This story is a part of the ongoing Back 40 series, where High Country News reporters look at national trends and their impacts close to home.
At 6:08 on a recent March morning the bus pulls up to the stop across the street from Magdaleno Díaz’s motel room. The sun is just cresting the horizon, lighting up the sky in a soft pink and orange hue; it’s 8 degrees outside and the ground is covered in a thick crust of old snow. Díaz carefully crosses the icy street, a black neck warmer covering most of his face and a backpack strapped to his shoulders. With his trucker hat and cowboy boots, he blends seamlessly into this mountain town’s culture, commuting by bus five days a week from rural Gunnison, population 6,500, to its ritzy resort neighbor, Crested Butte, where he works as a manager at one of the area lodges.
Díaz is one of several hundred Cora, an Indigenous community from the Sierra Madre Occidental Range in western Mexico, who now call the Gunnison Valley home. Díaz and most of the Cora in the valley come from the same town — Jesús María — and are thought to be the largest Cora community outside of Mexico. The two towns — 1,400 miles and an international border apart — are unofficial sister cities where culture, traditions and people move across barriers, creating new identities and powering two different economies.
For decades, mountain towns across the West have thrived amid growing rural-to-urban migration with the help of foreign-born workers. From Telluride to Jackson Hole, immigrants work as sheepherders, ranchers and construction workers as well as in the restaurant and hotel industries, making up the invisible backbone of many mountain town economies. According to a Headwaters Economics report, some of the fastest-growing rural towns in the West owe much of their vibrancy to their foreign-born residents. Eagle County, Colorado, and Teton County, Idaho — both bedroom communities for resort towns — have seen some of the region’s fastest rural growth, largely owing to a shift in demographics to more non-white residents, who have either established families in the area or relocated for the economic opportunities. In 19% of rural western towns, growth was due solely to increased minority populations, the report stated.
In the case of the Cora, many first came to work in western Colorado in the late 1970s. Men were recruited to work as seasonal shepherds, returning to Jesús María for a few months every year. But as the border hardened, it became more dangerous and expensive to cross back into the United States without proper documentation. Meanwhile, more and more families began making the trek, too — this time, permanently. In recent years, drug-related violence has hit Jesús María, where cultivation of marijuana and poppies and drug trafficking started in the early 1990s. Still, most of the Cora say they moved to Colorado for the economic opportunities they couldn’t find at home. “All those guys, they worked hard,” Díaz said about the first wave of recruitments. “Jesús María did not have any jobs. That’s why we came here — just to try and help our families.”
Díaz was able to get papers shortly after he arrived in 1985 at the age of 17. First, he had a 90-day worker visa, then a three-year visa, and now he has a green card. He has worked in the Russell Stover’s candy factory in Montrose packing chocolates, and as a rancher in the Saguache Mountains, running cattle and tending newborn calves. Now, in addition to supervising the cleaning crew at The Grand Lodge, he works as an interpreter for the courthouse, translating for other migrants between Cora, Spanish and English. In the evenings, he studies for his GED and takes English classes. He’s learning to cross-country ski.
Díaz, like many immigrants, sends money back home to his family and invests in his own property. He now owns two houses just outside of Jesús María and keeps livestock. According to the Mexico Ministry of Social Development, 61.6% of residents in Nayar, the municipality where Jésus María is located, live in extreme poverty. The money from Cora living in the United States doesn’t just help their Mexican kin survive — the ties between the two countries are crucial.
While the economic opportunities are welcome, the transition isn’t always easy. Indigenous communities in Mexico face systemic racism and a lack of opportunity, and migrating to the United States doesn’t ease the tension between the Cora and non-Indigenous, or mestizo, Mexicans. Díaz attends monthly meetings called Emigrantes Unidos de Gunnison (United Migrants of Gunnison), organized by the Hispanic Affairs Project, a local immigrant advocacy organization that works with Mexicans of all ethnic and cultural backgrounds. He says he tries to remind people that “We are all the same. We have the same blood, our blood is red, we bleed the same.” The meetings help keep the community informed of events and laws that could affect them, including a recent push to expand a driver’s license program for Colorado’s undocumented residents.
According to Díaz, the way people in Gunnison looked at him and other Cora used to make him feel out of place. But the county’s multicultural center has worked hard to welcome immigrants; nearly a third of its clients are Cora. In recent years — following the 2016 presidential election, which brought a wave of fear to the area’s immigrant communities — towns in the Gunnison Valley have issued proclamations for “International Migrants Day” in December, and have acknowledged migrant contributions to the region’s economy. In addition to filling jobs in places like Crested Butte, where the unemployment rate is usually much lower than other parts of the country, immigrants contribute in other ways: They participate in the local economy, keep schools open, create jobs and build businesses in the communities where they live.
In mid-April, Díaz will embark on a much longer bus journey, boarding a Los Paisanos bus — a charter line that connects major U.S. cities to locations around Mexico — at its regional hub in Denver, and making his way through New Mexico to the highly politicized border at El Paso, Texas. After two nights sleeping in his seat, Díaz will get off in Jalisco, Mexico, and begin the second leg of his journey, an 8-hour ride to Nayarit. From there, he’ll spend a couple of days with his mother in Jesús María, before taking a short taxi ride to his house outside of town, where, he says, he likes the fresh air.
Díaz has made the annual pilgrimage for several years now, and sometimes he runs into other people from Gunnison on the bus down. “The Cora who have (U.S.) papers go, and those who don’t, stay here,” Díaz said. In previous years, he added, some people without papers would take the risk anyway, but now it can cost between $5,000 and $6,000 to be smuggled back across the border. The yearly trip marks his town’s most important festival: Semana Santa, or Holy Week, a celebration that helps Díaz stay connected to his town.
Sometimes, Díaz says, he surprises tourists in Jesús María when he’s visiting. He’ll go up to them and ask, in English, how they’re doing. Surprised, they respond, “You speak English?” he tells me, chuckling. He likes languages; they’ve helped him stay connected to his life in Mexico and his life in the States. “Gunnison is like home to me, because I can talk to anybody.”