(This HCN magazine cover story is accompanied by seven sidebars listed at the end.)
Struggling with a language that would not be his first or even his second choice, Dabo Pobot tried to explain how he and other Africans have been imported to serve ski country, USA.
If I wrote it the way he said it: Dey sell Ah-fricahn people he-ah. I tell dem dat. We are not slaves! Dey tink we are. No! Dis time is past.
For miles around us, the slopes glittered with four feet of fresh powder. It was peak season, early February, and skiers had the place bustling. I was midway through a weeklong exploration of the heart of ski country: Summit and Eagle counties in Colorado, which rank 1 and 2 in the nation as skier destinations when the local resorts are added up - famous Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge and more. The Africans looked startlingly black against all the whiteness.
When I told him something like, "Dabo, your tale is incredible, how you got from a thatched village guarded by crocodiles to a job vacuuming the Hilton in this land of designer snow and $48 lift tickets," he thought I'd doubted his word, and he drew himself up in his chest and insisted, "I am Mandingo!" Translation: As a member of that tribal group, his word can be counted on.
Dabo went on explaining how it is to wake up in the working class of Summit County. Only the details vary; all sorts of people came a long way to earn treadmill wages here and get tucked away in the trailer-park ghettos or low-income apartments or behind some pretty mountain, where their problems are mostly invisible to the skiers and vacation-homesteaders.
Item from the Rocky Mountain News: "An Eastern family recently paid $5.6 million for a vacation house at the base of Vail Mountain. They plan to demolish it and replace it with another ski-in, ski-out trophy home."
Simultaneously, the Associated Press reports that 39 of Vail's 48 cops and firefighters can't afford to live in the town. At any given moment during ski season in the two counties, 2,000-3,000 jobs stand vacant because there aren't enough workers willing to accept the terms. It's the opposite of unemployment: The counties are 6 percent to 9 percent unstaffed.
The irony defines ski country around the West now. But here it seems especially sharp. Geraldine Portillo, from a poor family in southern Colorado, says she first got hired to clean rooms in ski country when she was 12 years old. Now 31, and attached to one cigarette after another, supporting herself cleaning rooms at the Club Med of the Copper Mountain ski resort, she says, "I never really had any childhood."
Also bitter is Patti Stoddard, 34, who, after four years working by the hour around here, gave up a shack-like trailer where everything was broken and began the ski season living in a tent in the national forest with her three children, including 7-month-old Gabriel. "Nobody gave a damn," she says.
Sister Annette Carrica, of the Ohio-based Sisters of Charity, spent six years on the altiplano of Peru, trying to help the Quechua Indians; now she is on a mission in ski country, trying to foster a sense of community in immigrants from Latin America. "Here," she says, "it's a lot harder to do things."
The story could be cast through the eyes of recent arrival Salvador Sebastian, who came from Mexico because he heard of opportunity here. Now that he's working here, Salvador sees that his situation is el mismo, about the same as in Mexico.
But it is the Africans who most clearly represent how ski country is beginning to resemble the Third World. There are at least 20 Africans who've been imported to Summit County jobs through the same pipeline. I saw that many in low-income apartments, where they were living with almost no furniture, sitting on the floor to have dinner, sleeping on the floor at least two to a bedroom. One African said maybe there are 40 here.
They come from hot countries in West Africa - Mali, Senegal, Cameroon, Mauritania and Ghana - and they speak their original tribal languages, plus a fair amount of French, the language of the old colonizers. For the most part they lack English and they entirely lack Spanish - the emerging language of ski-country workers. So the Africans seem doubly isolated here.