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Beginning Stages for The Arts Shine on Colfax

Even after all these years Local activist keeps introducing theater to a community that might not know it’s there without her

BY Quincy Snowdon Staff writer, Updated: December 19, 2014 8:15 am

As a student at Crawford Elementary School 15 years ago, Nelson Moreno didn’t have many opportunities to experience local theater. In fact, they practically didn’t exist. Practically. Scenes of scripts, sets and stages seemed a world away to Moreno and his classmates, an unfortunate reality for many schoolchildren who grow up in areas like the one in which they did.

“I grew up on Colfax, with a lot of violence, domestic violence, and a lot of gangs,” Moreno said.

Nelson Moreno helps lead a monthly program for underserved youth of north Aurora at the Aurora Fox Arts Center. After participating in the program throughout his childhood, Moreno found it important to continue bringing the arts to those that might not have the opportunity on their own. (Marla R. Keown/Aurora Sentinel)
NelsonMoreno helps lead a monthly programforunderserved youth ofnorthAurora attheAurora Fox Arts Center. After participating in the program throughout his childhood,Moreno found it important to continue bringing the arts to those that might not have the opportunity on their own. (Marla R.Keown/Aurora Sentinel)

The East Colfax corridor was battling those issues on a daily basis when Moreno was an elementary-schooler there in the late ‘90s – an area on constant damage control amid the constant stigma of social strife; a stigma the area continues to grapple with today. In an environment like that, Moreno says, memorizing lines is the last thing on anybody’s mind.

“When you grow up on those streets you don’t have the opportunity to do those things – to go to the theater and stuff,” he said.

But, for a couple of hours a few times each year, Renee Fajardo changed all that.

“She was the pioneer in bringing talent to the stage for this community which has grown ever more diverse,” said Peg Alt, community outreach specialist with Original Aurora Renewal.

Fajardo is the founder, coordinator and leader of the holiday cultural concert series at the Aurora Fox Arts Center, an initiative she started 19 years ago that puts on monthly cultural events for the underserved youth of north Aurora.

“I wanted to draw attention to The Fox Theater and artists in Colorado, because 20 years ago people had no idea the area could offer those things and had such diversity,” she said.

Fajardo spearheaded the project fresh out of law school through a partnership between her former employer, the Colorado Folk Arts Council, and The Aurora Fox and Original Aurora Renewal. In the nearly two decades since its inception, the series has introduced middle and elementary schoolers to the world of theater.

“I grew up on Colfax, and people would tell me how rough of a neighborhood it was and I would say, ‘no it’s not,’” Fajardo said. “I wanted to do something to prove that to them.”

Now a professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver, Fajardo coordinates eight annual shows throughout the fall, winter and spring with her outreach group, Journey Through Our Heritage, which aims to grant artistic and cultural opportunities specifically to Native American, Chicano and black students in underserved communities. Over 25 schools from across the metro region now participate in the program, and more than 250 students attend each show, which often center on holidays like Día de Los Muertos in November and Cinco de Mayo in May.

The project has come full circle for Fajardo in recent years, as she now works alongside Moreno, an undergraduate work-study employee of hers at MSU, in planning the series. A junior psychology major, Moreno has helped organize the series with Fajardo and other MSU students for over two years by providing PR and marketing support.

“It just kind of happened, I really wasn’t looking for this,” Moreno said. “I found Renee and found out she was the one behind The Fox stuff and thought I should help out. I’m just trying to give back to my community, and trying to make a difference through theater.”

Moreno also tutors at Aurora Central High School, his alma mater, where he said he’s seen a noticeable difference in the attitudes of students over the years.

“I see that it’s changed and that kids actually care about their school work,” he said. “There’s less violence, less drugs, less bad stuff in general. I definitely see Aurora getting better.”

Fajardo said Moreno’s perspective as a former student has been an invaluable asset to Journey Through Our Heritage, and that she sees in him the same, innovative personality with which she started the series years ago.

“I was pretty burnt out on organizing, but when Nelson came in, it was this fresh perspective emphasizing that this is a very important event for the children in that neighborhood,” she said. “Working with him has really helped give me a new perspective and a fresh set of eyes.”

