One of the things Pueblo residents like about their town is its ‘Goldilocks’ size; not too big, not too small. Even its rush hour is over in minutes. But even smaller towns, Pueblo included, couldn’t escape what the rest of the country and world faced in 2020. COVID came to Pueblo and in a big way. It, this invisible, often deadly microbe was the city’s biggest story of 2020. But it wasn’t the only notable Pueblo story.
Last January, La Voz Bilingue wrote about a festering issue southern Colorado’s hub city has been dealing with. Pueblo’s eastside has been without a grocery store for more than four years. The Safeway that had served the eastside for more than fifty years shuttered in 2016. Puebloans can either drive across town or buy food at convenience or dollar-an-item stores. “When you don’t have access to good food,” said city councilman Dennis Flores, “it’s a health issue.” The eastside is home to a high population of both elderly and low income residents. The city continues to explore opportunities to bring a grocery store to the community.
While Pueblo may seem like too long a drive for out-of-towners to make, those who do discover the ‘Jewel of the Arkansas Valley,’ the city’s Sangre de Cristo Arts and Conference Center. For more than fifty years, it has more than lived up to that billing. “Our number one thing is our exhibits,” said Bob Campbell, Marketing and Events Coordinator for the Center. While COVID cut a swath through many of the Center’s 2020 offerings, including staged performances, dance studios and art workshops, it adjusted and said it will be back. When that happens, it will once again serve the region east to the Kansas state line and west to the front range of the Rockies along with the San Luis Valley.
It may seem safe and out of the way, but residents of southern Colorado’s San Luis Valley found out that not even its isolation could save it from COVID. While Colorado’s urban centers were hit hard with the virus, smaller towns in the Valley were experiencing their own challenge and it pushed the region’s healthcare to its limits. Valley residents jumped in and made masks by the thousands for healthcare workers. “We’ve had fewer cases, but we also have fewer resources,” said Linda Smith, spokesperson for the six-county health department. The Valley’s three hospitals did as much as they could but still had to send its sickest to facilities in Pueblo, Colorado Springs and Denver.
Graduating seniors at Pueblo’s high school didn’t quite get the graduation they may have imagined. Instead of the traditional ‘pomp and circumstance,’ District 60 graduates did their commencement virtually.” This will be talked about for the rest of their lives,” said District 60’s Dalton Sprouse. When COVID hit, the District had to come up with a plan so as not to break tradition. Class valedictorians got to give their speeches and, working with health officials, smaller groups of students got to ‘walk the walk’ and receive their diplomas.
Despite a devastating drought, southern Colorado’s melon crop rose to respectability. It wasn’t quite blue-ribbon quality, but with two million harvested, it registered at a solid ‘B.’ Rocky Ford watermelon man, Michael Hirakata’s family has been in the business for generations. And despite a slightly lower grade on volume, 2020’s crop still met the Hirakata high standards. Hirakata quotes Mark Twain to describe his farm’s product. “When one has tasted (watermelon), he knows what angels eat.”
Two hours southwest of Rocky Ford, another money crop came into the money. In Alamosa, the spud is king and this year’s crop, despite drought, was good, said former Colorado Congressman John Salazar. The ‘big three,’ Russet, Red and Yellow Skin and others, are a $300 million dollar item in the state’s farm basket.
COVID in Colorado has hit every community, some harder than others. But despite this on-going battle, there are still things to be done, including feeding those hardest hit and least equipped. Helen Benavidez has been running Pueblo’s Community Soup Kitchen for the last nearly three years. This year’s Thanksgiving meal was one of her biggest challenges. But she somehow met it. Food donations were down as were monetary contributions. Still, using imagination and tugging on the right strings, she pulled it off serving a couple of hundred, even providing seconds for those who asked.
The world has changed with COVID. But with people like Pueblo’s Benavidez and Flores, Rocky Ford’s Hirakata and Alamosa’s Salazar, it could be a long war, but each has committed to fight for the duration.