Citation
Young and Latino in a cold war barrio

Material Information

Title:
Young and Latino in a cold war barrio survival, the search for identity, and the formation of street gangs in Denver, 1945-1955
Creator:
Walsh, James Patrick
Place of Publication:
Denver, Colo.
Publisher:
University of Colorado Denver
Publication Date:
Language:
English
Physical Description:
viii, 168 leaves : ; 29 cm

Thesis/Dissertation Information

Degree:
Master's ( Master of Arts)
Degree Grantor:
University of Colorado Denver
Degree Divisions:
Department of History, CU Denver
Degree Disciplines:
History
Committee Chair:
Foster, Mark S.
Committee Co-Chair:
Ducey, Michael

Subjects

Subjects / Keywords:
Gangs -- Colorado -- Denver ( lcsh )
Hispanic American youth -- Ethnic identity -- Colorado -- Denver ( lcsh )
Gangs ( fast )
Hispanic American youth -- Ethnic identity ( fast )
Social conditions ( fast )
Social conditions -- Denver (Colo.) ( lcsh )
Colorado -- Denver ( fast )
Genre:
bibliography ( marcgt )
theses ( marcgt )
non-fiction ( marcgt )

Notes

Bibliography:
Includes bibliographical references (leaves 164-168).
General Note:
Submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree, Master of Arts, History.
General Note:
Department of History
Statement of Responsibility:
by James Patrick Walsh.

Record Information

Source Institution:
|University of Colorado Denver
Holding Location:
|Auraria Library
Rights Management:
All applicable rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.
Resource Identifier:
37311983 ( OCLC )
ocm37311983
Classification:
LD1190.L57 1996m .W35 ( lcc )

Full Text
YOUNG AND LATINO IN A COLD WAR BARRIO;
SURVIVAL, THE SEARCH FOR IDENTITY, AND THE FORMATION OF
STREET GANGS IN DENVER, 1945-1955
James Patrick Walsh
B.S. Duke University, 1989
A thesis submitted to the
University of Colorado at Denver
in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
by
Master of Arts
History
1996




This thesis for the Master of Arts
degree by
James Patrick Walsh
has been approved
by
ia.U\u
Date
Michael Ducey


Walsh, James Patrick (H.A., History, University of
Colorado at Denver)
Young and Latino in a Cold War Barrio; Survival, the
Search for Identity, and the Formation of Street
Gangs in Denver, 1945-1955.
Thesis directed by Professor Mark S. Foster
ABSTRACT
During the 1930s and 1940s, the city of Denver
witnessed a massive increase in Latino immigration. These
people, who came predominantly from the sugar beet fields
of the eastern plains and the villages of New Mexico and
southern Colorado, sought refuge in the urban barrios of
northeast and west Denver. The children of these
immigrants represented the first large generation of
Latinos who grew up in this urban environment.
Based upon fifteen taped interviews with Latinos
mostly former gang memberswho experienced these years
first-hand, this work illuminates life in the barrio and
contrasts this perspective with that of the mainstream
media and law enforcement authorities. This
counterdiscourse illustrates the mistrust and suspicion
through which young Latinos were viewed and serves to
justify the means extended toward meeting this perceived
threat.
Rejecting both the rural, communal values of their
parents, as well as the fast-paced industrial capitalism of
their urban surroundings, these young Latinos developed a
common identity for themselves. This identity was both a
compromise with, and a rejection of, both cultures that had
shaped their upbringing.
Crowded into run-down slums and forced to survive on
minimal income, this growing Latino population soon found
itself both feared and pitied by the affluent anglo
society that surrounded it. The gangs that these youths
iv


formed became the source of friendship and support that
schools and home life could not offer. Theft and street
fights were very much a means of survival within the gangs
of the barrio.
The mainstream establishment of Denver quickly saw
this rising subculture as a civic menace and acted
accordingly. The Police Department were the enforcers in
an undeclared war over urban social space that saw the
majority of these young people arrested, sent before
juvenile court, and incarcerated in several facilities.
Denver's major newspapers sanctioned this cultural assault
through inflamatory and sensational stories of gang warfare
and violence. These stories convinced the anglo public
that the means being used to combat the menace were
necessary.
This work also goes into great detail regarding the
everyday lives of Latino gangmembers; their confrontations,
recreation, frustrations, and contact with civic
authorities. In doing so, the behaviors they employed for
survival can be viewed in a much different light.
This abstract accurately represents the content of the
candidate's thesis. I recommend its publication.
v


CONTENTS
CHAPTER page
1. INTRODUCTION.....................................1
Their Roots are Pure California...............13
The Movement vs. The Gang.....................17
In Search of a Generation.....................18
Early Denver Gangs..;.........................19
2. URBANIZATION....................................22
The Old vs. The New...........................28
Between Cultures..............................30
3. THE BADGE OF HOODLUMISM.........................32
Pachucos......................................32
Denver and the Zoot Suit......................35
Markings of Trouble...........................37
Threatened War on GIs.........................38
Los Angeles Virus.............................40
4. THE CREATION OF AN IMAGE........................42
The Bad Belt..................................42
Educating the Suburbs.........................45
Forty Howling Boys and Girls..................52
Red Bait and C2ech Rifles................... 56
vi


"There's No Reason For Them Being Idle".......59
Young Amazons.................................62
Dirty Mexican.................................65
5. HEADS, DUKES, BROTHERS, ACES, BRAVES, HOODS,
38ERS........................................68
Territories...................................70
Distinguishing Features.......................75
Auxiliaries...................................77
Big Kitchen Knives............................78
Zip Guns......................................80
Fighting......................................84
69 Cents a Quarter............................86
Thick Soled Shoes.............................88
Knife.........................................90
Jive Houses...................................92
Inf i ltration................................93
Haymoe........................................97
6. STREET JUSTICE.................................102
"They Wouldn't Let You Swallow"......104
"Pat Their Legs".............................107
"You Talk About Rodney King".......108
Prescribed Social Space......................113
vii


Tarzan........................................116
No Visible Means of Support...................117
On Suspicion..................................120
A New Progressive Approach....................125
7. "BORN IN GOLDEN, RAISED IN BUENEY, GRADUATED
FROM CANON".................................128
"You're People"...............................133
Like Heroes...................................135
Braids and Dresses............................136
8. TWO PIGEONS IN A PAPER BAG....................138
The Denargo Market............................139
Constantly Hustling...........................141
Printed Dresses with Flowers..................144
9. NEUTRAL TERRITORY...............................148
The Epworth...................................148
Chicano Day...................................149
Put Thera in the Back.........................151
10. CONCLUSION......................................159
SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY.................................164
viii


CHAPTER 1
INTRODUCTION
You walked with pride. People had walks. We called
them Pachuco walks. It was a strut. It was a real
strut. It was designed to put fear in the enemy,
whoever the enemy happened to be. The enemy could be
the guy two or three blocks over; or if you went
downtown on sixteenth street, not knowing what the
white element happened to be. That created fear. So
you strutted down the street scared to death. You
didn't know what the Anglo element happened to be.
So it was a matter of strutting down the street
saying, 'Hey, I can conquer the world'.1
No quote better examines the attempt to maintain one's
pride within a cultural chasm than the above description by
Jack Chavez of the "Pachuco walk". Not completely
comfortable looking back at one's roots, nor in
assimilating into one's urban surroundings, this first
large urban-born Latino generation of Denver looked to the
presentto themselves and their own generationfor an
Mack Chavez, interview by author, Tape recording,
Denver, Colorado, December 1995.
1


identity and an image.2
In 1950, The Denver Area Welfare Council performed a
study that attempted to address the difficulties faced by
Denver's Latinos. The study concluded that young male
Latinos are labeled as criminal for reasons other than a
propensity to break the law:
At an early age the Mexican boy discovers that he
does not have to commit a crime and be convicted
before he is known as a 'gangster.' He finds out
that if his parents are Mexican and he lives in a
certain poverty-stricken slum area he can
achieve the 'gangster' status in the eyes of his more
privleged brothers without ever committing a crime.
He learns that he is different; that he isn't to
partake of many of the advantages of our society. He
learns that wherever he goes outside his own little,
run-down, dirty district he runs into signs,
prohibitions and restrictionswritten and
unwritten.3
This rather progressive view of Denver's young Latino
population is in stark contrast to that which was adopted
by the police, media, and the general public. It does,
2This work will use the term "Latino" to describe the
ethnic group variously refered to as Hispanic, Chicano,
Mexican American, Spanish-Speaking, and Latino. This term
was chosen because of its inclusivity.
3Denver Area Welfare Council, The Spanish-American
Population of Denver; An Exploratory Survey (July, 1950),
p. 201. In Denver Public Library, Western History
Department, LAC 3, Box #6.
2


however, refer to the power and influence of societal
expectations and to the mainstream fear of the 'other'.
This work will chronicle the struggles of one of
Denver's most feared 'other'; young Latinos who grew up
within well-defined barrios between 1945 and 1955. Using
the compelling oral testimonies of former gang members, the
other side of an historical urban counterdiscourse will be
represented. This is the discourse between the majority
and the marginalized; between those who oversee the
continued progress of a free-market economy and those who
are frequently trampled by this progress; between those who
define Americanness and those who struggle to understand
it.
Suburban and mainstream America has traditionally only
been given an opportunity to hear one side of this
counterdiscourse. The media, law enforcement, and criminal
justice personnel have, by their alarming and sensational
reports of these populations, injected an incredible degree
of fear into anglo America in regards to the environment of
the inner city. This fear, combined with the continued
one-sided accounts of the activities of minority youths,
3


has perpetuated the isolation of minority enclaves near our
downtown districts. This paper seeks a voice for these
enclaves.
Denver in the 1940s and 1950s was no different in this
regard. By looking back and recapturing the balance that
this flow of information has traditionally lacked, it is
hoped that a reeducation can be promoted. This has been a
difficult task. One side has always dominated this
discussion simply because it has had as its messengers the
professional media, the police, politicians, social
workers, and criminal justice personnel. Until quite
recently, all of these professions had been monopolized by
anglos.
But what of the perspectives and thoughts of the inner
city youths who are looked at with such fear and suspicion?
Isolated within small ethnic islands and kept within
prescribed social boundaries by discriminatory practices
and police crackdowns, very little contact exists with
mainstream culture. This work will use the oral
testimonies of Latinos who grew up in Denver during the
1940s and 1950s and juxtapose these against the images
portrayed through Denver's daily newspapers, police
4


records, and other criminal justice documentation. In
doing so, a new angle will be achieved in terms of viewing
the smokescreen that has always been suburbia's information
filter in regards our inner city environment.
Why does post-WWII Denver offer us added insight into
this difficult issue? This quest for balance is best
achieved in the past. With roughly fifty years of distance
between this period and the present, we are able to
identify the value systems and attitudes that drove this
discussion. Newspapers accounts during these years, while
appearing unbiased and objective fifty years ago, now ooze
with prejudicial and one-sided assumptions. Police tactics
and methods which then seemed to represent the best
interests of law and order now can be observed through
their destructive effects on minority relations and inter-
ethnic perceptions.
A window into today's scapegoating practices of inner
city minorities can be achieved through this visit to post-
WWII Denver. The public fear that exists today in regards
to street gangs and inner city minorities has been wholly
handed to a suburban culture who have themselves had little
5


or no part in this image and the fear that it creates. The
sharp gap between the two sides of the conversation raises
many questions about the assumptions we harbor of today's
inner cities. Again, as with fifty years ago, the dialogue
is dominated by one set of interests. These interests
define what it means to be criminal; what it means to be
threatening; and in what environments we should be fearful.
Many other questions with relations to today's
discussion can also be addressed through this work. Issues
of urban social space and the struggle over ethnic
boundaries are common themes represented within. Latinos
within Denver's poist-WWII barrios were prisoners, not just
of their own poverty and ethnicity, but also of the
economic development ethos that existed everywhere around
the prosperous confines of post-WWII Denver. This ethos
defined the expectations and frustrations that drove their
contact with the majority culture. The perception that
these young Latinos were actively refusing to become a
"part of the team" infuriated the authorities and
influential parties that controlled Denver.
6


