1996: El Nuevo West

The region's new pioneers buoy the economy and live on the edge

  • People of Hispanic Origin in the West

    Diane Sylvain
  • Alonzo Loya and family of Carbondale, Colo.

    Monica M. Arman
  • Joseph Greene, INS regional director

    Garth Dowling
  • Dancing on the Day of the Dead in Glenwood Springs, Colo.

    Monica M. Arman
  • Jackson Police Chief David Cameron

    Lisa Jones
  • Salvador Vazquez, Driggs, Idaho

    Lisa Jones
 

A week before Labor Day, the tourist town of Jackson, Wyo., lost its labor force. Teams of federal agents and local police entered hotels and restaurants, asking dark-skinned workers for their immigration papers. Those who couldn't produce them were taken away in police cars. One group was hauled off in a horse trailer.

Within three hours, with more than half of the 60 targeted establishments still unvisited, agents had already netted about four times the number of suspected illegal workers they'd expected. Overwhelmed, they stopped.

The chain-link enclosure outside the Teton County Sheriff's Department contained 151 Mexicans - about one-sixth of the town's Mexican population - and a young pair from England. Numbers were inked on their forearms while their paperwork was processed.

The next day, 120 undocumented Mexicans were on their way back to Mexico by bus and airplane.

It was the biggest immigration bust in Wyoming's history. And, like most busts of undocumented Mexicans, it accomplished virtually nothing. A little over a week after leaving Jackson, all but four of the deportees were reportedly back on the job. One restaurant worker said that after a long bus ride in handcuffs, he spent two hours in the Ciudad Juarez jail. Then he and some friends got into a car, drove six hours west to the Arizona border, and headed back to the Rockies.

"That raid," he said, "it was really stupid."

The other side of the Tetons

When the man, whom I'll call Juan Sanchez, tells me this, I am sitting at the kitchen table in his trailer in the town of Driggs, Idaho. Hundreds of Jackson's workers live here, across the pass, where the Teton's famously jagged skyline is obscured by the mild, forested western slope of the range. Only the tallest Teton, the Grand, pokes over the top.

In the trailer, there are enough chairs for me, another reporter, and Juan's wife. The room is crowded. A couple leans against the wall, alternately winding their limbs around each other, kissing and stopping to listen to us. A teenage boy sits with a couple of kids in front of the television. A young man comes to the door, looks in, and leaves.

Everyone is nervous. Juan is nervous because he doesn't know us; we're only there because a local activist he trusts told him she trusted us. Still, he answers our questions as if we're the police. We're nervous because we are talking in Spanish and our tape recorder keeps going dead. If this interview doesn't work, we don't know if we'll find any more undocumented workers who will talk to us. After the raid, even legal Mexicans stayed away from work for a week or more; many families were too frightened to even go to the grocery store. But when we ask Juan if he ever considered staying in Mexico, he looks at us like we're crazy. His wife is here, and his three children.

And there's work. In Jackson's classified ads, hotels and restaurants beg for applicants. There's construction work in Driggs, which is sprouting subdivisions the way its neighbors downvalley sprout potatoes. There's plenty of work, if you're willing to do it.

After finishing the interview and telling Juan that no, we didn't know when the next raid would be, we leave. Up the street we meet a man I'll call José Umaûa. He has been in Idaho for about 10 years, and has a green card and a full-time job pouring concrete for a construction company in Driggs. Evenings, he cleans the local slaughterhouse. Weekends, he milks cows twice a day. With his earnings, he paid $1,000 to have his wife, Milagro, smuggled from Tijuana into California behind a refrigerator on a moving van. Last summer, he bought the trailer we're sitting in.

"As soon as I have money, I spend it," says the 30-year-old Umana while his two children tumble, giggling, from sofa to floor in his warm trailer and Milagro makes piles of fragrant chicken and tortillas to serve the visitors. "But we never go hungry. We have to work hard because these kids are growing. We have to grow them up."

"We make $2 to $3 a day in Mexico. There, people work for beans and tortillas. Not meat, it's too expensive. In Mexico, you have to work for two weeks just for a pair of shoes."

