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Abenicio Rael’s mother, Irene, was one of hundreds of people forced to leave their homes in Denver’s oldest neighborhood before it was razed to make way for the Auraria campus in the 1970s.

That made him eligible for the Displaced Aurarian Scholarship, though he soon found the limits of its promise of free tuition at the campus’ three colleges for the children of former residents.

Rael was able to apply the scholarship toward his bachelor’s degree at the University of Colorado Denver on the 170-acre campus north of Colfax Avenue and just east of the South Platte River. But when he applied again to use the scholarship toward a master’s degree, he faced an uphill battle.

“I wrote so many emails to so many higher-ups, they finally agreed,” Rael said. “But when I tried again for a doctorate, the financial aid office said, ‘Sorry, you used it all up.’”

Rael said he never found documentation saying the scholarship could only apply to certain levels of education at the school.

“It struck me as a continuation of systemic white supremacy,” he said. “I kept pushing.”

On Nov. 4, Rael was among the crowd in front of St. Cajetan’s Church, once the cornerstone of the community in the largely Latino neighborhood where his mother grew up, to celebrate the scholarship’s expansion to all degree levels and all descendants of displaced Aurarians.

“It’s exciting,” said Rael, who plans to complete his doctorate in higher education leadership next spring. “My children will be able to use this scholarship, however far they want to go. It’s gratifying.”

The Displaced Aurarian Scholarship will be expanded to cover full tuition for all direct descendants of those who lived in the neighborhood between 1955 and 1973, college leaders announced.
Rael helped spearhead the change by taking his concerns about the program to CU Regent Nolbert Chavez last year.

Chavez took up the cause of expanding the scholarship, and found eager buy-in from officials at CU Denver, and the two other schools that share the campus, Metropolitan State University of Denver and the Community College of Denver.

The expanded scholarships will become available starting in spring semester 2022 and will apply to all levels of education on the campus, from associate degrees to doctorates. It’s unclear how many people are eligible to receive the expanded benefit.

“I am filled with mixed emotion today,” Chavez said. “Part of me can still see the hurt and pain of these good people who were forced to leave and had to endure unspeakable hardship.”

Once part of the ancestral homelands of the Cheyenne, Arapaho and Ute peoples, Auraria was founded in the fall of 1858 by a party of goldseekers led by William Green Russell, preceding the founding of neighboring Denver City by a few weeks before the two merged in 1860, according to the Denver Public Library.

As the decades passed, the neighborhood became home to a largely working-class and immigrant population. By the early 20th century, it was home to a burgeoning Latino population, with life revolving around St. Cajetan’s, built in 1926.

Following a devastating flood on the South Platte River in June 1965, Denver voters approved a bond measure in 1969 to demolish the neighborhood to make way for the campus in spite of community resistance organized by Father Peter Garcia of St. Cajetan’s.

Relocations were complete by 1972, and the Auraria campus opened in 1976.

More than 300 households were forcibly displaced to make way for the campus. Property owners were paid for their homes and residents were promised free education at the future campus, but once the campus opened in 1976, Chavez said, financial aid proved spotty and many former residents were turned away.

“Students were subject to whatever policy was used at that point in time,” Chavez said. “Some were mistreated. Some were forced to jump through hoop after hoop in hopes they would give up.”

Community activists strived for years to codify the scholarship. Santos Blan, who lived in Auraria until he was 16 and came back to teach accounting at CCD, remembered getting the brush-off when he and others approached the Colorado state legislature to solidify the scholarship in the early 1990s.

“Today there are administrators and leaders who made this happen,” Blan said. “We didn’t have that 30 years ago.”

Then-Colorado state Rep. Celina Benavidez introduced a bill in 1994 to create a financial aid fund to assist displaced Aurarians, but the bill died in committee. Shortly thereafter, the three colleges on the campus seeded their own funding for the former residents and their children.

Since its inception, the scholarship has paid $3.4 million in financial aid to roughly 600 students at CU Denver; $1.4 million in aid for 305 students at MSU; and more than $627,000 to 136 students at CCD.

Expanding and better codifying the scholarship is an important step toward fulfilling the mandates of all three colleges, all of which are federally designated Hispanic Serving Institutions, said Antonio Farias, CU Denver’s vice chancellor of diversity, equity and inclusion.

“This scholarship is a way for us to confront our history,” Farias said. “It’s a way to build on the past without shame or anger.”

Seeing the scholarship solidified is reflective of the times, Chavez told the crowd in front of St. Cajetan’s.

“We are living in a time of seismic social change,” Chavez said. “We are helping transform colleges from places of elitism to engines of social mobility.”

Standing in front of St. Cajetan’s with her son to celebrate the scholarship’s expansion was an emotional moment for Rael’s mother, Irene. The Auraria neighborhood lives in her memory, she said.

“I still smell the tortillas and the chiles roasting,” she said. “I hear the rosary coming from the church. Paco Sanchez on the radio. I remember dances, boys playing baseball in the street, staying outside with the other kids until after dark. I’m so proud of my son. With this scholarship, our people’s history lives on through him, and through my grandchildren.”

This story is from The Colorado Sun, a journalist-owned news outlet based in Denver and covering the state. For more, and to support The Colorado Sun, visit coloradosun.com. The Colorado Sun is a partner in the Colorado News Conservancy, owner of Colorado Community Media.