DENVER — In celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month and 52 years of growth, the Department of Chicano Studies at Metropolitan State University of Denver in Colorado gathered alums, faculty, and students.
They spent the day sharing memories from the past, dancing to the beat of drums, and admiring historical relics.
If you're not familiar with the word Chicano, the chair of the department, Adriana Nieto Ph.D., explains it as a reflection of a life experience.
"It's a shortening of Mexican, and it reflects an experience growing up, whether you were born in the United States or migrated at some point, but growing up in the U.S. with Mexican ties," Nieto said.
Nieto says Chicano as a term of identification gained popularity in the Civil Rights movement era of the 1960s and 70s.
"The Chicano movement emerged at a time when there were lots of other social and political movements happening," Nieto said. "We had a massive anti-Vietnam War movement, and the Chicano movement was definitely plugged into that."
She says many civil rights movements intersected at that time, including the United Farm Workers movement.
"I think, like generally, the Chicano/Chicana movement was about social justice and human rights and the expansion of those rights," Nieto said. "And then the labor, you know, the branch that worked on labor rights was centering all of that around the experience of all of our communities as workers, as wage laborers, which isn't disconnected from the migration of people who had to leave land-based lifestyles to go work for wages, to sell their labor as wage workers."
In the past 52 years, Nieto says it's taken a lot to get the Chicano department to where it is today.
"One of the demands from the Chicano movement was that universities and colleges established Chicano/Chicana studies departments, but also attend to the recruitment of Chicanos and Chicanas from high schools into colleges, retaining them once they're there, and then also building the numbers of Chicano and Chicana faculty," Nieto said.
Murals painted by Chicano artists at the university and places nearby preserve the memories and values of the movement.
"Murals and art are some of the main, you know, reflections of the movements, of the identity," Nieto said. "And they mean a lot to people."
Nieto says she hopes students and faculty will use their knowledge of the past to continue building on what former activists have already accomplished.
"That's what we're here for, is to give students the tools and so that they can learn the history to figure out what we need to do to do better and how we can serve the diversity of communities that come to us," Nieto said.