People like Umana and Sanchez are an employer's dream. The ski industry - no longer able to fill its $6-an-hour jobs with white college kids - is soaking up Latin labor.

The upside of this new relationship is that families like Juan's and José's can prosper in a way they never could in Mexico. The tourists and local merchants benefit, too: Beds are made quickly and well, eggs Florentine is delivered on time. The downside is that an estimated half of the Mexican workers in Jackson and some other resort towns are working illegally, making them and their employers vulnerable to Immigration and Naturalization Service raids, which, if not effective, are at least inconvenient and embarrassing. What's more, employers can be fined thousands of dollars for employing illegal workers.

The hunger of ski towns for cheap, energetic labor and the desire of the INS to uphold immigration law make for moral ambiguities, to put it politely.

After all, the ski industry has cultivated an image that is clean, athletic and non-seedy. We are used to illegal laborers working on farms. Nor do they seem out of place in gambling towns, where the opportunism and survival instincts of the visitors in many ways mirror those of the workers. But unlike a gambling vacation, which sells hope to people who want money, a $15,000 ski vacation sells perfection to those who already have it. Perfection is elusive; its gossamer threads can be strained by one foul look from a maitre d'. Just think how the web would rupture if, upon returning from a lobster dinner, the family found the maid with the nice smile up against the wall being frisked by federal agents. The ski industry's use of illegal labor breaks its own logic.

A flood from Mexico

Joseph Greene has thought about this. But he thinks about a lot of things. The holder of two philosophy degrees and the author of a position paper on the inviolability of churches as sanctuaries for refugees, Greene is a regional director for the Immigration and Naturalization Service. He oversees Colorado, Utah and Wyoming from an almost comically bland office complex in Denver.

About 90 resident aliens are awarded citizenship down the hall from his office every week in ceremonies that explode with applause and patriotism. The ceremonies are for the winners at the immigration game. Behind the building, a bus emblazoned with "Immigration and Naturalization Service" stands by to ship the losers to jail, or back to Mexico.

"I'm a cop," he says. "That's my job. But I also give out immigrant benefits, so I'm also a cop who's a schizophrenic."

As far as regional directorships in the INS go, Greene's looks fairly easy at first. Unlike his peers in California, Arizona and Texas, he doesn't have thousands of undocumented Mexicans and Central Americans playing cat-and-mouse with the Border Patrol every night. (Last May, for example, 67,282 Mexicans were arrested in the San Diego area alone.) Of the several million undocumented Latinos in the country, perhaps 38,000 are in this region. On demography maps, much of the area looks like a field of whitest snow.

But the area's number of Mexican workers, both legal and illegal, is expanding fast. The combined effects of stepped-up law enforcement along the border and the decision of California's voters in 1994 to make public health care and schooling off-limits to undocumented immigrants and their children have sent Mexicans pouring north and east.

Last winter the Colorado State Patrol found 1,209 undocumented Mexicans within a three-month period. "They'd pull over a U-Haul for weaving," says Greene, "and there would be 30 people in there." The number was 12, or maybe 14, times what they'd found in the past.

Most were passing through to the slaughterhouses of Iowa and the fields of Missouri, but some were headed to join family and friends already holding down two or three jobs in ski country.

Workers in ski towns take the bus from the trailer courts of Glenwood Springs and El Jebel to the glittering streets of Aspen. They drive over Lizard Head Pass to work in the lavender-and-pink mining cabins-turned-restaurants of Telluride; and they make their way from rent-controlled apartment buildings to the brand new Victorian-style hotels of Park City, Utah.

Why are there so many jobs available in ski areas? Myles Rademan, who became town planner in Crested Butte, Colo., in 1972 and now directs public affairs in Park City, Utah, explains that the industry has experienced dizzying growth. During the same period, most of the ski bums - usually white baby boomers who worked in ski towns - grew up, got serious, and moved to the city.