Roy Rosenzweig has written about the battles over
urban social space that existed in early twentieth century
Wprchester, Massachusetts between native-born, Protestant
elites and working-class, immigrants. By attempting to
regulate public parks, saloons, and movie houses, an
attempt was made at shaping the culture of the working-
class outside of the workplace. Ordinances, rules, and
regulations were aimed at native fears of the immigrant
classes. Through shaping public spaces and social
boundaries, an attempt was made at controlling the most
threatening behaviors of these classes. Defining how the
fourth of July should be celebrated or how children should
play in public parks was a manner of subtly informing
certain people that various cultural idiosyncracies would
not be tolerated.4
The ethnic tensions in post-WWII Denver were a result
of very similar struggles. A prosperous post-war economy
and massive suburban development had turned the attention
of Denver's planners and boosters toward its only source of
embarassment; its downtown barrios. Vacant lots, public
Roy Rosenzweig, Eight Hours For What We Will: Workers
and Leisure in an Industrial Cityf 1870-1920 (New York:
Cambridge University Press, 1983).
7


parks, schools, back alleys, and recreation centers were
the only locations available for young Latinos. As the
Latino population continued to expand and challenge their
assigned social boundaries, a battle was waged over inner
city behavior. The assignment of the Denver police in
these areas was not to protect the communities as much as
it was to police and to enforce a set of boundaries. Media
images of lawlessness, promiscuity, and substance abuse
fueled the forces that defined the values under which the
police acted.
To begin to place ourselves within the post-WWII
ghettos of Denver, we must attempt to understand national
and regional forces at work during these years. Foremost
among the national forces was a fear of a perceived rise in
juvenile delinquency. During the 1940s, there was a sense
among many public authorities that the displacement of many
fathers from the homes during the war created a generation
of unruly ypuths.5
5See James Gilbert, A Cycle of Outrage; America's
Reaction to the Juvenile Delinquent in the 1950s (New York:
Oxford University Press, 1986).
For a social history of the lives of children whose
fathers had gone to war, see William M. Tuttle Jr., Daddy's
Gone to War: The Second World War in the Lives of America' s
Children (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).
8


This fear and the reprisals that followed no doubt had
an affect on the reactions to Denver's Latino youths and
the gangs they formed. However, it is important to
seperate the image of the LATINO gang member from that of
the incorrigible anglo delinquent; for the treatment of the
two groups was vastly different.
This dichotomy can be viewed through the prism of
newspaper accounts of fights involving large numbers of
teens. Invariably, when the location of the fight was
given to be in a suburban or anglo district, the
seriousness of the altercation was played down. In a
newspaper article reporting the sentencing of four
juveniles for hubcap theft, the judge is quoted as saying,
"Society expects more from boys from good families than it
does from boys from slum areas or from kids who didn't
finish the 8th grade."6 This veiled reference to ethnicity
cannot be ignored when attempting to understand the
attitudes that drove Denver's criminal justice system.
Another article in a Colorado Springs paper explained,
6The Denver Post. 25 February 1957, p. 1.
9


"All the seven boys appearing in court were apparently from
good homes and were without previous police records."7
This can be contrasted against the sensational accounts of
gang fights in Latino communities: "Roundup of Conejos
Street Gang Nips Threatened War on GIs."8 The differing
treatment of juvenile lawlessness in the media can be
extended to include the police department, the education
system, and places of employment and recreation.
Post-WWII Denver was becoming a more progressive city.
However, it was a city with a very politically conservative
tradition. During the 1920s, practically every major
politician in Colorado was controlled by the Ku Klux Klan.
This racist, anti-immigrant flavor still permeated Denver
and its institutions even during the post war boom.
Another national force that must be discussed is the
northern migration and urbanization that was occuring among
Latinos in the southwest. The economic boom triggered by
WWII was the main impetus behind this transformation of
7Colorado Springs Gazette, 21 October 1955, p. 1.
8Ibid., 24 September 1951, p. 1.
10


Chicano culture.9 In Colorado specifically, this movement
was disrupting the culture and family structures of
Latinos, who were struggling to make the transition from a
rural, communal setting to an urban, competitive
environment.10
Social histories of youth gangs are difficult to come
by. The social sciences seemingly have held a monopoly on
the study of this subculture. One of the better works done
on the urban Latino gang culture was written by James Diego
Vigil. This study details the many sociocultural factors
involved in the ,,Choloization,, of Mexican American youth.
9For an account of the economic boom of Denver and the
Colorado Front Range, see Carl Abbott, Stephen J. Leonard,
ancJ David McComb, Colorado; A History of the Centennial
State, third edition (Niwot: University Press of Colorado,
1994).
See Sarah Deutsch, No Seperate Refuge; Culture.
Class. and Gender on an Ancrlo-Hispanic Frontier in the
American Southwest. 1880-1940 (New York: Oxford University
Press, 1987).
For an excellent account of the struggles involved in
the urbanization of Los Angeles Latinos, see George J.
Sanchez, Becoming Mexican American; Ethnicityf Culture, and
Identity in Chicano Los Angelesr 1900-1945 (New York:
Oxford University Press, 1993).
11


As with
Vigil refers to this as "multiple marginality.1,11
other sociological works, however, it fails to place the
Latino gang subculture of the 1980s in its proper
historical framework. These works neglect the powerful
influences that a one-sided conversation has on popular
images ofand reactions towardthe inner city youth. The
power of fear has done far more damage to these young
people than any material shortcomings they might face. A
glance back to a previous urban gang scare can add much
perspective to these sociological works; for the biases
inherent in the one-sided social converation, while very
difficult to detect in the present, are blatantly naked in
the past.
The closest existing piece of literature to the lives
of Denver's young Latinos during the post-WWII years, is
Beatrice Griffith's American Mef dealing with life in the
racially-torn barrios of Los Angeles during the zoot suit
years of WWII. This narrative brings to life the means by
which young Latinos survived and maintained a semblance of
their cultural pride. It also chronicles another national
.James Diego Vigil, Barrio Gangs; Street Life and
Identity in Southern California (Austin: University of
Texas Press, 1994).
12


force that greatly affected the lives of Denver's young
Latinos during the 1940s; the racial strife and cultural
war against young urban Latinos (chollos), best exemplified
by the zoot suit riots of 1943.12
Their Roots Are Pure Califoria
The gang problem, as it exists in Denver today, is
no different than in any other city that has
experienced the Blood and Crip phenomenon. Any city
along the interstate corridors leading out of Los
Angeles, California will in some form or other
experience the problem...The problem developed in
several ways. In Denver, the Los Angeles gang
influence can be traced back to the late 1970s when
Denver Police officers started to notice young
Hispanic youth dressed in "chollo" attire. It was
determined that many of these youths were from East
Los Angeles....These "chollos" who were born in the
Los Angeles gang scene were introducing the gang
phenomenon in the form of dress, talk, hand-signals
and graffiti to the Hispanic youth of Denver. By
1982, Denver had an estimated fourteen Hispanic
gangs.13
Beatrice Griffith, American Me (Houghton Mifflin
Publishers, n.d.).
During the summer of 1943, weeks of rioting occured
in Los Angeles involving anglo servicemen scouring Latino
neighborhoods while attacking and stripping young male
Latinos Of their clothing. The Los Angeles Police
Department did nothing to stop the servicemen, but instead
arrested the Latino victims.
Denver Police Department> Gangs in Denver (published
by the City and County of Denver, 1989).
13


The above text is taken from a pamphlet, entitled,
"Gangs in Denver," that was distributed in 1989 by the
Denver Police Department. This brief history was written
by Lou Lopez, who commanded the Denver Police Department
(DPD) Gang Intervention Program from 1979 to 1984 and later
worked as a "Gang Specialist" for Denver Public Schools.
Lopez is today viewed as a leading authority on Denver's
early gangs. When asked about the 1940s and 50s in terms
of gang activity in Denver, Lopez replied, "I don't go back
that far. In the late 70s we started seeing the beginnings
of gang activity."14 In 1983, a Denver periodical
described Denver's gang history:
Denver's gangs began in the Hispanic neighborhoods
in the southwest and northwest quadrants of the
city. Their roots are pure California. A good
number of Denver's Hispanics migrated to sunny
southern California in the 40s and 50s in search of
well-paying jobs. When the economy turned sour in
the late 70s, these people returned to their Mile-
High roots. They brought the gangs with them.15
Denver's media, and perhaps its citizens, have usually
looked to the west, toward the city of Angels, when
searching for methods of explaining its youth crime and
14Lou Lopez, telephone interview by author, Denver,
Colorado, 2 December 1996.
15Up the Creek. 4 February 1983, p. ll.
14


youth gang activity. It has also treated recent youth
gangs as a relatively nascent phenomenon, refusing to look
into its own history for more answers and a broader
perspective.
It is apparent that both of these misperceptions have
had a major impact upon both the public's understanding of,
and reactions to, these gangs. As long as they're from
L.A., it seems, they can be treated as a spreading virus
that must be stopped. And if it is understood that gangs
have only existed in Denver since the late 1970s, then a
return to the days of a 'gangless' society seems
reasonable. If inner city gangs can be defined as a social
virus that has only recently gripped our culture, then any
engineered cure can be justified.
Both of these beliefs have influenced the strategies
of law enforcement. The police have focused on putting a
stop to the gang members who have come to Denver and
seemingly corrupted our young ethnic minorities.
Strategies such as 'gang units', 'gang lists', and gang
education seminars for the general public have been
employed to identify and weed out this threat. Most
15


recently, the Denver District Attorney has decided to use
racketeering charges flexibly in an attempt to eliminate
gangs.16
Once again, all of this discussion lacks balance. We
do not hear from the world of the accused. We are not
given a framework with which to understand an inner-city
milieu. We are taught to fear it. We are trained to
identify various cues, such as dress, strut, hand and
verbal signals, and eventually ethnicity. Fear feeds the
cultural chasm. The situation in post-WWII Denver was even
more pronounced because their large Latino population was
relatively new to the city and they had yet to expand
beyond a very tightly segregated milieu. The signals were
slightly different; however, they elicited a similar flight
mentality.
By looking at Denver's young Latinos in the 1940s and
50s, many of the attitudes and perceptions that have driven
the public's backlash can be identified and more accurately
framed. This study is partly an attempt to point out that
the public discussion up to the present on this social
16Denver Post. 18 November 1996, p. 1.
16


phenomenon has been ahistorical and misguided. Denver's
young Latinos have formed their own youth groups (gangs)
since at least the early 1940s. Los Angeles is seen as the
original location of all gangs simply because that city has
one of the earliest large Latino populations of any city in
the United States.
The Movement vs. The Gang
This historical amnesia that exists in Denver in
relation to its Latino gangs also seems to be related to
the Chicano Movement. The Crusade for Justice and all
other related Movement activities presented a purpose and
an identity to Denver's Latino community.17
From the early 60s until the mid-70s, organized,
territorial youth gangs seemed to be restricted to a few
isolated areas. The majority of those interviewed for this
project recalled that the Movement became a source of
cultural identification for everyone; in a sense fulfilling
one of the main purposes of a gang. This almost twenty
17During the Chicano Civil Rights movement of the 1960s
and 1970s, this organization led numerous demonstrations
and marches in an attempt to combat the discrimination and
poverty that gripped the Chicano community.
17


year vacuumbetween the decline in gang activity in 1960
until its reemergence in the mid-70slikely also
contributed greatly to today's ignorance regarding the
young Latino gang culture during the 1940s and 50s. It
also offers historians a valuble opportunity to recapture
a story that originated decades ago and has recently been
monopolized by the social scientists.
In Search of a Generation
The purpose of this study is to look to Denver's past;
specifically to its Latino community. Through oral
histories, newspapers, and other public records and
documents, an attempt will be made to chronicle the lives
and the identities of Denver's first large American-born
Latino generation and the youth groups that they pledged
their allegiance to. The struggle for group identity that
this earlier generation experienced foreshadowed the very
same fears that today's "gang scare" exemplifies.
These Latino youth "gangs"18 became a great source of
anxiety in post-war Denver. When these impoverished and
18At various points in this paper, I will refer to
"gangs" as "peer groups" or simply "groups".
18


disenfranchised young people sought refuge and comfort in
numbers, the mainstream establishment of Denver saw at best
a direct threat to the city's civic integrity and at worst
an organized attempt at subversion. The population of
Denver first had to be sold on this threat and on its
origins; both environmental and ethnic. The defenders of
the city's perceived values, namely the police and, to some
informal degree, the military personnel, then were
mobilized and encouraged to direct their energies toward
meeting this challenge. It is this violent struggle for
social space and civil respect that offers us a framework
to define the available data.
Early Denver Gangs
One need not remain in the twentieth century for an
indication that Denver has regularly witnessed the
territorial battles of youth groups. Indeed, one need not
even focus on minorities to discover that youth violence
has always been a pervasive aspect of the Mile High City.
An article in an 1899 edition of the Denver Times entitled,
"Pitched Battle Between
two Gangs of Boys; East and West Denver Urchins Disturb a
Neighborhood by Their Dangerous Warfare," reads:
19


