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Eating, playing and learning together

Aspen Times Staff
Vail, CO Colorado
Jim Paussa/The Aspen TimesBrothers Tito, left, and Angel play volleyball with Palmer Hood, center. The trio has been paired for four years through The Buddy Program.
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ASPEN ” Immigration. It’s a hot topic, both nationally and in the Roaring Fork Valley.

And, for the most part, the headlines we see about the topic are racially charged and, at times, have been incendiary.

Yet despite all the conflicts and controversy, Latinos and Anglos can ” and do ” live peacefully together.

We set out to prove the point by profiling a handful of local organizations and businesses ” The Buddy Program, English in Action, La Liga and Taqueria Sayulita ” that are working hard to bridge the cultural divide. It is by no means a comprehensive list of all such efforts, but we hope it presents another side of the immigration issue in the Roaring Fork Valley.

The nonprofit Buddy Program’s mission is to provide mentors for kids from Aspen to El Jebel. Assimilating Anglos and Latinos is an unexpected bonus.

The 34-year-old organization pairs about 375 school-aged kids with adult role models. About 50 to 60 percent of the Little Buddies are Hispanic and mostly paired with Anglo Big Buddies, said Sole Lowe, a senior program coordinator.

While Little Buddies are often born in the U.S. and almost always speak English well, there is sometimes a gulf between them and Anglo culture, Lowe said. The program helps them feel more “welcomed and accepted,” she said.

More often, it is the parents of Little Buddies who are adjusting to cultural differences in the U.S. Cultivating an Anglo family friend through The Buddy Program can help, Lowe said. In addition, the more comfortable the kids get with Anglo culture, the easier it is for them to help their parents assimilate.

The Buddy Program matches a kid with an adult for a variety of activities; they might go skiing in the winter or swimming in the summer. The buddy pairs also participate in community-service projects, like picking up trash along the Fryingpan River.

Only a handful of Big Buddies are Hispanic, something the staff hopes to change.

Palmer Hood of Basalt has been a Big Buddy for four years. He has two Little Buddies, Latino brothers from El Jebel whom he has witnessed grow into thriving young teens. Hood said he benefits from the assimilation, just as they do.

“I take them into my turf, and they take me into their turf,” he said.

Hood said he has been embraced by his buddies’ family and friends, which has provided him with insights into the Latino culture.

The boys are also comfortable within the Anglo culture.

“Once you hook up with a child, it seems like those are the seeds we need to plant,” Hood said.

” Scott Condon

In 1994, the Basalt library board extended a hand to the valley’s Latino population and began matching a handful of language tutors with adult learners.

Today, English in Action is bursting at the seams, with more than 75 pairs meeting weekly and a one-year waiting list of willing English learners.

“What’s great for me to see is how eager people are to help and connect with someone from another culture,” said Julie Fox-Rubin, executive director of the program since 1999.

The group’s small annual budget covers rent, books and salaries for three employees in the organization’s main El Jebel office and a satellite office in the Pitkin County Library.

“I’ve been working with one of my students for eight years,” said volunteer Irene Conner, a retired teacher and Aspen native. “My student really hardly knew any English when I started. We began working with vocabulary and constructing sentences.”

Susan, an adult learner who’s been involved with English in Action on and off for more than 10 years, meets with her tutor weekly and says the sessions are a chance to practice with someone who takes the time to listen. Now, she can study newspaper articles and work with American history texts.

Advanced English learners who want to push themselves further can go on to volunteer with other nonprofits, as many organizations in the valley are eager for bilingual volunteers.

“I think what this program does is make the issue of immigration personal,” Fox-Rubin said.

” Charles Agar

In spring 2006, Greg Jurgensen returned from a vacation in Mexico with an idea to add a daytime component to his Aspen nightspot, Club Chelsea.

Jurgensen envisioned a taqueria modeled after what he had seen in Sayulita, the fishing and resort village north of Puerto Vallarta he had visited: “It’s real casual ” people pull their tables out the back door, set them up in the street, and you go from taqueria to taqueria.”