As for their logical successors, Generation X, they were raised in a less prosperous, more competitive world. For the most part, they'd rather study law or computer programming than hang out in Jackson or Sun Valley for a semester. Even if they wanted to, the rising cost of living in those towns has made it harder to do. In five Colorado ski counties alone, 6,000 tourism jobs reportedly went unfilled in 1994.

"Not many people want to come and work three jobs so they can ski one afternoon a week," says Rademan. "A lot of the Mexicans aren't interested in skiing, they're just making a better wage than where they're coming from. At this point most resorts couldn't live without them."

There's a joke in Park City that goes, "Where can you get Mexican food here?" Answer: "In every restaurant." Indeed, about 700 Mexicans work there. In Jackson, about 1,000 of the town's 7,000 people are Mexican, about half of them working legally. The Roaring Fork Valley below Aspen is home to an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 Latinos, about three-quarters of whom are Mexican. Most of the rest are from Central America.

"We're gone"

Although the INS has executed raids all over the region, Jackson's may have been the biggest bust a western ski town has ever seen. Its effects reached far beyond the Mexicans who were deported.

"On the morning of the raid, one of the Mexicans got a phone call," says Angie Gabbitas, the production manager at High Country Linen. The laundry service employs 15 Mexicans and cleans sheets, towels, napkins and tablecloths for virtually every business in town.

Although all the workers at the laundry had produced documentation when they were hired, they were all terrified by the raid. "They said, "Angie, we're gone." They came back a week later. So all of us office personnel and family and friends and children had to work 14 to 16 hours a day for a whole week."

Angie - a tall, straight, athletic woman whose job keeps her on her feet most of the time - fared better than most.

"It was kind of stressful on us that don't normally work back there working 16-hour days," says office manager Kay Humann. "It's tough! A lot of people were just stuck. It's devastating to the hotels. I mean, the owners were out there making the beds."

One hotelier actually called Jackson Police Chief David Cameron - whose officers teamed up with the INS, the Teton Sheriff's Department and the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation to pull off the raid - and asked if the police were planning to help him make the beds.

The effects were felt immediately on Jackson's streets. It took 20 minutes to get a burrito at Taco Bell. The Westerner Family Restaurant lost its entire kitchen crew and had to close down. Manager Glenn McAfee told the Jackson Hole News, "I'm upset; I'm pissed off. I've hired a total of six (Anglo) people, and I've had two people actually show up for work. That's why we hire Mexicans."

He bristled at the News' suggestion that he hire less foreign labor to avoid paperwork pitfalls.

"Excuse the term," he said, "but most Americans are lazy."

Some significant failures

Police Chief Cameron figures this is not his problem.

He says the raid's timing, right before one of the biggest tourist weekends of the year, was not a consideration: "We were not in a position, obviously, to say (to the INS), "That weekend doesn't work for us." "

But he admits the aftermath of the raid has been stressful.

Furious locals reported seeing a bicyclist being thrown to the ground and police hurling employees up against walls. Both Cameron and INS Regional Director Greene apologized for the fact that 15 hotel workers were hauled off to the county jail in a horse trailer. Letters to the editor of both local newspapers alternately reviled and supported the raid. Agustin Perez, a stone mason who has had a green card since 1990, claimed he was "treated like an animal" by the agents during the raid and is preparing to sue the INS and local authorities (see story page 6).

"From the standpoint of operations, there were some significant failures," says Greene.

If the bust has a lasting effect, it will be that employers in Jackson will check the papers of job applicants more carefully. The INS held a training session this fall that showed the staff of High Country Linen and other businesses how to spot false documents.

Such sessions won't only make finding jobs harder for workers with false documents, but will also ease the minds of the businesspeople who can be fined $1,000 or more for each undocumented worker they hire.

The INS is investigating four Jackson businesses for knowingly hiring undocumented workers. But law enforcers maintain the vast majority of employers don't want to hire illegals, but are often hoodwinked into doing so. About three weeks after the bust, Cameron's department helped businesses do background checks.

"During one four-day period, I think we had 20 work permits that were checked out, meaning they called us and we ran numbers for them," says Cameron. "Out of the 20, all but one was phony. I mean, they're all over the place!'

