Seeking a better life
December 30, 2005
Six-year-old Carlos smiles as he puts on a red plastic firefighter’s hat and places his hands on an imaginary steering wheel, pretending to drive. He doesn’t notice that his 22-year-old mother, Elena, is holding back tears.”Everything was good until today,” she says in Spanish at Team Temp, a temporary employment agency in Dillon. It is Wednesday, pay day at Team Temp, but Elena’s supervisor just laid her off from a local restaurant after two months of employment. Elena illegally immigrated to the United States from Nayarit, Mexico, six years ago. Her husband has been working in Colorado for 10 years. He is also illegal, but their children – Carlos and 2-year-old Elizabeth – were born in Colorado, so they are U.S. citizens. The family spent two years in Greeley and the last four in Dillon.Elena represents most of the 10.3 million unauthorized immigrant families currently living in the United States – according to a 2004 Pew Hispanic Center report – who come to the U.S. believing in the American dream. They want a better life than they had before, including a good education for their children and the ability to earn more money, said Sandy Swanson. Swanson is the executive director of Family Visitor Programs, which works with about 450-500 families, mostly immigrants, from Aspen to Parachute. “It’s the same American dream that every immigrant has ever had,” Swanson said.But sometimes immigrants find raising children in a foreign country is more challenging than they thought. Elena picks up her 2-year-old daughter, who is beginning to cry, and begins describing in Spanish how her Mexican-American supervisor treated her and another illegal immigrant unfairly for two months before firing them.Most immigrants believe hard work and determination lead to success in America – even more strongly than U.S. citizens do – according to a poll by CNN and USA Today. Elena is no exception. She remains hopeful that her children will not have to experience the prejudice she has endured at work. She nods in encouragement as Carlos counts to 10 in English.”As long as they learn English, at least they can defend themselves with words, unlike me,” she says in her native tongue.
Ninety-six percent of immigrants believe English is fundamental to their future, and of children born in the U.S. to immigrants, only 7 percent rely on Spanish as their primary language; almost half have no Spanish skills at all, according to last year’s Pew Hispanic Center poll.Learning English prepares children to be more successful in school. In 26 years working in the Roaring Fork Valley, Swanson has never met an immigrant family that didn’t want their children to get a better education, she said. But sometimes it’s hard for Spanish-speaking parents to participate in their kids’ education because of language barriers or a demanding work schedule. Some poorly educated parents find it intimidating to talk to a college-educated teacher, Swanson said. Forty-nine percent of illegal immigrants haven’t completed high school, compared with 9 percent of U.S.-born citizens and 25 percent of legal immigrants, according to the Pew report.Though Elena’s jobs have kept her from fully participating in Carlos’s kindergarten, she still goes to parties and supports his after-school activities. She wants her children to go to college some day, but not if it means splitting up the family.”(Immigrant) parents have a hard time sending kids to Denver or Boulder, much less to another state,” Swanson said. “A daughter going to college is even more foreign (to Mexicans). But usually the bright, articulate kids pull it off.”School and familyEven César Muñoz, a Spanish professor at Colorado Mountain College in Breckenridge, felt conflicted choosing between family and a higher education. His Mexican father was atypical in that he was highly educated and came to the U.S. legally, for love rather than money. Yet his strong family values remained the same. Muñoz left his family in Los Angeles to attend school in New Hampshire, and he didn’t want to go home his first summer because he had a good job.”I kept hearing, ‘Come on. We haven’t seen you all year.’ So I gave up the job and went to Los Angeles to bag groceries. Even today I resent it,” Muñoz said. “That is a hurdle, that family closeness. Part of it is they just don’t know how big the world is; there are so many opportunities.”Still, Muñoz values the Mexican culture of family closeness.”Ideally, if immigrants could teach Americans what is valuable – close family, relationships … Relationships do fill the emotional gaps that we try to fill with material goods,” he said.
Living in the U.S., immigrants strive to find a way to balance American consumerism with familial values. They come to the U.S. to earn more money for their families, but they usually end up working at more than one job, which takes them away from their home life. To complicate matters, their children see the fancy homes of Breckenridge, Vail and Aspen, with lifestyles to match. Even average American homes in Greeley look large compared to the apartments immigrants share, often with other families.Carlos overhears the conversation about whether he wants mucho dinero y una casa grande, and he nods his head “yes” vigorously as a big smile spreads across his face. His mother lets out a big sigh, and her eyes widen as she stares out the window at Colorado Mountain College across the street.”Es muy difícil,” she says.She says she will tell her children, “I can’t get you a new car, but I’m giving you love and food. If you go back to Mexico, you’ll die of hunger.” She wants them to climb ladders of success – but only if they work honestly to make money and keep family priorities ahead of accumulating wealth.Culture clashMuñoz says some kids deny their heritage and their families’ values. If they’re light-skinned enough, they may turn away to the point of denying them.He worries when children raised in Dillon Valley, where the majority of the population is Mexican, advance to Summit High School near Breckenridge and see rich kids, they’ll feel envy or worse – resentment or bitterness.”I hope that doesn’t result in a lot of social problems like crime,” Muñoz says. “It’s going to be a tale of two counties. There’s going to be no middle class, and the differences are going to be even more pronounced.”
In Greeley, where police track 450-500 criminal offenders who belong to one of at least 15 gangs, officials estimate only 10 percent to 15 percent are illegal immigrants. However, 90 percent of gang members are Hispanics, said Sgt. Keith Olson with the investigations unit in Greeley.Other communities that worried about gangs, such as the Roaring Fork Valley, haven’t had problems. Swanson said gangs tend to be a replacement for family nurturing, and Latino families maintain strong connections. Olson thinks the issue is more complex.”It’s more determined by their position in life – the socio-economic concerns – than whether they have a mother and father,” Olson said. “If they’re involved in poverty and you add other factors, such as alcoholism, single parenting or abuse, it’s more likely that they’ll be in a gang. It’s a combination of several things. You can’t say if they’re Hispanic they’re going to be in a gang or if they have a family they’re not going to be in a gang.”Regardless of whether the U.S. lifestyle holds promise or threats for children, not every undocumented Mexican wants to stay and raise a family. Some, like 26-year-old Anabel, work for a short time, send money to Mexico and count the days until they can return. Anabel left her three children in Chiapas, Mexico, with her mother-in-law and came to Colorado. Her relatives and friends said Mexicans would earn good money and be treated well.”It’s not like they told me,” she said in Spanish.Ski resort towns are too expensive to live in, and there’s not enough work, she says, adding that it’s easier for single immigrants. But if single immigrants want to marry, Muñoz says, their options are limited.”They’re not going to cross social barriers and marry Americans,” he said. But the interracial marriage picture changes with the first generation; it has a higher rate of wedlock to non-Hispanics than immigrants, and by the third generation, 33 percent of Hispanic women marry non-Latinos, he said.For Elena’s children, marriages lie well into the future. First, Elena has Mexican songs, recipes, legends, history and celebrations to teach them. Nearly 70 percent of immigrants say they identify more with the U.S. than Mexico, according to the New York Times and CBS poll, but she wants her children to at least know her favorite legends – such as Los Niños Héroes. She becomes animated as she tells the story of six young Mexican military cadets who refused to surrender at the battle of Chapultepec in 1847. After five died fighting against U.S. forces, the last one stood strong, wrapping the Mexican flag around him. As she speaks, Carlos grabs the only flag he can find in the temp agency – a small French flag on a stick – and waves it, then gives it to his mom. She accepts it.