There is a scene in Gabriel Garcia Marquez, The Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), where the butterflies come to the village of Macondo and erase people’s memories. The names of all things around them are forgotten and everything has to be named again in order to restart life.
Naming things in your own language and world view makes the reality meaningful as an extension of who you are and what you are about. When Columbus landed on the Island of Guanahani on October 12, 1492 in what is today the Bahamas, he renamed it San Salvador because it reflected the Spanish world view and its Catholic monarchs.
The present debate about changing the name of an important park in North Denver is a case in point. The conversation is complicated by the fact that there are two communities, the Italian and the Latino, competing for naming rights reflecting heritage.
I remember the park very well, as it stands almost catty-corner from the first house my parents bought in Denver on 39th and Osage. The little house is the second from the corner on the northwest side of the street.
It was the summer of 1957 and the neighborhood was still Italian oriented. The pool was full of young people doing the things boys and girls do on a hot summer day. I was content to watch when I was not working. I also knew not to go there because the unspoken understanding was that I did not belong.
Those were still the days of “Columbus Park” attended by folks that related to and celebrated its namesake. The demographic situation at the time was of more comfort at Horace Mann Junior High, the only school I began and finished completely.
I left the area three years later to begin my life as a 17 year-old adult looking to find myself and my place in the world. I returned to North Denver 30 years later and discovered something very different. North Denver had become a Latino enclave with a special historical contribution to the Chicano Movement. To be sure, Denver was one of the major centers of the struggle for justice and equality and “La Raza Park” had become a focal point for achieving that.
The debate about the name of the park has been going on at least since the 1930s. That is in part because Dia de la Raza has always been the Mexican, Mexican American and Chicano term for Columbus Day.
The term recognizes the historic encounter between the European and the pre-Columbian Civilizations that forms the beginning of what Jose Vasconcelos called “La Raza Cosmica,” popularly referred to as La Raza. Raza refers to the Mestizo representing a combination of all races and who is becoming the face of the Americas North and South. The drive to have a name-change reflects the importance put on that development and the place of Latino heritage in the community.
Aside from the Coronavirus pandemic and the upcoming national election, there is a movement about institutional racism that is gripping the national scene. America is listening to a discussion that includes doing away with names of places associated with the Southern Confederacy that were the source of slavery. There is even an effort to tear down monuments to Confederate leaders and slave owners in parts of the country. So, there is no better time to look at La Raza Park and a name change, not to tear down, but to build on its epic history.