What, for the sake or argument, is wrong with hiring undocumented workers?

"There are people here who are able to utilize illegal labor," he practically shouts. "Let me just ask the rhetorical question: Does that give them a leg up on their competitors? Certainly it does! Is that an artificial depression on the wage scale? Certainly it is! These folks are willing to work for a lot less money. Should those businesses have to pay the going rate for a dish washer? Certainly they should! Are these people who are in the country illegally taking up housing that people could otherwise use and live in this community, people who are here legally? Certainly they are! Are they availing themselves to an unwarranted extent of social services that taxpayers pay for? Certainly they are!'

Cameron also wonders about the future: Second-generation illegal workers aren't going to work for $5 an hour washing dishes, he says. They'll want better. They'll become disaffected. They may form gangs. "At the same time," he adds, "with the growing size of the Hispanic community, I'm worried abut hard-core criminals from Mexico finding a place there with drug sales, et-cetera."

Cameron and other small-town police chiefs aren't just dealing with Latino immigration. They're also dealing with explosive growth which brings problems, regardless of the race of the newcomers.

An infusion of Anglo workers, who would demand better housing and pay than Latinos do, would disrupt mountain towns enormously. Downvalley from Aspen in Glenwood Springs, Police Chief Terry Wilson emphasizes that the first gang in his town was formed six years ago by Anglos who moved in from Reno, Nev. But Latinos aren't immune from violence; there have been several altercations between Hispanics and Anglos up the road in Carbondale. Last month, a 17-year-old Latino, who had been involved in gangs while growing up in Los Angeles, pulled a gun at a party and pointed it at an Anglo teenager's head. He has since been arrested.

"Our juvenile delinquent problems are rising out of local American-born Hispanics and Anglos," says Carbondale Police Chief Fred Williams. "The teenager who was born in Chihuahua, he's not the problem."

Williams has been with his department for 20 years. "I think it's just like 25 years ago it was the cowboys and the hippies, and in time we all learned to get along. Right now that's what's happening here ... People from the city are finding valleys like this, and moving here."

Back when the West was white

You could argue that Carbondale's restive teenagers are just the latest product of a dynamic that started rolling with the Romantic poets: People like pristine mountain landscapes. As recent history in the West proves, what they like they will pay for. The rarer pristine mountain landscapes become, the more people will pay for access to them.

Over the last 50 years, richer and richer people have moved to the high mountain landscapes of the West. The people who worked in ski areas started to feel the squeeze of rising real estate prices. That squeeze turned into a pinch by the 1980s. But they good-naturedly commuted to work from outlying towns. When the outlying towns got gentrified, they drove for longer and longer distances, until their cheerfulness was expended and they quit.

Into this vacuum came the Latinos, to the horror of many of the people who had driven up the real estate prices. Finding the funky log cabins formerly rented by ski bums occupied by minor movie stars, the new workers moved into trailer courts. They shared their trailers with not only their own family but maybe one or two others. And they worked nonstop.

It was different just 10 years ago when I lived in Breckenridge, Colo. There, I either wrote about ski area expansions for the weekly newspaper or went skiing with my friends, who were all, it seemed, from Wisconsin.

Breckenridge was the most boring place I've ever lived in my life. When I left in the spring of 1986, it was a mausoleum of emptying condominiums and fake "locals' nights" at bars.

The only story I wrote about immigration back then concerned a group of Australians illegally working in the area. The INS agent I interviewed on the subject responded like a fireman might if I called in to ask if his department rescued kittens out of trees: He laughed and said he'd stick to Denver where they could get two dozen Mexicans in a sweep rather than come all the way up to Summit County for a smattering of Australians.

I left Colorado's mountains for a few years, and then returned to Paonia, the scruffy home of fruit farms, coal mines, a few dozen hippies, and this newspaper. Three winters ago, I found myself out of a job. In a ski town this would have been a minor concern. In Paonia, it was not. I did what about 200 of the 1,200 people in this almost all-Anglo town do during the winter - I drove two hours through the mountains each morning to work in Aspen.

