Panamanian woman relishes freedom and opportunity |

Panamanian woman relishes freedom and opportunity

DILLON- Nineteen-year-old Odette Cordoba moved to Summit County just over two years ago. She graduated from Summit High School last May with a certificate of honor and is listed on Who’s Who Among American High School Students.

Since Cordoba arrived in the mountains, she has learned to snowboard, and she is looking forward to honing her riding skills this winter. She enjoys the county’s quiet mountain towns, compared to the noise and pollution of the city where she used to live.

She works at a local grocery store alongside many fellow Latinos and is saving up her money for classes at Colorado Mountain College, where she’ll enroll in January.

Once she polishes her English and gets her core requirements under her belt, Cordoba hopes to continue on to a university to study international business in hopes of managing a bank someday.

Cordoba’s plans don’t sound too far-fetched for a Summit Countian of her age. But she faces some fairly daunting obstacles to her goals.

Odette Cordoba (not her real name) is an illegal immigrant. She came to the U.S. from Panama to visit her sister, and decided to stay because of the opportunities here that were not available to her in her native county.

“A lot of people ask me why I’m here. I’m ambitious. In all the Central American countries there is a lot of corruption. If you want to be somebody, you have to know the important people who are in power. I have friends in Panama with university degrees who don’t have jobs. One friend works as a cashier and earns $10 a day. I earn that in one hour here!”

Cordoba, who now has two high school diplomas – one from Panama and one from the U.S. – said she fostered many friendships at Summit High School.

“I really enjoyed my (high school) Spanish class. Most of (the students) were Americans, and they treated me very well. Most of them said they were taking Spanish so they can help people.

“In American History, I was always talking to the teacher and he didn’t understand me sometimes, but he was always trying to help me.”

But now that she has graduated from an American high school, Cordoba said that, as an illegal immigrant, she doesn’t have the same access to higher education that her many of her peers do, despite her strong aspirations.

During her senior year in high school, she received several scholarship applications, but they all required a social security number, so they were of no use to her.

Cordoba runs into other legal, cultural and social roadblocks every day.

“Most interactions with whites are bad,” she said. “One time a man came up to me in the store and said “Why are you here?! How did you get here?!'”

Cordoba said that, as a Spanish-speaker, often she’s not afforded the respect she feels she deserves.

“When I’m shopping and looking for something in a store, and (the employees) don’t understand me, they get mad at me.

“I don’t know why so many people are mad that we are here. At work I have a fake name and fake social security number, and I pay taxes from my paycheck. We pay rent; we pay the hospitals when we’re sick; we spend our money here buying cars, computers, cellular phones and food, so we pay sales tax. Our money goes to the store, and then to the employees and to the towns. Everybody’s going to benefit.”

Cordoba said that immigrants contribute to the local economy by filling positions that Americans don’t want in the first place.

“When you go to Keystone and you see the housekeepers, most of them are Spanish-speaking. I don’t think (white Americans) want those jobs. But those people do their jobs very well. The managers don’t complain about them.”

Cordoba wants badly to become an American citizen, but can’t afford to negotiate the legal hurdles. Visas are very expensive in Panama, she said, and, once an illegal immigrant is already here, he or she needs costly legal representation to gain citizenship or legal residency.

While she waits for the day she can become an American citizen, Cordoba plans to keep working hard to meet her career goals, and she hopes that the longer she is here, the greater acceptance she will gain from the community.

“No matter where we’re from, we are people. We are looking for better opportunities, and we’re not trying to take advantage of your country. We don’t deserve to be treated like criminals. We want to get the same respect as if we were citizens. We are good people. Just give us the opportunity to demonstrate it to you.”

Julie Sutor can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 203, or at

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