The immigration story in Colorado’s rural resort areas begins in a small village somewhere in Mexico or Central America. The poverty level in this village cannot be imagined by an Anglo living in Colorado. Education, a career, secure shelter, stable government, medical access, sanitation, even hope that your children will live a better life is out of reach for most…and has been for generations.
So the people from these villages journey to “El Norte.” The trek is more than dangerous, it can be life threatening. Women are raped. Men are robbed. Children are lost. Western Colorado has a long history of immigrants from the south, no doubt starting in ancient times with the Conquistadors in the 1500’s looking for gold. Early Spanish/Mexican settlers searched for better agricultural lands. Then there are today’s current wave of newcomers. Some Hispanic families have been in Western Colorado for more than five generations.
It has been the scarcity and expense of housing and the availability of work in the rural resort industry that has attracted an enormous number of Latino immigrants to Western Colorado since the late 1980’s. Latino populations in Garfield County increased over 300 percent from 1990 to 2000; for Summit County, that number jumped over 600 percent.
It may seem odd that the lack of affordable housing would increase immigrant opportunities. Essentially, the Anglo middle class has been slowly squeezed out of the rural resort areas because of the lack of affordable housing. Therefore, an immigrant workforce is essential. Tom Zieman, director of Catholic Charities in Glenwood Springs, elaborates.
“Sure, it’s easy to say ‘bring in Americans’ to fill the jobs now occupied by immigrants, but where would you find the housing?” Zieman asked. “Anglos are not willing to live like the immigrants with multi-families or a congregation of strangers sharing the same shelter… You would have to build thousands of homes for Anglos to return, which is not realistic.”
In the rural resort areas of Western Colorado, Latino workers are in the kitchens of almost every restaurant and fast food establishment. They are in the stockrooms of most major department chain stores or working in construction. Immigrants do the bulk of the cleaning in hotels. They care for patients at the nursing homes.
Without Latino labor most businesses in the rural resort region of Colorado would be at a standstill.
With housing already at a crisis state in the rural resort region, the reduction of immigrant labor in the construction industry could create an even worse slowdown in home building. For instance, when Immigration and Customs Enforcement made an undocumented worker roundup in Carbondale, a Rifle contractor 50 miles away couldn’t pour concrete in a housing development because the Latino laborers stayed home.
Not only does the rural resort economy on the Western Slope depend on immigrant labor, with estimates of the Latino population close to 25 percent in some areas like the Roaring Fork region (Pikin/Eagle/Garfield), they are also an important customer base. Bi-lingual employees are now eagerly sought out for higher paid middle management positions and many of those hired ironically are the grown children of the Latino immigrants who came here illegally 20 years ago.
With elementary school populations in some rural resort towns now over 50 percent Hispanic, more cultural and economic changes on the Western Slope are sure to come.