This is a love story.

It’s a tale of the love that anchored a group of Colorado Springs residents to the small neighborhood they called home; of the tightly knit friendships among children and a lifetime’s worth of surrogate parents; of the insular-yet-formative relationships that led the residents of a blocks-long community to describe themselves as “una familia grande” (a big family).

It’s the true story of a residential neighborhood that was, in the late 20th century, bulldozed to make room for a park. It’s a message of resurrection, and a tribute to the curator whose 2 ½-year commitment to gathering oral histories came to fruition Feb. 22 amid great fanfare and folkloric dance.

This is the story of the Conejos neighborhood, a now-disappeared area of town that, while small in terms of footprint, had a huge impact on the community Colorado Springs was and would become. The Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum is celebrating the four-block long neighborhood bounded by Colorado Avenue to the north, the Martin Drake Power Plant to the south, Monument Creek to the west and the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad tracks to the east, with an exhibit built on the oral history of those who called the area home.

“Una Familia Grande: The Conejos Neighborhood Project” opened with memories, hugs, laughter, live music, dance, folk art and the occasional tears.

“Oftentimes, it’s easy for us to forget all of the different cultural influences that affect Colorado Springs as we are today,” said museum Director Matt Mayberry. “We’re not just Gen. [William Jackson] Palmer’s community.”

For more photos from the opening of ‘Una Familia Grande: The Conejos Neighborhood Project’ click here.

Resurrecting history

The Conejos neighborhood on the south edge of Downtown was platted in the 1880s under the name “Monument Addition,” according to museum documentation. The insular and colorful community was, for generations, home to hard-working entrepreneurs and skilled tradesmen who were employed in construction, the mines, mills, on the railroads and in junk yards, among others. 

“Residents built houses and businesses, raised families and socialized in a neighborhood crisscrossed by railroad tracks and increasingly industrial” influences, museum documentation shows.

The intimate neighborhood was long ignored by the rest of the community, according to museum documents, and “eventually suffered from blight, neglect and indifference.” Its fate was sealed in the 1990s, when plans took shape to raze the area and replace it with a new park. Today, the site is home to the 16.9-acre America the Beautiful Park; the only visible reminder of the community that once was is the historic Spanish Gospel Mission, now known as Chadbourn Community Church.

Between its founding and its decommissioning, Conejos was home to a colorful cast whose names are now legendary. There were Sam and Rosa Melena, the operators of the community hub the Rio Grande Grocery; Jose and Corina Alvarado, who in 1956 organized La Fiesta Bonita, the state’s first formal celebration of Mexican culture; restaurateurs and community philanthropists Victor and Josie Ornelas; Connie Solano de Benavidez, the founder of the popular folkloric dance troupe Ballet Folklórico de la Raza; and trailblazing entrepreneur and real estate magnate “Mama Susie” Perkins. The daughter of sharecroppers, Perkins quietly bought properties around her home at 322 S. Conejos St., which she then rented to families — mostly soldiers and people of color — who were subjected to discrimination at the hands of other landlords in Colorado Springs, according to museum documentation.

Leah Davis Witherow, museum curator of history, spent more than two years meeting with former residents of the community, gathering these and other stories of life in Conejos and building a multimedia exhibit that includes photos, artifacts and the memories that bind them.

“Oftentimes, it’s easy for us to forget all of the different cultural influences that affect Colorado Springs as we are today, We’re not just Gen. [William Jackson] Palmer’s community.”
— Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum Executive Director Matt Mayberry

Familia reunion

Margaret Malacara seized a rare open space between a re-creation of a counter from the Rio Grande Grocery and an informational panel

related to the Spanish Gospel Mission

to watch, wide-eyed, as throngs of people strolled through the visual representation of her memories. Her brother, Al Malacara, stood a few feet away, greeting childhood friends with a warm smile and hugs.

The pair proudly pointed to a black-and-white portrait that showed them, dust-covered from play and surrounded by siblings, posing in a street in the neighborhood.

“This is an honor, it is really an honor,” Margaret said of the exhibit. “I’m … proud that I grew up around here.”

The Malacara siblings spoke fondly of attending church at the Spanish mission, playing on the slide known as “the dragon” in the former Conejos Park and gathering at the Rio Grande Grocery to get the latest news and gossip … and perhaps a handful of candy. Both proudly spoke of their family’s entrepreneurial legacy — their father owned and operated Trinidad and Sons Automotive Services — and grew nostalgic for a time when packs of children could barge into a neighbor’s house unannounced and safely play outside “until the lights went off,” as Margaret put it.

“Conejos was part of the Colorado Springs experience,” Al Malacara said. “Most people don’t know that.”

“It was a great place, a great place to be,” said Orlenas, who, with her husband, opened and operated the Aztlan Restaurant and Lounge. “You felt like it was a big family.”

They were among the residents asked to speak during a community panel, sharing their memories and thoughts with a standing-room-only crowd in the third-floor courtroom. Mayor John Suthers told the audience that the exhibit highlighted the role Conejos played in the city’s culture.

“I think it’s a reminder of how important the neighborhood is to Colorado Springs,” he said.

Rudy Melena, whose grandparents founded and father operated the iconic Rio Grande Grocery, fondly spoke about the “hanging tree,” a massive cottonwood at the end of Costilla Street that he said spanned the creek. Children would take turns, in his memory, swinging from a rope over the water, enjoying the sun-dappled shade and the feel of the wind in their faces.

But more important than the rush of the ride, he said, was getting back to the safety of terra firma.

“There was always a group of kids to catch you,” he said. “When you came back, all these kids would grab you and save you. By God, that was Conejos.”

regan.foster@southeastexpress.org

 

Check it out

Who: The Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum

What: Una Familia Grande: The Conejos Neighborhood Project

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays

Where: The Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum, 215 S. Tejon St.

Info: cspm.org/conejos

Founding Editor and General Manager Regan Foster holds dual bachelor's degrees in journalism and Spanish, with a minor in Latin American studies, from the University of Iowa and a master's degree in journalism with specialization in political reporting and media management from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. Over the course of nearly two decades, she has worked and lived in Alaska, Michigan, Iowa, Illinois and Colorado. Before being tasked with launching the Southeast Express, Foster was the youngest person and first woman ever hired to serve as The Pueblo Chieftain's editorial page editor, where she also worked as both the entertainment editor and the Life editor.

Editor

Founding Editor and General Manager Regan Foster holds dual bachelor's degrees in journalism and Spanish and a master's degree in journalism with specialization in political reporting and media management.