First Latino state historian, Dr. Nicki Gonzales, brings deep Colorado roots to new role

Even though her family has deep roots in Colorado and northern New Mexico, Nicki Gonzales didn’t really think of herself as western until she went east to attend college at Yale University.

“I was just me, and everyone around me was like me. My world was very Catholic, very small, very western, and heavily Mexican-American, as I was surrounded by my large family and my closest friends,” said Gonzales, Ph.D., the vice provost for Diversity and Inclusion and professor of history at Regis. “Going east, it was like my world was cracked open and my western identity became significant.”

In her American West history classes, she found herself absorbing everything her history professor, Howard Lamar, Ph.D., said.

“I was hooked. It was like going to the theater twice a week for lecture. And it was the first time in an academic setting that I read history that was relevant to my own family,” she said. By senior year, “I started to think, ‘Maybe I could actually do this for a living, a career.’”

Gonzales more than met her goal. In August, she officially became the Colorado State Historian — and the first Latino person to hold the position.

As part of her role, according to History Colorado, Gonzales will “preserve, interpret and share Colorado’s past.” One of her goals for the position is to encourage communities to explore their pasts, particularly those often forgotten by history. 

Gonzales also plans to encourage kids to explore their family histories by engaging with elders. She plans to work with Regis and History Colorado on a partnership to create youth programs throughout the state, focusing on four areas: Denver, the San Luis Valley, Pueblo and the Four Corners area. 

“In my experience working with young kids and college students, knowing your history, whatever it is, is really empowering, especially for groups that have been historically marginalized and don’t often see themselves reflected in the public monuments and the traditional history books,” she said.

In addition to her new position, Gonzales is making an impact in other areas of history across the state, from her role on the governor’s Colorado Geographic Naming Advisory Board to her work with History Colorado’s State Historian’s Council. Gonzales has involved a couple of students with researching indigenous slavery in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico. She plans to play a role in the exploration of Regis’ early history, including around race.

Since the news of her role as state historian was announced in July, Gonzales has been featured in local media, including Rocky Mountain PBS, The Denver Post and 9News. She’s also received an outpouring of greetings and well-wishes from across Colorado.

“I feel like I’m in a position where I can honor not only my ancestors, but also ancestors of people who don’t often get acknowledged,” Gonzales said. “That feels good.”