CU Boulder grad student, community members, survivors, create mosaic to memorialize Chicano activists killed in 1974
In the span of less than 48 hours in May 1974, the city of Boulder was shattered when six Chicano activists were killed in two horrific car bombings.
On May 27 at Chautauqua Park, a ferocious explosion rattled windows miles away and left remains of three activists—University of Colorado Boulder law school graduate Reyes Martinez, 26; former Ignacio homecoming queen and CU junior Neva Romero, 21; and Una Jaakola, a double major graduate of CU Boulder—scattered over a huge swath of the normally bucolic park.
Two days later, a second bomb ripped through a parking lot at a fast-food restaurant on 28th Street, instantly killing CU Boulder alumni Florencio Granado, 31, Heriberto Teran, 24, and Francisco Dougherty, 20, who planned to transfer to the school in the fall. A fourth man, Antonio Alcantar, was seriously injured and later lost his leg to amputation.
Nearly a half-century later, the deaths of “Los Seis de Boulder” remain unsolved. And, except for a 1987 mural in the University Memorial Center — later removed — and a small plaque buried deep in Boulder Canyon, the victims have not been memorialized on campus or in town.
Until July. That’s when a large, freestanding ceramic mosaic memorializing Los Seis was unveiled in front of Temporary Building No. 1, adjacent to Sewall Hall, the result of a two-year creative process led by MFA ceramics student Jasmine Baetz and involving the hands of hundreds of students, faculty, staff, community members and family members of Los Seis.
“I’m interested in what we often call ‘socially engaged art.’ There are lots of good intentions that don’t necessarily contribute to tangible change, and sometimes even do damage,” Baetz says. “So I’ve tried as much as possible to anticipate and center on impact rather than intention.”
Learning the tools of community-engaged research
Baetz, from Ontario, Canada, arrived at CU Boulder in 2017. She had never heard of Los Seis until she saw the documentary, “Symbols of Resistance: Martyrs of the Chican@ Movement in Colorado,” on campus that fall.
“I couldn’t believe this happened here; six students died, and they weren’t memorialized on campus,” Baetz says. “I compare it to Kent State (Ohio, in 1970) where students, both activists and bystanders, were killed, and are widely remembered and memorialized.”
She wanted to change that, but believed that any project would have more meaning if it included participation by the broader community. For the first year, she set the groundwork for the project, engaging in extensive research in the archives of the University Libraries. Then she worked with campus, community and family members, and UMAS—United Mexican American Students—and MEXA, Movimiento Estudiantil Chicanx de Aztlán, to create the 6-foot-tall sculpture, with its 4-by-7-foot footprint.
During the process, Baetz was an Engaged Arts and Humanities Student Scholar, a program run by Lisa Schwartz, community outreach program manager for the Office for Outreach and Engagement. The program teaches students how to use the tools of their academic discipline to develop community-engaged projects.
“The most important thing about the project is that it was done with the community,” Baetz says. “I struggle with what word to use to describe my role … but I tried to set up conditions so other people could create the work.”
Creating community through a memorial
It was a complex process requiring careful attention and coordination. Clay had to be rolled out, pieces cut, and corners smoothed by human hands before being placed in a kiln for firing. Each fired piece then had to be glazed and re-fired. Pieces were laid out on printouts of portraits of Los Seis and some were repositioned dozens of times.
I couldn’t believe this happened here; six students died, and they weren’t memorialized on campus. I compare it to Kent State (Ohio, in 1970) where students, both activists and bystanders, were killed, and are widely remembered and memorialized.”
Even the overall design was a collaborative process. On some days, 50 or more members of the community were working full days, side by side, in the ceramics studio.
“Jasmine wasn’t just saying she wanted community involvement; she really created community,” says participant Michelle Jaakola Steinwand, 71, of Boulder, sister of Los Seis victim Una Jaakola. “Jasmine has even facilitated the (survivor) families being in touch. … The whole experience was magical, part of a bigger healing and connecting.”
Baetz and those she has worked with feel strongly that the installation should be made permanent in its now-temporary location: in front of the building that Chicano activists occupied for nearly three weeks in May 1974 to protest the administration’s restructuring of programs and revoking financial aid to students who had come to campus through the United Mexican American Student Program and Migrant Action Program. Members of Los Seis participated in the occupation, and Romero was last seen waiting outside the building just prior to being picked up for her fatal ride to Chautauqua.
After working for two years and making a case for the importance of the sculpture to the Public Art Committee, Baetz secured a six-month temporary installation for the piece.
“The people I encountered have been supportive and really feel this is an important thing to have on campus,” she says. “Installing a permanent sculpture on campus can be difficult, but I am confident that our community values how the sculpture provides space for including and respecting the histories of all CU Boulder students.”
Providing a place of healing
Baetz acknowledges that there is sensitivity, even controversy, about the tragedy of Los Seis.
Police and FBI agents investigating the crimes claimed that the activists were building bombs as the next step in months of rising tension between the university and Chicano activists. However, a grand jury investigation later found insufficient evidence to file charges against Alcantar, the only survivor.
Many friends, family and community members found it implausible that six previously peaceful student activists would suddenly turn to terrorism and that all were killed in two nearly identical, but separate, bomb “accidents.” Critics said the crime scene was contaminated and the truncated investigation was botched. Some speculated that the six were targeted as part of the U.S. government’s notorious Counter Intelligence Program, or COINTELPRO, which conducted sometimes illegal covert operations against activist groups in the 1960s and ‘70s, though no evidence has ever surfaced to support that theory.
“It’s never been crystal clear to me, one way or the other,” says Steinwand, sister of one of the bombing victims. But, she adds, “Two accidental bombings? (The law enforcement case) falls apart at that point for most logical people.”
For Baetz, the lack of resolution in no way diminishes the lives and deaths of Los Seis.
“These were students, activists, people,” she says. “It’s important to both remember the contributions they made to this campus and that they were people who were loved by their families and communities.”
In addition, she believes memorializing Los Seis fits with the more enlightened ethics of 2019 and honestly reckons with a difficult, but critical, historical moment.
“CU Boulder was an important site of student activism in the 1960s and ‘70s, and holds the legacy of Los Seis de Boulder, but you wouldn’t glean this from its built space,” she says. “Literal and symbolic space must be established for minoritized students, communities, and histories on campus for an equitable future.”
For Steinwand, the fact that there is a physical place memorializing her sister has helped her to re-establish their “heartfelt connection.”
“My sister was cremated, her ashes scattered. This gives me a place to go, and it will have different meaning for different people,” she says. “To educate and celebrate, create a space that’s really significant to this story, that’s part of what Jasmine is trying to do.”