Two gangs of boys were fighting a pitched battle,
and window lights were being smashed, houses were
bombarded, children in the houses struck and whoever
expostulated with the boys was insulted. The West
Denver gang, called the "Rough Necks," was pitched
against a similar gang from East Denver, and
dornicks were the chosen weapons. Accounts of the
battle vary from fifty to 250 as the number of
combatants.19
Judge Ben Lindsey, Denver's famous patriarchal figure
from its early Juvenile Court system, wrote in 1904:
The Twenty-Second Street Gang may have its wars with
the Thirty-Third Street Gang, and the Battle Ax Gang
may continue its efforts to exterminate the Horse
Shoe Gang (named after their favorite plug
tobacco)...Who has not observed the loyalty of its
members to each other? Who has not observed its
rules and laws, founded generally on really ennobling
instincts, which seem to control its very existence
laws as binding and effective as a boy's conduct
towards his mates as any which control our own
conduct1 For instance, it is the unalterable law of
the gang "thou shalt not snitch"20
These early instances lacked the widespread fear of
post-WWII Denver, however, simply because they lacked any
inflammatory connection to culture and ethnicity. This
paper will address what was seemingly Denver's first
widespread gang subculture; that of the middle to late
19The Denver Times. 8 October 1899, p. 2.
20,,The Problem of the Children and How the State of
Colorado Cares for Them," A Report of the Juvenile Court of
Denver, 1904, p. 102.
20


1940s and early 1950s. More importantly, this represented
the first gang subculture that the authorities of Denver
felt obliged to respond to. The Latinos interviewed,
police records, and newspapers, were all mute in regards to
any Latino youth gangs prior to this. As Jake Trujillo
recalled, "During the war years, there were kids who were
thieves; but that has nothing to do with gangs. We ran
together, but as far as fighting other people, it was
mainly with the white guys."21
21Jake Trujillo, Interview by author, Tape recording,
Denver, Colorado, September 1995.
21


CHAPTER 2
URBANIZATION
They [Denver's Chicanos in the 1940s] were folks who
had a trauma...from going from a rural to an urban
atmosphere.22
Transient Community
All records indicate that Denver did not have any
sizeable Spanish-speaking population until around 1920.
The census and other population estimates did not even
include this minority in their ethnic breakdowns until
1920. A WPA Writer's Program project conducted in Denver
from 1936-1942 indicates that the 1920 ethnic population
with roots in Mexico was 1,390.23 This study listed a
population chart which indicates that prior to 1920, the
22Pat Vigil, Interview by author, Tape recording,
Denver, Colorado, September 1995.
23WPA Writer's Program. 1936-1946. In Denver Public
Library Western History Collection, LAC 3, Community
Relations.
22


population with Mexican ancestry never exceeded 19.
These early studies likely underestimated this
population. The transient lifestyles of Latinos along with
a cultural distance from the groups that performed these
studies almost certainly had the effect of misrepresenting
this growing minority. Nonetheless, it does seem clear
that, beginning in the 1920s, Denver's Latino comminities
began to see unparalleled growth.
A book written in 1924 about the Spanish-speaking
residents of Colorado states that during that year, "Denver
now has a permanent Mexican population of over two
thousand, and that in the winter time, when the beet and
other migratory workers come to the city, that number is
doubled or tripled."24 A study done in 1950 by the Denver
Area Welfare Council on Denver's Latino population also
24Robert N. McLean and Charles A. Thomson, Spanish and
Mexican in Colorado; A Survey of the Spanish Americans and
Mexicans in the State of Colorado (New York: Board of
National Missions, 1924), p. 23.
This fluctuation in Denver's Latino population due
to the seasonal nature of the sugar beet industry probably
accounts for many of the variations in these population
estimates. The season in which the estimates were made was
just as important as the method used in making them.
23


made this connection with the sugar beet laborers, "In a
normal year many of them were so burdened by debt at the
end of the beet season, without funds for the return home,
they gravitated to the slums of Denver to await the next
season.1,25
In her groundbreaking work on the migration of
Hispanics in search of wage-labor in the Colorado beet
fields, Sarah Deutsch finds that Mexican-Americans began
moving to northern Colorado in large numbers in the early
twenties. She writes:
The resident Chicano population of northeastern
Colorado more than doubled relative to the total
population and more than tripled in absolute numbers
between 1920 and 1927 alone. Approximately one-third
wintered in the open fields and the rest in towns.
In Denver their number grew from approximately two
thousand to over eight thousand.2 26
However, during these years, the majority of this community
left the city for the beet fields in the spring and didn't
return to Denver until winter. A WPA "guide" to Colorado
during the 1930s further describes this area:
...the Spanish-American settlement, with its small
stores, restaurants serving native dishes,
recreational centers, newspapers, and the Teatro
2SDenver Area Welfare Council survey.
Deutsch, 132.
24


Mexicala, which presents Mexican-made films.
Residents here hold to their Latin characteristics
and colorful fiestas. Spanish is the common tongue
and most shop-window signs are in that language.
Many of the 15,000 inhabitants of this area leave the
city during summer to work in the beet fields.27
Northeast Denver and the west side developed into the
two main Latino communities as a result of the urbanization
of the 1920s and 30s:
...as more and more Hispanic families moved into the
area [Auraria or the west side], the Germans moved
out. By 1926, when St. Cajetan's Church was
established to serve the needs of this community, it
had become an Hispanic neighborhood.28
A 1924 study of Denver's Latinos stated:
Mr. Jose Esparza, the Mexican Consul with office at
402 Mercantile Building, states that Denver now has a
permanent Mexican population of over two thousand,
and that in the winter time, when the beet and other
migratory workers come to the city, that number is
doubled or tripled. The Mexicans live in all parts
of the city, on the outskirts to the west and north,
but are centralized somewhat west of Speer Boulevard,
both north and south of Colfax Avenue.29
27The WPA Guide to 1930s Colorado. Compiled by Workers
of the Writers' Program of the Work Projects Administration
in the State of Colorado (Lawrence: University of Kansas
Press), p. 126.
28Judith Gamble, "Introduction to Historic Auraria,"
Colorado Heritage, issue 2 (1985), p. 4.
29Robert N. McLean and Charles A. Thomson, Spanish and
Mexican in Colorado: A Survey of the Spanish Americans and
Mexicans in the State of Colorado. (New York: Department of
City, Immigrant, and Industrial Work, 1924), p. 24.
25


This changed in the thirties as the sugarbeet industry
fell victim to the economic forces of the time and was
forced to reduce its workforce considerably. The Mexican-
American population of northern Colorado turned to the
urban refuge as their only hope for income during these
years.
The Colorado Yearbook places the 1930 Latino
population of Denver at 6,837.30 This was still only
slightly over 2% of the city's total population. In 1940,
F. L. Carmichael of the Bureau of Business and Social
Research of the University of Denver, estimated the number
of Latinos to be 12,345.31 A study done by the Denver
Unity Council in 1946 states that in the mid-40s, the
population stood at 14,631, 2,308 more than were living
here in 1940."32 In 1947, the Mayor's Committee on Human
30Yearbook of the State of Colorado. 1937-1938f p.20.
In Denver Public Library, Western History Department.
31F. L. Carmichael, Housing in Denver (Published by the
City and County of Denver, 1941). In Denver Public Library,
Western History Department.
32Denver Unity Council, The Spanish-Speaking Population
of Denver. Housing. Employment. Health. Recreation.
Education (Published by the City of Denver, 1946), p. 2.
In Denver Public Library, Western History Department.
26


Relations came up with 20,000 and purposely increased their
estimate to 30,000 after assuming that the vast
overcrowding in Denver's housing units had left many
uncounted.33 Finally, two 1950 estimates placed the
population at between 40,000 and 45,000, or roughly 10% of
the population.34
Ernesto Vigil, a local Chicano historian, stated that
between 1920 and 1960, the Latino population of Colorado
went from being 80% rural to 80% urban.35
Denver, by the mid-thirties, was experiencing its first
large and permanent Mexican-American population.
It seems that although the Spanish-speaking community
of Denver began to grow around 1930, the growth truly
accelerated during and after World War Two. The young
33Mayor's Commission on Human Relations, The Spanish-
Speaking Population of Denver: An Exploratory Survey
(Published by the City of Denver, 1947), p. 9. In Denver
Public Library, Western History Department, LAC 3,
Community Relations.
34National Committee Against Discrimination in Housing.
March, 1951, p. 11. In Denver Public Library, Western
History Department, LAC 3, Community Relations.
Mayor's Commission on Human Relations, p. 12.
35Ernesto Vigil, Interview by author, Tape recording,
4-17-95.
27


Latino children of the late 40s and early 50s constituted
Denver's first sizable American born Latino generation.
This is the generation that came into direct contact with
the enforcers of a set of boundaries that were defined
around images and stereotypes of race.
The Old vs. The New
Intra-ethnic violence was no stranger to Denver's
Latino community in the 1940s. Intra-Latino violence has
not been isolated to gang members. Recently, scholars have
begun to focus upon the tension that has existed between
newly arrived Mexican immigrants and Mexican-Americans
whose families have lived in the present day boundaries of
the United States for generations. David Gutierrez, in his
work Walls and Mirrors, explains that Mexican-Americans
have traditionally resented the newcomers; seeing them as
strikebreakers and a reinforcement for negative stereotypes
about Latinos.36
Enrigue "Hank" Lopez and his family moved to Denver
36David G. Gutierrez, walls and Mirrors; Mexican
Americans. Mexican Immigrants. and the Politics of
Ethnicity. (Berkeley: University of California Press,
1995).
28


during the 1920s to the Curtis Park area. His memories
suggest that this intra-racial violence between Latinos was
prevalent in Denver before the population growth of WWII:
We moved into a ghetto of Spanish-speaking residents
who chose to call themselves Spanish-Americans and
resented the sudden migration of their brethren from
Mexico, whom they sneeringly called /surumatos./
These so called Spanish-Americans claimed direct
descent from the original conquistadors of
Spain....So intense was this intergroup rivalry that
the bitterest "race riots" I have ever witnessed-and
engaged in-were between the look-alike, talk alike
surumatos and manitos who lived near Denver's Curtis
Park.37
These early forms of conflict were not responded to
with the force that was used in the 1940s simply because
the Latino population of Denver during the 1920s was much
smaller and, subsequently, much less of a civic threat.
When large groups of youths later began naming themselves
and developing distinct dress and communication styles, the
authorities of Denver began to take notice. When these
groups began to direct violence toward anglos as well as
other Latinos, their fate was then permanently linked to
the Denver Police Department.
37Enrique Hank Lopez, "Back to Bachimba; A Hyphenated
American Discovers That He Can't Go Home Again," Horizon.
Winter 1967, p. 81.
29


Between Cultures
These youths were the Denver-born offspring of those
that had sought economic refuge in Denver during the Great
Depression. This generation found themselves caught
between the migrant worker and/or village culture of their
parents' generation and the new, urban surroundings that
they grew up in. As many of my interviewees explained,
these youths rejected the rural, passive values of their
parents at the same time in which they were themselves
rejected and barred from true citizenship in their new
urban surrounding. This intergenerational struggle was
played out over values, work expectations, language,
education, dress, and family. The temptation to 'become'
anglo was expressed well in a quote from Shirley Castro:
I remember this one girl. Her name was Mary Lou. She
Was anglo and I just thought she was so pretty...I
used to think, 'darn, I wish my eyes were blue and I
wish I had blond hair just like Mary Lou. I wanted
blue eyes and blond hair, not knowing that our people
are beautiful too.38
As noted above, this was also the city of Denver's
first experience with a large, young generation of people
of color. As these young people began to venture forth
38Shirley Castro, Interview by author, Tape recording,
Denver, Colorado, September 1995.
30


from the cultural barriers of their impoverished
surroundings in search of an urban identity, the powers
that were began to view them with suspicion.
31


