‘Break all the barriers’
Her name, Esperanza, means “hope” in English.And for this 20-year-old Latina, that’s exactly why her family, and others like them, have moved to the United States – hope for higher-paying jobs and hope for a better way of life.Esperanza Luna and her family, who now live in Rifle, are only one of thousands of Latino immigrant families who have made their way to Colorado to improve their quality of life. A shy smile crosses Luna’s face as she talks about her life now and the past eight years in the Roaring Fork Valley.”It was difficult at first,” she admits. “I feel welcome now, but I didn’t when I first got here. It’s gotten better now that I understand the language and the culture.”Born in the state of Michoacan, in the central western part of Mexico, Luna was 4 when her family moved to the San Francisco area.”We came here because there was more work and better pay,” she said. “But California was like a little Mexico. There were so many people. And there were so many gangs.”After eight years in California, an uncle living in Colorado persuaded the family to come to the Roaring Fork Valley. “My parents thought it would be better for us to be here,” Luna said. “And we love it.”Language leads to conflictOne of the biggest challenges Latinos face integrating into an Anglo society is language.”There’s a perception that Latinos don’t want to learn English, but that’s not true,” said Maria Carrion-Kozak of Silt, who has worked as an English-As-A-Second Language teacher at Rifle High School and teaches Spanish classes at Colorado Mountain College. “A lot of the ESL classes are full. And these people work all day – sometimes 10 to 12 hours – and don’t have time to go to an ESL class. Another problem is the lack of education in their own language. It makes it difficult to learn a new language.”Carrion-Kozak is a native of Venezuela and moved to the United States in 1980 to attend college in Boston. “I came over to go to college and learn English,” she said. “But I had a really good life before moving here. I was a music teacher and I was making good money.”She eventually married an Anglo and moved to Denver, but the marriage did not work out. Having vacationed in the Roaring Fork Valley, where she was reminded of her home country by the mountains and friendly people, she decided to move here with her two children, she said. “In 1990, there was already an influx of people from Mexico moving in who didn’t speak English,” Carrion-Kozak said. “I realized that there was a big need to teach Anglos about the Latin American culture.”
After a stint with the Aspen Police Department, she started teaching Spanish at Colorado Mountain College in Glenwood Springs.”It’s always been my philosophy that for foreign-language classes, a native speaker is the best – they can teach the language and the culture,” Carrion-Kozak said. “I think a lot of people in this valley are learning the importance of learning another language.”Many Latino families still speak their native tongue at home, she said.”The parents will still speak Spanish,” Carrion-Kozak said. “The mothers are working and taking care of the kids – they have no time to learn English.”Young children of Latino families who are brought up in the United States often cannot speak Spanish.Luna comes from a family of seven children and says her younger sister, who was an infant when the family moved to the United States, can speak only a few words of Spanish and mainly speaks English. Her parents can understand a lot of English but do not speak it.The language barrier is the source of many problems between Anglos and Latinos. As a middle school student in Rifle, Luna recalls a handful of Latino kids in her class who spoke to each other in Spanish, which made other students angry.”They were mad because we were speaking in Spanish to each other and they thought we were talking about them,” she said. “There were a lot of fights.”But as she moved into high school and she and her Latino peers learned English, the problem decreased. “Once we started to learn the language, (the Anglo students) were more accepting,” Luna said. “Even the girls we were fighting with in middle school.”Food, family and SundaysOther issues sometimes can lead to misunderstandings. Those include food, values, the way the family is structured and daily living principles, Carrion-Kozak said.”Americans are so busy,” she said. “Latinos are more laid back. They work to be able to live – not live to work.”The Latin culture is also a lot more demonstrative in the way they communicate – with hand gestures, hugs and kisses, she said.”We talk very up close and we touch,” Carrion-Kozak said with a laugh. “We’re louder.”
