Two Faces of Colfax
Minsun Ji

December 12, 2022

Two Faces of Colfax

Ramon Lucas Ramon’s journey began in the small village of Chichnan, in Santa Eulalia, Guatemala. For the past 20 years, Ramon has called the United States his home, but his path to this new life was far from easy. His story is one of perseverance, community, and the surprising power of mushrooms.

Ramon migrated to the United States in the early 1980s, following in the footsteps of his father, Pascual Matias, who was one of the pioneers in the mushroom farming industry. The family arrived undocumented, facing significant challenges. The mushroom farm became their sanctuary, providing not only sustenance but also a sense of belonging in a new and unfamiliar land.

Working on the mushroom farm taught Ramon invaluable lessons about the importance of community. He realized that it wasn’t just about cultivating mushrooms; it was about building connections and supporting one another. Traditional community organizing methods—like arranging a meeting and hoping people would show up—proved ineffective. Instead, Ramon found that true community organizing required going out to meet people, understanding their needs, and asking for their input on who else should be involved.

Ramon's first step was to connect with local nonprofits that had ties to farm workers. Initially, the network was small, but it soon expanded to include a variety of organizations, such as the Department of Local Affairs, Colorado Department of Agriculture, and various financial institutions. These connections brought crucial support and resources to their cause.

The mission was clear: to identify and support the over 200 families affected by their work. Understanding their needs wasn’t straightforward. It required direct engagement to truly grasp their struggles and desires. Over time, supporters of the initiative began to see its potential and became more passionate about contributing to its success.

The mushrooms themselves played a significant role in this transformation. The farm transitioned from cultivating traditional white mushrooms to growing specialty varieties that gained national attention. These colorful mushrooms not only revolutionized their farming practices but also presented significant economic opportunities. A family or cooperative could potentially earn upwards of $100,000 a year from mushroom farming, drastically improving their quality of life.

The first step in this journey was to instill hope. The goal was to show people that there was a way to improve their lives, whether through better living conditions or educational opportunities. Ramon and his team aimed to make a positive impact on those who needed it most.

As a result, families found renewed hope. Children no longer had to miss school, and many discovered new opportunities they had never imagined. The future, once uncertain, now seemed bright and full of promise.

Ramon Lucas Ramon’s story is a testament to the power of perseverance, community, and innovation. From a small village in Guatemala to making a difference in Colorado, his journey shows how something as humble as a mushroom can transform lives.

Watch Ramon's Story

Recently, I spent a mid-morning near Colfax and Colorado, going door-to-door to meet local business owners and spread the word about the virtues of employee ownership. As I moved eastwards, from Steele street across Colorado and towards Monaco, I passed dozens of shops, talked to numerous owners, and learned a powerful truth: Colfax has two faces.

One face is the booming businesses that are trendy and new on Colfax, attracting the young millennials growing so rapidly in Denver, and hitting their prime spending years. I passed bustling new coffee shops, trendy bars, and exotic restaurants filled with energy and young crowds: East Colfax has become a hot spot for fun. These shops have attracted lots of investment money, and as a result, they are thriving. When I stopped by one upscale coffee store, the store manager told me that the owner of the coffee shop was in his 30s. Next to this small new coffee shop, there was a guitar store, where a new owner in his mid-30s had just opened up the shop one week ago. He greeted me with a big smile and told me that he is brand new here, thinks he’ll do well, and wouldn’t think of selling his business to his employees.

Right next door is a trendy hair salon at high prices, where many hair stylists work for a young owner in her 30s. When I talked about employee ownership, a receptionist told me that “that would be cool but I am not sure if the owner may want it.” A few blocks away from this hair salon was a liquor store where the owner was literally counting out bills from his overfull register as we talked. As he counted the cash, he told me he was not at all interested in employee ownership. “I make lots of money,” he said. “This is a million-dollar business, so why would I sell it to employees? I will make more money selling on the market.” The owner of this liquor had become a successful entrepreneur amid all the new Colfax energy. For all of these thriving Colfax businesses, an interest in perhaps one day selling or converting their business into employee-ownership simply did not come to mind.

