History museum explores cultural connections from Africa to Aurora


AURORA | Sticking stateside this summer doesn’t rule out a chance to add a stamp to your proverbial passport.

The Aurora History Museum will be quelling the transportation costs spurred by a trip to the Horn of Africa this summer with a new exhibit on Aurora’s burgeoning population of Ethiopian-born residents.

Deemed “A Mosaic of Cultures: Aurora’s Ethiopian Communities,” the exhibit features a trove of information on the traditional dress, demographics and food found in Ethiopia’s nine primary regions, according to MaryJane Valade, curator of exhibitions at the museum.

On top of showcasing traditional Ethiopian garb and artifacts, the exhibit also features several video vignettes of local Ethiopian business owners.

“We wanted to emphasize what Ethiopians are doing here now, and what the community is like in Aurora, not just what life is like back home in Ethiopia,” Valade said.

Screen Shot 2016-05-11 at 1.52.48 PMThe idea to host the latest exhibit stemmed from the city’s relationship with its newest sister city, Adama, Ethiopia. Aurora officials established ties with Adama — and, in turn, reinvigorated its entire Sister City program — in 2014, according to Karlyn Shorb, executive director of Aurora Sister Cities International.

Shorb said that the latest History Museum exhibit could act as a catalyst for highlighting Aurora’s other, lesser-known Sister City ties. The museum featured an exhibit on Aurora’s Asian-Pacific population a number of years ago, which was supposed to kick off an ongoing series of exhibits on the city’s various populations.

“Our interest would obviously be to find some sort of connection or nexus to whatever sister cities we have,” Shorb said. “We’ve recently revitalized a Korean sister city, and we’re looking into a new China committee and some other potential committees.”

Aurora recently reestablished its sisterly ties with Seongnam, South Korea, which had been a dormant municipal partnership for more than 20 years. Shorb said that Aurora also has technical partnerships with cities in Poland and Costa Rica, but that those collaborations have been almost entirely inert since they were created in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Still, Shorb said that the opportunity for reinstating relations remains alive.

“We want our sister cities to be more relatable to what our community looks like now,” she said.

But before jumping into even more global partnerships, Shorb said that her organization is interested in solidifying ties with local community members who hail from nations where Aurora already has a sister city, such as Ethiopia.

The actual number of Ethiopians living in the metro area is a bit nebulous, as various sources have put the total population between 15,000 and 30,000 people, according to Shorb.

“It depends on who you talk to,” she said. “The Census isn’t always going to catch the full number.”

Haileyesus Zeryihun, an Ethiopian native who has lived in Aurora for more than a decade and publishes the Ethiopian Yellowpages, said that he’s confident the Ethiopian community is about 30,000 people strong.

The American Community Survey, which is annually conducted by the U.S. Census., reported that there were 2,984 Ethiopian-born residents living in Aurora in 2014. Though quite lower than 30,000, that total is higher than any other demographic from the African continent. Aurora’s second-highest national African population comes from across the continent in Ghana, according to the ACS.

Regardless of overall numbers, Shorb said that the majority of the metro area’s Ethiopian population now hails from the south-central Ethiopian region of Oromia. Ethiopia’s most densely populated region with more than 27 million people, Oromia is culturally disparate from the rest of the country in that its residents don’t speak the national language of Amharic, according to Shorb. Instead, Oromos speak the Oromo language, which is written using Latin characters, unlike Amharic.

Zeryihun said that the recent proliferation of Oromo-natives across metro Denver is a shift from when he first moved to the city from San Francisco in the early 2000s. Back then, he said that Denver was known among Ethiopians for having a lot of countrymen from the city of Gondar, which is in the Amhara region in the north of the country.

“When I came to Colorado in 2002, Denver was designated to be a Gondar city, with a lot of people from Gondar,” he said. “Nowadays though, there’s a huge number of people from Oromo. It has shifted to be more Oromo and Tigray.”

Regardless of where in Ethiopia people are from these days, Zeryihun said that the new exhibit marks a rare opportunity to introduce the larger Aurora population to a growing community from West Africa.

“It’s a privilege,” he said of the exhibit. “The city is trying to promote our culture, trying to put us in the spotlight and trying to show our community to others so they will get to know us more. It shows how we are surviving and living in this country.”