Cleo Parker Robinson Dance performed this month’s cultural concert with a dance on Dec. 17. Janelle Ayon, spokesperson for the dance troupe, said the series allows the company to better fulfill its vision of exposing students to multicultural, world-class art.

“The face of Denver is changing, and this production in particular touches on several different cultures and when there’s some part of a show kids can relate to, it allows them to buy into the experience and be that much more fulfilling,” she said.

Hosting performances like the one given by Cleo Parker is also fulfilling for Charles Packard, executive director of The Fox, who said being able to bring students into the world of theater is immensely gratifying, despite the constant responsibility to entertain.

“In these types of performances you know that there is somebody that is having their first experience with a live performance, and you know that that is only going to happen for that kid once and that performance is going to be profound,” he said. “I feel a lot of responsibility, but I feel great that we’re able to provide that – even though it’s a little bit terrifying.”


In partnership with Metropolitan State UniversityDenver’s Department of Chicana/o Studies and Colorado Folk Arts Council, Breckenridge Creative Arts will host a two-day celebration of Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) on Friday, Oct. 24, and Saturday, Oct. 25, on the newly completed Breckenridge Arts District campus.

The celebration will feature a variety of classes and family activities with bilingual instructors from MSU. Throughout Mexico and around the world, Dia de los Muertos brings family and friends together to pray for and remember loved ones who have died. Far from a morose affair, Day of the Dead is a celebration rich in traditions and connections, a heartfelt festival of life.

“We are excited to share our new campus facilities with our entire community,” said Jenn Cram, manager of the Breckenridge Arts District. “Dia de Los Muertos is a celebration of life, culture and creativity, so we invite everyone to come out and experience the traditions of this colorful holiday, from ofrenda-making to mask workshops to helping build a celebratory altar to honor loved ones.”



The event will feature a variety of classes for adults and children. The message of the Día de los Muertos activities is that we all have indigenous backgrounds that connect us, said Dr. Renee Fajardo, coordinator for the Metropolitan State University of Denver’s Journey Through Our Heritage (JTOH) program.

“Every single culture throughout the whole world has a way that they honor their dead, their beloveds that have passed on,” she said. “We have traditional art forms — mask making, sugar skulls — but what we’re trying to get everybody to realize is everyone is also connected through the death process. We all have people that we love; our ancestors built a foundation. Nobody got here without having ancestors that worked and procured an environment where we were able to live and prosper.”

Family-friendly workshops include sugar skull decorating on Friday, Oct. 24, where participants will receive an introduction to the customs of Dia de los Muertos and the symbolism of the iconic sugar skull. Mask making will also be offered to families on Saturday, Oct. 25. Participants will learn how to decorate their own unique Day of the Dead mask inspired by sugar skull face painting.

“We’re also going to talk about the significance of sugar skulls,” Fajardo said. “How the Spanish colonials changed the original Aztec traditions and everything adapted. In order to survive, people have to change and adapt, or you wouldn’t be here. Everything we will work on will have a history, a story, to get people to reflect on how we are really all connected. That’s the whole philosophy: a holistic view of how we’re all connected.”

Geared toward a more adult experience, the ofrenda workshop on Friday, Oct. 24, offers participants the opportunity to create a small shrine dedicated to a lost one while learning about the traditions related to this art form. In the Dancing Catrina Workshop, offered on Saturday, Oct. 25, families will learn about the history of “La Calavera Catrina (Elegant Skull)” and will create their own dancing “catrina.”



Breckenridge Creative Arts will host a community altar in the Randall Barn on Saturday, Oct. 25. Creating these altars is one of the most important traditions during Day of the Dead in Mexico and in Mexican-American and Latino communities worldwide.

“We’re going to have the entrance to the altar so it’s an archway, where the spirits come through,” Fajardo said. “We’re going to bring the flowers, the candles, and we’re going to be making these little tiny skull notepads that you can come in and color on these skulls and write a message to your loved one.”

The altar will contain the traditional components of fire, water, earth and air to welcome ancestors, Fajardo said, and the community is invited to bring photographs of loved ones and flowers to place on the altar. Instructions and history of the altar will be given to visitors throughout the day in both Spanish and English.