Jurgensen knew just who to turn to with the idea ” Marcos Meraz, a Mexican native who had worked in numerous Aspen kitchens in his 20 years here. Meraz had followed Jurgensen from one club to the next ” the Double Diamond, the short-lived Silver Bucket, Chelsea ” and he had proved capable at tasks from maintenance to bartending.

“I asked Marcos if he wanted to do it, and it’s been gung-ho ever since,” said Jurgensen. “It’s something I’ve wanted to do, but he runs it. All I had to do was turn him loose.”

The result is Taqueria Sayulita, which keeps the lights on in Club Chelsea during the daylight hours. Jurgensen controls the space and runs the nighttime operation, but Meraz is a full partner in the food operation, creating the menu, cooking authentic enchiladas and burritos in the kitchen and, with his wife, Rosa, handling the front of the house. When the Meraz children are around, they hand out menus.

Just as integrated as the business team is the clientele. Sayulita is perhaps the only Aspen eatery ” maybe the only Aspen business ” that can claim a near-perfect balance between Latino and Anglo customers.

Immigrant kitchen workers sit side by side with light-skinned real estate agents at the long bar; conversations are held in a roughly 50-50 split between English and Spanish. The only facet of the taqueria that is not integrated is the TV set in the lounge corner, invariably tuned to the Mexican station Univision, with a heavy diet of South-of-the-border telenovelas and the occasional futbol match.

The cultural mix comes not from an intention to accommodate Latinos and Anglos, but to cater to locals.

“I’ve been doing this off and on for 15 years, and I’ve always geared our products ” whether it’s bands or food ” toward locals, not tourists,” said Jurgensen. “And Latinos are a big part of that now. We don’t discriminate and never would. It’s hard to imagine how people do, in this day and age.”

” Stewart Oksenhorn

The Angels could use a miracle.

It’s Sunday, which means another chance for this troupe of red-and-white-clad footballers to redeem themselves, although after four straight losses to open the season, morale couldn’t be any lower.

Then, like a divine gift from heaven, it happens: A crossing pass makes its way through a pair of defenders and finds the foot of 19-year-old Chris Sellers, who slips by another defender and taps the ball past a diving goalie into an open net.

One goal, and suddenly the Angels are in the clouds. Sellers’ teammates flock to him to offer high-fives and words of congratulation. That Sellers doesn’t understand some of what his teammates are saying is of no consequence.

Here, on this sun-scorched pitch, the language of the game covers up even the most discernible differences, race included.

Sellers, of Carbondale, is one of only two white players on a team full of Latinos.

Heck, he’s one of only three gringos on this field. Aside from his friend Jeremiah Hutchens, 20, and Hutchens’ mother, who has come to cheer on her beloved los Ángeles, everyone here is Hispanic. That includes the referee, the line judges, the well-dressed mothers and their young children dotting the sidelines ” even the vendor hocking refreshing zacatecas.

The scene takes place every Sunday during the late spring and summer months at the Gates Soccer Complex on Colorado Mountain College’s Spring Valley campus ” home to the 30-team La Liga.

“It’s a great atmosphere,” said Sellers. “This is my second year playing. We heard about the league and just came and asked them if we could play. We talked to a guy, and he said a team needed some players, so they sent us up here. It’s been a blossoming relationship ever since.”

To be certain, the Latino-organized league’s objective was never to promote Latino-Anglo relations. Rather, the goal was to organize a top-flight league for the valley’s burgeoning Latino population.

“It started with only the Latino community,” said Francisco Lopez, one of the league’s organizers. “Then we opened it so everyone could come. There’s some good Anglo players, and there was inviting from the Latino teams. Now, some of the Anglos, they start to make their own teams.”

This year, Jeff Sansone, a 26-year-old Marble resident, and some white friends formed their own team, the Chuck Norris All-Stars, to compete in the A division.

“I don’t think that it matters if it’s Hispanic guys versus Anglo guys, or Hispanic versus Hispanic, or white guys on white guys,” he said. “It’s just competition.”

” Nate Peterson


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