Honoring Influential Colorado Latinos in Public Service

May 2, 2019

As another Cinco de Mayo rolls around, here’s something that might be news to you: The fifth of May marks the Mexican army's David-style 1862 victory over the Goliath France at the Battle of Puebla during the French-Mexican War. Over the years, this solemn commemoration has morphed into a celebration of Mexican culture, one that’s actually more recognized in the U.S. than by our southern neighbors.

Here in Colorado, Cinco de Mayo gives us a chance to honor our state’s rich legacy of current and former Latino public service contributors, and any list of the state’s most notable Latino disrupters must include Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales. Though technically not part of our public service corps—he unsuccessfully ran for office several times—the Denver-born Gonzales was a primary catalyst of the Chicano civil rights movement in the 1960s and ‘70s and inspired generations of future leaders. For evidence, look no further than the dozens of Latinos who are, or were, in positions of leadership throughout Colorado government, including those currently serving in the state legislature and on the Denver City Council.

The November 2018 election was a historic one for diversity, with four Latinos being elected to the State Senate, and nine voted in to the Colorado House of Representatives. Colorado's Latino public leaders have been and continue to be influential in shaping our state and paving the way for many future activists. 

Paul and Paula Sandoval

Paul was a savvy political operative who dispensed his wisdom and counsel with grit and gusto, becoming known as the “godfather of Colorado politics.” He served on the state legislature in the 1970s but was best known for his influence on others. Sandoval strategized with—and often helped jumpstart or further the careers of—many of the state’s biggest names, including Governor John Hickenlooper; Senator Michael Bennett; the first African-American mayor of Denver, Wellington Webb; and Ken Salazar, who would later become Secretary of the Interior for the Obama administration.

Sandoval’s family tamale shop in the Highland neighborhood became a hive of political debate, decision-making, and counsel before his death from pancreatic cancer in 2012 at the age of 67. His wife, Paula, was a political force in her own right, working for several nonprofits and serving on numerous community-focused boards. She represented Colorado’s 34th Senate District from 2003-2010 and then was the City Council rep for Denver District 1 from 2010-2011 before Paul fell ill. And the family store, Tamales by La Casita, remains a neighborhood fixture today.

Lionel Rivera 

The first Hispanic mayor and vice mayor of Colorado Springs, this Republican Army veteran served two terms as mayor during the 2000s after serving two terms on the Colorado Springs city council in the 1990s. He also spent considerable time on various community-focused boards and committees in the Springs.

Susana Cordova

Cordova was recently elected as the superintendent of Denver Public Schools, which serves more than 92,000 students, more than half of them Hispanic. The 52-year-old formerly worked as a teacher, principal, and district administrator in the DPS system. Cordova is also a member of Chiefs for Change, a nonprofit that helps springboard the careers of women in education administrations.

Crisanta Duran 

A lawyer from an activist family who was elected to the Colorado House of Representatives in 2010, Duran was selected as the Colorado House majority leader in 2014. In 2017, she became Colorado’s first-ever Latina Speaker of the House. In 2018, the term-limited representative of Congressional District 5 did not run again, but her political ambitions are far from over: The Boulder native and sixth-generation Coloradan has her eyes on 2020 and has announced that she will run for Colorado's 1st Congressional District, a seat currently held by Diana DeGette.

Beth Martinez-Humenik 

This fourth-generation Coloradan went from being a college instructor and K-12 teacher to the Colorado State Senate. Martinez-Humenik was the Republican representative for District 24 from 2015-2019. She also served on the Thornton City Council for eight years prior to landing at the Capitol.

Lucía Guzmán

Elected to the State Senate in 2010, Guzmán was previously appointed to Denver's Agency for Human Rights and Community Partnerships Board by then-mayor John Hickenlooper in 2003. Guzmán is one of a handful of openly gay current or past members of the Colorado General Assembly and was Colorado’s first gay Latina to serve as minority leader in either house. Guzmán currently serves on the National Western Center Authority Board.

Federico Peña

Born and raised in Colorado, the lawyer served in the Colorado House of Representatives before being elected Denver mayor in 1983, making him the first Hispanic mayor to lead the Mile High City. Peña went on to head the United States Department of Transportation and served as the Secretary of Energy to President Clinton the 1990s. Just 72 years old, Peña still lives in the area and remains a treasured voice of wisdom and experience to Colorado’s politicians and civic leaders.

Ken and John Salazar

These brothers have been major figures in Colorado politics for decades. Ken was appointed by then-governor Roy Romer to be the director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources in 1990, where he helped pass the widely influential Great Outdoors Colorado Amendment, which uses lottery moneys for public land and conservation efforts. He was elected state Attorney General in 1998, and he became a U.S. Senator in 2004. In 2008, Barack Obama tapped him to be the Secretary of the Interior, where he served until 2013.

John got his start in public service by working on the Colorado Agricultural Commission from 1999 to 2002. The Army veteran was then elected to the Colorado House of Representatives in 2003 and represented Colorado’s third congressional District until 2011. He has continued to serve on various boards and committees throughout his life, including the Governor's Economic Development Advisory Board and Colorado Agricultural Leadership Forum.

Darlene LeDoux

This lifelong activist has dedicated her career to Colorado’s children, first as a teacher and later as a groundbreaking school leader. At age 30, LeDoux became the first Latina principal of North High School—she previously ran Lena Lovato Archuleta elementary school—and she is currently a superintendent in the DPS system and serves on multiple boards and committees that focus on educational achievement and leadership.

Abel Tapia

A Pueblo native, Tapia was a state representative from 1999 to 2003, then a state senator from 2003 to 2010. Before that, the Democrat was on the Pueblo School Board from 1993 to 1997. Tapia was the director of the state lottery program from 2010 to 2014.

Rick Palacio

The 44-year-old Democrat was recently appointed as a co-chair for Boldly Forward Colorado, Governor Jared Polis’s transition team, and Palacio is now an adviser to John Hickenlooper’s 2020 presidential campaign. During his time working as a senior leadership aide for Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, Palacio was an advocate for the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” He served as chairman of the Colorado Democratic Party from 2011 to 2017—he was the first Latino and the first openly gay man to do so—and co-founded Palacio Strategies Group, a local consulting firm.