Hope and Healing: The Story Behind a Community Mural

After years of curating transformative art experiences alongside clients and community partners, our team knows firsthand the impact art has on our individual and collective wellbeing. Studies show that public art can benefit public health, helping to alleviate stress, strengthen identity, and encourage overall positive health behaviors. 

Further, art made in collaboration with others – called participatory community art – amplifies these benefits, bringing people together across differences to make something meaningful. Community art can increase feelings of belonging, reduce isolation, and eliminate stigmas, helping us better understand and empathize with one another. 

When we witness a community art project come to life, we’re in awe. Especially one in our own backyard.

On January 7th, 2022, NINE dot ARTS opened our Denver headquarters to the community for the unveiling of a public mural that will live outside our offices for years to come. Created in collaboration with residents of our Northside Denver neighborhood, students and staff at Fred N. Thomas Career Education Center Early College, Think 360 Arts for Learning, and local teaching artist Tony Ortega, the mural depicts the joyful event that took place on June 20th, 2021 – a celebration of the renaming of our neighborhood’s beloved La Raza Park. Though it was once entitled Columbus Park, locals have long referred to it as La Raza Park, honoring its history as an important gathering place during the Chicano rights movement in the 1970s. Today, that June 20th dedication ceremony stands still in time, depicted across our office’s new exterior mural. It was through this participatory painting project that community members learned the history behind La Raza Park and the longstanding activism of our neighborhood’s Chicano residents and ancestors.

Meltzer, E., 2022. “It’s going to be La Raza Park until I die”. [online] Denverite.

Northside Community Painting Day

Eager to engage our local community, NINE dot ARTS launched this project in early 2021 with the vision of bringing together Northside residents, artists, educators, and our staff to build connections through shared creativity. In partnership with the local nonprofit Think 360 Arts for Learning, we recruited renowned teaching artist Tony Ortega to guide the work, knowing then that we were in good hands.

Having worked with Tony in previous years, we were familiar with his vibrant, narrative style murals which often nodded to his Chicano heritage. Further, Tony grew up just blocks away from our office, a Northside native with strong ties to the community. Reflecting on his upbringing and memories of La Raza Park, Tony created the initial mural design and worked with students and administrators at Fred N. Thomas Career Education Center Early College to produce the first iteration. Over five Fridays in the fall of 2021, Tony led students through the painting process, teaching both artistic technique and La Raza Park’s history.

Soon after, our team culminated Denver Arts Week by hosting a Northside Community Painting Day where neighbors and friends could add their own contributions to the mural, meanwhile hearing from Tony and other Chicano residents about the stories behind their brushstrokes.

One such resident was Arturo “Bones” Rodriguez, a 5th generation Northsider and a prominent leader of the La Raza Park Legacy Project, which spearheaded efforts to rename the park and continues to advocate for respectful representation of Chicano culture. 

“I look at the faces in this mural and I envision the youth that I worked with when we took over the park peacefully…when we ambushed the park’s pool back in the 70s” said Arturo. “And wow, we’re finally teaching La Raza Park history and culture, and from our perspective.”

It’s through Arturo, Tony, and other Northside residents that our Community Painting Day became more than a creative collaboration. Together, participants gained a deeper understanding of our neighborhood’s history and culture – some remembering the harmful past and others reckoning with it for perhaps the first time. Together, with the mural as our foundation, we took meaningful steps toward continued learning, storytelling, and social connectedness.

Unveiling the La Raza Park Community Mural

And on January 7th, 2022, we strengthened these commitments during a beautiful unveiling ceremony, surrounded by friends, neighbors, and all those who participated in the creation of the mural. Tony and Arturo shared remarks about the meaning behind the art, graciously educating the community about the legacy of La Raza Park and offering suggestions for continued reconciliation and repair of the historic injustice. The ceremony also featured a traditional Mayan blessing led by community leaders Mavis Salazar and Daniel Stange, as well as music from the local Don and Friends Trio. 

“I’m delighted with the result of the final mural and feel proud that it will be part of the Northside neighborhood for years to come,” said teaching artist Tony Ortega. “The mural commemorates the rich history of the Chicano and Indigenous communities, and demonstrates the power of art to heal us, connect us, and help us spread joy and pride for who we are.”

“We are honored to have had the opportunity to partner with Think 360 Arts for Learning and other collaborators to create a mural that captures the soul of the Northside community,” said Molly Casey, Chief Curator and co-founder of NINE dot ARTS. “Art has a critical impact on community wellbeing, and this mural will be a joyful reminder of that. It will celebrate the Mexican Chicano and Indigenous residents whose resiliency has shaped this neighborhood and is reflected in the new park name and in this beautiful community mural.” 

From building community to creating a sense of belonging, participatory public art initiatives can help heal the trauma of the past while giving us hope for a better future. Our team is humbled to have played a role in this project, advocating for public art as a transformative vehicle for community resilience and individual and collective healing. We look forward to sharing this mural with members of our community and beyond, forever honoring “la raza” – “the people.” 

NINE dot ARTS recognizes the strength, resiliency, and generosity of our Northside neighbors who made this mural project possible by sharing their stories and educating our community. We extend sincere appreciation to the Indigenous peoples who contribute to the vitality of our neighborhood and city, making Denver the important arts and cultural destination it is today. Special thanks to the following contributors:

Teaching Artist Tony Ortega | Think 360 Arts for Learning | Fred N. Thomas Career Education Center Early College | Arturo Rodriguez and members of the La Raza Park Legacy Project | Daniel Strange and Mavis Salazar, leaders of the community mural blessing | Musicians Don Lucero, James Torrez, Lonny Rodriguez, and Ruben Ramirez