In winter the park is two long plots of frost-dried grass with a distant view of the mountains and a closer view of the projects. They call it Curtis Park, which is its official name, or Mestizo "Mixed- Blood" Park, which is not. Andy Espinoza, the 29-year-old son of a man who is now a Colorado statistic, sat in a community center by the park last week and said, his voice flat and hard:
"I don't know if my dad was there sleeping and just got blasted away, or did he wake up and start dodging all them bullets?"
Espinoza's father Arthur died at 48, on a warm evening last summer in Curtis Park. He was killed by a policeman's bullet. He was drunk when he died -- so drunk, his relatives say, that a little while earlier he could no be roused from a stupor -- and the bullet hit him while he was lying on the grass. The man lying next to him, another Mexican-American named James Hinojos, was killed at the same time in the same way.
Those two deaths, and the great shudder of Mexican-American anger that followed them, are now referred to in Denver as the Curtis Park Incident. Police shootings have been questioned before; Mexican-Americans have claimed racism before. But something about the Curtis Park Incident, this killing of two drunken men in a public place, touched a raw nerve in a city perhaps one-fifth Mexican-American. "All of a sudden all the little harassing things people experience," reflected city councilman Sal Carpio -- Chilibelly; never trust a Mexican; what's your hurry, the tamales getting cold? -- all of that went public, pulling council members, states representatives, and finally a Denver grand jury into the aftermath of Curtis Park.
What is especially striking about the Curtis Park incident is the myths it shatters about the nature and location of some of this country's Mexican- American population. Espinoza and Hinojos were both third-generation Americans -- not aliens, not naturalized immigrants, but men whose roots in this country predate those of many Anglos. Both families, like many Colorado Mexican-Americans, trace back to New Mexico and the years before the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, when the United States was ceded most of the Southwest from Mexico.
As Carpio pointed out, the name of the state is a Spanish word: Colorado means, literally, colored, and in this context describes the beautiful red colors of the Colorado River Valley. Today Denver is the northern-most city in MexAmerica -- an urban magnet for Mexican-American families abandoning the towns farther south where their grandparents worked the land.
Arthur Espinoza and James Hinojos had tangled with police before last summer. Both had criminal records, and Espinoza's relatives say a police officer once took out his gun in a Denver bar, unloaded the bullets, and held one up to Espinoza: "See this, Artie?" the officer is supposed to have said. "This has your name on it."
The police reports made public the morning after July 30 emphasized those criminal records. Police said that they had been told a drug dealer and murder suspect was in Curtis Park, and that in the course of their search they saw the suspect driving away with another man. They said they tried to stop the car but one of the men opened fire and they shot back.
That was the first report. The story changed considerably over the next few days. The men, it seemed, had not been in a car. Then it seemed the men had not been standing up.By the time the autopsy was completed and Denver City Council Chairman Elvin Calwell had promised a full investigation -- "The public is entitled to know the facts," he said -- the police account said two vice squad officers had responded to an Espinoza family complaint and had come upon the two men lying in Curtis Park.
Hinojos had a gun, pointed it at the officers, and was ordered to drop it, police said. The officers fired, killing Hinojos (the autopsy found eight gun shot wounds in his body). One of two more officers who had arrived on the scene fired at Espinoza and killed him with a single bullet through the groin. Both bodies later showed blood alcohol levels far beyond the Colorado minimum for intoxication.
Curtis Park turned ugly within minutes of the shooting. Several hundred black and Mexican-American youths gathered quickly in the area and were dispersed only after dozens of police -- the estimates range upward of 60, some in full riot gear -- sealed off thepark and used tear gas. But it was back the next day, only bigger; demonstrators listened to an 18-year old Mexican-American youth describe the shooting he said he had seen: "The police jumped out of their cars and opened fire on them without even saying a word. The police murdered them."
A march followed the rally and community leaders demanded murder indictments: "If you're a cop and you kill a Chicano you get off scot free," one activist shouted. Calwell called it "one of the most delicate and explosive situations since I have been on council," and appointed an investigative task force made up largely of Mexican-American state and local leaders.
Espinoza's seven children filed a multimillion-dollar damage suit in Denver District Court, charging malicious and reckless violation of their father's civil rights. And on Dec. 8, by a 9-to-3 vote, patrolman David E. Neil was indicted by a grand jury for felony manslaughter in Espionza's death.
Neil's trial is scheduled to begin in May -- it is unclear why no other indictments were issued -- beacuse the grand jury's transcript is sealed -- and although he was briefly removed from his position, he is now back on duty at full pay, which enrages many Denver Mexican-Americans. Police say it would be unfair to penalize Neil before a verdict.
Neil is not on patrol now, though. "He'll get killed if he's in a car," Carpio said.That feeling and the comment by a Denver policeman shortly after the shooting -- "You can see the hate when you drive by" -- may set the tone for the city as it waits for his trial.