Honoring Colorado's first Hispanic House Speaker

Posted at 12:05 AM, Sep 20, 2015
and last updated 2015-09-20 02:05:21-04

The man who became Colorado’s first Hispanic House Speaker is now trying to raise money for students attending a campus named in his honor.

“With honor comes a responsibility and an obligation,” said Ruben Valdez.

The former House Speaker is trying to impress on students at the STRIVE Prep Schools on the Ruben Valdez Achievement Campus, the importance of education.

“One of their goals,” he told 7NEWS, "should be getting to college and graduating from college.  In this age, it’s almost necessary.”

Valdez, the youngest of nine children, says he dropped out of school in the 9th grade, so he could get a job at the brick factory in Pueblo, to support his mom. 

“I realized that my opportunities were limited if I didn’t get an education, so I went back to school and got my college degree at age 37, but I got it,” he said.

Valdez ran for a seat in the state House of Representatives in 1970 and was elected to serve the west Denver community.

He was selected as House Speaker in 1975.

“The best two years I spent in the legislature was when I served as Speaker,” he said. “I also served as Minority Leader and Caucus Chair.”

The Democrat garnered a lot of respect from Republicans, because he reached out across the aisle.

When the GOP regained control of the House, Rep. Ron Strahle became Speaker.

“I was very glad I treated him the way I did,” Valdez said, “because he returned the favor.”

When asked if students can learn from that, he replied, “Well, I hope so.  Human relations is very, very important.  I hope some of that is taught in schools, because it’s so important for people to get along."

He said getting along will help the kids with their education and with their life in general.”

While visiting the campus recently, the former House Speaker met 13-year old Mayra Rodriguez.

The 8th grader was excited to meet him.

“It’s a chance to meet someone who put their life and their heart into something they really wanted, like bilingual education,” she said. “That makes me think that since he went for something that he wanted and he got it, I could do that too.”

Valdez looked on with pride as the students at STRIVE Prep walked by in their uniforms.

He said uniforms help cut down on distractions and allow the students to focus on learning.

Valdez said the students are part of a massive demographic change in Colorado.

The 2010 census showed that for the first time in history, Hispanics number over one million in Colorado – nearly 20.3 percent of the population.

“The significant thing about that,” he said, “is that when you get people who are under 18 years of age, we’re the largest group in Colorado.  There’s going to be a lot of power there. I hope it goes in the right direction.”

He said it’s important for members of the Hispanic community to engage civically.

“They should vote, make sure they know what the issues are, and work with people,” he said. “I just see a very bright future, especially when you see kids like this. I’m excited about it.”

The former Speaker said the fund he started to help students at the Valdez Achievement Campus “will 100 percent go to the students and their needs."

“I want to work with the staff to find out what those needs are,” he said, “and how we can help these low income families to make sure they everything they need.”

He said people have been "very generous."

The students are taking notice.

12-year old Daniel Ochoa said the Strive Prep community is a great one to be part of.

He said he’s grateful that Valdez still has a commitment to help the people of west Denver.

“What he has done for this community is so spectacular,” Ochoa said. “I just find that very inspiring.”