Located on Morrison Road in the Mexican Cultural Quarter of Denver, members of the Rise Westwood Collective quietly begin a revolution. What started as a pandemic-era collaborative project started by a small group of food vendors has since spawned a thriving cultural hub that supports a wide range of businesses owned by BIPOC, Latinx and women. The collective’s events, including its popular monthly Vegetarian Viernes event, a celebration of all things vegan – showcase the culture of the Westwood community through food, art, live music, youth activities, traditional Aztec dance performances, vendors craft, etc.
Damaris Ronkanen, the owner of Cultura Chocolate, is the founder of the collective. His Mexican-inspired bean-to-bar chocolate business opened its first storefront in Rise Westwood around the same time the pandemic struck. “Without knowing when things would return to normal, I quickly began to realize that many of my fellow small business owners were in similar situations,” says Ronkanen. “At the onset of the pandemic, it became clear that resources and support were limited and inaccessible for small businesses like mine. “
Due to the economic disruption resulting from COVID-19, Ronkanen wanted to create a way forward for his community, and by forming the collective, microenterprises like his could combine resources and expertise while selling products together. “Initially, the Rise Westwood Collective started by creating a collectively shared online ordering platform where once a week we offered curbside pickup outside of Cultura Chocolate,” she says. “This has allowed our collective partners to continue selling their products even when most of the sales opportunities have been lost due to the pandemic. “
Rise Westwood Campus is a cultural center in its own right. Property of Revision, a nonprofit organization focused on activating sustainable urban gardening programs in Southwest Denver, the space includes a cafe / retail store, art gallery, urban garden and downtown lively and frescoed outdoor gathering in Plaza de Mexica, painted by D3Arts co-founder Santiago Jaramillo.
In the art gallery, a largely open and industrial space organized by D3Arts, the walls are lined with paintings inspired by Frida Kahlo. In each reinvention of Kahlo’s iconic self-portraits, the artists express the pride she takes in her Mexican heritage through small details, from the assortment of flowers in her hair to the traditional Mexican jewelry and clothing she wears.
David Alires and his wife Jessica Lemke are partners of the collective, serving up vegan Mexican comfort food from their Thorton-based food truck, Cholo Ass Vegan at Veggie Viernes. Alires says he wants the name, as well as the food, to speak for itself and ultimately empower people to eat healthier and support vegan dishes. When Alires and Lemke became vegans themselves, they rediscovered their passion for cooking and loved the process of creating vegan variations of the traditional Mexican dishes they knew and loved. Alires marinates seitan in small batches for its vegan carne asada and al pastor dishes, and also sells its vegan meat wholesale to restaurants and food trucks.
Prior to joining the collective, Alires attempted to establish a similar Chicano / Latinx pop-up event in March 2020, but with the rise of COVID-19, it almost came to a halt. Since then, Alires has introduced Veggie Viernes to many vendors and says the collective has been nothing but welcoming. “We’re not from Westwood and don’t live there, but they invited us to their space,” he says. “It was everyone’s love. Part of the appeal of joining Rise Westwood Collective was seeing everyone working together, trying to build themselves up and create clients and not worry about the competition.
For Ronkanen, that’s exactly why she created the collective. “When we were initially just food companies, we started to include other local artisans and artists in our collective,” she says. Cultura Chocolate and D3Arts, a local non-profit arts organization, has since developed a strong partnership focused on creating community-driven cultural events. Ronkanen says these events help preserve and honor Westwood’s culture and history while creating economic opportunities and combating displacement and gentrification.
What to eat at Veggie Viernes
At this monthly event, the range of vegan dishes will satisfy any craving for food as good (or better) than the meat eater’s version. On a sweltering summer day, treat yourself to a brewchata ($ 5) from Cafe Cabrona or their savory Agua Fresca ($ 4), featuring seasonal flavors like hibiscus, lime, watermelon and pineapple. Order the fried arancini risotto balls ($ 12) from Easy vegan, or if you crave comfort food with a twist, try Cholo Ass Vegan mouth-watering seitan carne asada tacos ($ 3 / each) or fuego elote – grilled corn on the cob coated in vegan mayonnaise then topped with Takis Fuego and cilantro ($ 4). Dig in the Sandia ($ 4) from Besitos Chamoy– fresh watermelon sprinkled with spicy salt and lime and drizzled with their signature glitter Chamoy sauce. To balance out savory dishes, try the subtly sweet Rocky Road cookie ($ 5) or vegan flan cups ($ 5.50) from The Hungry Tree Hugger Bakery. The next Veggie Viernes event will take place on August 20 and all of these vendors are ready to bring you delicious vegan food again.
Veggie Viernes takes place every third Friday of the month until October 2021 at Coffee Cultura, located on the RISE Westwood campus at 3472 Morrison Road.
Want more from RISE Westwood Collective?
Check Las Noches de Frida series of annual dinners and fundraising organized in the Re: Vision cultural center. This event, which aims to honor the legacy and political activism of artist and cultural icon Frida Kahlo, is “community-organized, for the community” to help support the emerging arts district of Westwood and its residents.
Guests are treated to a delicious meal created by local chefs, artwork inspired by Kahlo’s life, guest speakers, and several performances by local bands, such as At Lak’ech Denver Arts and the folk dance team. Tickets are sold individually and by table, with prices starting at $ 60 per ticket, $ 220 for a table of four, or $ 300 for a table of six. VIP tickets include a gift bag specially designed by the event partners.
The date and subject of the final dinner: August 14th is Politics & Art.