CHAPTER 3
THE BADGE OF HOODLUMISM
Soldiers would drive around in groups and any Latino
they seen they figured was fair game... Anytime those
GIs would see youthey'd go out in packs, four or
fivewe'd give them a fair fight.39
Pachucos
The first urban identity that Denver's young Latinos
formed was that of the "Pachucos," a group of Latinos in
the early forties who were known for their dress; the zoot-
suit style that was villified in Los Angeles during WWII in
what is now known as the Zoot-Suit Riots.40 Jake Trujillo
recalled similar tensions in Denver, "These soldiers would
come and pick fights with us kids who they thought were
gang members...not on thfe scale in L.A. This would happen
39Trujillo Interview.
40See Carey McWilliams, North From Mexico; The Spanish-
Speaking People of the United States (New York: Praeger
Publishers, 1949).
32


down on Curtis street."41
The Pachucos represented the first attempt by young,
native-born Latinos to assert a seperate identity; apart
from their parents. Beatrice Griffith, in American Mef a
book and film about Latino youth culture in Los Angeles,
referred to a split among young Latinos into Pachucos and
"Squares"; the latter being those who attempted to please
their parents, dress more conventionally, and stay within
the boundaries of the law.42 Pat Vigil recalled that in
the early forties, the Pachucos were a source of fear among
many Chicanos in the community:
There was another group of kids that were older that
did get into that [violence]. They were really
looked down upon even by their own parents. They
were called 'Pachucos'. They were the ones who got
into more serious trouble, like stealing, burglaries,
even armed robbery.... These were, at that time in the
forties, the minority....The mothers and fathers
associated them with marijuana.43
Shirley Castro claimed to have married a former
Pachuco. She described some of the intergenerational
41Trujillo interview.
42Griffith, p. 42.
43Pat Vigil Interview.
33


animosity that existed between these youth and their
parents:
The guys would wear these big drapes, big old baggy
pants and chains...and hats...My grandfather used to
tell my aunt, 'you're not going out with that
Pachuco! I better not see you [with him].' The
older folks thought that they were bad people. My
grandfather used to say, 'Those Pachucos!'44
This subculture existed in Denver, albeit on a lesser
scale than in L.A. Jake Trujillo described, "The young
Latinos who were dressed in peg-pants...tied on the bottom
and ballooned out.. .That was kind of an identity. You
identified with that...status."45 The Pachucos represented
the first seperate, American-born identity for young
Latinos. This identity was very much a part of their new
urban world and this further alienated them from the
culture of their mainly migrant parents.
The growth of Denver's first large minority community,
however, brought new fears and misperceptions about youth
groups and the violence they are capable of. As Denver's
Latino population grew, the threat of the unknown "other"
Shirley Castro Interview.
5Trujillo interview.
34


became greater.
Denver and the Zoot Suit
No group more exemplifies the antithesis of the image
of the young Latino criminal than anglo military personnel.
The clean-cut defenders of "Americanness" saw the young,
rebellious Latinos as a direct threat to their country's
value system. The cultural wars that instigated the Zoot
Suit Riots in Los Angeles in 1943 were also evident in
Denver.
Numerous incidents are referred to in Denver's dailies
involving Latino youths engaging in street brawls with
military personel. These were not small or isolated
incidents, as one 1951 article points out, "Between 75 and
100 civilians and Lowry Air Force Base airmen clashed last
night in a Five Points brawl."46 Instead of full zoot
suits, the soldiers in Denver reacted to more subtle forms
of dress, such as peg pants (baggy around the waist and
thighs and tight at the ankles) and duck-tailed haircuts.
46Rocky Mountain News. 9-15-51, p. 14.
The Rocky Mountain News will be abbreviated to RMN
for the remainder of this paper.
35


In March of 1945, in an incident with striking
similarities to the riots in Los Angeles, the Lawrence
Street Community Center was raided by several carloads of
angles, many of them in military uniform. This was in
apparent retaliation for a previous attack on several anglo
youths by a group of Latinos.47 An editorial in the Denver
Post described the incidents how anglo students invaded the
barrio:
with the avowed purpose of injuring any Spanish-
American boys they happened to see. Spurred on by
confused series of imaginary grievances, armed with
blackjacks, heavy belts, and garden hoses, they were
determined to beat up those who got in their way,
throw bricks and in other ways to destroy property.
They broke into a meeting of the Colorado
Tuberculosis Assn, in the Lawrence Street Community
Center, where an educational film on tuberculosis was
being shown to a group of Spanish-Americans, and
injured three people. They rode past 11th and
Lawrence sts. near midnight in jallopies, hurling
taunts at the Spanish-American residents, flinging
stones at them, breaking windows.48
The police were accused by a Latino community leader
of failing "to provide adequate protection or take action
against youths who participated..." An eyewitness claimed
there were "at least eight men in uniform among those who
47RMN. 3-10-45, p. 5.
48Denver Post. 3-11-45, p. 18.
36


invaded the Lawrence St. community center and beat Spanish-
speaking youth."49 The violence did not stop there. The
next day the newspaper reported that "a group of teen-age
youths were halted by police when they were found cruising
a Spanish-speaking neighborhood in two cars...Police found
a bat, Indian clubs, portions of headlight frames, a
hammer, two tire irons, and a wrench."50
Markinas of Trouble
The hair and dress styles that were the most
provocative are identified within the articles that deal
with young Latinos:
One youth, who was wearing a duck-tail hairdo, was
ordered to get his hair cut.51
Male members of the "Pachuco" are distinguishable by
the cross on the back of the left hand and by their
hair, which they wear long and cut in back to
resemble a duck back.52
The boys all were flashily dressed...Several wore the
exaggerated attire which has led authorities to a
general designation of young hoodlums as "zoot-suit
49RMN, 3 -11-45, p . 5
S0Ibid. , 2-12-45, P- 5.
51Ibid. , 1-14-56, P- 5.
52Ibid., 6-13-48, P- 10
37


gangs. "53 54
Pancho used to lounge in here, a cigaret [sic]
dangling out of his mouth, his trousers riding his
hipbones, a regular 'pachuke' [sic] from head to toe.
And his hair-do Swooped and scooped to a fare-ye-
well .s
Threatened War on GIs
Colorado Springs, a city with a large military
population, also seemed to experience the same tension
between its young Latinos and its military personnel. An
article in the September, 1951 edition of the Colorado
Springs Gazette-Telegraph trumpets, "Roundup of Conejos
Street Gang Nips Threatened 'War' on GIs."55 The article,
and several that followed, described how the police had
found a 'gang7 of about 12 Latinos in an alley.
Apparently, one of the youngsters told the police that they
were "out to get soldiers." Because of this, the police
chief organized a meeting with at least 12 heads of the
various military installations in the area.
The story ran on four front pages using alarming
53Ibid., 12-21-42, p. 5.
54The Denver Post. Empire section, 6-3-56, p. 13.
5SColorado Springs Gazette-Telegraph. 9-15-51, p. 1.
38


headlines such as, "GI-Hating Teenage Mob Jailed in
Springs."56 The police chief described the youngsters
involved as, "typical of the teenage gangs plaguing Other
towns, complete to the duckbill haircuts."57 Eventually,
the priest from the teenagers local church, Father Anthony
Barcelo, came to their defense:
The entire incident has been exaggerated and over-
played by the press. They're all good kidsall of
them work or are still in school. Frankly, I believe
that the whole business was exaggerated because the
boys are Spanish-Americans. All kids fool around
during summer vacation regardless of where they
live.58
The media exposure and the reactionary meeting of the
12 local heads of the military at the very least represents
a clear example of the perception that young Latinos males
harbored an internal desire to rise up against authority
and pose a direct threat to the establishment. The
treatment of these young males from the barrio was all
executed with this perception in mind. The headlines
clearly can be seen as inflamatory, possibly inciting
retaliation from military personnel against the youngsters.
56RMN. 9-21-51, p. 5.
57ibid.
58Ibid. 9-26-51, p. 9.
39


Los Angeles Virus
Alarming headlines further point out the degree to
which the fear of the zoot suit existed in Denver
("Denverite Shot Down in Zoot Suiters' Feud"59; "Zoot Suit
Gang Rapes Young Girl."60). This fear is also confirmed by
two articles written in the Rocky Mountain News shortly
after the L.A riots. In one of these, entitled "No Coast
Zoot Suiters Can Alight in Denver," Denver's chief of
police was asked to respond to reports that zoot suiters
from out of town were beginning to appear in lower downtown
resorts and pool rooms. He summed up the situation as
such:
Anyone is welcome to come to Denver and wear whatever
he pleases, so long as he remains a law abiding
citizen. However, with these outsiders, the zoot
suit seems to be the badge of hoodlumism. We will
not tolerate any infiltration of this element and, if
necessary, I will call out the entire department to
meet any situation that might develop out of this.
If zoot-suit hoodlums from Los Angeles or anywhere
else come here to relocate and start trouble, we'll
give them plenty of it. The zoot suit apparently has
become a sort of insignia for the hoodlum and that
59RMN, 6-13-48, p. 10.
6Ibid. 12-21-45, p. 5.
40


element will not be tolerated here.61
If the police acted under the guise of law and order,
the military were much more blatant. Their vigilante
mentality was best channeled against the people who
represented their ideological antithesis. The anger that
these incidents likely aroused in the Latino community
probably served to convince many, particularly the young,
that an assimilationist attitude was futile and that some
form of civil resistence was the only means of acting out
their frustration. Increasingly in the urban southwest,
this generation learned that the assimilating desires of
their parents did nothing to better their situation.
61Ibid., 6-19-43, p. 5.
41


CHAPTER 4
THE CREATION OF AN IMAGE
The Bad Belt
The earliest Latino community in Denver developed in
the northest section of the city near Curtis Park. Later,
beginning in the 1920s, the west side (including the
present day site of the University of Colorado at Denver)
became a predominantly Latino neighborhood. Following WWII
the north side and the southwestern portions of the city
saw sizable Latino communities develop. The one common
denominator of these areas is that they are all close to
the Platte River. The lowland area that existed in the
Platte valley that ran through the downtown section of
Denver was known as "the Bottoms."
A study performed in 1946 by the Denver Unity Council
on Denver's Spanish-speaking population offers some answers
as to how these boundaries shifted somewhat during the
42


1940s. Two maps comparing the areas of Spanish-speaking
residences in 1940 and 1945 offer some conclusions.
Firstly, during these five years, there was a definite
shift to the west, across the Platte River. Two areas
northwest Denver just across the river, and the area
southwest of Auraria and just south of present day Mile
High Stadiumboth saw sizable growth among Latino
residents during these years.62 In selected areas, this
population was slowly beginning to challenge its prescribed
boundaries.
This portion of the cityalong the Platte stretching
north and south of downtown has traditionally been home
to impoverishment and substandard houses. The Denver Unity
Council study found that the sections of Denver with the
most widespread cases of substandard homes had a direct
correlation to the Spanish-speaking areas. If one were to
overlap the maps, the identified areas almost share the
same boundaries. This was also true in regards to
unemployment, low quality of health care, and poor
recreation facilities.63 Mayor Quigg Newton's 1947
62Denver Unity Council survey.
63Ibid.
43


