Miriam Pena of Colorado Progressive Coalition has personal experience with the racial divide
The Santa Fe offices of the Colorado Progressive Coalition contain no front desk or really any lobby, just a series of colorful hallways unevenly decorated with Chicano and Native American artwork. The tables are covered with snacks and political literature, and the back wall marks a recent round of staff brainstorming about why the organization is "unique." In bright pink marker, someone has written "bold," "courageous," "supportive of one another," "not afraid of conflict."
"The office is very grassroots," says Miriam Pena, one of CPC's two executive directors. "But then, so is the organization."
One of the later brainstorming points -- "staff represents communities" -- relates particularly well to the organization's newest leader, a 26-year-old activist who was born in Juarez, Mexico ("one of the most dangerous cities in the world," she says) and graduated from Denver's West High ("a lot of my old friends are in jail or raising kids"). Pena is not ignorant of the meaning behind either of those facts, and she applies both to her work with the civil rights coalition's more than 24,000 members, who are served by offices in Denver, Pueblo and Greeley.
But until a full ride brought her to DU in 2003, Pena was not aware of the effects her background could have on her future.
Kelsey Whipple Joined by Occupy Denver, the Colorado Progressive Coalition took on Wells Fargo during the Mile High Showdown in October.
"I didn't notice we were poor until college, and then it was obvious," Pena says. She takes care not to lump all DU students into a single social group; as monitors of local racial profiling, the CPC takes pains to avoid any generalization. But, she notes, "I was the only brown person in any of my classes, and I wondered immediately why that was."
Her decision to focus on political advocacy in league with her heritage was cemented by one trip to the cafeteria: While leading a tour of students mostly from her alma mater, someone shouted about Bring Your Child To Work Day. "All of the cafeteria servers, cook and cleaners were brown, so I guess they thought we matched," Pena says. "That woke me up."
When she joined the CPC as a volunteer in early 2005, it was to tackle language differentiation, an issue she also faced at home with a mother who speaks only Spanish. During her mother's hysterectomy treatment, Pena found it difficult to guarantee visits from Spanish-speaking health care workers on a regular basis. Her personal conflicts would continue to mesh with political issues the CPC focused on as her time there developed.
In 2008, her stepfather, also an immigrant from Mexico, was deported. This meant that, at the same time the coalition launched its campaign against Aurora's GEO detention center, he was held inside it. The issue still comes with tears, and when Pena reaches for a tissue to wipe them up, the box is located in the direct center of a series of framed family photos. Her mother applied for and earned her citizenship the same year, but her husband never returned to the country. He died in a car accident in Mexico in 2010.
"It hasn't been that long that the CPC has even been invited to the table for these huge local issues, but it's because our membership base is in the middle of them," Pena says. 'We are a bridge between the community and public policy, and we have to do everything we can to keep that role."