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Federico Peña, in his own words
Federico Peña was elected Denver’s first Hispanic mayor in 1983. He went on to serve as U.S. Secretary of Transportation and then as Secretary of Energy during the Clinton Administration.
Earlier this spring, Peña shared his oral history with our curator of archives, Shaun Boyd, and our director of community engagement, Marissa Volpe. Below is a summary of what he shared—you can also listen to it in its entirety below or here.
As he spoke, Peña referenced both his personal and family history and spoke to current events. “Today, in this nation there are attacks on Hispanics…suggesting that we’re all recent immigrants…but the facts are that thousands and thousands of Latino families like mine have been in this land before it was the United States, when it was part of Spain.” listen Peña was born in Laredo, Texas, where one of his ancestors fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War.listen
He moved to Denver after an unfortunate turn of events. “I fundamentally believe that there was a reason I lost my job in El Paso…to come to Denver and stay in Denver.” listenTrained as a civil rights lawyer, he represented Latino teachers and students in the first tri-ethnic desegregation lawsuit in the United States, which went to the Supreme Court, and argued successfully for the distinction between ethnically white students and racially white Latinos. His work in multicultural education led him to draft a law for bilingual education that passed the Colorado legislature. “It opened my eyes…. I concluded that there was something positive about being in elected office.”listen
After colleagues talked Peña into running for office himself, he was elected to the legislature, where he later became the leader of the Democratic party. After four years, again he was convinced into running for office: to be mayor of Denver.listen
Peña had been raised to appreciate historic buildings; his father maintained a former railroad station and his uncle was an architect. listen So when he became mayor of Denver, he was a strong proponent for historic preservation and the arts, issuing an executive order that construction of new public buildings has to dedicate 1 percent of costs to art. “We’ve demonstrated that by preserving old buildings, by respecting history, you can support the economy…. I can only imagine what would’ve happened had we not passed that law and all those buildings in Lower Downtown were destroyed…. The culture, the soul and the spirit of the city would’ve been lost.” listen One building he advocated to protect was the Mayan Theatre, which is part of our Heritage Diversity Initiative.listen
One of Peña’s major accomplishments as mayor was bringing the Colorado Rockies Major League Baseball team to town in 1993. “It took us eight years to convince Major League Baseball to expand the league by two teams…. We’ve done it the right way; it actually helped spawn development, so people now look at our baseball and our historic district as an example of how to do it.”listen
Peña also led efforts to build Denver International Airport, whose freeway is now named after him. The airport was a “breakthrough” project, he says, because it brought Denver’s neighboring counties and municipalities together. “We’re now acting like a region,” he says. “Close to 90 percent of the people who work at the airport are not Denver residents…so the airport clearly has been a regional economic engine for the Metro area and for the state.”listen
After creating the blueprint for staffing Clinton’s Department of Transportation he was invited to be its secretary. listen “I had a lot of hesitancy but I’m glad I did it.” As Secretary of Transportation, he built relationships that allowed U.S. airlines to fly anywhere around the world and started discussions about innovative technologies such as driverless cars. After serving in that position for four years, he became Secretary of Energy for the following year and a half, again reluctantly. listen In this new position, he developed an energy policy and oversaw nuclear facilities.
When he left Washington D.C., Peña came back to Denver, where he stays actively involved in civic life. “I’ve always been really focused on education because I really believe that’s the answer.”
He adds, “My hope is being fulfilled, and that is to see young people stepping up…and that’s now happening. When I first moved to Colorado, there was a lot of civil unrest… Over the years our community has grown, it has flourished, it has become more active…. We are coming to full participation and I’m very excited about that, particularly here in Colorado. We have much more to do, obviously.listen
“This country will only succeed in this century if the Latino community is fully engaged, in every aspect of our society. That is my hope.”