‘We used to live better’: Forced to flee their country, an immigrant family spent nearly a year living in a Summit County hotel room

Seven times as many Spanish-speaking Summit County residents reported living in hotels as English speakers, survey results show

This is part three of a four-story series exploring housing disparities in Summit County. Read the full series here.

Often, Rene Marin finds his mind wandering back to Nicaragua where the smell of coconuts, mangoes and roses perfumed his family home. 

He remembers the patio that extended into a lush garden. He remembers the nearby river where his youngest son would play. 

That was two years ago. For the past 11 months, Marin and five of his family members had a new home: a cramped hotel room in Summit County. 

Instead of a lush garden, their single window looked out onto a paved parking lot. Six metal bunk beds occupied much of their space, with clothes and other belongings stacked on top, nearly reaching the ceiling. They would later discover the room had bed bugs.

“We used to live better,” Marin said in an August interview, speaking through an interpreter. “This is not a home. It’s just a roof over your head so you don’t have to live on the streets.” 

In Summit County, more than seven times as many Spanish-speaking residents reported living in a hotel as English speakers, according to the results of a major housing study that surveyed over 1,800 residents in English and over 470 in Spanish this spring. 

Though the situation is less common, 7% of Spanish speakers said they lived in a hotel compared to less than 1% of English speakers, it provides yet another example of how the county’s Spanish-speaking immigrants are at higher risk for housing insecurity than their English-speaking peers

To Yerania Reynoso, a staff member for the immigrant resource nonprofit Mountain Dreamers, it’s indicative of the sacrifices immigrants have to make when coming to the United States — in particular high-cost resort communities like Summit County. 

“More people say, ‘I am coming here to work. I am not coming here to have the comforts I once had,'” she said. “You sacrifice the nicest things that you used to have in your country just to be able to help your family.” 

Shelby Reardon/Summit Daily News
Shelby Reardon/Summit Daily News

‘Pray and hope’

Marin arrived in the county in October 2022. His family was forced to split up and make the journey to Colorado at different times because they did not have the money to support leaving together, he said. 

His wife and their 18-year-old son arrived first in December 2021. She quickly found work and sent money back to Nicaragua so Marin could use it to leave with his 21-year-old daughter. Their youngest son, who recently turned 4, arrived in Colorado in February with his nephew and sister-in-law, Marin said. 

The journey to Summit County cost the family thousands of dollars and was fraught with obstacles. Over 18 days, Marin and his daughter traveled, by foot and bus, through Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and, eventually, to the United States-Mexico border, he said.

A number of chaotic events had prompted the family to leave their home country.

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Inflation in Nicaragua has spiked since the COVID-19 pandemic, reaching 10.5% in 2022, according to World Bank data. In Nicaragua’s currency, a pound of chicken, for example, has climbed from roughly 50 to 80 córdobas, Nicaragua’s national currency. One U.S. dollar is valued at roughly 36 córdobas.

Marin said he saw the U.S. as a place where he and his family could make more money. It was desperately needed to repair the roof on their home, which had been destroyed by a Category 4 hurricane named Iota in November 2020, the second hurricane to hit the area that month. 

Across Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, tens of thousands were displaced and about 200 were killed by the disaster, the New York Times reported. In his small town along the north Caribbean coast, Marin said, “There were 250 houses. Then, what was left were 10 houses.” 

Robert Tann/Summit Daily News
Rene Marin is pictured on Aug. 13, 2023 as he looks out the window of the Summit County hotel room where he and his family lived. Marin fled his home in Nicaragua in late 2022 following economic turmoil and a natural disaster.
Robert Tann/Summit Daily News

When Marin crossed from Mexico into Texas, he was detained for 15 days in an immigration facility where he slept on the floor with an aluminum blanket covering him. He and his daughter were separated for three of those days, Marin said. 

All Marin said he could do was “pray and hope I would be let into the U.S.” 

Because Marin had family already living in Colorado, which included his wife, brother-in-law and sister-in-law, he and his daughter were allowed to enter the U.S. The pair flew from Texas to Denver, where they were picked up by Marin’s brother-in-law and driven to Summit County.

Marin hopes he can return to Nicaragua one day to rebuild his home. But with his family now in Colorado, he’s settled into a new normal. 

‘Sometimes, I think it’s not enough’

For the first two weeks of October, Marin stayed with his family in a mobile home where his wife and older son had already been living. 

Marin said 15 people in total were living in the unit. Because only five or six people were permitted to live there, Marin said they would have to take turns leaving the unit to avoid being caught by the park’s landlord. 

Explore the series

A four-part series examining housing disparities between Spanish and English-speaking residents in Summit County.

Part I – A breakdown of disparities

Part II – Eviction, the “scarlet E”

Part III – Hotel living

Part IV – Solutions and challenges

He paid the unit’s owner about $500 for each family member who was living there, totaling around $2,000 for the two weeks they stayed. 

“It was a business,” Marin said. “It felt like a prison.”

Mobile homes “seem to be the last bastion for low-income folks to find affordable housing,” said Mateo Lozano, who represents Summit County for the Latino advocacy group Voces Unidas. 