The Denver Post (7/22/2019) recently observed all the new money and young entrepreneurs pouring into the area and declared that “East Colfax is the next frontier.” The Post described how the city officials have been active in closing down lower-income, run-down establishments like the old Hangar Bar and 7-Star Motel and facilitating their transfer to upscale investors for conversion to pricey new taprooms and hip artist housing. But every “frontier” has two sides, and right in the midst of all this new money and optimistic energy is the second face of Colfax: older and lower-income businesses, filled with their own hopes and dreams about a better future. Colfax has many small businesses that are struggling to survive: small mom-and-pop stores pepper East Colfax in somewhat outdated, run-down looking stores.

Sadly, many of these struggling small businesses on the Colfax corridor are closing down. My teenage daughter goes to a K-Pop dance class on Colfax near Elm street but her dance studio is closing down this month because the young owners can’t make it. Another business owner has run an African-American hair-braiding salon on East Colfax for more than 20 years. She is from Mali, and used to have many employees in the past. But the pandemic dried up most of her business and now she only has herself and another part-time worker running the shop. She is in her 60s and feels stuck. She would be interested in employee ownership or other strategies to revitalize her struggling shop, but really has no idea how to survive even the next months.

There was a nearby chicken rotisserie restaurant that was supposed to be open at 9 am, but the door was firmly closed at 11 am. It must have been closed permanently. Two tiny restaurants, Ethiopian and Thai, were right next door. Next to those was a small furniture store, boarded up and closed. It had a flyer on the door, saying that “Rustic Barcelona is permanently closed. We have moved to Buenos Aires, Argentina. Thanks!” The owner must have been an immigrant who tried to make it. But, closing down the shop seems to have been the outcome for this entrepreneur. Just down the street was an old-school barbershop, small and still closed near noon.

The next store was a used auto business. When I visited the office, a young Ethiopian, Michael, greeted me. Michael lighted up when I talked about employee ownership. “I worked for this place for more than 5 years,” Michael said. “The owner is very nice and is also from Ethiopia. He may be interested in selling this business to employees!” There was an event post to celebrate the Ethiopian Festival the previous weekend and according to Michael, the owner was a big supporter of local events and the immigrant community.

The Denver Post (7/22/2019) reported on this same Ethiopian community on Colfax and described many immigrants’ concerns over area speculators buying up areas businesses and houses, expecting to turn a big profit in a few years. One longtime organizer of the East Denver Ethiopian community (Nebiyu Asfaw) described how “I’m optimistic about the development and the capital coming into the neighborhood, but I’m extremely anxious and fearful of displacement.” This was a real fear of many small business owners I talked to, but as Michael from the auto shop shared, there is a real interest in the possibility of employee ownership as one answer to the challenge.

Walking down the Colfax Corridor, I saw two different faces of Colfax. One face is positive, young, and filled with hopes for their future as their businesses are well financed and doing well. But the other face on Colfax is creased with the concerns of stressed mom and pop business owners who feel helpless. These two faces coexist today on the rapidly changing East Colfax corridor. But I wonder how these two different faces on Colfax will be changing over time. I wonder how long these struggling mom-and-pop stores can fight back and whether employee ownership can help them prevent business closure. I worry that these small mom-and-pop stores, filled with creative immigrant energy, will be replaced with trendy stores financed from afar, leaving little room for unique, small businesses on Colfax in the future. It was fulfilling to find so many struggling owners and employers interested in supporting the community and in innovative strategies like employee ownership but disheartening to meet much more affluent business owners who seemed more concerned with keeping their profits high than with broader community health. Walking down Colfax Avenue today left me with a deep impression of the many human stories behind each store on Colfax. They are diverse human stories of small business owners filled with all kinds of different human emotions: hopes, despair, sadness, positivism, avarice, and amity--all of it.

Ready to get started?

The path to employee ownership starts here. Subscribe to our newsletter to lean more!