Committee on Human Relations found, among other sources of
concern, that 88% of Latinos lived in substandard housing
in 1941, that in several area along the Platte river, more
than three-fourths of the homes had no private toilets or
baths, and that Infant mortality among Latinos was twice as
high as for Denver generally.64 In fact, in each of the
several studies surveyed for this work, the Latino
neighborhoods were shown to be extraordinarily deficient in
the condition of housing, health, recreation facilities,
schools, income, and crime rates.65
A local publication of youth crime furnished a map in
1938 depicting the areas of the city with the greatest
amounts of juvenile delinquency. This "black area", as the
district was labeled, was shown to house the most
criminally-prone youths, the most school drop-outs, and the
64The Mayor's Commission on Human Relations, p. 37-55.
6BFor a detailed study of subtle forms of racism
experienced in Latino neighborhoods, such as a lack of
public utilities, recreational facilities, and roads left
in poor condition, see Martha Menchaca, The Mexican
Outsiders; A Community History of Marginalization and
Discrimination in California (Austin; University of Texas
Press, 1995).
44


hightest rate of unemployed youth.66 This map also
directly correlates with the Latino areas.
Educating the Suburbs
The legacy of Spanish-speaking neighborhoods within
the circles of Denver's establishment was one of crime and
degradation. In a 1948 photo in the Denver Post, the
police proudly displayed a chart in their headquaters
depicting push-pins in a map of Denver. Each pin
represented a juvenile crime. The heading over the photo
read, "Chart Helps Check Youthful Lawbreakers."67 Similar
examples of "The Intensity of Youth Problem in Denver," as
one 1938 study declared, all boast of their scientific
method of locating the criminal element with a carefully
color-coordinated map of Denver.
Graphs, charts, tables, and maps of all kinds all
pointed toward the same conclusion; young Latinos were
threatening the civility of the city. The faith in science
66Adult Education Council of Denver, The Youth Problem
in Denver. Vol. 14, No. 2 (July 1938). In clipping
collection, Denver Public Library Western History
Department.
67Denver Post. 1-11-48, p. 11
45


and its problem-solving capacities during these years was
apparent in these maps, which all subtley implied that the
Latino communities of Denver were responsible for the
city's social ills. The power of science was unleashed as
further justification for various interventions. By
locating the problem in a geographic sense, the studies
never overtly pointed a finger at Latinos.68
This empirical method of identifying a dangerous
element in society shifted slightly during the 1950s.
Here, articles about youth crime were frequently
accompanied by a photograph of youths appearing to run from
or huddle menacingly near the photographer.
The message to the suburban reader is clear; young Latinos
in Denver's low-income communities are to be considered
dangerous, violent, and without parental control.
While studying these photos, it is not difficult to
imagine the photographer coaching the youths into posing in
an evasive or threatening manner. Titles such as,
"Denver's Juvenile Crime Picture" and "Girl Gangs, A Civic
68Denver Post. 11-22-59, sec. CC, p. 1.
46


Problem"69 accompany these photos. Also of interest was a
feigned attempt to shield the juveniles' identity. The
photos were frequently altered to shield their subjects'
eyes. Their ethnicity, however, is very clear. The photos
show LATINO youths in a criminal manner. The reader sees
young Latinos representing "Denver's Juvenile Crime
Picture."70
This author could not help but imagine these youths'
excitement as they searched the paper to find their picture
that the photographer had likely promised them would
appear. How many recognized how their image had been
manipulated by the photos?
Without arguing that, in fact, most of the juvenile
offenses in the city had taken place in these areas, these
are fine examples of how these neighborhoods were singled
out in a public manner and how the suburban, mainstream
population was educated about these areas of town. Because
the areas depicted so strongly mirror the Latino
communities, its easy to imagine the racial image that the
69Denver Post. 12-10-50, Empire Magazine, p. 9.
7Ibid. 11-1-53, p. 5; 11-22-59, sec CC, p. 1
47


media and authorites began to form.
These Latino communities began to experience
incredible growth during the 1940s. Due to discriminatory
housing practices and to the poverty of most of the
newcomers, this growth was restricted to the preexisting
Latino areas. Ernesto Vigil remembered the ferocity with
which this segregation was enforced during the mid-50s:
It was not safe if you were a youngster in the area I
grew up in [Elyria] to leave the neighborhood, cross
the river to go to the swimming pool in the
Globeville neighborhood. You7d get beaten up, you7d
be physically chased out of the neighborhood. Among
some of the first families to move into the
Globeville neighborhood who were Mexicans, there7d
be firebombings on porches and shit like that.71
These milieus in northeast and west Denver quickly
began to gain the attention of Denver's mainstream
establishment. There is no better example of this
perceived threat than that of the young people and their
leisure acitivities. Groups of Latino youths, with no
other places to congregate than the streets, alleys, river
bottoms, and industrial lots of the downtown district found
themselves in violation of the boundaries that had been
71Taped interview with Ernesto Vigil, 4-17-96. In
possession of author.
48


prescribed for the residents of this minority community.
As the Anglo community looked on with curiosity and fear,
the Denver Police Department and the Juvenile court system
was assigned the task of communicating to these youths that
they had overstepped their assigned social spaces.
This section of the city, stretching from the
southwest quadrant and roughly following the Platte river
through lower downtown and up to the northeast sections of
town, became synonymous with crime and degredation among
the city authorities. The methods of survival of Latinos,
trapped in these sections of the city, confirmed to many
that they were criminal by nature. A 1939 edition of the
Rocky Mountain News describes the area:
Judge Madden showed a map of Denver bristling with
the colored heads of pins. The 'Bad Belt'.
Each pin represented a case of juvenile
delinquency in 1938. "Notice how they run in pairs
or larger groups," Judge Madden said. "And notice,
too, how the pins indicate a clear-cut belt in the
city where delinquency is most frequent." This area
ran from the east bank of the South Platte River at
W. Alameda Ave. north to 40 St., with the river
forming a northwest boundary and Franklin St. the
eastern boundary.
"The delinquency belt contains about one-seventh
of Denver's total population, about 15 percent of the
city's children and more than 51 percent of the
juvenile delinquency."72
72RMN, 4-15-39, p. 6.
49


Use of this pin-chart apparently lasted for at least
ten years and likely confirmed for many that the ethnicity
of the residents was the greatest contributing factor to
the area's crime. A picture in a 1948 Denver Post shows
Judge Henry Lindsley and Chief Probation Officer Frank
Dillon standing and pointing to the chart underneath the
heading, "Chart Helps Check Youthful Lawbreakers." The
picture's caption reads:
As an indication that home environment has much to do
with the transgressions of youthful lawbreakers,
Judge Henry Lindsley points out that the majority of
the young offenders come from the area surrounding
Denver's business district."73
Nothing more clearly alludes to the growing public
clout of these gangs than the amount of press that they
received. Several articles allude to the public
misperceptions of Denver's Latino gangs. One gives us
another view of the new public image of the gang. An
article on the front page of the Denver Post exclaimed,
"Kid Gang Threatens Jurors, City Official; Conviction of
' Heads' Protested. "74
73The Denver Post. 1-11-48, p. 11.
74Ibid., 10-8-50, p. l.
50


The incident referred to was an apparent threat made
by members of the group to jurors and city officials during
a trial of several of their members. Again, the degree of
the media response to this apparent threat is indicative of
the fear that existed. Because the threat was made to
members of the 'establishment,' this served as confirmation
of the perceived civic threat that the group posed. The
Heads had clearly entered the consciousness of the public.
Another newspaper article shows how completely
misunderstood these groups were by mainstream society:
The Juvenile Gang...was so disciplined and schooled
in crime that its leaders had divided the city into
districts for criminal operations.
Members of the ring operated only in the districts
assigned to them. Several boys, asked by police if
they had committed certain robberies, replied, "No,
that wasn't in our territory."
The gang had a "headquarters" in an empty building
near 11th and Champa sts.75
This article is indicative of the fear of organization that
permeated the attitudes toward Latino youths. Again, the
motivation to band together is framed as subversive rather
than social or environmental. Using this Cold War
mentality, the 'other' is seen to seek organization against
the majority, rather than against themselves. This
7SRMN, 12-17-46, p. 38.
51


organization was in direct violation of their assigned
social space.
Forty Howling Boys and Girls
Analogies made to animals and primitive humans were
not uncommon. Denver's dailies attempted to disseminate
this new information to its suburban readers who daily came
into close contact with the downtown district. In doing
so, they have left us with some clues as to how these young
people were viewed by the anglo mainstream. Following are
several quotes taken directly out of Denver's two major
newspapers. These all are in reference to incidents in
Latino communities involving Latino youths:
Tribes of wandering juveniles, who once roamed
Denver's streets in the wee hours,have vanished.76
reports that began to appear in juvenile court
records made it plain that young amazons were seizing
more masculine prerogatives than just levis and white
shirts.77
A vast majority of children commit their crimes in
groups of two or more. Often these loose-knit groups
call themselves a gang but are really no more
organized than an informal pack.78
76RMN. September 30, 1956, p. 17.
77The Denver Post, Empire Section, 12-10-50, p. 9.
78Ibid., Roundup Section, 11-1-53, p. 6.
52


Police chief Herbert Forsyth Tuesday ordered a
crackdown on teen-age "wolf-pack" gangs that, he
said, have been roaming the streets, attacking
patrolmen and citizens alike and vandalizing Denver
theaters.79
The brawl involved 40 howling boys and girls.80
Reinforced police teams managed to break up the gangs
and start the snarling members homeward.81
Dehumanizing these young people served two distinct
purposes. One was to confirm and even inflame the general
public's ignorance and fear. The second was to justify any
means being put to use to control this threat to civil
order. Inflamatory rhetoric such as this most certainly
widened the cultural gap that existed. This demonization
of young Latinos drove a wedge of fear between the races.
Several of those interviewed explained that their only
contact with anglos was through the police and
incarceration.
An excellent example of this tendency to "animalize"
Latinos is in a series of articles written in 1944 about a
79Ibid. 8-1-50 / P- 1.
8RMN, 3-29-53, P- 56.
81RMN, 9-10-51, P- 24.
53


party of young Latinos broken up by the police. The
headline, "Denver Mother, 32, Jailed in Raid As Hostess at
* Teen-Agers' Orgy," implies that the woman organized and
supervised unrestrained sex between teenagers. The
articles also plays on many of the negative images of
immorality, lawlessness, filth, and child neglect that the
suburban, anglo community seemed to hold toward the Latino
communities. The following are taken from the articles:
[police] found several couples of half-drunken
juveniles embracing in corners of the room.
swarms of youngsters began pouring out the windows.
Some of these were collared by policemen converging
from the street and alley.
Several wore long, fancy haircuts and clothes of
exaggerated design...some of the girls gave evidence
of drinking...the attire of several was in
disarray.82
beer, wine and whisky bottles were hurled about like
hand grenades, a free-for-all was staged in the
backyard and loud and ribald singing to the
accompaniment of a twanging guitar woke other
residents...
Police found two of the smaller Zunigas [host family]
asleep on a packing case behind the closet door.
The raiders also reported finding several couples of
16-year-olds "necking" in corners of the rooms while
others shouted songs and milled around virtually
across the feet of the embracers.83
82RMN. 10-12-44, p. 5.
83RMN. 10-13-44, p. 5.
54


A smoking kerosene lamp eerily lighted the front room
in which Patricia [Zuniga infant] lay screaming in a
crib. Nine other children, including three of the
distraught neighbor women, who was attempting to
divide her time between the children and cleaning up
the disorder left from party, were crowded into two
other beds...84
Assuming that this incident was not much different
than suburban teenage parties, the rhetoric of the articles
allude to many of the fears that existed in regard to
inner-city, crowded, impoverished Latinos. A clash in
cultural values is also clear here. "Necking" in public
somehow oversteps accepted rules of public affection. If
this boundary has been lifted, it seems, then an all-out
orgy is sure to follow. Overcrowded conditions, where
young children must be placed upon packing cases or placed
tightly together upon a bed are clearly seen as neglectful
(In fact, action was taken in regards to the mother's
continuing custody of her children). Ribald laughter,
twanging guitars, fancy haircuts and clothing of
exaggerated design (possibly alluding to the fear of zoot
suiters from the previous summer's riots in Los Angeles),
and hurled bottles all represent lawlessness and
subversion. Cultural idiosyncracies around family size and
84Ibid. 10-14-44, p. 5.
55


social, public celebrations are ignored as the writer of
articles such as these is aware that he/she only needs to
grab the curiosity and the fear of the suburban reader to
have succeeded.
Red Bait and Czech Rifles
Another occasional brush used by the media to paint a
threatening image of young Latinos was that of Communism.
Cold War suspicions during these times were a natural fit
for groups as antisocial and threatening as the Latino
youth groups were assumed to be. The unfamiliar values and
customs of the Latino youths, coupled with their refusal to
acquiesce to repression and comformity, all served to
subject them to the added burden of being seen as prime
candidates for subversive activity. Several allusions to
this fear were made in the newspapers. In October of 1949,
a series of article was printed intended to inform the
public of a nascent Latino gang problem:
The Communist-Front organizations are quick to take
advantage of such situations [gangs]. For the past
year, many of the 11 to 15-year-old delinquents have
clutched blue folders in their hands when arrested.
The folders, compact and easy to carry, have a
preface about how Mexicans and Negroes are mistreated
by the police. It then goes on to list some rules:
Keep your mouth shut, you don't have to tell the cops
anything.
The rules are simple. They are written in Spanish
56


and English. There wouldn't be anything wrong with
them except that the gang members carry them as a
sort of shield against law and orderand that
they're published by an outfit known as the civil
Rights Congress...declared subversive by the Justice
Department and considered Communist dominated.85
In keeping with the civil rights angle, another article
reads:
George T. Shank, Denver Manager of Safety,
said...Communists are "behind" what he termed
"trumped-up" charges of brutality leveled against
several Denver police officers in recent weeks.
"They are doing this with a set purpose, because
someone told them to. The Communists want to weaken
police power so they can move in."86
Other articles were much more subtle in their
implications. One writer pointed out to his readers that
the police retrieved a ".275 Czech automatic" rifle from a
gang member following a fight with airmen from Lowry Air
Force Base. This is the only incident located in which a
newspaper writer goes out of his/her way to describe the
origin of a confiscated firearm.87
85RMN. 10-24-49, p. 8.
86The Denver Post. 8-18-55, p. 3.
87RMN. 9-15-51, p. 14.
*Three years later, the U.S. used evidence that the
Guatemalan government was purchasing arms from
Czechoslovakia to justify a C.I A. led coup. See Stephen
Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer, Bitter Fruit; The Untold
57


