Long known for its steel mill and ethnic neighborhoods, there is something undeniable about Pueblo. As one of Colorado’s oldest cities, Pueblo has a certain charm that evokes comparisons to towns that dot the eastern U.S. While time has certainly had an impact on the town and neighborhoods have transformed from what they once were, Pueblo still has its own unique ethnic charm.
Lifelong Puebloan, Diana DeLuca Armstrong, grew up “on the Mesa,” a community on the eastern outskirts of Pueblo known for its farming and the many Italian families that settled there early in the last century. DeLuca Armstrong’s grandfather who came to Pueblo by way of the Calabria region of Italy and Philadelphia, the first place he called home after arriving. He opened the first grocery store on the Mesa in 1915.
He sold the produce that is still grown on the many farms on the Mesa to other Italians who would venture up from Goat Hill, a community just the other side of the Fountain River or to the Slovenians who settled in the neighborhoods around the mill.
In the early 20th century, Pueblo was awash in culture and languages that reflected a changing world. Each new community---The Lanes, The Blocks, The Grove---would also have its own church, said DeLuca. “Mount Carmel was for Italians. Saint Anthony was for Czechoslovakians. There was a church for every new group.”
But what attracted immigrants to Pueblo were the jobs that scores of coal mines to the south of the city provided or the steady work a round-the-clock steel mill almost guaranteed. Steel fueled the appetite that a growing country could not get enough of.
At the turn of the 19th century, said Victoria Miller, “You had millions of people flowing into the country looking for a better life.” Miller, Curator of the Steelworks Center of the West Museum in Pueblo, said the mill was hiring and few workers were turned away. Whether you spoke English or not was only a minor inconvenience. “Most of the people who joined the CF&I were from Mexico, or eastern and southern Europe,” she said.
So hungry for a workforce to work in the steel mill, the coal mines that fueled it or the mill’s smelter, the company hired teachers to tutor its workforce in English. “Forty-two languages were spoken,” said Miller. Despite knowing the steel mill’s history better than almost anyone, Miller’s still in awe how things got done considering the language barriers. “They probably did a lot of improv,” she said, “using sign language or maybe they had a friend who spoke the other languages to help translate.”
While the steel mill was the biggest employer in Pueblo, the Colorado Mental Health Institute at Pueblo, then known simply as The State Hospital, also had a growing workforce and a second language was always a benefit. Nell Mitchell, now retired from the facility, began her tenure there in 1962. “I went to Pueblo Junior College and went right to work.”
While a second language was not mandatory, it certainly came in handy, said Mitchell. During the early to mid-60s, said Mitchell, “the maximum number of patients we had was 6,100.” Patients, said Mitchell, “came from all over the state and some of them came from all over the world.” Today the facility houses around 500. The museum, she said, represents a timeline in the treatment of mental illness. It is open only on Tuesdays.
But few places in Pueblo reflect the foundational diversity of the city as much as its El Pueblo Museum. It is built on the site where the first trading post was established. “To me, the museum and Pueblo tell the story of a city that cares for its people,” said Zach Werkowitch, the Museum’s Community Relations Director. “The roots of Pueblo extend here to before the United States was even here,” he said. “What’s more interesting than that?”