Over the past several decades, the world has come to Aurora, and next weekend, the city will bring that diversity to the world during its annual Global Fest celebration.
This year, the city will celebrate a decade since the launch of Global Fest. The family-friendly, daytime festival showcases cultures from around the world, including music and dance on two stages, food trucks, an international marketplace, the Parade of Nations, a fashion show, art displays and more.
Often ranked as the most diverse city in Colorado, Aurora owes its unique cultural identity to the tens of thousands of immigrants who call the community home. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about one in five residents was born outside of the country, hailing mostly from Mexico and Ethiopia. More than 40% of Aurora Public Schools students speak a language other than English at home.
Since the mid-20th-century, Aurora has also emerged as a center of Colorado’s Black community, driven by the local availability of reasonably-priced housing and good schools.
Ricardo Gambetta-Alvarado, director of the city’s Office of International and Immigrant Affairs, said one of the reasons most commonly mentioned by newcomers for moving to Aurora is the city’s reputation as an inclusive and welcoming place. For the past several years, Aurora officials have tabbed the city a “minority-majority” community, where the total population of minority groups is larger than the white, non-Hispanic or Latino population.
“They feel like they belong here,” he said. “And for us, Global Fest is the most important activity of the year, because it’s an opportunity for members from different groups and communities to celebrate that diversity together as a city.”
Gambetta-Alvarado said the crowd for Global Fest had grown from a few hundred people in the first year to several thousand last year, and the city expects attendance will continue to climb.
The event will open with a Parade of Nations procession patterned off of the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games, where representatives from countries around the world show off their nations’ flags. Some countries — including the Marshall Islands, Ukraine, Morocco and Belize — will be sending representatives to the parade for the first time.
Models will show off handmade traditional outfits representing cultures from several continents at the event’s fashion show. Organizers say the event will have more food trucks than any previous year. Performances ranging from lucha libre wrestling, to Swiss alphorn playing, to traditional Ethiopian dance will take place across the festival’s two stages.
Global Fest is scheduled from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on the Great Lawn of City Hall.
The festival is part of a month of recognition for Aurora’s international community put on by the city, which will also be hosting a state diversity conference on the 16th and a naturalization ceremony on the 31st, both at City Hall.
From Denver’s suburb to No. 52
Incorporated as the Town of Fletcher in 1891, Aurora grew modestly until the 1940s, around the same time that the U.S. military expanded its presence by upgrading the Fitzsimons Army Hospital and establishing military airfields at Lowry and Buckley.
“That really started to bring in people from all over the world,” said Scott Williams, director of the Aurora History Museum. He said many military veterans would choose to settle down with their families in developments such as Hoffman Heights starting in the 1950s.
A 2021 report by the Othering and Belonging Institute at UC Berkeley, which described the city as a “diverse enclave segregated from the larger Denver metro area,” credited Aurora’s military tradition with laying the groundwork for diversity in the city.
“Like other U.S. cities with long military histories, Aurora has benefited from integrated housing on base, secure employment and private housing incentives,” the authors wrote.
“Military perquisites may undermine the persistent discrimination seen across the U.S. in housing and employment, and in Aurora, the influence is significant. Almost 10% of Aurora’s population are military veterans.”
The city’s population grew explosively through the 1980s, at one point making Aurora the fastest-growing city in the U.S., according to the report’s authors. They point out that, during that time, the 1968 Fair Housing Act also began to be enforced, targeting discriminatory housing policies such as redlining.
The authors conclude the legislation may have made the suburbs of Aurora more appealing to Black Denverites over time, noting that the Black demographic was the only racial group to shrink while Denver’s population grew between 2000 and 2010. At the same time, Aurora welcomed close to 14,000 new Black residents, making Aurora’s population less white than other cities in the metro area.
The U.S. Census Bureau tabs Aurora as the 52nd-largest city by population, according to 2022 data. In terms of geographic area, it’s No. 2 in Colorado, larger than Denver and about the same size as Colorado Springs.
State Sen. Rhonda Fields bought her home in Aurora more than 30 years ago. The Black legislator, whose district includes East Colfax Avenue and Aurora’s densely-developed border with Denver, said that, by the 1980s, Aurora was embracing its identity as a community with a spectrum of languages and cultures. Aurora Public Schools officials say families in the district speak about 160 different languages at home.
“It was always a community that celebrated the difference of culture, from food, to art and entertainment, and in its schools,” she said. “I remember when my kids were going to school how they provided interpreters for the parents who couldn’t speak English. And that’s the first time I realized that Aurora had really grown so much.”
Scott said the city was acknowledging its reputation for diversity by the 1980s and shared a newspaper clipping from 1986 describing the city as a “cosmos” and “melting pot.”
Gambetta-Alvarado said the first Global Fest event was held in 2013 and grew out of conversations between city officials and community leaders about how best to deliver programs to new immigrants.
“They agreed that it was time for the city to work with community leaders to try to create a special event where actually everybody was welcome, and it wasn’t just for immigrants and refugees,” he said.
The Office of International and Immigrant Affairs was established soon after the inauguration of Global Fest to coordinate the city and public’s efforts to integrate immigrants into the community, Gambetta-Alvarado said.
The long and sometimes arduous road to Aurora
Today, city spokesman Michael Brannen and Gambetta-Alvarado say the city aspires for Global Fest to be Aurora’s “signature” event and a showcase for diverse talent in the Aurora area.
One of the Global Fest performers, José Hernandez — known as “La Gatita” to fans of his heartfelt, original guitar music influenced by the Norteña style of northern Mexico — moved to Aurora to work in construction and entertain local restaurant patrons in 2002.