An article covering a gang disturbance from the
previous week leaves the reader to draw his/her own
conclusions, "Detective Joe Riggs, who guestioned the
injured, hinted the battle was more then just a gang fight
and indicated 'it could be something bigger than that.'"88
Considering the Cold War tension in 1951, it's not overly
presumptuous to assume that "something bigger" alludes to
some type of Communist-related activity.
An article in November of 1949 entitled, "Rigid Curfew
Urged to Curb Lawless Denver Youths," describes how recent
vandalism of Denver churches "reflects a pattern of
viciousness that was demonstrated in Russia when churches
there were defiled and the pictures of the Christ defaced
and destroyed." The author goes on to warn that
"Subversive influences are a most effective wedge for the
sabotaging of our nation by the demoralization of our
youth."89
Story of the American Coup in Guatemala (New York:
Doubleday, 1982), 148.
88RMN. 9-9-51.
89RMN, 11-9-49, p. 26.
58


Finally, a 1950 article entitled, "Tender Age Toughs,"
alluded to Cold War influences as a possible explanation
for an outbreak of gang activity. Referring to the spread
of Soviet influence in the world, the article reads, "Maybe
their gang tendencies come straight from the world
situation where big nations have taken over smaller, less
powerful ones."90
A nascent civil rights movement among the more
activist Latinos, coupled with the Cold War paranoia of
subversive activity, gave the mainstream press an easy
target. In an era when any group who did not seem to
embrace the values of American capitalism was viewed as
highly suspicious, Latino gangs were an easy fit for any
blossoming McCarthyite in the media. Any group that did
not epitomize Americanness was susceptible to being defined
in the East vs. West prism that dominated public
discussion.
"There/s No Reason For Them Being Idle"
Without a place in the industrial machine that
gripped Colorado's Front Range following WWII, many Latinos
9RMN. 12-3-50, p. 16.
59


attempted to stand by; find a niche where one could survive
and seek out the familiar communal village values from the
past. To a society obsessed with production and progress,
an unwillingness to embrace these values was deemed
traitorous.
A popular perception of these youth groups that is
apparent through the newpapers' choice of words is the idea
that Latino youths are indolent and remorseless. They are
seen here as lacking any work ethic, refusing to contribute
to society, and without the means to distinguish between
'right' and 'wrong'. This is best exemplified by a comment
made by Colorado Springs Chief of Police I. B. Bruce
following an incident where police discovered several
Latino youths in an alley, "planning war on soldiers." Mr.
Bruce succinctly related what can safely be generalized to
be his attitude toward most impoverished, young, Latino
males when he stated, "These guys are hoodlums with no
respect for anyone or anything. They don't want to go to
school. They won't work. They sleep all day and roam the
streets at night."91
91RMN. 9-21-51, p. 5.
For an excellent study of the evolution of images of
60


This was echoed in an article about the "Spanish-
American problem" in the Rocky Mountain News, "A tradition
pf 'manana' 'I'll do it tomorrow'is a liability in a
driving, fiercely competitive civilization."92 This
fiercly competitive society reacted with anger and disgust
at what it saw as a refusal to accept the values of
progress and competition. Idleness and indolence would not
be tolerated, as the following harangue by a Denver judge
exemplifies:
If some of these offenders come up before me again
and they're still idle, they will go to jail.
There is no reason for them being idle to the
point where they can stay out all night and sleep all
day. It is interesting to note that most of those
who attend school or work regularly do not belong to
gangs.93
The 1950 study on Denver's Latinos performed by the Denver
Area Welfare Council found that the most common complaint
among employers about Latino workers was poor job
attendance, "Pay-day drunks, drifting, only working when
money is needed, laziness."94
Chicanos, such as that of "el bandito," see Alfredo
Mirande, The Chicano Experience: An Alternative Perspective
(South Bend: University of Notre Dame Press, 1985).
92RMN. 2-5-54, p. 22.
93RMN. 10-26-49, p. 5.
94Denver Area Welfare Council, p. 86.
61


Denver's industrial machine fully expected the newly
arrived Latinos to perform the menial, back-breaking work
required for urban growth. When many opted for another
means of survival or took advantage of other job openings
and changed employers frequently, their work ethic and
capitalist-credibility was called into question.
Young Amazons
The media was not lost on another aspect of the gang
phenomenon. If the image of the violent male Latino was
certain to catch the eye of readers, that of the lawless
Latina (female Latino) was a sure sell. Several
sensational articles dealt exclusively with girl gangs.
One, entitled, "Girl Gangs; A Civic Problem," attempted to
tell the story of one girl's difficulties with- distancing
herself from gang life. The article at different points
referred to the girls as "young amazons", and "packs,"
while quoting a probation officer who explained that the
girls, "fight like animals. They're fearless. They just
seem to like to fight."95
It is also important to note that the author of the
95Denver Post, 12-10-50, Empire Magazine, p. 10*
62


article offers several clues that confirm for the reader
that they are Latinas. For example, the article states
that the girl was, "the terror of her section of East
Denver." Later, the author describes that the girl, "had
been running with a group of girls who called themselves
the 'Sisters,' a title inspired from a boy gang calling
themselves 'Brothers.'"96 Another simply stated, "When you
see a girl near Lincoln or Curtis parks, or on W. Colfax
ave...it usually means trouble."97 As with the boys, when
Denver's establishment held a discussion about gangs, they
were at least indirectly referring to Latinos.
Other articles did not let up on the message that
these girls were both promiscuous and violent. One
affirmed, "Girl members engage in sexual promiscuity and
sometimes deviation, but only as a 'demonstration that they
are not afraid."98 Another described a case of three girls
who set up a "sex for cigarettes ring." The article
explained that an investigation of the girls family records
had found, "eight to ten personsadult and children of
96Denver Post, 12-10-50, Empire Magazine, p. 9.
97RMN. 5-4-50, p. 5.
"Denver Post, 10-21-55, p. 13.
63


both sexesliving in the same room."99
Another quoted a police officer who described the girl
gangs:
They fight with knives, teeth, fingernails, and any
other weapon they can lhy a hand on. And there is no
quitting when their victim hollars, 'Enough, as the
boys usually do.100
The article also alluded to a past fear that gang
influences had been coming from Los Angeles. it
identified, "reports of Los Angeles girls inciting the
ringleaders here to more violent action."101
Issues involving social space cannot be ignored here.
Displays of public affection were absolutely necessary when
one's homelife involved overcrowded conditions. Sexual
intimacy at public parks and domestic situations involving
extended family members sharing rooms together were signs
to an ethnocentric majority that the barrios were breeding
grounds for immorality and sexual promiscuity. The image
of the primitive and wild "amazon" seemed to seemed to both
alarm and fascinate the mainstream media.
"Denver Post. 3-14-54, p. 18A.
10RMN. 5-4-50, p. 5.
101Ibid.
64


Dirty Mexican
One time the police grabbed us, and they grabbed him
[his friend] by the hair, and threw him against a
wall, and the policeman looked at his hand and says,
"I'll probably get the syph [syphilis] from this
fuckin' Mexican."102
Perhaps no other stereotype was more damaging to young
Latinos than that of the filthy, disease-ridden immigrant.
A fear among anglos that the Latino community was overrun
with sexually transmitted diseases affected many
interactions between Latinos and anglo professionals.
For many young Latinos, particularly females, to be
sent to the city jail meant being subjected to tests for
sexually transmitted diseases. Shirley Castro recalled,
while being held at the city jail:
It was so degrading because they gave us these
dresses that we had to wear in the jail...and they
took alot of us to Denver General to get tested for
gonorrhea or venereal disease. Everybody knew where
we were going."103
The fear that the Latino people were infected en masse
102Trujillo Interview.
103Castro Interview.
65


with venereal disease was something that the Latinos were
well aware of. Within the Denver community there seems to
have been a systematic attempt to eradicate this perceived
problem. Also, the fact that, according to Castro,
"everybody knew where we were going," indicates that this
was standard arresting procedure for Latino girls who had
been taken into custody.
The 1946 Denver Unity Council study cites several
recommendations, prepared by a committee of teachers in
1937, that were being implemented in elementary schools to
improve the health of Latino children. These
recommendations include:
1. Setting up a health center with mirror, soap, hand
lotion, and the like.
2. Collecting pictures of children bathing and
cleaning their teeth.
3. Demonstrating hand-washing before meals.
4. Washing tools
5. making a study of dust and flies on uncovered
dishes.
6. Planning, preparing, and eating a nourishing meal.
The study goes on to mention an effort in one school,
"where much work is done in acquainting mothers of children
with the nutritious quality of milk, orange juice, and hot
cereals...as compared with the quality of tortillas and hot
66


coffee.1,104
It is difficult to ignore the ethnocentrism inherent
in phrases such as, "dust and flies on uncovered dishes,"
and "the quality of tortillas and hot coffee." Moreover,
it is important to consider the subtle messages that
existed within the schools and health care systems and the
degree to which these messages affected the identities of
young Latinos. The image of filth cannot be seperated from
the related image of an uncivilized culture. This "White
Man's Burden," and its mission to sanitize the barrio and
advance the culture of its people must have contributed to
the lack of pride felt by many young Latinos toward their
parents' culture.
1Q4Denver Unity Council, p. 56.
67


CHAPTER 5
HEADS, DUKES, BROTHERS, ACES, BRAVES, HOODS, 38ERS
The most notorious gang was called the 'Heads'.
They were the largest by far...and considered the
most dangerous.105 *
As stated previously, when a reference was made
concerning 'gangs', it could be safely assumed that those
being referred to were Latinos. As an article that
attempted to inform the public about the nascent groups
stated, "The organized gangs, bearing varied names, were
comprised almost entirely of Spanish-American
youngsters.1,106
Indeed, in almost every case where the term "gang" is
used to refer to a particular incident, the location of the
incident is within a Latino community. On the other hand,
the incidents of juvenile delinquency outside of these
10SPat Vigil Interview.
1Q6RMN. 5-10-53, p. 5.
68


areas almost never are referred to with this term. For
example, a 1949 newspaper article described juvenile
delinquency in Adams county and other areas of Colorado
north of Denver:
Sex, beer, joyrides, car prowls, shoplifting-that's
the pattern of juvenile crime from Denver to the
Wyoming border...But youthful gangs, organized along
lines of the Heads or Hoods of Denver, are absent in
most parts of Northern Colorado.107
In the 1940s and 50s, the image of the gang in Denver was
clearly the image of the lawless Latino youth.
The best available information for understanding more
narrowly the types of Latino youths who were active in
gangs exists in a section of the 1950 study by the Denver
Area Welfare Council. This section of the study used court
files, probation reports, Epworth Community Center records,
and individual interviews to determine, "Who are the
Heads"?108
Among other pieces of information, the study found
that the age range of the boys was 14-18; the average
number of children per family was 6.5; 40 of the 45 were
107RMN. 10-30-49, p. 6.
108Denver Area Welfare Council study, p. 240.
69


