On Sunday — Colorado Day, marking the state’s 145th birthday — Nicki Gonzales will become the official state historian, and the first Latino person to assume the role. Gonzales, a professor of history and vice provost for diversity and inclusion at Regis University, will serve a one-year term, succeeding historian and author Duane Vandenbusche.
Gonzales also serves on History Colorado’s five-member State Historians Council and Gov. Jared Polis’ Colorado Geographic Naming Advisory Board, as well as Denver Mayor Michael Hancock’s advisory panel on renaming public landmarks. Her academic expertise includes Chicano history and Southwest social and political movements.
Sun writer Kevin Simpson sat down with Gonzales recently in her office on the Regis campus in Denver. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Colorado Sun: For folks not familiar with you, tell us about your background and how history came to be your lifelong pursuit.
Nicki Gonzales: I was born and raised in the Denver metro area. My family has very deep roots in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico, a few generations. I went to college at Yale University, and that is where I really became enchanted with the history of the West, even though my love of history goes much earlier than that.
And I took a course, the History of the American West, by Professor Howard Lamar, who is one of the premier early Western historians — and I was hooked. I always say I went east to study the West, and it took that for me to encounter a history that was actually relevant to my own family story. And that’s when I first started to shape these little bits and pieces I had carried from my childhood and high school years. Then I did my graduate work in the American West at CU Boulder. And that’s where I dove into it as a scholar.
Sun: When you went east to study the West did you find out that there was a lot about the West you did not know even though you grew up here?
Gonzales: Oh gosh, I didn’t know 99% of it, because the version that I had of the West is first of all the public history, the monuments. My history wasn’t represented in those public monuments, nor was the West really talked about as a region in American history classes in high school. I mean that wasn’t the dominant narrative at all, except for the Westward Expansion.
And so the version of Western history that I encountered at Yale was a history of conquest and conflict in the West. And it was also a history of labor and the people who actually built the West and people who lived here before the Europeans arrived. And it was just a much fuller and (more) complex story of the region that I came from, which I thought I kind of knew — before I realized I didn’t know.
Sun: Every state historian brings something distinctive to the role. And so as the first Latina, what do you feel you bring to the table in terms of the direction and priorities that you’d like to pursue?
Gonzales: I bring those sensibilities of being a person from the Latino community, with very deep roots in the region. This is my home. This is my family’s home, and so it’s a deep attachment to the landscape as well. I also bring, I think, a sense of responsibility to create a more inclusive picture of our state’s history for the public as much as I can in this role. People have been waiting for this.
But I also realize that I have to represent everybody, promoting narratives that have been historically marginalized — not only Latino history but African-American history, Asian-American, Pacific-Islander history, Indigenous history of our state. I want to promote all of those stories.
Sun: What specifically would you like to do with this opportunity?
Gonzales: I want to work with kids, and one of my priorities is to get kids engaged, both through the History Buffs program that exists already with History Colorado for fourth graders, and also through possibly using an app called Storyvine, which encourages you to interview people in your family and you record it and you share it. I’d like to get youth talking to their elders about their history.
Intergenerational engagement is really important to me because I think that, at least for me and I’ve seen this with young people, that they’re very empowered by knowing their own histories. And knowing each other’s histories creates an understanding and empathy.
Sun: You come to this role at a very interesting time, when history has been more at the forefront of the conversation in so many ways, especially with the upheaval during the pandemic summer of 2020. How did that summer prepare you for this?
Gonzales: I feel like since that summer I’ve been hyper-attentive to the opportunities presented by this moment, the confluence of crises that we’re in right now. Because history is instructive, informative about what worked, what didn’t work, what do we need to do. And then I’ve been very observant about how things have happened since then. And honestly, the summer of 2020 and subsequent months have really shaped my priorities, which are wanting to engage the youth and to call attention to these historically under-recognized stories within our state’s history.
Because I feel like in this moment of crisis and opportunity — and I think they go together — we cannot even understand where we are until we know our history. Only when we understand that history can we begin to have the difficult conversations that are necessary to address the issues we have.
Sun: So there’s been a lot of talk in recent years about how we consider history, whether it’s Confederate monuments or how we view Founding Fathers, like Thomas Jefferson and his slaveholder past. What’s going on here in terms of the larger sense of how we view our past?
Gonzales: I think this is part of what people are calling the racial reckoning moment that we’re in. And groups that had been sidelined for so long, their voices are beginning to be heard. Now, these controversies or these movements around monuments, it’s nothing new. I think we’re seeing a confluence of events come together, that are making those voices more vocal really on both sides.
What I’d like to see is progress. This is all a process of reckoning with our past, especially around issues of race in this country, and you see the same thing with Critical Race Theory, which is so much in the news right now. And it’s fascinating and frustrating to see how people have taken that theory and turned it into something political and something that one side is using to stir up fear. And hardly anyone really understands what it is.
Sun: Is the ongoing discussion of American history now essentially a one-sided conversation? Or is there still room for discussion?
