennie Sanchez started organizing meetings and put together a slate of Mejicano candidates for town board in 1970. Her coalition included Mejicanos and a few Anglo allies, including a young academic named Terry Marshall who returned home to Center after earning his master’s in rural sociology in Wisconsin. They went door to door, turning out voters. “We built a machine,” Marshall said.
The machine worked. Mejicanos won five of the six seats on the town board. Every Hispanic candidate that ran, won. The election completely changed the power dynamic.
“No longer do we have town where everybody knows where their place is and nobody crosses the line,” said Shelley Wittevrongel, then a Catholic nun who worked with Jennie Sanchez for decades and co-authored their new book. “That was a very powerful moment.”
The momentum from that electoral win carried into the summer. Every year, locals would go out into the fields and thin lettuce. It was back-breaking work that required bending over all day.
“Conditions were really bad,” said Audrey Chavez, who was about 12 years old that summer. “We didn’t have anywhere to drink water. And to use the bathroom, you had to find some place where you could hide from all the crews, so they won’t see you.”
The workers didn’t make much money — $1.35 an hour, or about $8 in today’s money. So, they started planning a strike. That turned out to be a difficult task when town leaders wouldn’t let them use public buildings for meetings. Finally, the Catholic priest gave them permission to use the church basement.
But on the night of the meeting, the strike organizers discovered that the parish council, made up of local Anglos, had chained the doors shut. They turned to the nuns, including Wittevrongel, who had just moved to town the week before.
“They talked to Sister Alice and asked, ‘Sister, what shall we do?’ And Alice said, ‘Are you sure you have Father’s permission?’ And they said, ‘Yes.’ And she said, ‘Do you have bolt cutters?’ ”
The strike took off from there; organizers got help from Cesar Chavez in California and managed to get Corky Gonzales to come down from Denver for a march.
“We walked through the main street into the east side of town,” Audrey Chavez said. “There was people literally on top of the buildings and schools with rifles.”
Law enforcement deputized Anglos to watch over the marchers, Wittevrongel said, and to protect the town “from their own imagination.” The event was peaceful, she said.
By the end of the summer, the strikers hooked up with a much bigger group and marched from Pueblo to Denver. That landed them on the front pages of the Rocky Mountain News and Denver Post — and the evening news.
The strikers managed to eke out a little bit of a raise. But mostly, the strike helped people realize they didn’t have to work in the fields anymore at all.
“I went to school and I’ve been the housing director for 32 years,” Chavez said. “I’ve been able to make a big difference here in the community. And those were the lasting effects from the strike.”
Mejicanos were feeling empowered, not least because of Jennie Sanchez. She would find the right person to run for the right town board seat, or to take up a particular fight.
“She’s been the monarch,” Chavez said of Sanchez. “She has this great instinct for justice.”
Over the years, Sanchez worked for organizations like the Chicano Education Project. But never ran for office herself. “I felt like if I did it, then it would be about me,” she explained. “And it wasn't about me, it was about us.”
One morning after the lettuce strike, Bob Felmlee was out irrigating potatoes. He grew up the son of a white San Luis Valley farmer and was a starter on Center High’s Class B state championship basketball team in 1950. Felmlee, now in his late 80s, remembers a group of Hispanic kids walking by on their way to the fields where their parents worked.
“They would go by doing this,” Felmlee said, gesturing with his middle finger. “They were taught to hate us … instead of trying to work things together and work it out.”
Sitting in his farmhouse just north of town, Felmlee said race relations in Center were just fine — until Jennie Sanchez started organizing. The two would butt heads for years, especially after Felmlee joined the school board in the 1970s. Sanchez turned her attention to the school system after her town board members were booted from their seats soon after they took them.
Hispanic children made up more than half of the student population in the mid-1970s. When they started in first grade, they performed nearly as well as the Anglo kids. But their test scores dropped each year they stayed in school.
Jennie Sanchez thought one potential answer was bilingual education. Around this time, the state legislature ordered that school districts offer classes in two languages. Sanchez led a push to force the Center School Board, including Felmlee, to implement bilingual lessons.
The board fought the mandate every way they could. Felmlee said research at the time suggested bilingual education wasn’t effective. But he also admits that race played into his opposition.
“We can’t say we’re all perfect,” Felmlee said.
One of Sanchez’ biggest allies at the time was a young Federico Peña, who would go on to become Denver’s first Latino mayor in the 1980s. Peña was just out of law school and working with Latino parents around the state. Quite often, he said, they just didn’t know how to engage with local officials.
“Many of them themselves did not have formal education, and so they were sometimes reluctant or even afraid to go and challenge authority,” he said.
