It was the second-hottest July in Colorado history when the City of Lafayette opened its first public swimming pool in the summer of 1934. But the new facility would do little to cool the racial tension that began to crest when local resident Rose Lueras and her 12-year-old daughter Rosebelle were denied entry to swim on the basis of their Latino heritage.
This moment is the catalyst for an ongoing exhibition at the Museum of Boulder, on display in the local history center’s second-floor Lodge Gallery through Aug. 14. The show presented by the Lafayette Arts & Cultural Resources Department draws from extensive research and photographs to bring a long-ignored and painful chapter of local history to life.
Until that pivotal summer day, the new pool had been a source of local pride. With municipal coffers coming up short, the city had solicited material donations from residents to help with construction, giving locals an added sense of ownership over their new community asset. “Public spirited citizens,” as the Lafayette Leader called them in the newspaper’s pledge cards, donated cement by the sackful.
But who counts as the public would prove to be a thorny question for local officials, as evidenced by a hand-painted sign declaring the facility was designated for white people only. Lueras and her daughter were excluded, along with the roughly 30 other Latino households in Lafayette at the time, even though their family donated 10 bags of cement to the construction effort.
“It was a slap in the face,” said local historian and activist Frank Archuleta, whose research forms the spine of the exhibition on display at the Museum of Boulder. “[They] didn’t want the Mexicans and Latinos in that pool.”
In May of 1934, a few months before the pool would officially open, the city began discussions to lease the facility to the local private volunteer fire department. The transfer was designed in part “for the purpose of keeping Mexicans from using the pool,” according to later court testimony from firefighter and city councilmember Henry Mathias.
By denying entry to Latinos on the basis of race, the city soon found itself facing legal action from Lueras and 25 other Latino families who banded together in a fight for civil rights that would echo through the ages.
That willingness to lead the charge for equality would come at a price for Lueras. She was targeted by the Ku Klux Klan, which marched through Lafayette upon news of the lawsuit and burned a cross on her manicured front lawn at 304 E. Chester St.
“She was, back in those days, a woman fighting for social justice against the KKK. Could you imagine? They ran her out of town,” Archuleta said. “But she was fighting for civil rights and human rights for Latino families.”
‘The swimming pool is a footprint.’
Presumably in response to sustained harassment, Lueras and her daughter left Colorado for California to await the trial. That’s where, just weeks before the case was to be heard in Boulder District Court, Lueras was hit and killed by a driver while crossing a Santa Monica street near her home at age 33.
Lueras’ daughter Rosebelle would return to Lafayette to live with her father Santiago, and the 13-year-old would take the stand in her mother’s place when the discrimination suit came to trial in Boulder on July 11, 1935. Court proceedings also featured testimony from local firefighters, Lafayette city councilmembers and Latinos whose solidarity had been forged through recent coal miners’ union strikes.
But the testimony of Latino community members alleging their 14th Amendment rights were violated by the white-only public facility was not enough to move the gears of power. As was the case with most discrimination lawsuits before the 1960s, they lost their case in district court — and then again two years later in the Colorado Supreme Court.
The pool would remain closed as the case played out, never to reopen. The Lafayette Board of Trustees eventually reimbursed the volunteer fire department $340 for its financial stake in the short-lived facility. Nearly half a century later, in 1989, the city would spend $8,000 to dig out the concrete and construct the Bob L. Burger Recreation Center in its place — complete with an aquatic facility designed in part by Sharon Martinez Stetson, the first Latina elected to the Lafayette City Council.
“The swimming pool is a small footprint of a systemic issue that was so pervasive, and so hard to fight,” said Emily Zinn, education director at the Museum of Boulder. “I hope [exhibition visitors] remember Rose’s story and celebrate her legacy with an understanding of how near this history is. I also hope that they connect the activism of Frank [Archuleta] and others in the fight against historic erasure.”
Indeed, the advocacy and research of local historian Archuleta would be a guiding force that brought the issue to the desk of Rachel Hanson, program manager for the Lafayette Arts & Cultural Resources Department. She knew a pool had been briefly opened and closed in the early part of the 20th century, but the wider context of what happened was not yet part of the city’s official history.
“You can go back into the Daily Camera and Lafayette news records and find articles probably every 10 or so years that might mention or touch on the elements from the story,” Hanson said. “However, they never did a deep dive into the underlying racial unrest.”
So together they got to work with local community members researching and stitching together the narrative that would become the Museum of Boulder exhibition, which won the 2021 Caroline Bancroft Award from History Colorado during its initial run at the Lafayette Collective Community Arts Center. Other collaborating institutions included the Lafayette Historical Society, Lafayette Public Library, the Boulder County Latino History Project and the CU Center for Ethnic Studies.
Before that initial exhibition, with a compelling body of research under their belt, the group presented the Lafayette Human Rights Commission with a one-page summary outlining the discriminatory episode of Boulder County history. As a result, outgoing mayor Alexandra Lynch issued a proclamation apologizing to the Latino community on behalf of the city.
“Any community across the country could find a similar type of story in their history. It’s not unusual,” Hanson said. “We may be a unique community, but stories like this are not unique. And I think that’s a piece of the reckoning: We have been able to acknowledge our part as a community government.”
That acknowledgment was set in stone on a cold and rainy night in December 2019, when the swimming center at the Bob L. Burger Recreation Center — known today as the Rose Lueras Pool — was adorned with a plaque commemorating her fight for civil rights in Boulder County. Despite the weather, Hanson says the event was well attended by a “multi-generational, multi-ethnic crowd of people from many different walks of life,” featuring city leaders, local Latinos and descendants of Lueras.
The moment may have marked a turning point in terms of a local community reckoning with a dark episode from its history, but back at the Museum of Boulder, Zinn says the story of Lueras’ fight for equality underscores how the past is never really past.
“Local history shapes the communities we live in. So this is not something that has ‘ended,’” she said. “We are now living in the systems that have been created over generations, and if we don’t acknowledge them, we won’t dismantle them.”
Racism and Discrimination at the Lafayette Swimming Pool is currently on display at the Museum of Boulder. On Thursday, Aug. 4, the museum will host a panel discussion on the exhibition with Frank Archuleta and Rachel Hanson, along with city representatives and teacher Logan Vargas, a descendant of Rose Lueras. Tickets here.