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Cinco de Mayo celebration honors Chicano culture in Denver

A Westwood after-school program is teaching kids to love themselves and their community through Mexican art, music and dance.
Aalycia Rodriguez, visual arts teacher for In La'kech Denver Arts
Posted at 5:45 PM, May 05, 2023

DENVER — In an art gallery in Denver’s Westwood neighborhood, a Cinco de Mayo celebration is coming to life through hand-made paper flowers and piñatas. With just a few sheets of tissue paper, kids are connecting with their culture and their community.

“I just want to teach them so much self love, especially for their identity being primarily Hispanic and Mexican American students,” said Aalycia Rodriguez, who teaches visual arts as part of the In La’kech Denver Arts after-school program.

Like her students, Rodriguez grew up in this southwestern Denver neighborhood where 77% of residents identify as Latino or Hispanic.

“I just want to educate the kids in my neighborhood,” Rodriguez said. “I feel that art is for everyone, and I want my kids to learn the cultural significance of our art too, and just who we are.”

Marianna Lucero, who used to teach drama and dance at a Denver Public Schools elementary school, created In La’kech to fill a gap in culturally-responsive art programs for kids in Westwood.

“It just means so much to be able to give back to the community that raised me through the platform that I have now,” Lucero said.

In La’kech teaches its students how to make art, play mariachi music and dance baile folklórico. All of the classes are offered for free.

Cinco de Mayo is a chance to showcase those arts.

“We’ve really taken this as an opportunity to honor who we are as a people,” said Lucero. “Not only are they learning about their ancestors, but they're also gaining skills that will help them be able to make projects that they're passionate about.”

Lucero said she chose the name In La’kech because it as Mayan precept that brings people together.

“In La’kech is the ancestral belief that we are all extensions of one another, that if we learn how to better love and respect others, then we show the world that we love and we respect ourselves. And we choose to do that through the arts,” Lucero said.

The classes have been welcoming for Westwood’s youth, including teacher Rodriguez, who recently graduated from high school.

“I see myself in a lot of these kids,” Rodriguez said. She grew up low-income and didn’t have access to art classes that made her feel seen or accommodated.

“With teaching, I just feel like not everyone always gets included, and I always want to include everyone,” Rodriguez said. “I want all of these kids to be seen no matter their age, if they have disabilities, or their sex, gender.”

Inclusion is so important to Rodriguez because of her own experience.

“Having cerebral palsy... I had to get many surgeries and I had to overcome a lot," Rodriguez said. “It's impacted my teaching and my artwork a lot.”

For students like the Quintana sisters, Alina and Leyla, these classes are deeply appreciated.

“It's a great thing that In La’kech is doing for the community, because it's completely free,” said Alina Quintana.

“When we first went, we thought it was so hard and we were thinking about quitting. And then we started opening up and make new friends. And we started to enjoy it a whole lot more,” said Leyla Quintana.

Heading into their Cinco de Mayo showcase, In La’kech is embracing the historical significance of the holiday.

“A lot of people think it’s Mexico’s Independence Day, which it’s not. It’s the Batalla de Puebla,” said Karen Olid, who teaches students how to sing mariachi music.

Cinco de Mayo commemorates the Battle of Puebla, an unlikely victory by the Mexican Army over French forces in 1862. Mexican-Americans in Colorado first started celebrating the holiday in the 1970s. Chicano activists in Denver and Pueblo saw the holiday as a symbol of resistance and freedom. An opportunity to take pride in their culture and celebrate with traditional food, music, dance and art.

“We are going to reclaim this holiday and get to teach people about our culture,” Olid said.

In La’kech will showcase its artwork at the Hecho en Westwood campus during the Cinco de Mayo en Westwood celebration on Saturday, May 6. Their students will also perform baile folklórico and mariachi music.

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