That meant that in a lot of places, the Latino community wasn’t very organized or vocal. So local officials didn’t take them very seriously. That was not the case in Center, Peña said, where battle lines were very clearly drawn. Peña credits that to Jennie Sanchez.
“Where some people have given up and say, ‘My voice doesn't count.’ I say to them, ‘Go meet Jennie Sanchez,’ ” he said. “Her voice reverberated, not just throughout the San Luis Valley, but throughout the state.”
Sanchez took the bilingual education fight to the state Capitol. She and others, including Adeline Sanchez, would pile into Head Start vans and drive all night, sometimes through snowstorms, to lobby lawmakers. It was a nerve-wracking experience.
“When I got up to speak to them, if there hadn't have been a podium I wouldn't have been able to stand there,” she said.
— Audrey Chavez
That activism paid off. The school administration relented and implemented a bilingual program in the late 1970s and early 80s. But even then, it only lasted a few years after district leadership changed and the legislature weakened the state law.
The fight wasn’t a waste for Jennie Sanchez and her group, though. They learned from the experience. As the 1980s wore on, the power dynamic in Center shifted again. Adeline Sanchez, Audrey Chavez, and other friends of Jennie’s moved from being activists, badgering people in positions of power, to winning those seats and taking control of the town.
“We are not going to be treated like second-class citizens,” she said. “We’re going to be served with respect.”
Jennie had put the pieces together, one by one, over nearly two decades. They finally had the power to make decisions for themselves.
By her own admission, Jennie’s chosen candidates for Center town board and mayor’s office struggled after they won their seats in the 1980s. “We didn't prepare people to go in there and know how to run city government,” Sanchez said.
Running any town isn’t an easy task, but the job in Center is particularly complicated. It’s one of only a few dozen small towns in the state that operates its own power company. As members of Jennie’s group, including Adeline Sanchez, Audrey Chavez, and others, moved in and out of town governance from the 80s through the mid-2000s, they trusted the long-time employee that ran the utility.
As Adeline Sanchez tells it, that turned out to be a big mistake.
“We thought we were in good standing,” said Adeline Sanchez, who served as mayor from 1985-1992 and again from 2004-2012. "The board members and even the mayor didn't have the skills, the accounting skills, to know all of these things. We got reports, yes, and to the best of our knowledge, they looked good."
But things weren’t good. Adeline Sanchez said the utility manager, Darrell Davis, and another long-time town employee, had falsified reports to the council. The town was nearly half-million dollars in debt, and behind on infrastructure maintenance. Davis, who is long retired, denies any wrongdoing.
The books were so bad that the town didn’t file audits with the state for years. After she was elected mayor again in 2004, Adeline Sanchez and the board needed a fix. They raised utility rates. That was not a popular move, and it created an opening for a new opposition.
The woman that stepped up to lead that opposition was Susan Banning, a native of Buena Vista, Colorado, a few hours north of Center. She taught mostly African-American and Hispanic students in inner-city schools in Denver and Texas before returning to Colorado in the early 1990s.
“Center was a good fit,” Banning said. “Because it was like ‘These are the type of students that I can dedicate time to and see them grow.’ ”
She invested herself in Center by collecting clothes and toiletries for migrant workers. But she stayed out of town politics until a colleague at the school, Julio Paez, approached her to run for town board in 2008.
Together, they hatched a plan to fix up the town’s infrastructure. And voters bought it. Paez, Banning and another ally were all elected. By 2012, Banning was mayor and her allies held a majority on the town board. Suddenly, Jennie’s group was no longer in power.
Unlike when Adeline Sanchez took over as mayor back in the 1980s, Banning cleaned house.
“As soon as they came in they fired the town attorney, and they fired our police chief, and they got rid of the utility board,” Adeline Sanchez said. “We talked about a new water tower, and water meters, and infrastructure and whatnot. And we had already come up with a plan.”
But once Banning and her allies got in, that went out the window. They were in charge now. The first thing tackled was building a new power transformer.
“That was like heaven,” Banning said. “The ribbon cutting was fabulous. Have not had an outage due to wind since.”
— Susan Banning
Banning and her board then geared up to replace the town’s aging water tower. Jennie’s group objected, saying the million-dollar-plus plan was too expensive. They sprang into action, circulating a recall petition to boot Banning and her board members out of office. In Jennie’s mind, it was all about race.
“Anything you do they would destroy,” Jennie Sanchez said. “Anything you do, we’re gonna start all over. It was very, very, very racist.”
Two of Banning’s allies, including Julio Paez, are Hispanic. But in Jennie’s and Adeline’s view, they were controlled by Banning and other powerful Anglos.
“Julio went to school here, came here as a young child. Julio was not well accepted in that school. But he was an easy target. And he proved that,” Adeline Sanchez said.