I cleaned condominiums with my assigned partner, Luz, who had come up from Chihuahua the year before. While we stripped beds and folded towels, we talked about our lives and our terrible commutes (we both had car accidents on the way to work that spring). She told me that she wanted to return to Chihuahua with her husband - a maintenance man in the same condos we worked in - buy some land and raise a family. I told her I wanted to get another writing job.

One day I realized with shock that I was cleaning a condo my family had stayed in for a week when I was 9 years old. When I told Luz this, she smiled and shook her head as if she couldn't believe that I would ever have kept company with the Venezuelan oil executives and "Brazilianaires" who left makeup and popcorn all over the rooms we cleaned.

Another day, I showed her an irate letter to the editor of The Aspen Times complaining about the "Mexicans and riffraff" encroaching on the town. "You're the Mexican," I said, "and I'm the riffraff." She smiled, shrugged, and bent over to finish making the bed.

"This is America, you know"

For the most part, Mexicans work. But when they play, they play soccer. Soccer fields - along with jobsites, schools and bus stops - are among the few places that Mexicans and Anglos frequent at the same time.

"About three years ago, you'd go out to the soccer field near the high school, and the Mexicans would have their boom box going and they'd have enough for maybe one soccer team," says Kay Humann, the office manager at High Country Linen in Jackson. "Now there's four. There's, like, 250 of "em out there."

Jackson Hole News editor Angus Thuermer noticed the same thing. That was early in the summer; by August, his newspaper had run a three-part series, "Jackson's Hidden Population."

In Park City, a local resident wrote a furious letter to the editor after his wife - who had been watching her son's soccer game - encountered a group of Mexicans holding beer bottles en route to the bathroom in the town park. He suggested the town be renamed "Little Los Angeles" or "New Philadelphia."

"To say that I was appalled was putting it mildly," he wrote. "How had our safe haven for families and kids turned into an inner city hangout?"

"There's a lot of prejudice in this town," says Rod Ludlow, a detective with the Park City Police Department and the owner of a restaurant in town. "We get calls, "They're in the swimming pool at the racquet club. They're in the city park. They're shopping where we shop." Well, this is America, you know."

Ludlow paints a picture that's all too familiar in Park City, Jackson and other ski towns: There isn't adequate public transportation, so a Mexican buys a car. Without a green card, he can't get a driver's license. Without a driver's license, he can't get insurance. So when he gets pulled over for a driving infraction (Mexicans often complain they get pulled over for no reason whatsoever), he gets hit with a huge fine and possibly jail time for driving without a license or insurance.

"If we don't allow them to be law abiding, we're creating our own problem," says Ludlow. That applies to the big picture, too. "It's just too bad they can't come here and get a work permit easily, and let them do the work they want to do without making criminals of them."

The making of a martyr

Those who don't like what they're seeing around the West's ski towns will have to contend with the steel will of people like Salvador Vazquez. He is a 27-year-old, soft-spoken, tired-looking man, who, like many of the Mexicans currently living in Driggs, is from the Mexican state of Tlaxcala. And like many of his neighbors, he grew up dirt poor.

Salvador's early years here are also an echo of those of many of his neighbors: He paid the "coyote" smugglers $350 to get him across the border in 1984. His first job was in the potato fields of nearby Ashton, Idaho, for $4.25 an hour. From there, he worked his way into a $7-an-hour construction job. Along with 2.5 million other Latinos working illegally in 1986, he received amnesty - and a green card - from Ronald Reagan.

But then he lost control of his family. He says his ex-wife started neglecting their 3-year-old daughter and infant son, sometimes leaving them with other people for days at a time. So he took the kids and went back to Mexico. When he returned, she pressed kidnapping charges, and he landed in jail for 81'2 months.

This turn of events didn't have any effect on his work ethic.

"When I was in jail, we used to sweep and mop every day, and two or three times a month clean the place really good," he says. "Guys used to say, "Why are you going to do that?" And I say, "I don't know. Why not do it? I don't know what else." "

He started translating Spanish into English for the judge and police. He washed the police cars. He cooked for the other prisoners. He filed papers. He won the hearts of the clerical staff.

