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50 years after the 'Blowout' at West High School, family's history comes full circle

Posted at 10:52 AM, Apr 24, 2019
and last updated 2019-04-24 12:53:56-04

DENVER – In Colorado in 1969, John Love was governor, a gallon of gas cost 35 cents and there was no such thing as email. You had to spend 6 cents to send a letter that might take a couple of days to get there.

Just like in other parts of the country, Colorado also had its share of protests over the Vietnam War and civil rights, including what is called the “Blowout” at West High School.

Emanuel Martinez was part of the Crusade for Justice that helped organize that protest. The Crusade was a Chicano rights organization led by Corky Gonzales that stood up against racism and segregation.

In March 1969, Martinez, Corky and other civil rights leaders stood up with students at Denver’s West High School who had reached a boiling point, demanding better schools and teachers after enduring racist treatment and hostile remarks about their language, food and culture.

Television footage from those days shows students and protesters being met by Denver police in riot gear, carrying tear gas and batons.

“There was a lot of commotion going on, kids running all different directions and police grabbing everybody,” Martinez said when describing how he and others were arrested on the first day of the protest. “My charge, like most everybody else, was assaulting the policemen. Thank goodness all the television stations were there. Their films were subpoenaed, and it showed exactly what happened.”

Fifty years later, Martinez is a world-renowned artist whose murals and sculptures can be found all around Denver and beyond.

“My whole mission was to do artwork that did give identity to the Chicanos and also some historical pride and cultural pride that was lacking in the school system,” he said.

Right now, Martinez is spending his spare time organizing his archives. His letters and awards have been requested by the Smithsonian, where some of his work is displayed.

He’s gotten some help in the process by his daughter, Mia Martinez Lopez. She’s an assistant principal at West Early College, one of two schools that call the old West High School building home.

“I find it very special that my very first office … the view from my office was the same place where my dad stood during the blowouts,” Martinez Lopez recalled when discussing her first days in the West administration a decade ago.

Since then she’s made sure today’s students know the school’s history, including the protests of 1969.

“It is shocking for them sometimes to hear that in 1969 and before, students were not allowed to speak their native language, which is often Spanish, and/or learn about their own histories,” she said.

And it’s not lost on her that having a Chicana school administrator is one of the things her father and others were fighting for.

“I feel a strong commitment to that community not just to educate -- because that's of course who I am -- but at the same time to be that face.”