When Joseph Monico Baca died in a coal mining accident near Trinidad, Colorado in the winter of 1944, his family back in Boulder County was left with questions. Baca’s daughter Phyllis Rodgriguez, four years old at the time of his passing, nearly went her entire life not knowing what happened to her dad in that Colorado Fuel and Iron Company (CF&I) mine — until, at age 82, she sat down with Linda Arroyo-Holmstrom of the Latino History Project.

After getting the green light from Rodgriguez to investigate, Arroyo-Holmstrom began searching for details surrounding Baca’s death by exploring the archives at the Steelworks Center of the West inside the former CF&I medical center in Pueblo. That’s where she found a detailed fatality report of the accident that took his life on that February day 78 years ago. 

Baca and his partner Joe Maes had just finished a shift in the Frederick Coal Mine of Las Animas County when the pair set out to catch a loaded coal railcar that had come uncoupled from others on the track. Both men jumped on the back and rode it 132 feet downgrade, before the car became derailed and pinned Baca underneath.

Such dangerous working conditions were a part of life for the laborers who toiled in Colorado’s coal mines, many of whom came originally from Mexico or New Mexico. Accidents like the one that killed Baca may have been common for exploited coal workers at mid-century, but in the hands of Rodriguez and Arroyo-Holmstrom, the report on his death produced by CF&I — an intricate blueprint with precise times and locations surrounding the event — couldn’t have been more personal.

“I went to her house and I presented it to her, and it was a very emotional interview. She cried really hard,” Arroyo-Holmstrom remembers. “She said it was like reliving the death of her father. But she was so grateful to know what happened.”

This is the type of family history preserved by the Latino History Project, and it comes to life in vivid detail in a new co-curated exhibition at the Museum of Boulder — Voces Vivas: Stories from the Latino Community in Boulder, Past and Present, on display at the downtown local history center through February 2023. 

“I didn’t even know my dad,” Rodriguez says through tears in her recorded interview with Arroyo-Holmstrom, presented for museum visitors in an intimate video installation within the first-floor gallery space. “But he’s my dad, so I’ve got these feelings for him that I’ve never experienced with him.” 

Phyllis Rodriguez, 82, talks about her late father, Joseph Monico Baca, who died in a coal mining accident in 1944. She stands in front of an installation commemorating the Columbine Mining Massacre of 1927, when six striking coal miners were killed by state police outside Serene, Colorado, a company town owned by Rocky Mountain Fuel Company in southwestern Weld County. Credit: Anthony Albidrez

The Voces Vivas exhibition weaves personal narratives like these into a broader history of Latinos in Boulder County, from their outsized role in the region’s early industries like coal mining and sugar beet farming to the discrimination faced during the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in the region, the empowerment of the Chicano Movement of the 1960s and beyond. 

To gather and present stories like Rodriguez’s, Arroyo-Holmstrom and the museum’s exhibition team launched a series of outreach focus groups and listening sessions in Boulder, Lafayette and Longmont with Latino community leaders including Phil Hernandez and Sonia Marquez to help guide the exhibition.

“The act of creating it was itself an act of relationship-building with the Latino community,” says Emily Zinn, lead curator of Voces Vivas and director of education at the Museum of Boulder.

The result of that relationship-building is a living exhibition of family heirlooms, everyday objects and artifacts, historical texts, visual art and interactive installations that reflect the pride, pain and perseverance of the families who helped build Boulder County. 

Voces Vivas: Stories from the Latino Community in Boulder, Past and Present elevates the everyday as it explores the tragedies, triumphs and political movements coursing through Boulder County Latino history. Credit: Anthony Albidrez

‘Our history has been ignored for so long.’ 

The first thing visitors will see in the gallery space is the recreation of an average working-class Latino family’s living room, featuring everyday items on loan from local residents. On the coffee table is a set of rosary beads, a family scrapbook and a vintage solid state radio that broadcasts a Boulder County resident’s memories of how sundown laws terrorized and traumatized her abuela in the early 20th century.  

From there, things move naturally to abuela’s kitchen, another loving recreation of daily life for Latino families in Boulder County. (Arroyo-Holmstrom calls the sound of a clacking rolling pin “the rhythm of my roots, steeped like melted butter on a hot tortilla.”) These immersive domestic scenes offer an intimate entry to the exhibition’s broader exploration of the tragedies, triumphs and political movements coursing through Boulder County Latino history writ large.

The many contributions of immigrants from Latin America have often been written out of the region’s official histories, but the community has been essential to the economic and cultural life of Boulder County for more than a century. That’s part of what Voces Vivas seeks to illuminate through its weaving of broad community history and the lived experiences of individuals.

“Our history has been so ignored for so long, but there have been community historians who’ve been preserving it all along,” Arroyo-Holmstrom says. “There’s always been pride within the community, and it’s just a reflection of what they’ve experienced.”

Political artwork along with other documents and objects from El Movimiento, the Chicano rights movement, on display in Voces Vivas: Stories from the Latino Community in Boulder, Past and Present. In 1974, Boulder was the site of a series of car bombings that killed six Chicano activists and students, known posthumously as Los Seis de Boulder. Credit: Anthony Albidrez

Collecting those stories is the central aim of the Latino History Project, which caught the attention of the Museum of Boulder leadership in 2020 as they moved to address gaps among underrepresented communities in gallery programming.

“It was clear the project was transformative and that it was delivering on a community-based process that a lot of institutions sort of claim to follow,” Zinn says of the collaboration. “The community involvement was so robust and so impressive. Showcasing that work was an incredibly high priority for us.”

Museum of Boulder Executive Director Lori Preston says she hopes that community-driven spirit leads to a greater sense of belonging at the downtown local history center, whose mission is to highlight community stories like those documented by the Latino History Project as a catalyst for making Boulder County’s future a better place for everyone.

“We wanted to make sure that anyone walking into the museum could see themselves, and we were really mindful to make sure the curation wasn’t about us collecting things and keeping those things,” she says. “What they’ve given is their stories and their time, and we’re documenting those things. And we’re really hoping that more and more people will see themselves at the Museum of Boulder.”

Whether people see themselves in the everyday objects of abuela’s kitchen, the portraits of military service members or the living altar where visitors are encouraged to leave their own mementos to honor the living and the dead, recognition and empowerment for local Latino families is the beating heart of Voces Vivas.

Arroyo-Holmstrom says the mission was drawn into full relief on opening night on Feb. 26, when the Museum of Boulder first-floor gallery space was filled with people who finally got the chance to see themselves represented in the story of the place they call home.

“They were just so proud to see their relatives up there. It was joyous,” she says. “People say the exhibit is beautiful. That’s probably the response I hear the most: It’s so beautiful. That’s not what I expected — but I guess it is beautiful: the yellow walls of the abuela’s cocina, all the things set up. I think it takes them home.”

Voces Vivas: Stories from the Latino Community in Boulder, Past and Present is on display at the Museum of Boulder (2205 Broadway) through Feb. 26, 2023.

Jezy J. Gray

Jezy Gray was the former managing editor of Boulder Reporting Lab. In addition to years of writing on the culture, politics and history of my home state of Oklahoma, he was the final editor-in-chief of the Tulsa Voice, a local bi-weekly newspaper where I led a small but mighty team of journalists to regional and national honors in feature writing, diversity reporting, LGBTQ+ coverage and more.