Gonzales: I think it has to be a conversation, or else these voices are not going to be heard. And so somehow there has to be some level of civil discourse or civil conversation where we can actually make some progress. Yes, the dominant community, white folks, they do need to listen. I think we are past that moment. They need to listen to those stories that they don’t have a lived experience of, and that weren’t part of the narrative that they grew up with and took for granted.
But I would call on white folks, people whose histories have always been out in the open, to also ask questions. To listen, but also be curious and keep asking more questions about the history of our state, and not be satisfied with the same old narrative.
Sun: We talk about our current experience as a time of reckoning. Is that unprecedented, or have we been here before?
Gonzales: We’ve been here before. An example that I like to use was 1968 with the issuing of the Kerner Commission report, when President Johnson had commissioned a group of leaders to study the conditions of the inner cities where there had been a lot of urban uprisings, primarily communities of color, and the Kerner Commission laid it all out and said what is at the heart of this violence and this uprising is white racism.
And so those were some hard truths for the dominant society, and it laid out some recommendations about how to improve that. But as history would have it, it was competing against the Vietnam War, the stepping down of Lyndon Johnson (from the presidential race). The nation had not grappled successfully with these questions. So we failed at that moment, for a number of reasons.
Sun: How would you describe the reaction in academia to this re-examination of U.S. history? Is this a time of sea change within that institution?
Gonzales: I think this reckoning has been happening for a long time, as we get more voices of color. Academics have kind of led the way in creating the knowledge of that history. And what we’re seeing now, yes it’s accelerated, especially as we get more scholars of color in academic positions and writing the agendas.
And we’re also seeing — and this is reflected in the work that I do as vice provost for diversity and inclusion here at Regis — you’re seeing curriculum changing on a larger scale and maybe in disciplines outside of the obvious ones like sociology and history and in literature, really saying, “How can we become more inclusive, how can we include the voices of those of individuals from those marginalized communities?” Also, institutional policies of the university systems are beginning to change — like hiring, recruiting, serving students from diverse, more diverse backgrounds, more engagement with local communities and so forth. So we’re seeing the generation of scholarly knowledge as well as a real effect on the institutions themselves.
Sun: You’ve been working with both the Denver mayor’s advisory group as well as the governor’s naming advisory board to re-examine the names attached to places, to eliminate clearly offensive references, and also recognize some ingrained language that reflects a different time. How do you walk that line?
Gonzales: You walk it very carefully. And that’s why the process itself is so deliberate. There are experts on the renaming group. There are practitioners, there are people in the natural resource realm. We’re working closely with the federal body that manages the names of geographic features on a national level. And there’s also public engagement, so it’s always this kind of conversation between people who want to hold on to those names and argue for the relevance of keeping those old names, and people who want to bring Colorado into the 21st century and use the naming opportunity to more accurately reflect the history of the state.
It took months to come up with the bylaws, and to kind of deliberate on the process, and I really credit the group with being very careful about how we’re going to do this before we actually get into the weeds. And so we’ve not done anything controversial so far. Mount Evans is on the horizon. And that will be very contentious, I think.
Sun: In some ways there seems to be an attitude that history is a zero-sum game, that recognizing one perspective on history replaces another. How do you respond to that?
Gonzales: That’s just wrong. I always tried to lead with curiosity in conversations like that. What has led you to feel threatened by learning another group’s history? What might be the benefit of learning a fuller picture of our history?
It’s maybe a little scary for somebody to delve into the skeletons in a family closet, but overall it’s just wrong and it’s really frustrating. Your history is still going to be there. Nobody’s history is pristine. There’s room for everybody’s narratives. But I will clarify that regarding monuments or memorials, I think memorializing Confederate generals is not consistent with the values of this country.
I view them as like a timestamp in history. There were a lot of them that went up in the beginning of the 20th century, as those Confederate soldiers were aging, and Southerners were looking back at this quote-unquote glorious past. And so, in the 1920s and ’30s you see the construction of these Confederate monuments and it’s like a timestamp of what was important to that particular region. A very inaccurate version of that history, but nevertheless it’s interesting to know about them.
Sun: Variations on the quote “History is written by the winners” have been around for centuries. Do we look at history differently now?
Gonzales: I think there’s some accuracy to that in the past, especially, but I think we’re always pushing against that, too. There have been some pretty clear winners in American history and yes, they did determine the narrative. But that’s always something, especially in more recent years, that is being pushed up against.
So, as other communities gain more power, more influence, especially in the academy, that’s beginning to change that statement. Maybe “winners” is a little bit too simplistic.
Sun: This seems to be a particularly powerful moment for historians. They seem to be held in a different regard today as we try to understand our current complicated times through the lens of historical context.
Gonzales: This is a moment when to be a historian is kind of cool — for a change. And people are looking for some context. History grounds us in our present moment, and people are really kind of shaken to the point of asking: Who are we? Where are we? And history is the way to those answers. I think this is kind of historians’ moment.