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National Hispanic Heritage Month: In their own words (Part 5)

Third-generation Pueblo woman’s life shaped by steel mill families from different countries.

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.

Jennifer Arriaga works in Denver Water's Finance division. Photo credit: Denver Water.


“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.”

Jennifer Arriaga’s maternal great-grandparents, Cruzita and Fidencio Esquivel, with children Mary, Domingo, Ezequiel and Angie (on lap). This photo was taken in 1916, three years before Arriaga’s grandmother Genevieve was born. The family left Mexico in the early 1900s to live in Pueblo. Photo credit: Jennifer Arriaga.


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.

Each Día de los Muertos, Jennifer Arriaga fills her paternal great-grandfather Severo Hernandez’s reliquary with pictures, pan de muerto and pan dulces (Mexican pastries), and his favorite indulgences ― a shot of whiskey and some cigarettes ― and remembers her loved ones who have died. Severo Hernandez worked in the steel mill’s coal mines, guiding horses out of the mines. Photo credit: Jennifer Arriaga.


“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.”

Jennifer Arriaga’s paternal grandfather, Ezequiel Arriaga, center, at his retirement from Pueblo’s steel mill. Ezequiel Arriaga was a millwright who began his career at the mill when he was 15. Photo credit: Jennifer Arriaga.