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LARAMIE—Connie Coca’s hands were covered in masa when she answered the door. In the thick of making tamales to share with family and friends for Christmas, she insisted — peeling dough from her fingers — that it was a fine time for a visit. 

The Laramie activist, who turns 80 on Jan. 15, is known for her hard work and unrelenting optimism. 

After washing her hands and sitting down at the kitchen table, she opened a tin of freshly baked biscochitos. The buttery anise-scented cookies are a holiday tradition Coca brought from New Mexico when she moved to Laramie in 1962 with her husband, John. Back then, white landlords did not welcome the couple’s Hispanic heritage. 

Pregnant with her first child, Coca had her eye on a small house for rent near downtown. She arranged for a tour with the landlord, who upon meeting Coca said the house was no longer available. When a “for rent” sign remained in the window weeks later, she tried again. This time the landlord told her she had to pay a deposit. When she got the money together he told her the amount had gone up. “That’s when somebody told me, ‘They’re not going to rent to you because you’re Hispanic,’” Coca said.

They ended up in a rundown house a landlord said they could rent if they were willing to fix it up. “There was dirt on the kitchen floor,” Coca said. “I mean, it was really pathetic, but we cleaned it. We painted it. We put up drywall.” 

The one-bedroom house was already tight for the Cocas and their new baby, but they made room for friends and family who were also struggling to get on their feet in a new community. “My two brothers, John’s brother, my cousin and his friend came to Wyoming to work, so they were all living with us,” Coca said. 

They managed, but Coca knew her family deserved better. Fueled by a desire to end the injustice she faced and to prevent it from happening to others, Coca dedicated her life to building a more-welcoming Laramie — one with vibrant murals, paved streets and Spanish-language programming on the local airwaves.

Activist Connie Coca at the launch of a mural celebrating Laramie’s Latinx culture and community. (Ana Castro)

The chef

At a recent 20th birthday celebration for La Radio Montañesa 93.5 FM, a bilingual community radio station Coca co-founded, she told a version of “stone soup.” As the story goes, in a village faced with famine where people are reluctant to share, one resident tricks her neighbors into making enough soup to feed the whole community. She puts a large pot of water over the fire and drops in a rock. Knowing her nosy neighbors are listening, she draws a ladle of steaming “broth” to her lips and says “this stone soup is already delicious but it’d be even better with a carrot or a potato or a cabbage.” Too curious to resist, neighbors start to appear with vegetables and scraps of meat. And bit by bit, a pot of soup big enough to feed the community comes together. 

“That’s a good description of Connie’s role,” Michael Brown said. “She was the chef, and she invited everybody to bring in what they could to add to the soup.” 

Brown, an emeritus professor, was teaching radio production at the University of Wyoming when he heard the idea for the station first proposed over two decades ago, and he remembers saying to himself: “Are you kidding? That is a goal that would be extremely difficult to accomplish.” 

From millions of dollars in funding to technical expertise to securing a license, Brown said, “there are an incredible number of details and collaborations that must be made to pull something like that off.” 

But his skepticism was no match for Coca’s contagious optimism, and Brown joined the station’s first board of directors.

“I think it’s that passion and perseverance that people can learn from: just don’t give up,” Brown said. “If you’ve got goals, keep working on [them] and figure out new directions and collaborate.” 

Coca’s scrappy ingenuity also caught the attention of a local engineer, Jim Petty, who helped the station get up and running. 

Faced with raising $4,000 to buy a transmitter, Petty doubted Coca’s plan to do a homemade tamale fundraiser. “It seemed kind of cheesy at first,” Petty said. “Like what, tamales? How much money can we make? But it turns out you can actually make quite a bit of money.” 

The impact of the tamale sales was two-fold, Petty said. Thousands of dollars were raised, as was the visibility of Hispanic food and culture. 

“I can’t take credit for the blossoming of the flower. I can only take credit for planting the seed and being a part of helping it grow.”

Connie coca

But Coca’s positivity wasn’t indefatigable. Petty saw her get frustrated when she thought people weren’t pulling their weight.

“We used to call her ‘General,’” Petty said. “And that’s a compliment. She had a vision for what she wanted to do and that was to bring more attention to the Hispanic side of our culture.” 

Organizer, educator

After 60 years of nonstop community organizing, Coca has officially declared her retirement. She’s looking forward to spending more time with family. 