Because of this, immigrant residents tend to be overrepresented in these spaces — and often exposed to greater vulnerabilities. 

“Because people understand that their housing is so precious, they’re not going to be willing to be as vocal,” Lozano said. “They’re afraid they’re going to be picked out for any minuscule reason.”

“We, in this community, tend to go to the shadows, and we tend to stick to those shadows,” he said. 

Seeking their own space, Marin and his family were able to move into a hotel room that had previously been occupied by Marin’s sister-in-law. 

A dual hot plate cooktop, a microwave atop a wooden table and three mini-fridges served as their kitchen. When the family needed to wash dishes, they used the small sink in the room’s single bathroom. Though hotel management allowed them to rent the room for roughly $2,500 each month, they had no lease agreement. Marin didn’t know if or when they’d have to leave.

Housing survey results show that 26% of Spanish speakers rent without a lease agreement compared to 6% of English-speaking residents. 

Marin, his wife and his niece all had to work to make the rent. During daytime hours, Marin worked five days per week in maintenance at a Breckenridge hotel. In the evening, he worked four days at a laundromat, with some nights that stretched to 11 p.m., he said.

The long hours allowed Marin and his family to live together. But it also costs them their quality of life, he said. 

“Sometimes, I think it’s not enough to be working and making money,” Marin said. “I need to make sure my family is happy.” 

Shelby Reardon/Summit Daily News

‘The biggest challenge that an immigrant has’

Gone was the river Marin’s youngest son would play in. He instead occupied himself inside the hotel room where natural light from a single window was often blocked by a heavy, brown curtain. At times, screens would substitute for toys, and the 4-year-old would entertain himself with his father’s phone or a TV. 

When he had the time off work, Marin said he would take his son to nearby parks and spend hours, if possible, playing with him outdoors. 

But in the hotel room, “I feel like my son is in jail,” he said at the time. 

Over the 11 months living in the hotel, Marin said he applied to five apartments and inquired about dozens of others. But the challenges of being an immigrant intersected with those of the county’s high housing costs and lack of affordable long-term supply. 

Most units Marin found were only available for six months, he said. Others were too expensive. 

One long-term lease seemed promising because of its $2,600 monthly rent, just $100 more than what Marin is currently paying. But then he realized there were parking fees that would have bumped that figure to over $3,000.

Language barriers proved to be an obstacle, with Marin struggling to communicate with several property management companies. And, on several occasions, Marin said he was asked for his Social Security number when applying for apartments. While he’s applied for one through federal work authorization, he has yet to receive it.  

“It’s the biggest challenge that an immigrant has,” he said. 

Robert Tann/Summit Daily News
Rene Marin is pictured on Aug. 13, 2023 in the room of the Summit County hotel where he lived with his family for nearly a year. A recent county survey shows that seven times as many Spanish speakers live in hotels compared to English-speaking residents.
Robert Tann/Summit Daily News

The main escape his children have is school, said Marin, whose 18-year-old is enrolled in high school and whose 4-year-old enrolled in preschool this year.

At the Summit School District, roughly 40% of the student body speaks Spanish as their first language. This year, district leadership expanded efforts to reach families of these students amid concerns that outreach to the Hispanic community had been lacking. 

In February, Superintendent Tony Byrd launched Consejo De Familias Hispanas, which translates to Council of Hispanic Families, an advisory committee consisting of Spanish-speaking parents

“I have always thought education is the bedrock of democracy and opportunity,” Byrd said. “So if we can provide an education for everyone who lives in this country, it’s better for the county.”

But while schooling can provide a path to success later in life, Byrd said it becomes complicated when a student’s basic needs, like stable housing, are not met. Issues around housing come up in conversations with families “all the time and in almost every setting I’m in,” Byrd said.

“I think it comes up quite a bit when we talk to families who say, ‘I don’t have a place. I’m going to get kicked out of my place. I’m not going to make my rent payment,” he said.

This was Marin’s reality on Aug. 31 — the day he and his family had 24 hours to find a new home.

After discovering small, red bumps across his 4-year-old’s body, Marin said he found bed bugs in their bedding. When he told management, an owner said the family’s room would need to be cleaned — and they would need to leave.

Marin said he gave them until 10 p.m. on Sept. 1, the following day.

A frantic search for housing began. Marin said he asked Mountain Dreamers for help as he and his family hastily packed their belongings into plastic bags and loaded them into their cars.

“I was just thinking, ‘God, just please help me through this,'” he said.

On Sept. 1, Marin said a miracle came.

He found a posting on Facebook for a three-bedroom house for rent in Fairplay he could afford and quickly got in touch with the landlord. He wasn’t asked to provide documentation or information to run a credit score, just an assurance that he could cover rent. The family moved in later that night.

They now drive roughly an hour each day to Summit County for work and school. While Marin said he hopes to eventually move back, he would never do so if it meant living in the same conditions as before.

At their new home, Marin said his family finally has space to enjoy themselves. Instead of sitting in a dark room staring at a phone, Marin’s 4-year-old is learning to ride a bike on the quite street outside.

He can almost picture him playing in the river in Nicaragua.

“Here, I can remember what it used to be like,” he said, “my life before.”