Latino families typically have strong family ties and religious beliefs. “A family gathering includes lots of food and dancing for the grown-ups, teenagers and the kids,” Carrion-Kozak said. “And if somebody shows up at your house unannounced, that means they care for you. Americans would think that was rude.”Latino families also welcome live-in relatives and think nothing of sharing a small house or apartment with other family members. “You might think that a one- or two-bedroom apartment is for one or two people,” she said. “But we would think nothing of it for 8 or 10 people. “Our relatives help each other out,” she added. “For example, we don’t use baby sitters. That would insult a grandparent or an aunt if you got a baby sitter.”In Anglo families, a young person might move out of the house when they become a legal adult at 18. But for Latinos, that is not normal. “With us, you don’t even think about it,” Luna said. “Here you see (Anglos) with a car at 16 and moving out at 18. We believe you stay home with the family until you get married.”Religious beliefs run strong and deep in the veins of Latinos, and almost everyone is of the Catholic faith. Sundays are reserved for church and family time, which often includes putting on their finest clothes and going out shopping.”The Anglos wonder why we get so dressed up to go to the market,” Luna said. “But Sundays for us is for religion, dressing up, going shopping and out to eat.”Getting legalThe process of becoming an American citizen or obtaining legal resident status is not easy for Latinos.Marty Martinez works as an interpreter for the court systems in Summit, Eagle and Garfield counties through his company, Rio Vista Services in Glenwood Springs. Along with interpretation, his company also prepares tax returns for Latinos. Getting U.S. citizenship or obtaining a “green card” allowing immigrants to work in this country is often an arduous undertaking – one that can take three or more years, he said.”They’re not supposed to work without a green card, but then they’re supposed to show three years of work and paying taxes in order to get one,” Martinez said. “They do want to apply, but it takes a while to do that. It takes money and proof of three years of paying taxes.”Those in the process of obtaining legal status in the U.S. are also not allowed to leave the country during that time, which is another deterrent. “Once they apply for immigration status, they can’t leave the country for even one day – not for a funeral, a birthday, a birth or an illness,” Martinez said. The majority of Latinos who come to this country and to Colorado – legal or not – simply want to make an honest living and pay their taxes, he said. “The laws are cumbersome, but as far as paying taxes, they are paying taxes, but they’re not getting any of the benefits,” Martinez said.
Marie Munday works as a Latino-Anglo liaison officer with the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office in Aspen. She says that although it is widely known that there are undocumented workers in the area, the top priority for Immigration and Customs Enforcement – which she referred to by its acronym, ICE – is to capture the “coyotes.” Coyote is the term used for smugglers who charge $3,000 to $5,000 to bring illegal immigrants into the United States.”ICE wants the coyotes – the people who make fake documents – and the criminals,” Munday said. As an advocate, Munday said she tries to help Latinos stay out of jail and obey the law. “A lot of them don’t know or understand our laws,” she said. “In Mexico, if you get pulled over, you can just pay off the cop.”Still, the majority of immigrants are good, hard-working people – not criminals, she said.”They don’t want drug dealers in their midst any more than an American family does,” Martinez said.Will they stay or go? There’s a misperception that Latinos come to this country to make money so they can send it all back home. “They may send a couple hundred dollars back, but that goes a long way,” he said.Many do come here to make money because the jobs are so low-paying in their country – but with the intention of eventually going back home. “A lot come here because of the work opportunity,” Carrion-Kozak said. “Most Latinos are not planning to stay, but if things don’t get better in their country, they do stay. “And even though the jobs (here) may be paying poorly,” she added, “it’s better than what they could get at home.”Colorado is an attractive location to Latinos, not only because of the close proximity to the border, but because the mountainous terrain and the climate remind them of home. Now re-married and with two more children, Carrion-Kozak is a permanent resident of the U.S., but still misses her country, she said. “I miss my Latino culture,” she said, wiping away a tear. “My family thinks I’m so Americanized – I don’t think I could go back home.”Having spent the majority of her life in the United States, Luna also plans to stay and is currently enrolled in paralegal classes at Colorado Mountain College and works part-time for a law firm in Glenwood Springs. Her advice to other Latinos trying to make a life in the valley?”Break all the barriers,” she said earnestly. “Try to do everything you can. Join more things. Once you learn the language it’s easier to get involved.”Vail Colorado