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Crafting a cultural identity

Sarah L. Stewart
Kristin AndersonAvon Elementary School students and teachers walk under the American flag in a hallway between classes. About 90 percent of the students at Avon Elementary School are Hispanic.
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Deimi Bustillos is an American. The long-haired, big-eyed Avon Elementary student was born here eight years ago. She wears an Old Navy sweatshirt, loves “Harry Potter” movies and adores dogs so much she decided to write a school report about them.

Only one noticeable difference separates Deimi from what most would consider the “typical” American third-grader: She barely speaks English.

After spending her toddler years in the United States, Deimi moved to Mexico with her family and attended school there until returning to the valley in August. She now attends a daily native-language class, where she’s learning concepts in Spanish and gradually learning English with about a dozen other young, relative newcomers to this country.

Deimi is one of many Mexican-Americans in the Vail Valley who have just begun to call this nation home.

In the 1990 U.S. Census, 13 percent of Eagle County’s population was of Hispanic or Latino origin; by 2006, that figure had more than doubled to 27 percent. At Avon Elementary alone, 90 percent of the student body is Hispanic and more than 50 percent isn’t proficient in English, a stark contrast from the school’s demographics just a decade ago.

But new immigrants are far from the only Hispanic identity in the valley. Some Hispanic families have been here for centuries, before Colorado was a state and before the United States was a nation.

These two groups, while sharing some cultural characteristics, occupy opposite ends of the spectrum ” from learning to establish a life in a new land to having claimed that land for generations. In doing so, they offer a glimpse within our own valley of the continually evolving story of what it means to be American.

Glen Gallegos remembers watching the smoke from coal-powered trains hover between the mountains as a boy growing up in Red Cliff and Minturn. He remembers when Vail began ” he was in seventh grade. He remembers a valley of miners, ranchers and sheepherders, people who led lives much harsher than many current residents are accustomed to.

“There’s not many people that can say they lived here when the whole thing started,” Gallegos says.

Though Gallegos’ parents arrived in Red Cliff in the 1930s, he can trace his American ancestry back much farther than that.

“We have been in Colorado even before it was Colorado,” he says. “We have some pretty deep roots here.”

Colorado became a state in 1870, when Eagle County was still part of a larger Summit County. Even when Eagle County appeared on the census in 1890, people like Gallegos’ ancestors are difficult to identify. They were already here, so they weren’t recorded as “Born in Mexico,” yet “Hispanic” or “Latino” wasn’t a category on the census ” making it difficult to determine just how many people of that origin were living here at the time.

Though they might not stand out on an early census, Gallegos’ ancestors had already begun a family tradition of contributing to their community. His maternal grandfather, Manuel Martinez, was born at the turn of the 20th century and became the mine union president and mayor of Red Cliff. Gallegos’ father fought in the Korean War and ranched in southern Colorado after meeting Gallegos’ mother while stationed at Camp Hale.

Glen Gallegos taught at local schools for 26 years before joining Gallegos Corp., the masonry business his brother Gerald started in the 1970s and has since expanded throughout Colorado and beyond.

Floyd Duran, a former Minturn town councilman, can trace his family’s history in this country back many generations, as well. Duran was born in Gilman 50 years ago, the son of a miner and a cook. His great-great-grandmother was a midwife in Arizona, and the family settled in southern Colorado before moving to this area in 1945.

Duran, who owns a trucking business, has spent his entire life here and watched Minturn change from “a booming town” with a movie theater, hardware store and grocery to a town where many of the old-timers have begun to move downvalley, he says.

Like Duran, Gallegos sees his family’s long history in this country as an important difference between him and recent Mexican immigrants, despite any cultural characteristics they may share.

“I think sometimes everyone lumps everyone that looks Hispanic or has that heritage as from the same mold, and that’s not really true,” Gallegos says. “I certainly don’t want to say that one is better than the other. … It’s just another group of people who’ve found that they can do well in this country.”

Lunchtime at Avon Elementary, and the cafeteria fills with a medley of Spanish and English voices. First-grader Jessica Martin slides into a seat at the lunch table, then calls to her friend in line: “¿Aqui?” (“Here?”)

