Mexican subculture grows beneath Colorado's mountains

  • MEXICAN PRIDE: Fans at a summer soccer match in Aspen

    Peter McBride photo
  • A bumper sticker serves as a reminder of home

    Peter McBride photo
  • Abisai Olave's ticket to work in the USA

    Peter McBride photo

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 the winter.

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 education.

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.

Another 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 language.

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 community.

Peter McBride lives in Snowmass, Colorado. He is a former High Country News intern who works as a photographer and writer.

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