Colorado’s legacy of immigrants
December 21, 2005
The first non-natives to explore Colorado were the Spanish, nearly 500 years ago. Abounding in Spanish place names – from the Sangre de Cristo mountains to the word “Colorado” itself – the state has a rich Latino heritage. That extends to present-day leaders, from U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar to Ramon Montoya, mayor of tiny Red Cliff.It may be difficult, then, for immigrants from Mexico or Central America to understand why they’re not always greeted with open arms when they arrive here – particularly by conservative politicians who advocate everything from erecting a wall at the border to legislation aimed at denying services to those in the country illegally.The fact that about 10 million of the immigrants living in the U.S. are here illegally no doubt has a lot to do with the problem. But some of the resentment can even come from fellow Latinos who’ve been here longer and see illegal Latino immigrants tainting the image of all Latinos.The current surge of immigration from Mexico has been going on for only about 20 years, so part of the overall acceptance may well just be a process that has to unfold over time. “I have a friend in Pueblo whose parents’ grandparents were immigrants, and they took great pride in learning English and becoming a part of it,” said Lorenzo W. Martinez, chief of the Minturn Police Department for 20 years and a native to Pueblo. “To blend in, you need to learn the language and become a part of the community and not isolate yourself. It’s imperative.”In the early days of Colorado, many foreign workers were brought in by railroad companies to lay tracks and do other heavy labor. Others came to work in the mines – back-breaking work that not many citizens were willing to do.
“Without immigrants, we never would’ve built this place,” said Bill Burnett, Minturn town councilman and second of six family generations in Minturn. He also served as Minturn’s justice of the peace from 1948 to 1962. “There were about 100 Japanese here that raised crops of lettuce and peas. The railroad companies brought in migrant workers. The Chinese and Native Americans built the railroads, and a lot were Irish, German or some other nationality.” While many immigrants come to Colorado to work and raise families, there is an underlying cause as to why some people don’t always embrace newcomers, especially those from Mexico. The roots of these differences are a combination of beliefs and personal experience.”There is friction because both groups have not learned that we come from a common heritage,” said Roberto Cordova, a retired University of Northern Colorado professor and Colorado native. “The people from Mexico are less educated, and Americans don’t learn about Mexico’s history. The difference is we’ve been here longer, and they’ll go through the same changes.”As explorers and pioneers slowly claimed the United States, they came to stay and raise families, often intermarrying between different races. Latinos are more true natives than Spanish or other European settlers. As Cordova points out, the vast majority of all Spanish-speaking people in the Americas are a mixture of Native American and Spanish blood.The earliest Latin explorers pursued the undiscovered territory of North America and slowly claimed property long before their Anglo predecessors. The first Spaniard in the United States was Francisco de Coronado in 1540, who led his expedition through part of Colorado and Kansas, 80 years before the landing at Plymouth Rock.”Many of the trails were already forged by the time the Anglos came west,” said Cordova. “Pikes Peak was named ‘El Capital’ 250 years before it was named after Zebulon Pike.”
Generations and cultures prefer to be categorized by their origin. Monolingual Spanish speakers prefer to be called Latino because of the connection to Spanish extraction. Those from Mexico prefer the term “Latino” and are considered a new version of the culture outside of the country; although people are not offended when these terms are interchanged, Cordova said.Part of the problem with assimilating Latinos into American culture, Cordova said, is that Americans aren’t taught much about multi-culturalism and how it influenced the nation’s history.”We’re never taught about it in public schools and we still have teachers who know little about blacks, Native Americans and Asians,” Cordova said. “We don’t learn positive things about ourselves (Latino), so there’s no respect – and this causes resentment.”That seeming lack of respect and acknowledgement for Latino history and culture has another adverse effect, he said. “Those that live here, because of the racist school system, have not gone to college or finished high school and are getting lower-end jobs.”Family influence
Not only the community, but also family upbringing can have an effect on how people perceive other cultures.”I think the parents have a lot to do with it,” said Latino James Lovato, son-in-law to Burnett and a Minturn native. “Some people have a chip on their shoulder. When I was a kid, each community had its own school. In the lower valley, they didn’t like us because we were Mexican, but now it’s different.”Because many migrant workers come to Colorado, their children are integrated into the school system. Since many families travel with their jobs, these students have inconsistent learning programs and tend to fall through the cracks.”A lot of the kids that are in school regularly do well, shown by the CSAP test scores,” Martinez said. “Those that move with jobs mostly seem Mexican, and they’re not as stable. It’s not because of intelligence or race – they’re moving and aren’t doing well, and there are other factors as well.” In Eagle County, the arrival of the ski area at Vail in the early 1960s changed the local economy from mostly ranching and farming to a resort industry. The job market changed as well, creating a great many service-oriented jobs that paid an attractive wage – particular for people in countries like Mexico, where a few hundred dollars a month is often the most a worker can earn.That, in turn, has fueled the incentive for immigrants to enter or stay in the country illegally.
“To me, it puts a lot of responsibility on the employer,” Martinez said. “It wouldn’t be a problem if we weren’t luring them into the country. There’s a need for these people, but it really hurts social programs, and citizens pick up the expenses.”To combat the negative stereotypes that accompany Latino immigrants here illegally, people like Cordova believe more understanding has to occur on both sides of the border. Education is also key, he said.For his part, Cordova helped found the League of United Latin American Citizens Youth Councils program, now established in 40 states. The aim of the organization is to raise cultural awareness, and it also funds scholarships for Latino college students. He hopes he can inspire younger generations to appreciate and understand their heritage.”I wasn’t born in Mexico; Mexico was born in me,” Cordova said.