Catholic, although only a few attended church regularly; 34
of the 45 were not attending school (most had dropped out
after 7th or 8th grade); 34 of the 45 had been before the
Juvenile Court, most more than once; 7 had been sentenced
to the State Industrial School for Boys at one time; the
vast majority of their crimes involved disturbance,
incorrigibility, burglary, and theft; 24 had parents who
were born in either New Mexico or southern Colorado; most
had families who had moved to Denver from rural areas
during the ten years prior to the study; 15 had families
who were supported by welfare.109
Again, these youngsters were the first large young
generation of Latinos that existed in Denver. Most of
their parents had come from either New Mexico or southern
Colorado and had moved to Denver during the 1930s and
1940s. They found themselves in a new urban landscape in
which the values and lifestyles of their parents did not
apply.
Territories
Groups were formed around various territorial
109Ibid., p. 242.
70


boundaries. "Haymoe," a former Head who asked that this
pseudonym be used, seemed to be the most deeply involved
gang member of those interviewed. He described these urban
boundaries:
The Dukes had Curtis park sewed up. That was their
territory. The Heads boundary was around 28th and
Arapahoe to about 21st street, and Larimer to Champa.
The Hoods7 territory was up by the ballpark around
23rd and Stout. The Aces had their territory down
around the Bottoms. The Brothers had their territory
around Lawrence street center on the westside by
Cherry Creek.110
The groups seemingly pressured those around them to
join, as Jack Chavez points out:
I remember one time, a bunch of guys that I grew up
with came up to me and said that they wanted to beat
me up. It really shocked me because they were my
friends. I said 7why7, I wasn't afraid of them on an
individual basis, but there were 5 or 6 of them. And
they said it was because I wasn't a member of their
gang. I didn't even know they had a gang. That was
the first time I ever heard of the Heads. So, really
as a matter of survival, we formed our own gang to
protect ourselves against the next region over
[Heads]. This was the formation of the Braves...it
was merely a protective measure against that
group.111
Chavez also elaborated on the various initiation procedures
110Haymoe,
December 1995.
lxlChavez
Interview
Interview.
by
author,
Tape recording,
71


and competition for members:
I was at a party and I had to go in to the bathroom.
I turned around, there must have been 20 guys in
there behind me. I was the only non-Head in the
place....They said they were gonna kill me in the
bathroom unless I joined their gang. Well, given the
alternative, I joined their gang. I became a Head in
the head [laughing]. They all welcomed me as the
newest member of their gang. Later, I was walking
through the alley, and here came the Dukes. They
came pouring out of their yards and out of ash pits
and out of those old coal sheds. I was totally
surrounded by 20 or 30 of them. I was again gonna
get killed unless I joined their gang. So in one
day, I was effectively in three gangs.112
Don Sandoval was a member of the "Braves," a smaller
group. Here, he describes the territorial conditions of
northeast Denver in the late 1940s:
We called ourselves the Braves. Maybe a six block
diameter. From 30th to Downing Street and from
Curtis to the tracks. We weren't part of the Heads.
The Heads were from 30th west and above Curtis
street...east of Curtis street and west of 30th. And
then from Downing street to about 40th, we'd call
them the 38ers.113
Chano Bueno, who was a member of the Heads, recalled some
of these rivalries; "We fought the Dukes in East Denver and
had it out with the Aces in the Bottoms [an area along the
Platte north of downtown Denver]...We were pretty
112ibid.
113Don Sandoval, Interview by author, tape recording,
November 1995.
72


notorious.1,114
Jack Chavez recalled the interregional rivalries, "If
you wanted to get killed, just go to the Bottoms and say
you're from the East side."114 115 Alberto Mares remembered,
"The 38ers hung around on 38th and Downing...and under the
Colfax bridge by Federal, there was a group of kids who
called themselves the Snake gang..."116
Rivalries between the eastside and westsides of Denver
acted as both a cause and an effect of the territorial
battles between gangs. Both communities were very
distinct, seperated from each other by the commercial
center of downtown Denver. While many of those interviewed
could not recall the names of the gangs on the other side
of town, all remembered with clarity the ferocity of the
rivalry. Pat Vigil was a victim of the dangerous game of
reciprocity played by the rival districts. Here, he
describes being attacked on the westside by youths who he
114Chano Bueno, Interview by author, tape recording,
October 1995.
115ChaVez Interview.
116Alberto Mares, Interview by author, tape recording,
September 1995.
73


assumed were eastsiders seeking revenge:
Here comes this car and it drives right up to where
we're walking...We're just a half a block from St.
Cajetan's church. All four doors open up and all
these Chicano dudesI'd say maybe eight, nine, who
knowsthey started attacking us...They're all over
me. They're punching me, booting me...I could smell
the booze...Didn't even know them...I assume they
were eastsiders because they came from that
direction. When it was all over, I thought, 'Geez,
they didn't do such a bad job on me'. What I didn't
know is that they'd stabbed me in the back four
times. By the time I got to where I lived, I
couldn't even open the door...They punctured both my
lungs. My mother even called a priest to give me my
last rights.117
"Haymoe" described a time in which he found himself in
'the Bottoms', an area along the Platte north of downtown
that was controlled by the Aces:
The Aces used to live in a place called the
Bottoms...in close proximity to the 20th street
viaduct. They were like wooden shacks, it was a real
ghetto. That used to be the Aces stronghold. One
day, I felt like doing something erratic. I thought,
'I'm going to go to the Bottoms by myself...I'm going
to surprise Andrew [a friend] and visit him.
Fortunately, when I arrived at the Bottoms, the
streets were deserted. I found Andrew and he tried
to get me out of sight in case any Aces showed up.
The Aces started coming around and somebody spotted
me and walked up to me. They couldn't understand
what I was doing there, but they respected the fact
that I had the balls to go into their camp all alone.
They didn't hurt me. They threatened me and gave me
117Pat Vigil Interview.
74


some warnings, but I walked out of there.118
The act of walking less than a mile from his home had
placed Haymoe in a dangerous situation and one in which
everyone involved could not understand his reasoning.
These regional rivalries were not limited to the city
boundaries. Jake Trujillo recalled the hatred that his
eastside friends felt toward young Latinos from Brighton:
Brighton was a little suburb, and they had the
license plate '12' on their cars. There was [sic]
alot of guys who would stone their cars or try to
stop them to fight them. The Brighton 'Neros', they
called them.119
Distinguishing Features
Father Marcus Modrano, now a Catholic priest,
remembered how some of the groups attempted to distinguish
themselves physically, "One of the identifying marks of a
gang member...the Heads anyway, always had a cross here
[pointing to his fist]. Alot of them changed their names,
they wouldn't use their given names."120 Jack Chavez
118Haymoe Interview.
119Trujillo Interview.
12Marcus Modrano, Interview by author, tape recording,
September 1995.
75


remembered:
There were little crosses that were always here
[pointing to the back of his hand]. Some of the
others would put a cross on their earlobes. Women
were notorious, always putting a little birthmark on
their cheek. There were some that would make around
their neck a rosary tattoo. Others, right above the
sternum, would go ahead and just put a little cross
there with little sparks coming in around.121
Here, it is difficult to ignore the religious themes
of these markings. The Catholicism that so pervaded the
Latino culture also found its way into the identity of the
gang members.
Shirley Castro was able to recall one of these
rituals, "In order to become a Head, the girls at that time
got a can-opener, and they'd cut their face. They would
slice one side of their cheek."122
Pat Vigil was the only interviewee who claimed to have
left his gang instead of having graduated from it. He
remembered quitting the 'Brothers' to become, "a People,
121Chavez Interview.
122Castro Interview.
76


which meant you were unaffiliated.1,123
Auxiliaries
Younger boys reacted to the territorial grouping by
forming their own gangs. Many of those interviewed
described being a member of younger groups, called the
"Baby Brothers," or the "Little Heads," before they grew
into the regular units. Jake Trujillo recalled how he and
his friends sought the acceptance of the older gang
members, "We would pattern ourselves after Peanuts [an
older friend] and those guys, and whenever they'd see us,
they'd say, 'these guys are little Hoods', which made you
feel great."123 124
Pat Vigil remembered many of the differences between
these younger and older levels:
Being in a gang, in the 'Baby Brothers', it meant
when you tangled with another gang, it was with fists
and it was a matter of honor. With the Big Brothers,
it was different. They were guys who had not only
been in Golden, many had been in Bueney.125
Shirley Castro remembered, "There were the Big Heads, 19 or
123Pat Vigil Interview.
124Trujillo Interview.
125Pat Vigil Interview.
77


20...older. And then the Little Heads were 14 or 15,
younger."126 Jack Chavez also remembered these
connections, "On the east side, there were auxiliaries of
the men's gangs....The Heads had...a younger organization,
about 3 or 4 years younger, called themselves the 'Little
Heads' ."127
Big Kitchen Knives
Girls formed groups, some alligned with certain boys'
groups, such as the "Dukennes," "Sisters," "Legs," "Heads,"
and "Dots". Jack Chavez recalled some of these
connections, "The Dukes had the Dukennes. And there were
also the female Heads. There were alot of women there who
were really, really tough.128
According to Marcus Modrano, the girls usually
encouraged fighting among the boys:
The girls were the ones that encouraged fighting
between one gang or another. They just encouraged by
[saying] 'knock the shit out of them', 'kick their
ass'. They tried to be real bad and acted that way
126Castro Interview.
127Chavez Interview.
128Chavez interview.
78


too.129
Chano Bueno had similar memories, "We had alot of girls in
our gang. They'd fight with you, they'd help you. They'd
work at the laundry and take us out on payday."130
"Haymoe" described how girls played an active role in
gang warfare:
I challenged him [rival member of the Dukes] to a
fight...big mistake on my part...boom, boom, boom, he
was really working me over, the rest of the gangs
were watching. It was a 'fair fight'...The had a
faction called the Dukennes; girls that lived right
there in the neighborhood. When the Dukennes found
out that me and Max were fighting, they ran into
their kitchens and they got these big kitchen knives
and supplied them to their fellow members. They came
on the run to give their boyfriends these big knives
and I got stabbed with one of them.. .What I think
saved my bacon was that the knife hit a rib. He had
stabbed me in the ribcage.131
Newspaper accounts, although sensationalized, also
consistently alluded to the violence inherent in female
gangs. One article explained:
The girls duty being to take upon themselves the risk
involved in carrying concealed weapons, to pass these
weapons to their boyfriends in times of fights, and
129Modrano Interview.
13Chano Bueno Interview.
131Haymoe Interview.
79


to receive the weapons back again as soon as the
fight was over.132
It's quite possible that the girls were asked to carry the
weapons, as they were less likely to be searched by the
police. Whether as active fighters or not, it seemed that
Latinas had an active role to play in the violence that
existed within the barrio.
Zip Guns
Weapons identified as common means of defending
oneself included homemade "zip guns,"133 chains, wooden
boards (torn from fences), car antennae, thick-soled
shoes134, knives, belts, pipes, baseball bats, rocks,
bottles, whips, branches, and common tools. "Haymoe"
described the creative art of locating a weapon when one
was needed, "A car antennae was a lethal weapon and very
accessible...When a fight broke out it was a simple matter
132Denver Postr 10-21-55, p. 13.
133Several remembered learning how to make these from
watching the movie, "City Across the River." These were
made by patching together a hand-crafted, wooden gunstock
together with the thick portion of an automobile antennae,
a rubber band, and portions of a cap gun.
134This was the most common weapon cited by those
interviewed. The shoes were used to inflict damage through
kicking.
80


to run to the nearest vehicle and break off an antennae.
It would break your flesh open."135 Chains seemed to be
ubiquitous as well, "Chains...wrap them around your
body...a fight would break out, you'd just whip out your
chain...and they're easy to dispose of...throw it in
somebody' s yard."136
These homemade guns are referred to in numerous
articles, almost always described as "crude." They grew
into a serious public scare at one point. Chano Bueno
recalls, "We didn't have access to guns, so we had to make
our own with car antennaes and 22-slugs."137 Marcus
Modrano, not a gang member himself, remarked:
They would break aerials off of cars and make their
rods from that. They'd put clothes-pins on piece of
wood, rubber bands, and nail the clothes-pins to fire
the gun...They always had knives, and they always had
chains, they always had boards. They would take
parts of fences to fight, and they'd like them,
particularly if they had nails.138
A 1949 article describes a situation where the police
13SHaymoe Interview.
136ibid.
137Chano Bueno Interview.
138Modrano interview.
81