Hernandez received his nickname from his mother and first began singing and playing guitar in his home state of Chihuahua. Although his father played music, Hernandez said he taught himself to play as a child. When he came to Aurora, Hernandez said he started building relationships with local restaurant owners.
“I like to talk to everybody and make friends,” he said. “My success with all of the restaurant owners in the area is that I use two magic words: ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’”
Eventually, one of those owners suggested he audition for this year’s EstrellaTV’s “Tengo Talento, Mucho Talento” show. Hernandez went on to win the show’s grand prize of $100,000 in June with an original song honoring his late mother.
Hernandez’s newfound success has given the 62-year-old the chance to take a break from construction and focus for the first time on recording music.
When asked about the city’s reputation for diversity, Hernandez said he enjoyed living in Aurora because of how inviting and receptive to his music the community had been since he moved two decades ago.
“It’s not necessarily the ethnicity of the people, but the people are very friendly, regardless of their ethnicity,” he said. “That is, for me, the most important part.”
Samuel Gebremichael, the executive director of Colorado Ethiopian Community and a community organizer in Aurora, described his group’s mission as not only sharing Ethiopian culture with the rest of Aurora but also promoting respect and friendship among the dozens of ethnic groups that call his East African country home.
“We feel like the music is a common ground to hold all ethnicities together and show that we all need to respect and embrace each other,” he said.
Gebremichael was born and raised in Addis Ababa. He came to the U.S. and Aurora about 15 years ago, fleeing political instability and violence.
In Colorado, his work focuses on promoting the cultural traditions of Ethiopia’s numerous minorities — groups like the Amharic, Tigrayan, Somali, Oromo, Gurage and Afar, whose cultures Gebremichael said will be represented at the Aug. 19 musical and dance performance.
“We try to accommodate everyone together, just like we are one community,” he said. “Culture, music, sport or even festivals bring everybody together.”
Some performers are coming from elsewhere in Colorado to represent immigrant communities, like Mihail Codrescu, whose Romanian folk dance group, Hora Romaneasca, practices in Boulder County.
Codrescu decided to leave Romania in 1982 during the communist administration of Nicolae Ceaușescu when Codrescu was a young adult.
“There were two ways out of the country,” he said. “One was to swim across the Danube. But I wasn’t a good swimmer, so that was out. The other was to find a job which would give me a passport. And so I found a job in foreign trade.”
On one work trip within the Eastern Bloc, Codrescu was able to take a train to Vienna and later reach Germany, where he eventually secured a plane ticket to New York City. He said the Romanian government harassed his parents after he left the country, and a court sentenced him to prison in absentia for leaving with his passport.
After his defection from Romania, Codrescu said he was initially hesitant to speak Romanian or acknowledge his background in public, worried that the Romanian authorities would track him down in the U.S.
That changed after he got involved with a church group in Boulder that hosted annual Romanian dinners, where he said he recognized an interest among Americans in all things Romanian.
“I was honestly afraid that the secret police would come and get me, and put me in jail in Romania,” he said. “For years, when I heard Romanian, I would want to just disappear. And suddenly I came to Boulder and everybody was interested to know more about it.”
Codrescu said Hora Romaneasca started when a group of women associated with the Romanian American Freedom Alliance performed a dance for a member of the Romanian royal family in the 1990s.
Hora Romaneasca has since entertained Global Fest attendees multiple times, as members perform traditional folk dances in authentic, traditional Romanian costumes, some of which are more than 100 years old, according to Codrescu.
“We always are happy to participate in the celebration of not just Romanian cultures, but other cultures as well,” he said. “It’s so nice to see different costumes and try to figure out if they are similar, or very different, and why, and how they are adapted to different climates. At least to us, it’s very interesting.”
When asked what has made Aurora such an appealing place to settle for new arrivals to the U.S., many described Aurora’s reputation for being more affordable than Denver. As housing prices climb across the metro area, some questioned whether Aurora’s identity is coming under threat.
From the metro area’s affordable community to, not
Late last year, Aurora’s City Council debated the topic of gentrification along the historically working-class East Colfax corridor, when neighbors objected to a proposed townhome development near Colfax and Yosemite Street, saying it would lead to current residents being priced out of their homes. A majority of council members voted to uphold the Planning & Zoning Commission’s approval of the project.
Brannen said at the end of last month that the city estimates it needs at least 7,500 more units of affordable housing to meet the current demand.
“We have to manage growth so that we’re not displacing people who have found this area as an affordable place to live,” Fields said. “We’re seeing our neighborhoods change in some ways for the good, but we also need to be mindful of how it impacts the charm of north Aurora.”
Harry Budisidharta, in-house legal counsel for Aurora Mental Health & Recovery, said that as housing becomes less affordable, organizations like the Asian Pacific Development Center are seeing more immigrants and refugees moving and being resettled out-of-state.
“I think it is probably one of the biggest threats to our community,” he said.
Fields said she believes building walkable, accessible neighborhoods with essential services located close by was part of continuing the work of making Aurora more inclusive.
Budisidharta said he believed steps taken by the city itself — like establishing the Office of International and Immigrant Affairs and creating an Immigrant and Refugee Commission — have gone a long way toward making people feel welcome in the city.
For the performers of Global Fest, the event is as much about representing countries of origin as representing the place that made the unique fusion of cultures possible.
“I represent Mexico, and Chihuahua, and Aurora,” Hernandez said.
El Comercio Editor Jesus Sanchez aided reporter Max Levy as an interpreter for part of this story.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: A day-long festival celebrating cultural diversity in Aurora with music, performing arts, a parade of flags, food trucks and more.
WHERE: City Hall, 15151 E. Alameda Parkway.
WHEN: 11 a.m.-6 p.m., Aug. 19.