Paez said Banning wasn’t pulling his strings at all — they just happened to agree on most things.
The racial undertones aren’t just felt on Jennie’s side, though. Banning felt from the beginning like her whiteness made her an outsider, despite her work at school and in the community, and even though she’d partnered with a native son of Center in the campaign. It started when she’d bought a house in town, to move closer to the school where she taught.
“ ‘People who, I'd had their children [in class], but it was almost the idea that, ‘You're in the wrong part of town. You should have bought a house over here, where some of the other Anglos live.’ ”
That’s why she balked at first when Julio Paez asked her to run.
“I pointed to my head, and [said], ‘Anglo, white girl.’ Because the board was Hispanic. There weren't white people on the board, and there hadn't been,” she said.
Banning thought the recall was dirty politics. She’d been harassed a few times since she got involved in town government, but said it picked up through the recall.
“I've had nails in my driveway,” Banning said. “My car's been egged. It's been keyed. I've been insulted and told that I need to leave town. I've had a machete put into my yard. My house has been broken into.”
Police say they was little evidence to go on, so the reports didn’t result in much. Jennie and Adeline Sanchez said they didn’t know anything about these incidents. But it was clear to Banning that Jennie Sanchez was at the heart of the recall movement.
“She’s the mastermind,” Banning said of Jennie. “She’s the person who formulates the plan. Then her designated people follow the plan.”
Jennie’s plan worked. Banning was kicked out of office, and every one of her allies — except for Julio Paez. Just after the ballots were counted, stories started to bubble up around town. Stories that would lead to yet another battle over who should run the town. This time, though, it would play out in court.
Center doesn’t have a great reputation when it comes to elections.
Jennie Sanchez’ political opponents, including Banning and Paez, have filed lawsuits alleging voter intimidation. Their theory goes something like this: The same group of people, led by Jennie, have run the Center Head Start, the Center Housing Authority, and the town itself, for years. And in a town like Center, which is poor, remote, and majority Hispanic, those organizations have a lot of power. So, around election time, people who live in public housing or have kids in Head Start are taken aside and told how to fill out their ballots.
“All of those things do happen, all of those things have happened, and they will continue to happen,” Banning said.
The key to this alleged scheme is the use of absentee ballots, which have a long history in Center. When field workers couldn’t get away to vote, they were given absentee ballots to cast. Banning said these ballots are ripe for trouble.
“On more than one occasion, we would go to a person who lived in the housing authority and they would say, ‘I hid my ballot. I want you to mail my ballot for me because they've already come to get my vote and I told them I didn't have my ballot,’ ” Banning said.
After the 2013 recall election, one of the recalled trustees filed a lawsuit challenging the results. The case went all the way to the state Supreme Court, and ultimately went in the town’s favor. Banning and the others were officially out of office.
Despite the high court’s ruling, rumors of voter intimidation persist. Audrey Chavez, who’s run the Center Housing Authority for years, said they’ve never threatened anyone. Adeline Sanchez, who works at Center Head Start, said the same thing.
“That's never the way we've operated,” Adeline Sanchez said.
One former resident of the Center Housing Authority supports that assertion. Jennifer Quintana lived public housing for 11 years, and her kids went to Head Start for years.
“They've never told me that anyway,” said Quintana, who CPR News reached independently. “I can't say that it did happen or it didn't happen. But they never told me anything like that."
The 2013 lawsuit, as well as a similar suit filed after the 2008 election, don’t contain much evidence of voter intimidation either. Matt Hobbs, a local attorney that represented plaintiffs in the 2008 lawsuit, went as far as sending private investigators to knock on doors of people who submitted absentee ballots that year. The investigators found a handful of people who said they were told how to vote. He set about trying to get them to come forward publicly.
“We went back to get their story again and potentially have them testify in court, and it changed,” Hobbs said.
By its nature, Hobbs said, voter intimidation is difficult to prove. There’s little incentive for vulnerable parties to come forward.
— Julio Paez
Hobbs traces much of what his case alleged back to Jennie Sanchez herself. After the 2008 case moved to federal court, he even named her as a co-conspirator in his complaint.
“It sounds crazy,” Hobbs said. “And you meet her and you think she’s the sweetest lady ever. She just comes off as very affable. But she’s tough.”
There’s little oversight of town-level elections in Colorado. The Secretary of State’s office doesn’t have much authority, though they were invited to help with a recount of the Center recall in 2013. Suzanne Staiert, the deputy secretary of state, spent some time in Center that year and heard stories of voter intimidation from the school superintendent and other sources she trusted.
“That’s not a free or fair election,” Staiert said. “That’s an election that is what we would think of in some in some third world dictatorship where they claim to have a free and fair election.”
