Family rooted in farming grows with Chicano movement
God. Family. Respect. Hard work. Community.
These are some of David Mendoza’s most important values — passed down over many generations, shaped and influenced by his family’s experiences with poverty, farming and family members’ deep involvement in the Mexican American civil rights movement that labor leader and civil rights activist César Chávez helped lead.
Mendoza is a third-generation Coloradan. His great-grandparents migrated from Mexico to Delta, Colorado, in the late 1850s and early 1860s.
Mendoza joined Denver Water in 2006 as a laborer, installing pipes and fixing water main breaks. Over the years he’s held several positions across the organization, learned more about the complex system and currently manages the team responsible for maintaining the water treatment plants in the northern part of Denver Water’s system.
And he’s no stranger to hard work.
“When I was 10 to 14 years old, I’d spend summers volunteering and working on our friends’ ranch in San Luis, Colorado. I’d plant crops, bail hay, take care of the animals, train horses. It was hard, but it taught me the importance of a strong work ethic,” Mendoza said.
Those summers also connected Mendoza to his family’s roots, teaching him the family history that gives him both pride and inspiration.
“When you hear about the struggles of previous generations, it’s hard not to appreciate all they’ve fought for. We get to benefit from that, and it’s important to have gratitude. It really inspires me to work harder,” he said.
A family of farmers
Mendoza’s grandfather Louis, one of seven children, was born in 1911 in Pueblo, Colorado. From age 11, Louis supported his family as a “campesino,” a Mexican American farmworker, hopping box cars on freight trains and traveling to different areas in search of farming work.
“He was alone and just a child, and he had to toughen up quickly to become a man and learn how to survive in some very scary situations,” Mendoza said.
“My grandfather often reflected on his childhood, telling my father, ‘Those weren’t the good old days, they were very hard for most people.’ But he worked hard, put his faith in God and instilled in my father the importance of family and respect.”
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Mendoza’s grandmother Laura was born in Denver in 1926 and spent most of her childhood in Mexico caring for family. Though she grew up in poverty, she was very proud and had little patience for those who avoided hard work.
When she was 18, she moved back to Colorado with her family and got a job cleaning passenger trains for the Burlington Northern Railroad, today known as Amtrak. She met Louis on the job, who also worked for the railroad. They married and had eight children, including Mendoza’s father, Jesse.
Jesse grew up surrounded by a large farming family and even larger farming community in Colorado’s San Luis Valley, where he and his siblings would frequently help their father in the fields — and which spurred some of the children to join the Mexican American civil rights movement in the late 1960s, also known as the Chicano movement.
The Mendoza family history includes the siblings’ stories of witnessing the backbreaking and sometimes life-threatening conditions the farmworkers endured on their jobs, and how workers often had no recourse for the way they were treated.
A day’s work from sunup to sundown, sometimes without water, could be worth less than $1 in pay. Living conditions on the farm could mean sleeping in little more than a barn, with no running water or electricity.
Widely used agricultural pesticides contributed to cancers, stillbirths, miscarriages and fertility issues in the farmworker community. The risks included getting hurt on the job and losing what little wage the grower paid, and maybe — if you made it to the end of the season — having the grower call the immigration authorities to deport the workers when the harvest ended, rather than paying for a season’s worth of work.
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Jesse wanted to help make a difference, and he got involved in community programs through his church, Our Lady of Guadalupe in north Denver. Older siblings helped write grants to secure funding to support social and political community initiatives.
“They saw the poor community become empowered, and people came together as a collective voice to make a difference,” said Mendoza.
The siblings joined picket lines and other nonviolent protests seeking better wages and working conditions for farmworkers.
“Although they were very young, my father and his siblings were passionate about gaining labor rights and better wages for the campesinos. After all, their parents were farmworkers, so they felt it was their battle as well,” said Mendoza.
Jesse was 13 in 1971 when he began traveling across the United States boycotting, picketing and protesting for farmworkers. Several of his siblings became local community leaders supporting the cause in Colorado.
In 1972, Jesse traveled to Phoenix, where Chávez was in the midst of his “fast of sacrifice,” taking nothing but water for 24 days to protest Arizona farm labor laws that sharply restricted agricultural workers’ ability to organize a union.
During the day, the teenager joined picket lines at local grocery stores. At night, he and supporters met in churches to pray for the cause — and for Chávez.
“Even today, my father clearly recalls the moment he saw César in Phoenix at Santa Rita Church, where César stayed during his fast,” said Mendoza.
“Everyone was aware of César's frail health due to his fasting. My father says his heart fell when he saw César being assisted into the hall. He remembers there was total silence, broken only by the sound of women weeping in the crowd.”
Chávez ended his fast June 4, 1972, saying in a statement read on his behalf: “The greatest tragedy is not to live and die, as we all must. The greatest tragedy is for a person to live and die without knowing the satisfaction of giving life for others.”
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Two years later, Jesse’s path crossed Chávez's again — this time in Denver, when Chávez visited the church Jesse’s family attended.
Impressed by several murals Jesse had painted at the church, Chávez asked the 16-year-old to come to California with him to work as one of five artists for the National Farm Workers Association, later known as the United Farm Workers.
Mendoza’s father, honored and humbled, accepted Chávez's offer. He spent his first week in California living in the home of Chávez and fellow activist Dolores Huerta, a leader of the Chicano civil rights movement, co-founder with Chávez of the UFW, and the woman credited with creating the rallying cry “Si, se puede!” (the English equivalent of “Yes, we can.”)
Jesse contributed his artistic talents to UFW buttons, political comics, bumper stickers, posters, murals and more. And he supported the movement for decades, attending conferences, developing his leadership skills and becoming an effective community organizer for the cause.
In Denver, Jesse and the Mendoza family supported the UFW and worked to advance Chicano political goals and representation.
They supported Rich Castro, elected in 1974 — at age 25 — to the Colorado House of Representatives, where he served until 1983. And they supported Sal Carpio and Sam Sandos in 1975, when they became the first Hispanics elected to Denver City Council — and where each would serve three terms.
In the early 1980s, Jesse’s sister Rose Mendoza Green worked as campaign manager for Federico Peña, rallying the votes needed for Peña to become Denver’s 41st mayor in 1983.
¡Si, se puede!
Mendoza finds inspiration in his family’s stories of struggle and accomplishment.
“When we learn about different people, about their backgrounds and experiences — and when you take the time to talk to someone who is different, you realize how similar we all really are. We can appreciate what can be learned from all different perspectives,” he said.
“I am very proud of my heritage and the part my family played in the Chicano movement.”
And while much has been gained, Mendoza knows there is more work to be done.
“There are still barriers that need to be broken; there are still struggles to be overcome.”
“¡Si, se puede!”