National Hispanic Heritage Month: In their own words (Part 5)
Editor’s note: Sept. 15 through Oct. 15 is National Hispanic Heritage Month, a time to recognize the contributions of Hispanic and Latino Americans to our nation. Just like our customers, Denver Water employees have diverse backgrounds and we’re proud of our rich cultural diversity that reflects the 1.4 million people we serve.
Almost a century ago, Jennifer Arriaga’s paternal grandfather emigrated from Guanajuato, a silver mining city in central Mexico, and landed a job in Pueblo’s steel mill.
There, he and his brother became part of the backbone of the city’s workforce: immigrants from Mexico, Italy and Eastern Europe.
“They were men with strong backs who needed to feed their families,” said Arriaga, a senior administrative assistant in Denver Water’s Finance department who now lives in Denver.
“To this day, you can’t go to anybody’s house for a holiday and not have handmade pastas smothered in green chili with Eastern European cookies for dessert,” she said about her friends and family in Pueblo. “We all shared each other’s culture. There was no division because everybody was poor, and we all helped each other.”
Arriaga’s maternal great-grandparents were from the Mexican city of Pierdas Negras, close to the Texas border. They also immigrated to Pueblo, where Arriaga’s maternal grandmother was born, one of nine children in the family who survived into childhood.
Pueblo’s steel mill, the Colorado Fuel and Iron Co., forerunner to today's EVRAZ Pueblo, was the hub of the community and an economic driver for the region. Its presence earned Pueblo the nickname the “Pittsburgh of the West,” and the city boomed during World War II as the mill produced record amounts of munitions.
“Throughout the day, the mill would ring a steam whistle, and you knew that meant people were getting off work, or it was break time or time to go to work,” Arriaga said. “You could always gauge what time it was by the whistle at the steel mill.”
Despite Pueblo’s diverse population, Arriaga’s grandparents, like many of that generation, sought to keep their Hispanic heritage quiet.
Arriaga doesn’t know much about why her ancestors left Mexico or what traditions they tucked away as they assimilated into their new country. In some ways, it was confusing to have roots buried in Mexico while being raised in the United States.
“You were a part of this new culture, not speaking Spanish, with no real ties there anymore,” Arriaga said. “Are we American, are we Mexican, what are we? You kind of have one foot in two worlds.”
One of Arriaga’s most treasured possessions is a reliquary her great-grandfather Severo Hernandez built.
The wooden box held his religious relics, including pictures of loved ones, prayer cards and rosaries. She was 6 when he died just shy of his 100th birthday, but he left his mark on her heart.
“He was just pure love,” she said.
Every Día de los Muertos, a Mexican holiday celebrated Oct. 31 through Nov. 2, Arriaga fills the reliquary with pictures, traditional Mexican breads, and her great-grandfather’s favorite indulgences — a shot of whiskey and some cigarettes — and remembers loved ones who have died.
The ritual is a warm homage to her rich and varied heritage.
“Culture is so important. It ties us to each other; it ties us to our community,” Arriaga said. “We are all descendants of people with the temerity to make their lives better for their families.”