Significance – Bernie Valdez has taken his place as one of Denver’s most respected Hispanic leaders. He took his experiences from the Great Depression and parlayed it to become a prominent force in Latino civil rights.

Valdez was a founder and the first chairman of LARASA, the country’s first Latino-based 501(c)3 nonprofit agency, created for all people to together to improve conditions for Latinos. He also became involved in the Latin American Educational Foundation.

Inscription – “We have to organize. The best way to make the system work for us is cooperation.”

— Bernie Valdez (1912-1997) Co-founder of Latin American Education Foundation and the Latin American Research and Service Agency, and Head of the Colorado Coalition for Dropout Prevention.

Location – 39°44’38.9″N 104°59’18.4″W

Details – Some people really know how to take advantage of the opportunities presented to them. The son of migrant farmers from New Mexico, Valdez credited the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) as his inspiration. Founded in 1933, the CCC was a major part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal to lift the U.S. out of the depths of the Great Depression. The CCC program provided robust outdoor work for unskilled young men. The jobs were related to the conservation and development of natural resources in rural lands owned by federal, state and local governments. The objective was to offer relief to families who had difficulty finding jobs during the nation’s greatest depression. The CCC provided their recruits with shelter, clothing, food and a small wage of $30 a month – $25 of which had to be sent home to their families. The CCC’s motto was “Save the Soil, Save the Forests, Save the Young Men.”

Over the course of its nine years in operation, 3 million young men participated in the CCC. Valdez joined in 1938 and worked with Company 1819 at Camp F-64-C in Woodland Park. “My mother was delighted when I joined the CCC because for the first time she would have a steady income of $25 a month,” Valdez reminisced. “That money supported my mother and four brothers and sisters.”

It was rugged outdoor work; enrollees planted nearly 3 billion trees to help reforest America. They updated forest fire fighting methods and constructed a nationwide network of lodges, service buildings, trails, and public roadways that incorporated more than 800 parks – many in remote areas – and much of their work is still in use today.

Some of the many benefits of an individual’s enrollment in the CCC included improved physical condition, heightened morale, and increased employability. The men fell asleep at night, exhausted from a good day’s work, knowing they were caring for their family.

“The CCC gave me an opportunity to live with other boys. One of the differences between the CCC and some of the other programs was that all the kids in the CCC were not culturally deprived,” Valdez recalled.

“In the CCC, we had lots of kids who had graduated from high school, we had several who were in the process of getting a college education, and we had adult leaders who had had lots of experience. We had an educational adviser who in my opinion had a tremendous amount of imagination because he didn’t have any resources—no library; no money or assistants. So he created relationships between the boys, and teachers among the boys. There was somebody who could teach math and somebody who could teach English and somebody else who could teach something else… There was tremendous enrichment from each other that I think really changed the course of my life.”

The CCC aimed Valdez on the path of education and government service. He graduated from Colorado A&M (now Colorado State University) and became a leader in the Department of Labor’s World War II Bracero Program. The program, named for the Spanish term for manual labor, led to the signing of the Mexican Farm Labor Agreement, which guaranteed immigrant laborer a minimum wage of 30 cents an hour.

Later, Valdez, accompanied by his wife Dora, managed Denver’s welfare programs. Valdez was elected as the first Hispanic member of the Denver School Board. In 1964, during President Johnson’s War on Poverty, Valdez and Denver Mayor Tom Currigan enacted another version of the CCC. Called Job Corps, the $412.5 million program was expected to enroll 100,000 youths. It became so successful that it is a national program that is still active today.

Local community leader, Juana Bordas, wrote, “In the turbulent 1960s, when Latinos were just beginning to forge their identity and to organize a community. Bernie inspired others to do the same.”

Valdez was a founder and the first chairman of LARASA, the country’s first Latino-based 501(c)3 nonprofit agency, created for all people to together to improve conditions for Latinos. He also became involved in the Latin American Educational Foundation.

His influence is still recognized throughout Denver. The Bernie Valdez Community Recognition Award is now an established honor in Denver. The West Side Court Building at Speer Blvd. and Colfax Ave. was renovated and re-dedicated as the Bernard Valdez Hispanic Heritage Center. And there’s the Valdez-Perry Branch Library in north Denver.

Valdez was a constant voice to those who did not have one. He became a beloved figure in the Latino quest for equality and justice.

“Bernie Valdez exemplifies what a true leader in the community is,” notes Christine Alonzo, who has followed in Valdez’ footsteps. “Bernie fought against discrimination towards Latinos in education economic justice, and for civil rights. Not only was he a leader who received support from his community in holding government accountable, he did it with integrity and principle. A true leader that we can all learn from.”

Quiz Questions

  1. What were some of the benefits of the Civilian Conservation Corps?
  2. Name some of the accomplishments of the CCC?
  3. Why did the Hispanic community need a leader like Bernie Valdez?
  4. Which of Bernie Valdez’s accomplishments impresses you? Why?
  5. What do you think are some areas where minority groups can use better representation?