raided the Epworth Community Center, a popular recreation
spot for young Latinos, and found evidence of zip gun
manufacturing:
Police last night found evidence that a woodworking
shop of a Community Chest agency has been used for
the manufacture of home-made lethal guns, now the
rage with teenage gang members.
They found in the basement shop of the Epworth
Community Center, 1130 31st St., gun patterns
painstakingly traced out on wood.
Police have estimated that there are 1000 of the
crude but potentially lethal guns in the possession
of Denver's teenagersmost of them owned by gang
members.139
Again, this fear was compounded by the fact that most
expected the guns to be used in a subversive manner instead
of for self defense in intra-barrio rivalries.
The fact that these traces of gun manufacturing were
found in the Epworth Center constituted a further cause for
alarm among the mainstream authorities. Jack Chavez
recalls the techniques used at the Epworth:
We'd go down to the Epworth, take a piece of wood,
probably about 3 quarters inch wide, and cut out the
design of a pistol. Then we'd go downtown to one of
those 5 and dime stores and we'd steal a cap-gun and
take the hammer off that and file the hammer down to
a point. We'd go and we'd steal an innertube off of
a car and then we'd cut a strip of the innertube and
we'd wrap it around the hammer and around the handle
of the gun. We cut a groove out of the back there
139RMN. 10-25-49, p. 10.
82


and take a nail and put it through to hold the hammer
in there...then tie that thing down with the
innertube really tight. Then cut an aerial antennae
off of a car and cut it down to the size of a 22
bullet. We'd do this all at workshop at the Epworth
center...Those bullets use to come out of there
rolling and tumbling and never in a straight line.
If someone pulled one on you, you always stayed right
in front. You knew that you were safe if they
pointed right at you. There were alot of zip-guns on
the east side.140
Roman Valdez claimed to have been the inventor of these
guns. He explained how he created what he called a "six-
shooter" :
I had found a cap-gun in the store that had a real
heavy cylinder. I drilled out the back end the size
of a 22 but the cylinder wall holes were big like a
38. So the bullet would swim in there. It would go
in the little hole I drilled in the back just right
and then I put some rubber bands on the trigger and
sharpened the hammer a little bit. sssshhooooo!141
Shirley Castro remembered that she and her friends
learned how to construct these guns from the film, "City
Across the River."142
14Chavez Interview.
141Roman Valdez, Interview by author, Tape recording,
November 1995.
142Castro Interview.
The book, Amboy Dukes was also identified as having
been a source for ideas.
83


The Epworth, as will be noted below, was the most
popular recreational facility among young Latinos in
northeast Denver. On any given night, the facility was
full of young people and, frequently, gang fights took
place outside the center after it closed for the night.
This is also the facility in which Judge Gilliam attempted
to gather the Heads and convince them to meet with him
there on a regular basis and reform their ways. Given this
background, it is not suprising that the media reacted with
such alarm. If any "headquarters" of gang activity
existed, at least in the minds of Denver's authorities, the
Epworth was it.
Haymoe recalled that he and his "soldiers" collected
their weapons and kept them in a roving arsenal:
We had a stash of weapons...help yourself. We^d
scatter them from one residence to another...in the
event of a shakedown. We had this gun we called the
'little bitch'. We had knives, we had chains,
homemade blackjacks...ice picks. An ice pick would
generate alot of terror.143
Fighting
Fighting seems to have served as both a rite of
passage and a method of gaining notoriety and pride. In a
143Haymoe interview.
84


community so deprived of material status and wealth, the
ability to draw attention and recognition through physical
confrontation was crucial in terms of drawing a following
or becoming a leader. This also perhaps partly explains
the popularity of boxing among Latino boys throughout
Denver's history. Renouned Civil Rights activist during
the 1970s Corky Gonzales became a respected leader among
his peers as a young man in large part because he was such
a skilled boxer and fighter; Chano Bueno boasted during
his interview, "I fought 72 fights and won 59 of them.
Noone wanted to mess with me."144
"Haymoe" seemed to understand all of the street rules
and ettiquette involved in gang fighting. The fights he
recalled were not pre-arranged. Most involved one group
discovering the location of a rival within their territory
and attacking that person or persons in a group. In these
situations, a scout would act to alert and gather together
the rest of the group. Another type of fight described by
"Haymoe" involved entering another gang's territory in
search of a fight or confrontation.145
144Chano Bueno Interview.
145Haymoe Interview.
85


Parks and schoolyards were the usual locations for
larger, prearranged gang fights. Shirley Castro, an
eastsider, recalled, "If there was going to be a gang
fight, it'd be right there at 24th street school...Or else
they'd come here to Curtis-Mestizo park to fight."146
Random invasions of another territory, probably in
retaliation for having themselves been invaded or attacked,
were another form of confrontation. "Haymoe" recalled one
such incident with striking similarities to today's drive-
by shootings:
We were over on 25th and Curtis. We were all sitting
on the porch. Lard lived there* *..Them days, hardly
anybody had cars. Suddenly, we heard a car roaring
down the street. To our amazement, it was our enemy,
this new gang that called themselves the Aces. They
were firing guns as they were passing...We were all
transfixed. We couldn't believe our eyes.147
69 Cents a Quarter
As noted above, drug and alcohol use was very
146Castro Interview.
*In the 1970s, the Chicano community was successful
in having Curtis park renamed Curtis-Mestizo park, to
better represent their community.
147Haymoe Interview.
86


prevalent among the young people of this community. In
fact, the name 'Heads7 was derived from 'potheads',
according to Chano Bueno and Gilbert Valdez. It7s
difficult, however, to determine if the use of illegal
substances among Latino youth was more or less intense than
that of their suburban, anglo counterparts.
Two determinations seem to stand out in the
interviews. First; it seems that the police 'expected7 to
find illegal substances when they confronted a Latino
youth. Second; the lack of private locations in which to
experiment with drugs or alcohol forced young Latinos to do
such in parks, alleys, and abandoned buildings, thus
increasing their chances of encountering authorities. Don
Sandoval recalls much of this; "We'd drink wine...69 cents
a quarter. We'd go to Curtis Park and sit around and drink
the wine."148 Shirley Castro added, "We would all pitch
in and buy maybe wine and sit at the park and get
drunk.1,149
Pat Vigil recalled that those who stayed in the gangs
148Sandoval Interview.
149Castro Interview.
87


for an extended period of time invariably developed a
habit; "The guys that really got deeper and deeper into the
gang trip, they became addicts... Pot, speed, heroin."150
Thick Soled Shoes
Dress style Usually included jeans or khaki pants,
thick-soled shoes and a tight tee-shirt. Jack Chavez
recalled that dress styles were still influenced by the
earlier zoot-suit fad:
The more wrinkles you had below the knee, the more
you were in. This was a take-off from the 40s on
zoot-suits. Those pants were so tight around the
ankle, you had to almost take your stockings off to
put your pants on. We used to wear dress pants way
up high and a thin, narrow belt. If they were jeans
we wore them like these kids with the crotch way
down low.151
Alberto Mares also recalled the search for identity through
dress and symbols:
Growing up on the east side in the fifties, we had a
gang, #The Boys', a gang that called themselves the
Heads, and the little guys were called the 'Boys',
and the Big Boys', and we would go put a dot on our
hands and little tattoos and belonged to this gang.
It was an identity factor. We wore our hair in a
duck-tail. We wore wedgie shoes and we had our pants
down with a little chain and our collar up. We had
15Pat Vigil Interview.
151Chave z I nterve iw.
88


a sense of identity, y'know.152
Shirley Castro remembered with some detail the dress habits
of her male friends:
The guys would were khaki pants with big soles.
They'd go to shoe shop and put extra soles [on their
shoes] because when they would boot you or kick you,
it would hurt. And taps on the bottom of their
shoes I remember chains in their pockets in case of
a fight.153
Girls almost always wore blue jeans. This quickly
became a sign of a girl "gang." One article explains:
The girls wear blue jeanstheir fighting clothes
when they are keeping a date with a rival group, or
just looking for trouble. When you see a girl near
Lincoln or Curtis Parks, or on W. Colfax ave. in blue
jeans, it usually means trouble.154
Social space was prescribed based upon visual cues. Dress
and ethnicity were two of the strongest cues that existed.
This served to minimize the contact that young Latinos had
with anglos. Fear deterred eye contact, casual
acknowledgements, or basic small talk. More importantly,
ownership of a distinctive dress style helped them to carve
152Mares Interview.
153Castro Interview.
1S4RMN. 5-4-50, p. 5.
89


out their own identity from the fragments that existed
around them.
Nicknames seemed to be ubiquitous among these young
people. Among those interviewed, all but two were renamed
by their group. All could recall these names even today.
Chano Bueno remembers some of the Heads' nicknames, "There
was Toughy, Hangover, Lard, Crutch, The Snake,
Haystack.1,155 Jake Trujillo attempted to explain some of
the process involved in creating nicknames:
One guy, Cisneros, they couldn't pronounce his name
at Golden. They'd say, 'si-si-si-si'...so 'scissors'
came out of that...Another fellow, Sam Herrera, was a
real tall kid. They called him 'Timber'. 'Joker',
'cause he was always laughing. 'Spider', 'cause he
looked sneaky. 'Wig', for a guy that had funny hair.
Then there's another guy, they used to call him
'geurrilla' -156
Knife
Almost every interviewee fondly recalled many of the
creative games that they participated in with their peers
to pass the time. Particularly during the summer months,
with one or both of their parents working long hours, and
155Chano Bueno Interview.
156Trujillo Interview.
90


without any promising job opportunities, these young people
had only each to turn to for fun and entertainment. As in
all other aspects of their lives, because of a lack of
material and financial resources, they were forced to rely
on their own ingenuity to accomplish this. Jack Chavez
recalled with great enjoyment his favorite game:
We played some dangerous games. We used to play
Cowboys and Indians...There was an old novelty
shop...We used to go in there and we'd steal these
bronze arrowhead bookmarkers. Then we'd go and we'd
take some milkweed, pull them out, let it dry out,
notch it, wrap the arrowheads in there and make an
arrow out of that. We'd make our own bows. Those
were the Indians. The Cowboys had B-B guns. We'd
have some hellish wars!157
Alberto Mares fondly recalled how he and his peers
passed the time:
We'd go to the park and play a game...called 'knife'.
Everybody carried a little pocket knife and we
learned how to stick it and drop in on the ground.
There was a game called 'chicken' where you'd spread
out your hand like that [spreading hand palm down on
table with fingers spread out], and the other guy
would drop the knive in between your fingers...if you
moved they'd call you 'chicken'...you dared not move
your fingers. You didn't carry a knife to stick
somebody, but to play the game. There was another
game called 'stretch'. You'd have two guys facing
each other and the guy would throw the knife and
stick it and you'd stretch your leg to where the
knife was and the other guy would throw the knife and
you'd stretch your leg until you couldn't stretch no
157Chavez Interview.
91


more. And whoever lost, you'd put your hand down
there and they'd drop the knife on you. You got a
reputation far playing a good game of 'knife'.158
Haymoe added his favorite:
One guy would stand up against a fence and the rest
of the gang would throw knives at him and see how
close they could come...like a sideshow at the
circus. Everybody would throW a knife to stick by
your face or body to see how brave you were.159
Just as in the rules and etiguette that surrounded
gang fights, the opportunity to prove one's courage,
bravery, and physical skills was the opportunity to
establish a reputation and a leadership position. Pat
Vigil remembered that, "Your manhood was determined by how
tough you were or how good of an athlete."160 Without
school performance, athletic teams, or material wealth to
anchor a hierarchy, physical prowess and risk-taking
ability determined one's place among peers.
Jive Houses
Jake Trujillo recalled how he and his peers would
locate abandoned houses in the community and use them for
158Mares Interview.
159Haymoe Interview.
16Pat Vigil Interview.
92