"A lot of people, they don't like working," he says.

He was released on a reduced misdemeanor charge and now lives with his mother, sister and children. He has two jobs; one at the plant nursery in Victor, and the other cleaning the courthouse and jail where he used to be imprisoned. Asked if he thought an Anglo would have served a similar jail term for his offense, he laughs and shakes his head.

The judge, he explains, said he could go home at any time. But he opted to stay in jail in Driggs rather than return to Mexico a free man. "As I told my lawyer, I (wouldn't) have anything to offer my kids. In Mexico I'd only be able to feed them."

Mexican families want exactly what other North American families want, says Lori McCune, who worked as a missionary in South America before becoming a volunteer advocate for Mexican workers in Driggs a year and a half ago: "They're looking for the things we're looking for. Peace, quiet, homes for their children to have a good life ... They could do a raid every day and they couldn't stanch the flow."

A porous border

This, however, is exactly what Congress is trying to do. It passed a bill this fall that will double the size of the Border Patrol and crack down on the "coyotes' who lead people like Salvador Vazquez, Juan Sanchez and José and Milagro Umana out of Mexico. It also aims to streamline a deportation system that is leaking badly; only 11 percent of the illegal aliens who aren't actually in jail when they receive orders to leave the country actually leave.

The law, which is slated for enactment April 1, 1997, will also make databases and other identification systems available to employers who want to check the status of their job applicants.

"We have stuff in there that has everything but the rack and thumbscrews for people who are violating the laws of the United States," an exultant Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming told Harper's magazine when the Senate passed its version of the bill in May, months before the raid in Jackson.

The police - who know the deportees they're ushering south will probably rebound north as soon as humanly possible - don't share the politicians' unbridled enthusiasm for law enforcement as the solution to illegal immigration.

"From a global perspective," says Jackson Police Chief Cameron, "we don't have a border."

Says Joseph Greene, "We don't take the posture that the immigration service has the mission to arrest every single illegal alien that comes to this country. Practically, that's beyond our ability." Indeed, despite the Sturm und Drang surrounding the current immigration bill, the INS won't do more busts like Jackson's in the future, he says.

"We've got to try to be experimental; we've got to try temporary worker permits," he says. For nearly half a century, he explains, immigration law has assumed if a foreigner is in the country for a purpose other than being a student or a tourist, they want to stay here permanently.

"Our world is much more complex than that," he says. "This thing is absolutely huge."

He's right. The media are full of every interlocking part of it. There's the poverty of interior Mexico, the hideous living conditions and even worse violence surrounding the maquiladora factories of Juarez; there's the fact that only 2 percent of Mexicans believe their country is not experiencing a crisis.

And that's just Mexico. On this side of the border, there's economics and politics: States like Utah and Colorado have miniscule unemployment rates, but there are millions of unemployed born-and-bred U.S. citizens in other parts of the country who theoretically have first rights to Western tourism's unfilled jobs. There's also the fact that Hispanic voters are starting to matter. They unseated U.S. Rep. Robert Dorman, a consummate Orange County conservative, in the last election.

Then there's psychology: North Americans want to clamp down on illegal immigration. But, if they were put in the place of a Mexican surveying the sagebrush hills of Southern California from Mexican soil, they would run for their lives into those hills.

Then there's greed: When the managers of the Ritz-Carlton hotel in downtown Aspen found the INS knocking on their door last winter, they considered their houseful of gossamer threads, surveyed their options, and simply refused to let the agents in.

No one can predict how many more immigrants will reach the inland West, but one thing is clear: The world economy has sent a new wave of pioneers in this direction. And history shows that pioneers, with their fear of poverty and limitless energy, change everything.

Lisa Jones is an associate editor for HCN.

The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:

- 'The way they treated me, I don't like it at all'

- 'They're good workers. And they're all we've got'

- 'I don't want to live in a community of rich white people. It's boring'

- 'I have a 1996 Dodge Caravan ... I'm a family guy'

- Amen!