“Say you had your grandpa and he was addicted to Hershey’s bars,” Fajardo said. “You could bring a note for your grandpa and a little Hershey’s kiss up there — any kind of food that they like that’s not going to spoil. They can bring fresh flowers, basically anything that they feel is important to the one that they are honoring.”

Fajardo said that though the ski industry is an important part of the economy of Summit County, it’s important for locals and visitors alike to realize that the area has a deep, abiding history from all of the people who came here before us, and Dia de los Muertos is a time to celebrate that.

“I think it will give the people who are new to Summit County a perspective of how deep our history is here, the complexities,” she said. “We’re hoping to reach out to some of the first-generation immigrant families to let them know that we understand that your traditions have followed you up here, you’re in this new place, and the old people are still here, but we all have this one thing connecting us together and we’re all part of this beautiful unfolding book of life.”


Dia de los Muertos schedule

Friday, Oct. 24

4-6 p.m. — Sugar skull decorating for families, Fuqua Livery Stable, $25 per family (up to four members); includes materials

7-9 p.m. — Ofrenda workshop for adults, Fuqua Livery Stable, $25 per person; includes materials

Saturday, Oct. 25

9-11 a.m. — Mask making for families, Fuqua Livery Stable, $25 per family (up to four members); includes materials

12:30-5:30 p.m. — Dia de los Muertos community altar, Randall Barn, free

3-5 p.m. — Dancing Catrina for families, Fuqua Livery Stable, $25 per family (up to four members); includes materials

All events take place on the Breckenridge Arts District campus, located on the corner of South Ridge Street and East Washington Avenue. For more information on these workshops and events, visit


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October 24, 2014
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"Chalk Art Festival draws in Journey Through Our Heritage mentors" 

he Denver Chalk Art Festival is an outdoors event that took place the first weekend of June, where over 200 artists participated in drawing temporary masterpieces on the Larimer Square pavement, sharing the Italian tradition of chalk art. The Chalk Art Festival was a great activity that helped promote Journey Through Our Heritage  and gave work study mentors a new experience and new connections for the future. 

               Each year,  chalk artists take part in two different contests during this event: the Sponsor’s Challenge and the Youth Challenge. Prizes go to Best in Show, People’s Choice, Best Use of Color, Best Representation of Color, and other awards determined by the judges, such as Most Chalk-Covered Artists or Hardest-Working Group.  Winners of the Youth Challenge, sponsored by the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design (RMCAD), can come away with hundreds of dollars in art supplies for their school.

                JTOH participated in the Youth Challenge, where young artists from local schools endured the early summer sun to create something beautiful for the public.  This challenge took place on the streets of Market and Larimer Square, where the team was given two boxes of pastel chalk, water bottles, food, and other supplies. The goal for the Journey Through Our Heritage team: to reproduce Jerry Jaramillo’s painting  “Our Lady of Guadalupe” on a 6 by 6 foot square within two days. This challenge proved to be difficult, due to the uneven tar surface and the blazing sun, causing the crew to burn through chalk and to suffer through exhaustion. Yet the JTOH team, including Damaris Santos, Peach Dance, Renee Brant, Michael Diaz, Jay Jaramillo and Yvette Glover managed to finish by the deadline and create something many people would not soon forget.

             This year the festival was especially rambunctious for attendees and artists alike. Within walking distance of the  chalk art activities the Capitol Hill People's Fair and Denver Comic Con were also heating up the weekend with food, bands, comics and a plethora of costumed revelers. One artist commented ,"The  completion was more about creating beauty and becoming one with the community than winning."

             This attitude carried through to the MSU Denver team. Even though the JTOH rendition of  "Our Lady of Guadalupe" didn't win top honors, the Journey had the pleasure of working next to the  winners of the Youth Challenge and the Youth Challenge People's Choice, a group of young artists from Westminister High School. "This was a great opportunity for us and we really look forward to next year." said Santos, the team's lead artist.


              ver all our team enjoyed the Festival and the challenge. We learned how fun it was to draw with chalk on the group, and that this event was a great for college student to find connection for their major. This year was even more eventful due to the People’s fair and Comic Con all happing at the same time and both were walking distance from the chalk art festival. Even through Our team did not win we are proud of our accomplishment, the new friend we made, and the fact that the winners of the challenge were right next to us (Westminster high school). This was a great event and the members of the JTOH team are looking forward to next year.



