North to Colorado: Independencia
December 30, 2005
Editor’s note: Mexico correspondent Alexis Charbonnier visited some of the cities and towns of Mexico with heavy migration to Colorado. The following accounts were gleaned from Mexicans who emigrate north, as well as those who remain behind.IndependenciaThere’s no transportation from the bus drop-off on the two-lane highway to tiny Independencia, Chihuahua. Juan Armando Colmenero Chávez, 22, a seasonal worker, has fired up his beat-up Grand Marquis with the “low fuel” light permanently on to “see what I can pick up.”As Colmenero cruises into his home town, kicking up dust, contrasts slice through the dusk. New homes are springing up with Colorado dollars, replacing crumbling adobe houses; showy pickup trucks race through the nearly empty, unpaved, tumbleweed-strewn streets. It looks and feels like a ghost town, and demographically, it is: There are more residents of Independencia in the U.S. than in the town itself.Later, at the general store, the names ring out for the bus destinations: Rifle pronounced “Ri-flay” – Silt, New Castle, Glenwood Springs, Parachute, Grand Junction, Carbondale, El Jebel, Avon and Basalt: the places Independencia residents call home. Roughly 70 percent of the town’s population is in the U.S. – about 4,500 people – the vast majority of them between Vail and Grand Junction. An estimated 80 percent of family income comes from the U.S.”The whole town’s up there in Rifle and Silt, especially at Kangoos (sic) trailer park: it’s ‘puro Independencia’,” said Hilda Chávez Bustillos, 42, a local trader.
Despite the dollars, Chávez said not everything is positive about migration to Colorado.”The men remarry up there; emigration contributes to adultery,” she says. “Two decades ago, there were plenty of people here. It was the best place to go dancing. Now it’s a ghost town.”Manuela Bustillos, a 42-year-old homemaker, said two of her four sons are in Rifle. She also has two granddaughters there. Her sons’ work visa requests have been denied, so if they came home to Independencia, they couldn’t go back legally. With no way to meet – her tourist visa request has also been denied – she communicates with her sons by telephone. “My sons have helped me financially. I’ve been able to fix the house up and buy farm animals,” Bustillos said, wondering aloud whether it’s been worth the sacrifice.Juan Angel Chávez, 67, a retired farmer from nearby Bachiniva, is a patriarch of Silt’s Mexican community. He has two children in Colorado, two in California, six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren in the U.S. Chávez migrated to Colorado 15 years ago.”Pay was better, and there was more work. In New Mexico, they paid very little,” he said.Juan Chávez has found a home of sorts in Silt.
“It’s very nice: waterfalls, the river, Aspen and the snow… the community is tight-knit. When someone dies, everyone helps out. But it’s very different, it’s another world. I like it better here, this is my home. I come here for visits.”Not everyone likes Colorado. Silvia Mariscal, 33, a homemaker from Bachiniva, spent four months in Rifle and Silt, where her husband’s cousins live. “Customs were very different,” she said. “People were very racist. Those were the toughest four months of my marriage.”Mariscal agrees with Hilda Chávez that times in town were better before.”The fiesta tradition has been lost,” she said. “There’s nobody left here. Things only get a bit better with the apple harvest.”Karen Corral, a 16-year-old who attends high school in nearby Soto Maynes, said she’s well aware of the U.S.’ attraction.”Most kids my age dream of going to the U.S. It starts at age 15, more with the guys,” she said.
Colmenero, the local chauffeur and pickup artist with the fuel-less Grand Marquis, lived in Glenwood Springs and Rifle for four years, working construction in Aspen and Vail, mostly in frame work. Colmenero managed to make $14 an hour even though he was illegal, pulling in $500 to $600 a week cash, paying no taxes. He said he lived in a big house with a family.”It’s cool. The area is touristy. I did a bit of everything. I built 10-room mansions.”Everyone has a place in the Colorado job market, he explains. Men from Chihuahua have a reputation as good construction workers: they do sheetrock installation, taping and house framing. Sheetrock layers are known by a Spanglish word: “sheetrockeros.” Women tend to work in hotels. Immigrants from Central America mostly work in restaurants. Few immigrants work on farms in the area he’s familiar with.While reminiscent of Colorado, Colmenero is happier back home.”You live much better up there, and I was able to send money home to Independencia, but I got tired of it.”