Combating Mass Poverty in Rural Colorado

From Colorado Springs, get on I-25. Drive south. After roughly 2 1/2 hours, near the New Mexico border, lies the oldest town in Colorado, San Luis. Roughly 700 people live in the town, and despite the rich history and culture of the area, the population continues to decline as youths leave a home their ancestors loved and cherished to seek fortune, education, and even fame in the larger cities. 

YouthLookingOverTownMany leave without ever truly seeing the beauty and value of their town, its history, the winding trails along verdant hills, and the pristine mountains standing sentinel over the Valley. Many go without ever learning why their native ancestors cherished this land and held it sacred. Their leaving means the town continues to dwindle in population, stories and histories do not pass to the next generation, and the level of mass poverty in San Luis and surrounding towns continues its vicious cycle and deepens.

Enter Shirley Romero Otero, mentee of Reies Lopez Tijerina and long-time activist involved in the Chicano (Indohispano) movement. Shirley began working with the San Luis community 40 years ago and laid the foundation for future work. In turn, her mentees, Miguel Huerta and friends–artists who hail from Denver, Colorado Springs, and Philadelphia and many of whom trace their families back to the San Luis Valley–began work in the community several years ago. Miguel and his compatriots founded the Move Mountains Project, a nonprofit created for the town and citizens of San Luis. Local citizens serve as board members to preserve and pass down their heritage, and many young people serve on the Youth Advisory Board with the express purpose of revitalizing their community.MoveMountainsYouthInBus

The entire Move Mountains Project was created to rally the community around their youth and allow them to reconnect with their elders and their history. The group of artists participating in the project, mentored by Shirley Romero Otero, has been working with San Luis youth for several years, now. Educators come from Denver, Colorado Springs, and Philadelphia to participate in the Move Mountain’s Project, which occurs throughout the month of July each year. The project culminates with the Santa Ana y Santiago Festival, a celebration of local tradition hearkening back to the Roman Catholic Church and Spain.

EldersTeachingDuring the month of July, Move Mountains educators and community elders provide activities and opportunities for learning to the youth they’d not have otherwise. The Centennial School District in San Luis often has a hard time recruiting quality educators due to their lack of funding and limited offerings of the town and surrounding areas. Once again, the effects of mass poverty can be clearly seen–the educational system does not adequately support future growth for the town, which in turn keeps the population in poverty, thus making it even harder for the education system to serve its students adequately.

PicMoveMountains Those who do well in school have a chance at college, but many who don’t have few prospects in an impoverished and, at times, subsistence economy. This, in turn, creates an environment full of dissatisfied and disenchanted adults, many of whom suffer through difficult lives due to inadequate health care, poor nutrition, and drug and alcohol issues. In fact, the community seems to be having such a difficult time with drugs and alcohol that the school district is considering mandatory random drug testing for all athletes, a terrible invasion of privacy transacted against minors.

However, hope continues for many in the community. Last year, two teachers involved in the Move Mountains Project, Kerry Justine Millen, current Move Mountains Program Director, and Andre Paul decided to stay in San Luis to teach, volunteer, and work with the youths at the local school. They’ve been mentoring some of the most at-risk students. These kids often receive negative attention from their teachers because they’re dealing with learning differences/disabilities, severe family crises, and drug and alcohol abuse in the home. Many of these children struggle for positive attention from adults. They lack nutritious food and caring acceptance from the broader community.

LovinTheLandThis kind of occurrence is an age-old issue faced by empires and the indigenous peoples they subsume across the globe. All too often, we turn a blind eye to it. Dominant invasive cultures can subsume and even denigrate local, traditional cultures, which can lead to the thinning populations in rural areas, due largely to youths believing they can lead more promising lives in cities. This occurs as a natural consequence of dominance. We know about it, yet few do anything to stop it.

Whether those young people find better lives in urban areas is, in one vital sense, a moot point. They lose their roots as they move away from authentic traditions passed down for centuries and into mainstream culture. Such a loss is a detriment to us all. We have the power to preserve, respect, and cherish San Luis culture. If we don’t, who will?


Please consider donating to the Move Mountain’s Project: San Luis. Click the link to visit the Indiegogo Campaign. Your donation will make the difference for the children in San Luis, CO through the Four Pillars of the Move Mountains Project: entrepreneurship, art, earth, and community action.

In 2014, Move Mountains:

  • Paid 13 youth leaders for a 2-week program
  • Engaged 20 youths throughout the month of July
  • Elected a 5-member Youth Leadership Board

2015 Move Mountains Plans to:

  • Pay 20 Youth Leader internships for the whole month of July
  • Recruit 10 community members for Community Educator roles
  • Bring 5 to 10 Artist Educators from the surrounding region to enrich the programming through cultural exchanges