The little park on Asbury Avenue in southwest Denver hides its story well. It’s nearly nondescript with a few scattered benches and trees lining its concrete walkway. It’s a plainness that is no doubt bolstered by the fact that for a while there the park had no name.
But with a name — La Lomita Park — its story and that of one of the families who grew up nearby will no longer be obscured.
It started when Councilman Jolon Clark requested a list of the parks in his district. Three showed up nameless, including one near Asbury Avenue and Tejon Street. It was located in an area called Goat Hill that was historically home to Mexican-American and Latino families. The park is sandwiched between the Ruby Hill and College View neighborhoods in southwest Denver.
The news about a renaming reached Denver Police District 1 Commander Jeff Martinez through Clark’s council aide Anita Banuelos. Martinez told Banuelos his family had pretty deep roots there. The area was where Martinez’s grandparents, Domingo and Domitilla Abeyta, had settled after first living in Trinidad after relocating there from New Mexico in the 1940s. The couple had nine children.
“We were thinking, should we try to get it named Abeyta Park, because that’s our grandparents’ name, that’s where we’re all descendants from,” Martinez said. “But we thought that it’s more fitting that it would be named after a place that all of our Abeyta Family used to go.”
That place was a restaurant called La Lomita Cafe. Last week, he and his family had their wish granted when the Denver City Council voted unanimously to name the park La Lomita Park, after the restaurant that stood about a block away from 1955 and 1966.
Several family members attended to see the vote. They had gathered hundreds of signatures and presented before a Parks and Recreation committee to help secure the park’s naming.
“It was such a joy to sit and listen to this rich history that this family that has built this part of south Denver for decades,” Clark said during last week’s council meeting. “You are Denver. You are our city.”
Martinez, who’s worked for the department since 1995, is a stout man with graying hair. But hearing him speak about the process behind the park’s naming transforms him into the little boy who grew up in that restaurant.
He was struck by what it all meant a few nights before the council’s final vote.
“But yesterday, I really thought, we are really presenting in front of City Council and have a chance to memorialize something that means something to our family,” Martinez said. “A family that is just a humble family, that has been polite and hardworking people.”
The former restaurant served as a home, grocery store and furniture shop operated by the Abeyta Family.
A day after the council hearing where both Martinez and his aunt Arlene Mackintosh spoke, the two joined Chuck Martinez (Jeff’s older brother) inside a meeting room at the Denver Police District 1 Station. It’s a substation the younger Martinez oversees.
“When I left, I felt like I had just received what I had wanted for Christmas after 20 years,” Chuck Martinez said. “I had taken my grandsons as well … and my grandson, the 9-year-old, said ‘I thought it was going to be boring, but it wasn’t!’”
Chuck Martinez helped put together a history of the family, which stretches back their arrival in the area in the 1940s. Chuck Martinez even created a mini Ken Burns-style documentary circulated in the family in a private YouTube clip.
The land where La Lomita would later be built was first purchased by Martinez’s uncles, Minnie Romero and her husband Joe, in 1942. Joe Romero ended up building a home on the parcel on the corner of Evans and Vallejo a year later. The building would be used as living space only until 1947 when the Romeros turned the building into a grocery store called Evans Heights Grocery.
The grocery store would only last a few years. It closed after a new supermarket opened nearby, leaving the Romeros’ store unable to compete. A year after that, the family decided to open Romero’s Used Furniture, a venture that lasted only a few years.
In 1955, fueled by previous discussions among family members about opening a restaurant to sell their home-cooked New Mexico-style food, the family opened La Lomita Cafe. La lomita means “little hill” in Spanish. Martinez’s uncle Procopio “Porky” Abeyta is responsible for giving it its name.
The restaurant was a hit with locals. During his testimony to the City Council, the younger Martinez said lines would be out the door at times for people who wanted to eat and take in the music from the jukebox. Chuck Martinez said the shop would host the occasional rock musician from a Whisky A Go Go down the road (the site is now PT’s Showclub).
“It wasn’t just a workplace, it was — I mean it was a livelihood in that way, but our family all went there to eat. (We) grew up in the area,” Chuck Martinez said
Mackintosh favored the chorizo, while Chuck Martinez has memories of another Mexican food staple.
“Those hand-rolled tortillas, my mom would roll those and, it ruined her hands eventually, I think (led) to her arthritis,” Chuck Martinez said. “I would remember seeing stacks of tortillas that she was rolling.”
The restaurant would change hands between the Abeytas; Walter and Lilly Lopez (Domingo and Domitilla Abeyta’s daughter) ran it from 1955 to about 1960, before Felix (Domingo and Domitilla Abeyta’s son) and Clorinda Abeyta took over from 1961 to 1963.
Martinez’s parents, Chuck and Betty, became co-managers in 1964. They would be the restaurant’s final managers: It would close in 1966.
“I was the baby when my family owned the restaurant in ’65,” Jeff Martinez said. “They said we lived in the basement and I was dropped on my head … I don’t remember much of it.”
Mackintosh (who was raised by Domingo and Domitilla Abeyta and is technically Jeff and Chuck Martinez’s first cousin) said several family members lived in the restaurant’s basement while it was converted into different businesses.
Mackintosh worked as a cashier and waitress at the restaurant and would lend a hand for cooking duties when she wasn’t busy. She spent some time living in the restaurant’s basement, which she said had two apartment spaces.
“My son was three when we were still living there,” Mackintosh said. “He’d take off upstairs, he’d hear that jukebox, he’d take off upstairs and I’d be looking all over for him, and he was upstairs dancing by the jukebox. He’d tell the people what to put on there because they used to love to watch him dance.”
Now boasting a name, the park is slated for some upgrades.
Banuelos, Clark’s aide, said they learned from nearby residents that the park doesn’t have a lot of visitors these days. They’re hoping some renovations will make it more inviting. Early conceptual site plans show new features like a basketball court, a turf playing field and stepping stone wetland crossings.
Brian Wethington, Green Infrastructure Project Manager for the city, said construction on the upgrades should start in March 2019. It should be completed by the end of the summer or early fall.
Banuelos is hoping to continue working closely with the Abeyta family to host a ceremony to recognize the new name sometime down the line.
You can bet the Abeyta family — which is so big Jeff Martinez still finds new cousins every once in a while — will be there.
Though the family said turnout wasn’t as high as expected last week (a Broncos game may have had something to do with it), it was still clear the naming had lots of support community members, city staff and anyone who learned about the Abeytas during last week’s meeting.
“It’s really a beautiful, wonderful family, and to think that low key people who aren’t flashy, that aren’t, haven’t been extremely influential in the city — governor or mayor or something like that — having a place where they grew up memorialized is what really, really heartwarming to me,” Jeff Martinez said. “It makes me think, wow. They are recognizing an average family. That’s what gets to me. It’s something big.”