Her office took these stories seriously but didn’t have the authority to do much about them. Any allegations of voter intimidation would have to be investigated by law enforcement. Historically, local district attorneys haven’t done that. The current DA, Crista Newmyer-Olson, who was elected in 2016, said she would review any allegations of voter fraud based on its merits. She otherwise declined to comment on Center’s politics.
But there are indications that federal investigators have looked into the Center Housing Authority. John Faron, who was on the Center town board with Susan Banning, said he met with an FBI agent in Pueblo while he was in office. Faron said the agent later visited Center.
“He came in and was walking around town, seeing what was going on,” Faron said.
The FBI declined to comment. But documents obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request show that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development investigated the Center Housing Authority around 2011 after receiving complaints from “concerned citizens.” The documents say the investigation was closed and that the U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to file charges.
“The case agent continues to receive telephonic messages from members of the city council and community of Center, Colorado,” an investigation report from December 2011 states. “However, as of to date, very little evidence has been turned over to HUD [Office of the Inspector General] which could substantiate any of the allegations.”
After the recall, Jennie’s group again took over. A new water tower went up — smaller, and cheaper than the one Susan Banning had pursued. More electrical work is planned too. Banning is out of local politics these days. She said it’s her students that keep her in town.
“I could do this anywhere, but my heart is in Center,” she said through tears. “With the kids and the parents of Center, who work really, really hard to put potatoes on people's plates, and lettuce, and they deserve an advocate. And that's what I do. I advocate for them.”
Julio Paez is off the board too. He survived the recall by a few votes and worked with Jennie’s group for a few years. He’s a diplomatic guy, and deferential to what they accomplished. But in some ways, Paez said, they’ve never let go of their fight.
“They went through something so awful that maybe they’re afraid it might happen again if they let it,” he said. “They’re afraid that we might go back to the past.”
Paez thinks Center is ready to move on. He acknowledges there’s still racism and it should be confronted. But Paez wants to do that by treating everyone the same.
“It’s great that you fought for civil rights, but that doesn’t make it your town,” he said. “This town belongs to everybody, whether you’re Chicano, Hispanic, Mexican-American, Anglo, white, whatever – African-American, whatever it might be. This town belongs to everybody.”
For now, it’s not clear who the next leaders of Center will be; the town has had trouble just getting people to run for office. Mary McClure, who ran Head Start for decades and is now on town board, admitted some of that may be her group’s fault.
“We've had such an active past. There's been a lot of turmoil and stuff. I think that does scare some people from stepping up,” she said.
Jennie said they’re a victim of their own successes: Their kids all got good educations and left the valley.
“The cream of the crop is gone,” she said. “And I think that’s a drawback in rural communities. I think that’s the case all over.”
The last election in early 2018 was canceled because only four people applied for the four open seats. Notice of the open seats was published in the town newsletter, at the post office, and in the Alamosa paper, 30 minutes away. But the notice in the town newsletter didn’t have a deadline for potential candidates. So four were turned away because they missed the deadline, the local paper reported.
As a result, four familiar names were appointed to the board: Adeline Sanchez, Mary McClure, and two other members of Jennie’s core group.
When Jennie Sanchez talked about her activism over the decades, she usually comes back to one point. It’s all about self-liberation. It’s all about being free to make decisions for yourself. And to do that back in the 1960s and 70s, they needed to elect Mejicanos and their allies to positions of power. Most people who spoke for this story agreed that was the right approach during Center’s blatantly racist past. There was a clear goal, and a clear need to accomplish it.
That was a long time ago. If their methods haven’t changed much over the years, their political opponents have. So why would Jennie and her group describe a well-respected Hispanic man like Paez as a pawn?
Federico Peña, the former mayor of Denver who worked with Jennie 40 years ago, hasn’t kept up with the goings-on in Center since the late 70s. He certainly didn’t know anything about the allegations of voter intimidation connecting to Jennie’s group — nor did he believe them when they were summarized for him.
He chuckled a little bit, though, at the description of the dynamic between Julio Paez and Jennie’s group.
“Like any group, whether it's Italian-Americans, or Irish-Americans, or African-Americans, and it's certainly true of Latinos — you know, factions emerge. Particularly when a group begins to make advances, and then others emerge and say, ‘well, maybe I can do this, or I think I would take it in a different direction.’ And mostly, that's healthy because groups are not monolithic.”
That shows that the Latino community was maturing, Peña said, in terms of how it wields political power.
“There's a level of sophistication that's been reached by many, many groups over many, many decades,” he said. “I'm not surprised that there’s some cliques and factions in the Latino community down in Center, and elsewhere.”
So, in a way, today’s fights are a sign that Jennie’s movement to get Hispanics more political power has worked. Even if that means the beneficiaries of her past battles can now fight for things she doesn’t want.