Here’s How Colorado Rep. Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez Is Carrying the Torch of Her Chicano Activist Abuelo

Photo by Betsy Hansen / Courtesy of Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez

In Denver, Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales was one of the earliest and fiercest voices for Chicano education. The boxer-turned-political activist – considered one of the leaders of the Chicano Rights Movement – founded Escuela Tlatelolco in 1971. At the bilingual nonprofit school, which remained in operation until 2017, Mexican-American youth had culturally relevant curricula that helped instill in them knowledge and pride in self and history. Nearly five decades later, Corky’s granddaughter, State Rep. Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez, is carrying his legacy into the Colorado legislature.

In one of her first acts since assuming office in January, Gonzales-Gutierrez – among the historic group of first-time women candidates who won elections in 2018 – sponsored a bill that expands statewide legislation requiring civics and history classes to include education on minority communities. House Bill 1192 requires these classes to teach the history, culture, and contributions of Asian Americans and LGBTQ folk, in addition to already-established lessons on Latinxs, African Americans, and Native Americans. The bill also created a 13-member commission that includes educators of these backgrounds tasked with ensuring that the curricula accurately represents these cultures and histories.

“I grew up knowing two things: We have to stand up for others and ourselves as well as the power of education,” Gonzales-Gutierrez, who represents North Denver, tells Remezcla. “My grandfather valued education. Education is our way out, our way to a better life, a life where we can help others.”

Growing up, she heard these messages repeatedly – and not just from her famed grandfather.

Her parents ran a program at a North Denver recreation center, where they worked with at-risk, gang-involved youth. The couple often brought along Gonzales-Gutierrez, who, at just 8 years old, observed her parents’ passion and dedication for social change and community-centered youth development. Years later, during her middle school years, a fire for justice and education started to burn in her as well. People in her district were fighting for equal education, and there was a walkout scheduled at her school. Gonzales-Gutierrez, then in eighth grade, asked her parents if she could participate in the protest. They asked her what time they should pick her up.

“Presenting this bill, years after that walkout, which also happened decades after my grandfather organized the 1969 student walkout, where Chicanos and Latinos protested mistreatment in their schools, feels full circle,” she says.

Before running for office, Gonzales-Gutierrez, 37, worked in human services. Like her parents, she spent most of career serving youth through child welfare and juvenile justice. She was a juvenile caseworker for Denver Human Services for eight years and, most recently, was the director of the Denver Collaborative Partnership, which helps families impacted by the juvenile corrections or child-welfare systems with access to health resources, substance abuse treatment, food assistance and more. Navigating various bureaucratic state systems in order to serve young people and their families, Gonzales-Gutierrez gained a unique perspective on the challenges these groups face and the insight to address them.

This led to her deciding to put her hat int he ring to replace term-limited Dan Pabon in Denver District 4.

“I saw it as an opportunity to make change from within,” Gonzales-Gutierrez, the only Latina in the race, says.

Initially, many discouraged the state representative, a mother of three, from running because they questioned whether a woman with children should hold public office, a sexist suggestion that angered the then-candidate and fueled her campaign. Disproving the critics, Gonzales-Gutierrez – also following in her own working mother’s footsteps – often took her children on the campaign trail with her, bringing her little ones to canvass and meet the communities their mom would soon represent.

In June 2018, Gonzales-Gutierrez won a three-way primary with about 58 percent of the vote, all but guaranteeing her seat in the predominantly Democratic district. When the lawmaker took office in January, she joined 14 other Latinxs in the Colorado legislature – the largest number in the state’s history. Of the Latinx legislators, she says that 10 were recently elected and nine are women.

“It’s exciting but also hard getting everyone together, but stuff is happening. We are making sure we are taking advantage of this moment and making sure that people know we’re here,” Gonzales-Gutierrez, who is the co-chair of the Latino Caucus, says.

In nearly four months, Gonzales-Gutierrez’s presence can already be felt in Colorado politics. She has sponsored legislation like the Equal Pay For Equal Work Act bill, which would implement measures to prevent pay disparities like requiring companies to notify all qualified employees about job advancement opportunities and salary range and allowing employees to take legal action if they believe their wage differential is based on gender, as well as a rent-stabilization bill that would repeal the ban on rent control and allow local governments to pass and enforce measures that address affordable housing.

Her first bill to pass through the House and Senate – which allows courts to allocate the parental responsibilities of vulnerable youth between 18-21, including those who are undocumemted or have been abandoned, to a guardian – has already been signed by Gov. Jared Polis and enacted as law.

“If you’re coming here from a different country, you can’t expect an 18-year-old who does not have a viable parent with them to come here, set up shop and be fine. They need help. This allows another relative or adult to assume guardianship and will help them gain special immigration juvenile status, which is one small step in gaining full legal status,” she adds.

While Gonzales-Gutierrez’s grandfather – who ran for Colorado State Representative and Denver Mayor and lost both races, – criticized electoral politics and the two-party system for much of his life, the rising politician, who says she is also aware these “pitfalls,” believes she is pushing his work, and that of activists before and after him, forward in a different way.

“I think it’s important to be a bridge,” she says. “We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for what they did then and the work that’s still being done now. … We have the same values and can push things further.”

Wednesday, May 1, 2019 at 5:30 p.m. ET: This post has been updated. It previously incorrectly stated that Escuela Tlatelolco was still open and the number of members of the commission created by House Bill 1192.