“As far as being an advocate for the local community, she has always been very strong in that regard,” Brown said. “In fact, in many ways, I’m surprised she’s still going. Most of us have retired.” 

Brown finds her accomplishments even more remarkable knowing that Coca’s life didn’t get off to an easy start in New Mexico.

“She didn’t grow up in a warm and fuzzy sort of middle-class environment,” Brown said, pointing to Coca’s responsibilities as the oldest of 13 children in a single-parent household. 

Coca attributes her strength and resourcefulness to the lessons she learned from her mother, Isabel Martinez Benavidez, and her grandmother, Silveria Blea Martinez, when receiving the 2022 Corn Mother Award

Renee Fajardo, curator of the Corn Mother Project, describes the award as “a love letter to the women of the Southwest” and a recognition of the ways women like Coca, with roots in New Mexico, weave together diverse communities across the Rocky Mountain region. 

When Coca moved to Laramie she brought her culture’s commitment to community with her. She took a job as an outreach worker with Snowy Range Community Action — a project funded by former President Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty — shortly after she arrived.  

She fought for paved streets and sidewalks in Laramie’s predominately Hispanic neighborhood, the West Side. When buses didn’t serve kids there, Coca said she gave them rides to school until activism changed district policy. She helped start a sliding-scale-fee daycare center and an afterschool drop-in center for teens. She helped families access resources to improve the weatherization of their homes. 

She had her hands in many pots as an activist, wife and mom, and on top of that was working on a college degree. It took her eight years, and at age 50 she completed her master’s degree in social work from New Mexico Highlands University. Then she started teaching at the University of Wyoming. As a social work and Chicano Studies instructor, she emphasized service-learning — an academic strategy that connects curriculum to community problem-solving. 

A 2003 student project to create a mural that would share Wyoming’s Latino history turned into one of Coca’s proudest accomplishments. In that instance, the students planted the seed, but Coca, with support from the radio station, made the mural a reality. Painter Stevon Lucero completed “Paredes Hablando, Walls That Speak” in 2010, and for years, Coca and her husband lugged the three elaborate 4-by-7 foot panels around the state to elevate Wyoming’s Hispanic and Chicano history. 

“Paredes Hablando, Walls That Speak,” a mural on display at the Laramie Plains Civic Center. (Tennessee Watson/WyoFile)

“Talk about tamales! We sold 56 dozen tamales to fundraise for that mural,” Coca said. “And that was just a drop in the bucket.” 

Recently, Coca worked with the Laramie Public Art Coalition to install the mural on the wall outside La Radio Montañesa’s studio at the Laramie Plains Civic Center. 

“It’s my baby,” Coca said, tearing up as she explained why finding a permanent and public home for the mural was so important to her. Lucero’s patchwork of intricately painted images celebrates notable Latinos and Latinas as well as their everyday experiences. The piece communicates how deeply intertwined Wyoming’s history is with Latin American history. 

The mural’s installation was supposed to be Coca’s last project before retirement, but the consummate collaborator couldn’t pass up one more opportunity to help elevate her community. 

This time the Laramie Public Art Coalition enlisted Coca’s help to create a mural celebrating Latinas. “She was an integral part of the process,” said LPAC’s director Laura McDermit. “She was at the table for every conversation, and she was really instrumental in pulling together the people to move the mural forward.” 

Artist Jodie Herrera wanted the mural to include the image of an elder’s hand. McDermit recalled:, “Everyone was like, ‘it should obviously be Connie‘s [hand].’” 

Coca would visit Herrera every day as she worked on the mural, McDermit said, “and she would bring her homemade cookies. She’s just really, really incredible.” 

The mural is visible from Grand Avenue between 2nd and 3rd streets. With it now complete, Coca is working hard to stick to her retirement promise. She’s just making tamales for friends and family, not fundraisers.  

Reflecting on her work in Laramie, she said she is proudest of the way she brought people together. 

“I can’t take credit for the blossoming of the flower,” Coca said. “I can only take credit for planting the seed and being a part of helping it grow.” 

Tennessee Jane Watson is WyoFile's deputy managing editor. She was a 2020 Nieman Abrams Fellow for Local Investigative Journalism and Wyoming Public Radio's education reporter. She lives in Laramie. Contact...

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  1. What a beautiful woman. We should all take lessons from her. Thank you Coca. Great story Tennessee!

  2. What a wonderful story, what a wonderful person. Stone Soup is a story I will never forget.
    Congratulations Ms.Watson for capturing this wonderful, inspiring story