On Saturday afternoon, a stretch of Morrison Road between Utica and Stuart streets was flooded of pedestrians enjoying local cuisine, live music, dance and art. They were there for Westwood’s annual Chile Fest, a celebration of Hispanic and Latinx food and culture that closes Morrison Road to vehicles and brings community members together to enjoy all Westwood has to offer. This year’s festival marked its return after it was forced to cancel its 2020 celebration due to COVID-19.
Westwood Chile Fest was founded back in 2010 by BuCu West Development Association, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting local businesses and cultural organizations along the Morrison corridor. 2020 Census data shows that 76 percent of Westwood is made up of people who identify as Hispanic or Latinx (down from 80 percent in 2010), a statistic that’s reflected in the local businesses and art along the main street.
Throughout the year, local groups work with BuCu West to produce events like Chile Fest, the annual Frida Kahlo Celebration, Veggie Viernes and Mikailhuitl Festival to celebrate the food, culture and art of the people who make up Westwood.
Morrison Road is a high-traffic street with small sidewalks. Jose Esparza, BuCu West’s executive director, said that has historically made the street somewhat of a neighborhood divider. He said events like Chile Fest represent a larger vision to make Morrison a more pedestrian-friendly main street and help turn it into a unifier within Westwood, rather than a busy street dividing it.
Esparza said it’s “incredibly exciting” to see people walking around at the festival.
“It was always the intention to close Morrison Road to traffic and bring the community together,” Esparza said. “We’ve worked with organizations all around the neighborhood over time. It’s really just become something to just promote the successes and the partnerships that exist in the neighborhood that make a lot of these community events possible.”
A couple years back, former council member and current clerk and recorder Paul Lopez helped to turn Morrison Road into a cultural district.
He said was inspired by La Villita in Chicago, a neighborhood known for its Mexican-American food, art and shops.
“The idea here was to do a Mexican cultural district based off of just what the neighborhood is, and the beauty of the neighborhood,” Lopez said.
He said that back when the plans were still in the works, some people wanted to make 32nd or 38th Avenue a “Little Mexico.”
“And it wasn’t,” he said. “It just isn’t. This is what’s up. It’s the heart of the community.”
He said Chile Fest was part of that vision.
“This is a vision that we had to help activate the street to create something for the community to be a part of, to showcase local artisans, local businesses, local restaurants and just who we really are.”
Christina Contreras is a BuCu West board member, and has been working with other neighborhood organizations since 2015. On Saturday, she was working a Department of Transportation and Infrastructure table at Chili Fest, surveying Westwood community members about their safety concerns and what improvements they would like to see.
“I just love the community. I’m from El Paso originally,” she said. “A lot of immigrants from Spanish speaking countries, including Mexico, Central America, come to Denver. And this is a great neighborhood for them to get their bearings and get connected.”
She said it’s been great seeing so many community organizations and residents out at Chile Fest.
“Everybody’s so friendly, and really grateful,” she said. “They take a lot of pride in this event. So it’s awesome to be a part of it, and be here and support them.”
On Saturday, between 12-7 p.m., community members and visitors flooded the hot, sunny street, stopping at local food trucks, inflatables, kiddie rides, vendors, drink stands, a chile roasting booth and community services like a mobile COVID-19 vaccine truck.
Throughout the day, people gathered in the center of the street to watch break-dancers, Mariachi, Baile Folklorico, Zumba, Salsa dancers, Selena cover band Venus Cruz, celebrated local artists like Wes Watkins, and other live performances, as well as a three-round chile eating contest.
Maria Galindo, who grew up in Westwood but now lives in Broomfield, attended the event with her family. It was her first time attending the festival, and she said it’s nice to have an event like this in Westwood, a neighborhood she says gets undue negative attention.
Saturday was her first time back in Westwood since the pandemic began. She says it’s been awesome exploring and checking out the art, and that the event feels reflective of community she grew up in.
“Its really cool to have the Chile Festival, and all kinds of art,” she said. “It feels like home.”