On Friday, May 30, 2020, a large and historically significant painting by noted Chicana muralist, Carlota Espinoza, was installed in the Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales Branch Library at 1498 Irving Street in Denver.
The mural, Mexican Heroes (also known as A Tribute to Mexican Heroes) is a large, roughly 4.5 x 9-foot oil on canvas painting. It was one of two murals created in 1966 by Espinoza for the Crusade for Justice Center. Founded in 1966 by Chicano activist Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales, the Center served as headquarters for the Crusade for Justice, a national activist organization in the Chicano Movement. The Center was once located in the old Calvary Baptist Church, 1567 North Downing Street in the North Capitol Hill neighborhood.
The artwork depicts three individuals important to Mexico’s history: the 26th President of Mexico, Benito Juarez (1806-1872); Mexican Revolutionary, Emiliano Zapata Salazar (1879-1919); and Francisco "Pancho" Villa (1878-1923), Mexican Revolutionary General. Surrounding these portraits are small vignettes depicting the struggles faced by the Mexican people.
Mexican Heroes still exhibits losses of canvas and surface imagery from when it was damaged in a fire at the former Center on June 13, 1988. Yet, from a purely visual point of view, the mural is essentially complete. The losses and darkening of the mural’s surface areas only serve to emphasize the emotional content of the painting. Although Espinoza’s second mural did not survive the 1988 fire, Mexican Heroes did, and as such may be the only physical reminder available from the Crusade for Justice Center. Today, the mural functions as both representative art and historic object.
Mexican Heroes was salvaged from the Crusade for Justice Center by local artist and a leader in the local Chicano Arts Movement, Carlos Santistevan. In 1968, Santistevan founded Denver’s first Chicano art gallery, El Grito de Aztlan, at the Crusade for Justice Center. This location allowed for the sharing of ideas and symbolism, which created a bridge between activism and art. Carlos and his wife Anita Santistevan eventually donated the mural to the Western History and Genealogy department in 2012. The painting is now part of the DPL Western Art Collection.
Artist Carlota Espinoza was born in Fraser, Colorado. She is the middle child of 14 siblings. Espinoza began painting at a young age and later, in the 1960s, attended the Rocky Mountain School of the Arts and the University of Colorado at Denver. During the 1960s, she participated in the Centro Cultural Center, organized exhibitions for artists, and was involved in the 1969 "Hispano Art Fiesta / Cinco de Mayo" events in Denver.
The Western History and Genealogy department at the Central Library also holds the Carlota Espinoza papers (WH2225). Another mural by Espinoza, Pasado, Presente, Futuro (Past, Present, Future) was created in 1975 for DPL’s Byers Branch Library. Other works by Espinoza can be found in Cuba, San Francisco, Texas, and Arizona.
Although it is currently not possible to visit the Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales Branch Library to view Mexican Heroes, the mural is still visually accessible from outside the library building. Installed high on the south wall of an open, interior stairway, the mural can be seen through the library’s large window located on the West Colfax side of the building.
Information in this article taken from the following sources:
~Posted on Behalf of Archivist/Librarian Martin Leuthauser~
Updated 5/2022: We have corrected the incorrect fire date in paragraph 4 from March 17, 1973, based on information from Rudy Gonzales, Carlota Espinoza, Carlos Santistevan, and corroborating newspaper research.