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The Aztlan Theatre celebrates a 50-year legacy of movies, music and mutual aid

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DENVER — Walking in to the Aztlan Theatre off Santa Fe feels like stepping out of a time machine. Classic black and white floor tiling, stacks of CD cases, and walls packed with flyers and photos from various eras fill the space.

Look closer at the collages on the wall, and a story unfolds. A story of activism, love, family and community. Large paintings of Aurora (the Aztlan's bartender and owner’s wife) in her youth, glamorous and glowing; homages to both Italian and Mexican heritage; flyers from bands that played there that now sell out stadiums; a memorial photo of a woman with a lovingly scrawled post-it note that simply says, “My Sister.”

Ask Timeo or Aurora Correa about any one of the images, and you're taken on a journey through Denver's history from the lens of one small, yet significant, theater. 

A lifetime of activism 

Timothy "Timeo" Correa bought the Aztlan Theatre on his birthday in 1972. But before that, he was a young activist, proud of his half-Mexican-half-Italian heritage, on a mission to help people find justice. 

It seems the desire to “right every wrong” ran through Correa’s blood, and some of his biggest accomplishments occurred as early as high school.

“I went to West High and then, you know, they always say the grass is greener on the other side. So we had to move back to the East side,” Correa recalled. “We moved back to the East side and the grass wasn’t greener.”

As a student at Manual High, Correa witnessed many disparities.

“They had what they call a well, and it was an opening on the second floor where you can see all the students walking by to their classes. The water was leaking," he said. "And when you went to your class, you'd get the water on your neck and on your head. Then the city was posting a bond to do maintenance on schools. And lo and behold, Manual was left out.”

Correa took action, and gathered a group of student to speak up. “I got a Hispanic student and I got a Black student and we went down to the board meeting. They were very nervous. They didn't want to speak. I said, ‘I'll do the speaking’. For some reason I wasn't scared.”

Correa’s advocacy for his school soon appeared in a local newspaper, and not long after that, the school bonds were approved — this time, including renovations to Manual High School.

His work didn’t stop there. Shortly after the Manual High School victory, Correa moved on to another issue: segregated pools.

“So after that, we went to the bathhouse — I think it was called the bathhouse — but it was the 20th Street Recreation Center, and it was on 20th and Curtis Street,” Correa recalled. “I said, look, there's only one date for Chicanos and Blacks and the rest of the days were for anglos. And so we picketed it. We had a Black guy there and, and various anglos there, and we picketed in front of the recreation center. We didn't realize it at the time, but after we picketed for a certain time, we found out, well, who the hell owns this place? Who owns this place that discriminated and so much? The City and County of Denver, Colorado was the answer."

Correa realized he was up against a bigger establishment than the school board. The student protest was covered by several media outlets and, in a David vs. Goliath-like victory for the Correa and his peers, the city redacted its pool segregation policy.

A modern view of the 20th Street Rec Center, where a young Correa and his friends protested segregation.

Correa was later hired on to direct a tuition program under President Lyndon Johnson. “I was going to all the high schools and telling them, hey, you want to go to college free and not even buy your books?”

The Aztlan Theatre is born

After about 3 and a half years, Correa’s role with the tuition program ended. After tireless hours supporting others as a Chicano activist, he needed to find something to support him. A fellow advocate in the community suggested they go into business together. 

Correa saw the Santa Fe Theatre, and was sold. Unfortunately, his partner wasn’t in the right place to partner on the business after all. But by then, Correa had his mind set on it. So in 1972, he utilized an SBA grant to get a loan on what he would name the Aztlan Theatre.

“The word Aztlan ... I think it's a name in Mexico, but it was used as a kind of a haven, kind of a thing where Chicanos were free," Correa explained.

After becoming a business owner, Correa decided to settle down a bit. But his care for community remained, and he found every opportunity possible to share the space with those who needed it. 

“One time, a guy came in, he said his baby needed a new heart and he couldn't afford what it was going to cost. So he asked me if I would help them out. I said, 'Yeah, we'll do it. Let's do a fundraiser for you.' We did a fundraiser for him, and his baby got a new heart,” Correa said.

The Aztlan also worked to address gang violence. “In 1972 there was a lot of gangs in Denver," Correa explained. "In fact, I did a show here with — I think it was Olmos — Edward Olmos, the movie star. I lent him the theater and we did a conference rally against gang violence.”

From movies to music

To start, the theater was home to many unique feature films. Correa says they started to get crowds when they advertised at the Mexican markets.

“I would show two Spanish movies, and I would throw an American movie in as a kicker, which was an action movie. No language necessary.” 

On Mondays, movies were 2-for-1, making it more accessible for families that might not have had the opportunity for a night at the movies otherwise. 

Despite their success with the Spanish-speaking and bilingual community, the theater had to pivot due to the release of VHS tapes and home rentals.

Luckily, some underground musicians had already set their sight on the theater. Suddenly, Aztlan was the hot spot to find up-and-coming bands. Many of the bands have become household names, such as Metallica, Slayer, and The Red Hot Chili Peppers. Oftentimes, the line for Aztlan events wrapped around the block.

A second home for many

Looking back on his legacy, Correa reflects on what kept him at the Aztlan for so long. “The main reason why I stayed here, I think because it became a home.”

Correa’s wife Aurora agrees. Aurora had come to the United States from Monterrey, a large city in Northern Mexico. Eventually she went to the Aztlan seeking a job. She was hired on the spot. Soon enough, she had become a Correa. 

She seemed to fall in love with the theater nearly as much as she had fallen in love with Correa. Here, she was able to meet new people, learn English, and have a place to dance. 

Her role at the Aztlan includes day to day tasks, like keeping things clean. But the core of Aurora Correa’s mission has always been people-centric - to make sure everyone feels welcome and comfortable, and leaves with happy memories.

“It feels like our second house,” she said, “We have been so blessed. Nobody is fighting, everybody feels so happy. I tell people, ‘come back again! This is your house’.” 

The future of the Aztlan Theatre

While the theater’s long legacy has shown through on the building, the heart of the Aztlan remains. Even now you can find it packed with people of all ages rocking out to a band on First Friday, or you can catch it when it’s a bit slower and meet even more Denver community staples who can tell you the history of the city. 

Most recently, the Correas have been working hard to prepare for a very important party at the Aztlan: the 50th anniversary, and Timeo’s birthday. 

Both milestones combined with the burden of untenable raises in property taxes leaves Correa to contemplate what’s next for the Aztlan Theatre.

 After a lifetime of city service, Correa is disappointed that spiking property taxes are greatly hindering the ability to carry on his legacy.

Correa has expressed a strong interest in selling the theatre, in high hopes that whoever does buy it will adhere to its mission - to be a place where all are welcome and supported. He thinks preserving the Aztlan’s history is both achievable and profitable. 

“I would like to see it as a sort of a legacy of mine, keeping it as an entertainment center. And now that I see, you know, big developers coming in, as more people are going to be here and especially right across the street, there's probably a couple of hundred condos there."

With the many changes of the city, the Correa’s hope that original residents and new ones can enjoy the endless stories the Aztlan has held, and create some new ones of their own.


Elle Naef is a digital media producer at Rocky Mountain PBS. You can reach her at ellenaef@rmpbs.org.

Alexis Kikoen is the senior producer at Rocky Mountain PBS. You can reach her at alexiskikoen@rmpbs.org.

Related Story

For almost 50 years, Tim and Aurora have worked hard to ensure anyone who sets foot in the Aztlan feels right at home. 

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