Yolanda Ortega does not know how to quit. (Seriously, she has tried three times.)
Instead, the 50-year veteran of higher-education administration – and the 48-year grand dame of Denver’s Chicano theater community – is running to become the first member of the University of Colorado Board of Regents to represent the newly created 8th congressional district.
“I am just not ready to stop serving,” said Ortega, who is running for political office for the first time at an age she will only say starts with a 7.
Ortega won 56% of the District 8 Democratic vote in the June 28 primary to win the first campaign of her life. She now advances to face Republican Mark VanDriel in what is expected to be a competitive November general election.
Indeed, Anthony J. Garcia, Executive Artistic Director of Denver’s Su Teatro (it means “Your Theatre”) has just one piece of friendly advice for anyone who thinks they can slow her down:
“Get out of the way.”
About the only thing that has slowed her roll these past 50 years was the car that ran into her in 1991 as she was waiting for a bus to work. In addition to her job at the university, Ortega was starring in Su Teatro’s third staging (there have now been seven) of “El Corrido del Barrio,” a seminal play that captures the Vietnam-era moment when Denver’s Westside Chicano families were pushed out to make way for the Auraria campus. On her way into the operating room, Ortega managed to arrange for an understudy before she even called Garcia with the news.
She’s the kind of person who gets things done – then undergoes emergency surgery.
“When I heard about this new district, which I live in, it dawned on me that, yes, I want to serve in this capacity,” Ortega said. “I think there’s a lot that I can definitely still contribute in terms of helping students, faculty and staff. That’s what feeds me. And there is such a lot of work to be done.”
The 10 regents make up the governing board of the University of Colorado system, each serving six-year terms. They oversee the university’s budget, hire top officials, and set the tuition. Right now, they are figuring out what conference their athletic teams will join next.
The new congressional district, born of the 2020 U.S. Census, stretches along Interstate 25 and encompasses sections of Brighton, Commerce City, Greeley, Johnstown, Northglenn and Thornton. Registered Democrats hold a 3-point advantage in the area, which also has the largest Hispanic population among Colorado’s eight districts at 38.5% – both advantages for Ortega.
Ortega is the oldest of six girls born to Mexican parents brought together by an arranged marriage. Her father grew up in Kansas “at a time when it was pretty rough for Latinos,” she says. He rose to sergeant in the Air Force and was stationed in Panama, where Yolanda largely grew up because, even after her father was transferred, her mother stayed back because she had grown weary of the prejudice she had regularly faced in the U.S.
Ortega’s father instilled in his daughters the need to master English and go to college – and Yolanda did, majoring in History and German from Arkansas State and earning a Master’s in Public Administration from the University of Colorado Denver. Still, the critical importance of education to her parents did not become fully clear to Ortega until father retired and earned his own college degree as he was nearing 70, while her mother, who had only had a sixth-grade education, earned her GED.
“That tells you how critical education was for them,” she said.
After graduating from Arkansas State in 1972, a friend told Ortega she should join her in Colorado. She came, sight unseen and bank account empty, and she found her forever home. A family friend told her there was a secretary job open at Metro in the Chicano Studies department. Ortega was hired on the spot largely because, ironically, she was one of the only ones there who could speak Spanish. In time, she would rise from secretary to Dean to Vice President of Student Services.
Ortega, who attended high school in Delaware, was not raised knowing about the Chicano movement, but she soon learned. She was hired at Metro the same week 27-year-old student activist and Fort Lupton native Ricardo Falcon was killed in what has been called a “racist-fueled murder” at a gas station on his way to an organizing convention in Texas.
“As secretary for Chicano Studies, I had to field a lot of calls about that,” Ortega said, “so I had to quickly learn who he was, and what the Chicano movement was.”
Her life, and her activism, forever changed when Garcia heard Ortega and Debra Gallegos singing at a party in 1974. Both have been Su Teatro company members ever since, bedrock members of a troupe born out of protest that uses storytelling as a tool for radical social justice.
At first, Ortega kept her work for the university and Su Teatro separate – until she was confronted by a young Chicana who couldn’t see past her job as an administrator.
That job was to help the student body – largely nontraditional students and Vietnam veterans – navigate the inner workings of the university and know what programs were available to them. This young Chicana could not have known that Ortega was regularly starring in local stage productions about the struggle, or that she had participated in the original United Farm Workers boycott as a volunteer for the union.
“She came up to me and she said, ‘You know, Yolanda, you will never, ever know what it’s like to be a Chicana and to struggle to be successful in higher ed. You don’t know the problems that we go through and the isolation we feel.’”
Ortega almost cried: “I told her, ‘I DO know,’ having been the only Brown student at Arkansas State. But she just wouldn’t believe me.” To her, Ortega was “the administration.”
That all changed a few days later, when that same Chicana happened to attend a play at Su Teatro, then located in Denver’s Elyria-Swansea neighborhood. Afterward, the woman approached Ortega in tears and said, ‘I did not think that you were part of us but, yes, you are.” It was a defining moment for Ortega.
“From that day forward, I never hid either of my worlds from the other,” she said. “I integrated them as much as possible. And that made me whole. I fell in love with the university. I fell in love with the movement. I fell in love with Su Teatro. I had everything. I found a community that I could sink my roots into, and that’s something I never had before. I found a family.”
Ortega has performed many seminal roles over the decades, including Madre Brava in a powerful adaptation of “Mother Courage and Her Children.” But Garcia considers Ortega’s award-winning work in 2016’s “Bless Me, Ultima” to be no less than “the performance of a generation” – and one that came just a few months after she had a double knee reconstruction.
Rudolfo Anaya’s controversial coming-of-age story dared to show a protagonist who not only struggles with his Chicano identity, but with his deeply ingrained Catholicism in 1940s rural New Mexico. Ortega played Ultima, a character blessed by a spiritual power that commands respect and attention.
“It was that weight and experience and importance that Yolanda brought to her portrayal of Ultima,” Garcia said. “That might be a difficult level for a lesser actor to reach.”
Ortega has worked with young people as a nurturer and mentor throughout her time at both Metro and Su Teatro, which she says will serve her well should she win in November. She says her greatest accomplishments in higher ed to date have been the programs she started or assisted, including the Richard Castro Visiting Professorship, the Martin Luther King Peace Breakfast and a statewide program for women of color in higher ed. She is credited along with CU Denver Professor Laura Cuetara for the ongoing St. Cajetan’s Reunification Project, which seeks to keep the displaced Westside community connected to the Catholic Church that remains on the Auraria campus and is still seen by many as the spiritual center of the neighborhood.
“Yolanda’s greatest strength is bringing people together and listening to a lot of voices, and then moving that group forward,” Garcia said. “She’s a consensus builder. And she moves things not from the top but from the middle. She’s very good at helping people learn how to take big steps on their own.”
Su Teatro was born, in large measure, from the broken promises of an angry time. Fifty years later, it seems fitting that Ortega is still standing as a bridge to support any students needing someone in their corner.
“I’m so glad that I followed my instinct, but there was just never any question that I was going to run,” she said. “I’ve got work to do. But whether I am a regent or not, I will still serve.”