Just west of Aspen, Colo., hungry souls line the counter at Taqueria El Nopal. The polka beat of Ranchero music and smell of grease fill the small concrete interior. A heavily mustached cook dishes up beef, chicken, tongue, cheek and intestine tacos. A typical Monday.
If it were not for the
snow-topped mountains outside - mountains I have known my whole
life - I would mistake the place for central Mexico. I am the only
Anglo in the restaurant and my less than fluent Spanish is obvious.
Even the sodas are served in thick glass bottles with Producto de
Mexico marked on the labels.
Five years ago,
the same grill cooked up your typical greasy-spoon burger and
fries. It was The Charburger, a favorite among the hourly wage
working class, many of whom came to the valley to be ski bums in
Today, high prices and a lack of
affordable housing in and around the resort of Aspen have caused
the raccoon-eyed ski-bum crowd to dwindle, and places like The
Charburger have changed.
But unlike the
majority of restaurants in the area, the taqueria is not a pricey
Mexican-theme joint for tourists. It is a taste of home for the
valley's new Latino labor force who maintain a low profile behind
the scenes of Aspen's high-end resort stage.
Silvia Barbera, director of Asistencia Para Latinos, a nonprofit
organization established to aid Latino residents, estimates that
legal and illegal immigrants have boomed to some 14,000, making up
almost one-fourth of the population in the 45-mile corridor between
Aspen and Glenwood Springs. The majority, who come mostly from
Texas' southern neighbor, the state of Chihuahua, Mexico, speak
little or no English, and only a few have more than a high school
Most are eager to work one or two or
even more jobs, live in cramped quarters and commute long hours to
Aspen. Such a lifestyle is not desirable to the ski bum. So with a
Mexican economy unable to keep pace with its growing population,
Mexicans have become the worker bees that make the beds, bag the
groceries and chop the vegetables in Aspen's fine restaurants.
Ironically, while Aspen boasts a world-class
experience, most of these new Latino workers will tell you they
wouldn't dream of living here as "real" residents or even
vacationing here, and few, if any, like skiing.
Take Abisai Olave, who has made Aspen his legal second home for 16
years. "I have good bosses," he says, "but I always return home to
Chihuahua. I don't like snow," he says with a smile. More
seriously, he tells me, slightly lifting the brim of his cowboy
hat, he likes his traditions, music, people and Mexican food. All
Mexico lacks, he says, are good jobs. The wages Olave earns working
manual labor jobs in Aspen are 10 times those in Chihuahua.
Olave's brother Josue used to live and work in
the Aspen area, but despite a current Green Card, he refuses to
leave his small agricultural community of Gomez Farias, Mexico. He
says he has seen too many families and communities destroyed by a
life of chasing dollars in the states.
brother, Daniel, is a U.S. citizen who works as the pastor in a
Latino church not far from Taqueria El Nopal, but he hopes to
return to Chihuahua permanently, once he saves enough money. "Why?
Because I am American but Mexican at heart," says Daniel as he
thumps his chest.
While such Latin-blooded
patriotism brings a new flavor to our homogeneous valley, it also
creates problems. The majority of Latinos come strictly to work,
not to create a community, even a temporary one. With no loyalty to
a specific community, many, especially the youth, struggle to keep
their identity. They cling to what heritage they can, usually their
Hiding behind their native tongue
results in less interaction between the two communities and even to
cases of racially driven gang violence. The transitory state of the
Latino community also leads to a lack of leaders. Without Latino
representatives there is little understanding of the valley's new
members, and the ingredients prompting violence.
Will Aspen come to grips with its ski-bum replacements? I hope so.
Over time, more Latino workers and their children may come to see
the United States as home, and some will get the education they
need to prosper here.
But as prices in Aspen
continue to soar and economic conditions in Mexico remain dismal, I
fear change is unlikely. The new worker bees will continue to be
distant and isolated, and Aspen will remain a divided
lives in Snowmass, Colorado. He is a former High Country News
intern who works as a photographer and