For more pictures please check out out chalk art album on Facebook

 Article by Chris Utterback





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 "JTOH celebrates Greek pride"

ourney Through Our Heritage member Karissa Garcia, President of the student organization had the opportunity to work at the 2013 Denver Greek Festival that took place the 14th, 15th, and 16th of June. She has been a part of the Greek Orthodox community since birth and she has been working the festival for over ten years. Garcia was proud to work for JTOH's Service Enrichment Program by volunteering for the festival.

This festival brings together culture, dance, food and fun to show off Denver's Greek pride. Hellenic and Cretan dancers from local troupes entertained the festival goers as they sampled Mediterranean delights like Spanakopita and Pastitsio—Greek-style lasagna.   For decades, the gold-domed Assumption of Theotokos Cathedral of Denver off of Alameda and Dahlia has hosted this awesome event.  

With the funds raised from the event going to support the cathedral and its charities, and a smorgasbord of Greek festivities, the Denver Greek Festival supports and celebrates Denver's rich Greek culture.

—Karissa Garcia





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"Journey Through Our Heritage mentors open Democracy convention with a call to action"


Journey Through Our Heritage mentors kicked off the 2013 American Democracy Project/The Democracy Commitment national meeting on June 6, with a call to stand up and get involved in democracy.

JTOH mentors marched through the crowd  to the stage at the Marriott City Center, waving placards and shouting "It's time to march!" The annual conference is put on by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, and JTOH mentors established the  theme for this year's conference: "Building Bridges and Solving Problems."

—Chris Utterback


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JTOH mentors, led by Chicana/o Studies Department Chair Dr. Ramon del Castillo, pose during the 2013 American Democracy Project/The Democracy Commitment national meeting.


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At this year's Latin Heritage Camp  Journey Through Our Heritage mentors helped adopted kids discover their own heritage.

The yearly camp, held at the Snow Mountain Ranch in Granby, CO, provides a place for families with kids adopted from Latin America, or Latino kids adopted in the United States.   Aztec dancers entertained the group while JTOH mentors served as counselors over the weekend-long camp.


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Aztec dancers and JTOH mentors pose with kids at the Latin American Heritage Camp.


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"Journey resident artist Jerry Jaramillo spills on his inspirations"


Though not all of Jerry Jaramillo’s works of public art  have survived his decades-long career, the murals and sculptures that are still around stand as testaments to the power of Chicano art.


Jaramillo’s murals, notably “La Famillia Cosmica,” painted on the walls of the pool at Denver’s La Familia Recreation Center, and “Primavera” at 41st and Tejon, reflect a long line of Chicano muralists who splashed scenes of Latin spirituality and Mexican-American life across the nation’s walls.

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 “La Famillia Cosmica,”

As a founding member of Colorado’s first Chicano art organization, the Chicano Humanities and Arts Council in 1978, Jaramillo was in the thick of a time filled with  questions about Mexican-American identity and art’s place in it. “A lot of people didn't like ‘Chicano’, the name itself. But to me, Chicano was the name of a change of a generation,” Jaramillo remembered, in the garage that serves as his art studio at his Northglenn home. “We were in-betweeners.”


Jaramillo started his career early— tagging along with his brother, Larry, to preschool to paint with the class. “I loved it right from the start. I always thought I was a natural at it,” said Jaramillo. When he decided to pursue art for a living, the young artist found himself at CU Boulder, where he later returned as an artist in residence for the school’s United Mexican American Students group. 


After his first few murals, Jaramillo relocated to Denver to take place in the city’s public art program, where he collaborated with fellow Chicano muralists like Carlos Sandoval, with whom he worked on a now-gone mural on Wazee and 16th Street. These connections built the foundation for CHAC, which gathered Colorado’s finest Chicano artists like Sandoval, Stevon Lucero, and Ernie Gallegos together under one roof. “‘We’re young bucks,’ we said. ‘Let’s do it our way!’” Jaramillo recalled. “We’re tired of doing it everybody else’s way. Let's do art the way we want.’”