She tucks her pink Disney princess boots beneath her, pulls homemade enchiladas out of her Disney princess lunch box and promptly starts chatting ” in English ” with two blond-haired girls across the table.

Jessica’s mother, Rosa Martin, came to the United States “for good job, and better pay than in Mexico,” she says. A cashier at Home Depot, she’s lived in Avon for four years and now wants to buy a house. Her face breaks into a wide smile when she talks about the opportunities Jessica has in the United States.

“I like my daughter to have a good school. She wants to be a doctor,” Martin says proudly, in English.

The story is familiar: Immigrants come here seeking better jobs, better opportunities for themselves and their children. It is, in some ways, an American tradition ” the way that nearly all of us arrived here at some point in history.

But the immigrant story also presents the classic struggle between homeland and new home.

Deborah Savino Gregory, who teaches Avon Elementary’s native-language class, discussed national identity with her students at the beginning of the school year. She found most of the younger students to be more accepting of their new home, while the older ones were struggling to find their place here.

One of her 10-year-old students remains determinedly true to his roots, insisting, “I’m just a Mexican living in America,” she says.

Others are still trying to find where their native culture ends and their new society begins.

They wonder, “‘I’m Mexican, but now I live in America. What would you call me?'” Gregory says. “They’re coming to grips with that.”

When Jan Attoma began teaching at Colorado Mountain College 12 years ago, she was one of just a handful of teachers who led two English as a Second Language courses. Now, the college offers the classes from Gypsum to Avon, with 19 teachers helping 500 students each semester become more confident speaking and understanding English.

“The English is such a big key,” Attoma says. “The more English that they know, it helps them to assimilate into our community. And that’s so important for the vitality of our community.”

Martha Centeno has been taking classes at CMC since she moved to the valley from Chihuahua, Mexico, just over a decade ago. It wasn’t long after she moved here that she decided speaking English was a necessity.

“If you don’t speak English in United States you are nobody,” Centeno says. “When you learn English you can find better jobs.”

Her first job here was in housekeeping at a hotel in Avon; now, Centeno is a certified nursing assistant.

Once she learned English, Centeno’s transition into her new surroundings was not difficult, she says.

Learning English to obtain a better job is just one way immigrants start to assimilate into American society. Pop culture also plays a powerful role, says Gregory Rodriguez, who’s written extensively on race and national identity as a Los Angeles Times columnist, author and director of the California Fellows Program at the New America Foundation.

“Assimilation happens,” he says. “On some level, it is inevitable.”

Even little Deimi Bustillos, who’s only been here for six months, is already adopting some aspects of American culture.

“I like the movie ‘The Simpsons,'” she says in Spanish. Then, in English: “It’s very funny.”

Immigrant parents should expect such an effect on children raised in a country alluring enough that they themselves decided to move here, Rodriguez says.

“We live in the most powerful nation in the history of mankind,” he says, emphasizing America’s vast cultural influence. “To assume that (immigrant children) somehow are immune to the seduction of U.S. culture is naive.”

Each Christmas Eve, Glen Gallegos and his brothers and sisters gather in Minturn at his 80-year-old mother’s home, the same one where he grew up. On the menu, as always, are posole, green chiles and empanadas.

“My mother still makes the best pork green chiles around,” Gallegos says.

Food is one way Gallegos has passed his family’s Hispanic heritage on to his four children, ages 18 to 28. Maintaining close family ties and religious practices, such as Holy Communion and observing Lent, also help keep their culture alive.

“We’re very proud of where we came from and who we are,” Gallegos says.

The way Attoma sees it, assimilation doesn’t just mean becoming a part of American society; to her, it’s the balance she’s watched many of her students find between adopting this culture and staying true to their own.

“You want to maintain your individual identity,” she says. “You can’t take that away from people.”

“American,” it turns out, isn’t mutually exclusive of other national identities.

“We know that assimilation does not require complete ethnic obliteration,” says Rodriguez, himself American-born of Mexican origin.

Though Gallegos takes pride in his Spanish heritage, in terms of his family’s identity, he has no doubts.

“We absolutely know what we are,” he says, “and we’re Americans.”

Sarah L. Stewart can be reached for comment at (970) 748-2982 or sstewart@vailtrail.com.


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