January 2012 Issue • Volume 40 • Issue 1

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Denver and Utopia: Historical Notions and Contemporary Realities

David Piacenti, Metropolitan State College of Denver

In light of the 2012 ASA annual conference theme of “Real Utopias,” it is appropriate for Denver, CO, to be the host. I am not suggesting that life in the Queen City and the Centennial State has been utopian, but that the greater Denver area exemplifies, in many ways, the ideals and practices of utopias both real and imagined. This can be found, if one looks closely, in the many utopiannarratives found among ancient native and newer immigrant populations.

Pre-Colombian Migration: Ancient Utopian Narratives

Native American history in Colorado is the proper place to begin exploring utopia. Pre-Colombian groups (originating from parts of Asia as current theory suggests) migrated to the southwest and became more permanent inhabitants between 15,000 and 40,000 years ago. One of many contemporary Native American groups inhabiting Colorado is the Ute Mountain Ute group. The Ute Mountain Utes believe that the mountains of Colorado are the work of the God, Manitou, who lived in the center of the sky. Manitou is also responsible for the flowers, trees, birds of flight, and animals of the earth; the Utes were also created. However, when the animals began to come into conflict with each other, resulting in death and destruction, Manitou created the grizzly bear to rule all life so that they would live harmoniously. The introduction of European, African, and Asian social systems and the expulsion and reduction of Native American lands and rights were the consequences of colonization and the opening shots of a soon-to-be global world of migration and immigration. Amidst this process of Native American extermination, expulsion, subjugation, and forced segregation (which continues today) a new type of utopia was imagined on the High Plains of the near west. This new utopia was both real and imagined and was aptly-named the Gold Rush and Silver Rush.


Red Rocks State Park & Amphitheatre
in Morrison, Colorado

After the Gold Rush: Materialist Utopias & Newer Migration Histories

In Colorado, gold fired the imagination of people, much like it did for the conquistadors in México who dreamt of cities of gold. Prospectors migrated from far and wide to find their fortunes in gold and silver and still do today. One can find postmodern prospectors camped on the Arkansas River in southwest Colorado, where record-high gold prices fuel new utopianimaginations and immigrations based on the dream of fortune beyond worldly-belief.

Presently, Colorado is seeing a new rush towards the green gold of medical marijuana, which has created a new economically-based inflow of migration to the area. The new migration seeks to capitalize on the entrepreneurial opportunities of owning and operating a marijuana dispensary. One might likewise acknowledge the utopian playground of the high country camping, skiing, and hiking areas and National Parks, which continue to draw migrants who work in tourist industries, such as the Romanian summer workers found in Estes Park (north of Boulder). The state is also home to many nationally-recognized craft beer breweries and the annual host of the Great American Beer Festival, where Utopiamight be found at the bottom of a glass of Sam Adams Utopias ale. More locally you can find Del Norte Brewing in southwest Denver, which prides itself in being the only Mexican-style beer made outside México. It is soon to be exported to México—an intriguing metaphor for globalization and global migration of not only people, but also ideas and products.

The Denver Metropolitan Area

Utopianideals are not only imagined but also real in practice in the Denver area. A variety of factors from environmental and geographical determinism to progressive attitudes and public policy created a context defined by increases in immigrant inflows. As I write this article, I sit at my office in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Behavioral Science at the Metropolitan State College of Denver (MSCD), which is directly adjacent to the Colorado Convention Center where the ASA will hold its Annual Meeting. At MSCD, an open-enrollment university, anyone with a high school diploma or equivalency can enroll and take classes from a teaching-oriented, affordable institution of higher education. In many ways, the class and race diversity of the school, which does its best to not price out anyone, represents the Marxian utopian ideal of a classless society.

Part of this mission is the school’s movement towards becoming a Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI) as well as a thriving College Assistance Migrant Program (CAMP), a federally-funded program that seeks to integrate the children of migrant worker families (generally the first generation in their family to attend a college or university) into the cultural and social capitals of higher education. Furthermore, throughout the campus one can find migrant and immigrant histories that will be featured in an International Migration Section-sponsored immigration tour at the ASA Annual Meeting.

The tour of immigrant sites in Denver will culminate with a Yucatec-Mayan dinner reception catered by a recently-arrived Mayan speaking immigrant family from Yucatán, México. After dinner, tour participants will be able to enjoy a performance of A People’s History of Colorado by the Romero Troupe, led by local University of Colorado-Denver historian Jim Walsh.

Below are a few of the sites we will be visiting on the tour of immigrant sites.


Windsor Lake in Windsor, Colorado

Utopiain Denver and Colorado may just be an example of economic determinism and the forces of production, as explained by a historical materialist model. With an average of 300 days of sunshine annually and close proximity and access to 52 Rocky Mountain peaks, Colorado ranks perennially high in social indicators of happiness. As more countries choose  to use happiness as an indicator of a high quality social structure (rather than  economic indicators), Denver and Colorado lead the way in notions of idyllic utopian living.

This historical materialism manifests itself in a variety of ways evident in the cityscape. Public transportation in the form of the red B-cycles found throughout the downtown demonstrates an innovative bike-sharing program—the largest in the United States. The Denver area is home to more than 850 miles of bike paths and paved walking trails—a truly bicycle-friendly city. The Regional Transportation District (RTD) continues to expand to Golden, Denver international Airport and Boulder along the I-25 corridor. The 16th Street downtown Mall is a walking-friendly space where the Free Mall Ride (yes, free) electric buses provide transportation for natives and tourists, effectively eliminating noisy, polluting, and congesting taxis. Green spaces and open spaces dot the landscape as novice athletes as well as highly-trained athletic professionals take advantage of the 300 days high plains sun that is so radiant that January snows melt faster than they arrived, and the temperature can spike to the 70s and 80s. If fitness is associated with happiness and happiness with utopia, Colorado is all of these things.

Diverse Denver

Utopian dreams are making Denver one of the top 10 fastest growing cities in the United States. Vast sending communities reconstruct migrant and immigrant connections domestically and globally. You can find Italians in near north Arvada; Southeast Asians and Latinos on the near southwest side—Federal Boulevard and the north side; and Koreans, Eastern-Europeans, and Africans on the southeast and east side respectively. Not meaning to downplay the work still needed to close the gap between imagined and real utopias, all of these environmental and social factors have been part and parcel of migration to Denver and to Colorado. At present, 20 percent of Denver is foreign-born. The website GlobalDenver.org, which attempts to account for all appreciable communities and diasporas in Denver, lists no less than 53 distinct immigrant groups in the area.

So welcome to Denver, but be warned: trying the famous green chilies, using the shared red B-cycles, and taking in the natural beauty (such as the nearby Red Rocks State Park in Morrison—pictured on Page 1) may induce euphoria, and you may never leave this bit of heaven—a closer-to-real Utopiathan you might ever haveimagined. Join the tour!

For more information on the tour, contact David Piacenti at dpiacent@mscd.edu or (303) 556-2992.

I would like to give special thanks to Silvia Pedraza, Professor of Sociology and American Culture at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor and Chair of the ASA International Migration Section, for editorial and creative assistance with this feature.

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