Since then, Jaramillo continued to paint murals, including 1984’s “Flight of the Eagle Dancer,” sponsored by the Denver Art Museum, and a mural that Jaramillo and Sandoval painted in Zihuatanejo, Mexico.  “That was one of my best times of all time... We were showing our American side and their Mexican side, trying to evolve and learn from each other as artists,” he said. Jaramillo’s work has been shown all over the country from Washington to Florida—but his aesthetic owes more to the unique feeling of the American Southwest.


“The skies are clear, and you can see the stars at night,” Jaramillo said. “I get inspiration just from plants, people, animals, and so inspiration is everywhere for me down there.”


These days, Jaramillo’s tastes turn toward sculpture, an art form that grew on him when he created a set of metal reindeer for the city of Brighton’s Christmas parade. His flowing, feminine shapes,  often made from fiberglass, alabaster, or scavenged objects, represent  dimensions that paint can’t touch. ”I love working with my hands. From flat to three-dimensional, just inventing shapes is really fun. People go, ‘What is it?’ Well, I invented it. it’s just what it is. I love the feeling of starting something out of nothing,” Jaramillo said.


There’s another budding talent in the Jaramillo household: Jerry’s son, Jay, a Junior at MSU Denver. Jay follows in his father’s footsteps, collaborating with his dad on murals and paintings, and restoring Jerry’s old pieces. Jay has been with the program for four years as a work study student, and he  introduced the elder Jaramillo to the Journey Through Our Heritage program, an education program at MSU with an emphasis on art,  where he contributed three pieces and helps budding artists during JTOH’s annual Jaguar Club.   As one of JTOH's resident artists, along with Arlette Lucero and Bob Luna, Jerry created an art-centered curriculum to help high school students working with JTOH cultivate their skills.


Jaramillo says he’s found a second calling in nurturing the kind of talent he found in himself as a kid. "I want all the kids to do good, but if there are one or two kids who are really outstanding... I’ll spend a little more time with them after class, ask about what kind of art they do and the kind of artists they look up to,” Jaramillo said. “What I like is helping the next generation... And I’ve been doing it for quite a few years!” he laughed.

—Chris Utterback

Jerry Jaramillo poses in front of his "Last Supper" re-creation in his Northglenn studio. 



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“Jaguar Club an oasis in a troubled place”

by Chris Utterback


The subject for the day is sharing, but if you want to talk at the La Alma Jaguar Club, you’ve got to grab hold of the talking stick. It’s a beautiful thing, adorned with bold Quetzal feathers. A bird gave its life for this object, the Jaguar kids are reminded. They pass it around the circle, talking about what they share with their friends, their family.


While the kids are playing basketball in the gym at the La Alma Recreation Center, Yvette Bryant is in the adjoining room, talking about the day’s activities. “Right now they’re working on masks... And we had them do haiku poetry. They did well with that,” she beams. Bryant returned to school at MSU Denver in middle age, where she’s now a work-study student working with Journey Through Our Heritage, a program run by Metro's Department of Chicana/o studies that sponsors the free Jaguar Club for these West Side kids.

“They can swim, they get to go on field trips, they get to learn about art and not just color and paint or whatever,” says Bryant. “The art instructor works really hard to teach them about the different shapes and designs and how to blend colors.”


The La Alma Jaguar Club is not a typical summer program, and even less so than the programs that dub themselves ‘not a typical summer program.’


“We try to get across the idea that this is not a summer camp, this is a leadership program,” says Dr. Renee Fajardo, the coordinator for JTOH. “And that each and every one of them that are there, we expect them to grow up and be leaders. We expect them to break the stereotypical mold of who they think kids are who come from the projects.”


The La Alma/Lincoln Park neighborhood is not your typical ‘hood, either. Denverites have been living in this area since the city was settled in the mid-1800s. It’s a place where colorful brick houses with overgrown yards face imposing, sparse housing projects. Where the Santa Fe arts district dazzles hundreds of visitors on First Fridays, but creeping poverty lurks just blocks away. According to statistics compiled by The Piton Foundation, Lincoln Park suffered from a poverty rate of 37.73 percent as of 2000, more than twice that of the county of Denver as a whole. (US Census Bureau American Community Survey statistics from revealed Denver County’s poverty rate had climbed to 19.1 percent in 2009.)


Child poverty in Lincoln Park sat at a staggering 51.04 percent to the county’s 20.82—and has likely gotten worse as Colorado’s overall rate of child poverty doubled in the past decade. “When I was growing up here—even when my dad was growing up here—this was a rough neighborhood,” says Fajardo, who says her family has been living in La Alma/Lincoln Park for over 100 years.


The La Alma Recreation Center, located on the south side of Lincoln Park has been a hot spot of culture and activity since its foundation in the mid-1970s. “[The center] rose out of the Chicano movement, which wanted to have equal representation for public rec centers,” says Dennis Weber, recreation manager for La Alma and Barnum Recreation Center. The neighborhood’s hybrid name is made of up the Chicano soul of the place—’la Alma’—and the park that gave the area its name back when the neighborhood housed mostly white, working class people: a symbolic union of the old and new of the neighborhood. And that’s why when the rec center was threatened, the neighborhood fought back—and the Jaguar Club was born.


In fall 2009, Denver was facing a budget deficit to the tune of $120 million. “There had been a proposal to close the Byers [Branch] Library and sell it. And then have the recreation center transferred over to a non-profit,” says Judy Montero, councilwoman for Denver’s 9th District, which covers the La Alma/Lincoln neighborhood, among many others.  I said, ‘There’s no way you're going to close the library, a Carnegie library. And there’s no way you're giving this recreation center away.’ It was a big, huge fight.”


After intense pressure from Montero and West Side residents, the city relented and left the library and rec center alone. But the incident revealed how fragile opportunities for kids in La Alma/Lincoln Park were. “In my opinion as a mom, there are never enough things for inner-city children to do,” Montero says. “Because they’re children!”


Fast-forward to 2011, when Denver Parks and Recreation decided that the rec center’s adjoining pool would be closed for renovations all summer. (Construction crews later found asbestos in the concrete, further delaying the remodel until that fall.) That left one less place for Lincoln Park kids to play for the summer.


That’s how Montero ended up approaching Fajardo and the Journey Through Our Heritage Program to give kids an outlet for a long, hot summer. “I was so upset at the idea of the kids not having a swimming pool for the summer. And the idea that somebody said, ‘Oh, they can walk. They can walk from 12th and Mariposa all the way to Rudy Park...” I was so outraged that the community did not weigh in on the timing of when that swimming pool would be built,” Montero says.


‘We said, we’ve got a big team, and our kids are from this neighborhood, let’s see what we can put together,’” Fajardo recalls.


The La Alma Recreation Center was a natural fit to host a new day program. “What we are doing as a department, not only are we providing free space for them, but we’re providing them pool time, swim lessons and fishing trips. We’re hooking them into some of our existing activities,” Weber says. There are currently 44 kids enrolled in the six-week Club, ages 4-13. Divided into three age groups, they spend the day playing sports, swimming in the spiffy new La Alma pool, or painting with the Jaguar Club’s resident artist, Bob Luna. Glover is one of the counselors who works with the Jaguars day in and day out, and sees the effect the program has. “These kids need it,” she attests.

But beyond all the fun, Fajardo is candid about what she ultimately expects from these kids. “What we want to do with them is, instead of just getting used to the things in life that are disturbing and defacing and degrading, is to look at it and say, ‘Hey, here are the beautiful things in our neighborhood,’” she says. “The whole concept is that we’re teaching them to live a life of beauty. So now, they come in and create beautiful things, and you can feel they love to come to this program.”


On July 11th, from 12 to 2:30 p.m., JTOH is inviting the public to celebrate the conclusion of the program with a free neighborhood party at La Alma Rec Center, with pizza and a performance by the Mighty Nice Band. There will also be demonstrations from Jaguar Club kids, showing off the skills they learned in the leadership club.

 —Chris Utterback


Photo captions:




Diana Chavez (Left) and Karla Zanes (Right), mentors for Journey Through Our Heritage, teach kids about animal tracks at the La Alma Recreation Center.



Journey Through Our Heritage mentor Dylan Fajardo-Anstine (Upper left) and resident artist Bob Luna show off pieces created by La Alma Jaguar Club students.

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