Price of Paradise: ‘For the Latino community, it is very tough’
Post Independent Correspondent
Fourth of five parts.
A big part of the economy in the shadow of Aspen’s wealth and throughout Colorado is a large immigrant population.
Once drawn to the region by agriculture jobs, immigrants, mostly from Latin America, now work a range of hospitality and labor jobs, often at low wages.
Economists say that Colorado’s resort economy would be in trouble without them, as many sectors depend on their work.
According a 2015 report from the independent Colorado Fiscal Institute, “compared to their U.S.-born counterparts, immigrants are more likely to work in blue-collar and service industry jobs.” The breakdown: 21.5 percent are in the construction sector; 15.3 percent in the entertainment, recreation and food service industries; and 13.9 percent are in manufacturing.
They are slightly more likely to be employed than U.S.-born Coloradans — 68.9 percent of immigrants work compared with 67.9 percent of native-born residents.
Many immigrants’ expectations are different from those of U.S. natives, and many have happy lives they say are better than if they had remained in their home countries. Many, too, go through periods of struggle and depression before emerging into relatively comfortable lives — if they do.
Here are two immigrant families’ stories.
Francisco Curiel, his wife and four young children immigrated from Mexico to San Diego in 1992.
But the Curiels’ hope turned to horror.
“In the school, close to where I worked, they raped a 7-year-old girl. They kidnapped the girl,” Curiel recalled. “My sister was already in Basalt, so we already felt safer here for our little kids. That’s the reason we moved here. To get the kids to grow up in a safe place.”
When Curiel moved to the Roaring Fork Valley 22 years ago, there were plenty of jobs — low-paying jobs. And the valley was pricey. So to support his family, the young immigrant had to work two or three jobs at a time in Aspen. His wife, Marylu, taught Spanish at Colorado Mountain College.
“I did odd jobs painting. And with both parents working, it was very hard, a juggling act,” he recalled. “We both worked very hard to get those four kids growing and in school.”
Two years ago, Curiel, 67, and Marylu, 66, opened Carbondale’s Senor Taco Show restaurant. It’s in a good spot, just off Main Street near the Fourth Street Plaza, the focus of many of the town’s events.
Serving the traditional food of central Mexico, the entrepreneurs rent the space for $1,500 a month, plus utilities, and pay monthly taxes of around $300. The kitchen equipment is rented. They make payments on the rest. Putting in 12 or 13 hours a day, the Curiels are making ends meet. They have dreams of someday opening a bigger place, maybe starting a franchise.
They also have realized an important piece of the American dream: Their children are all off to a good start. Fatima has a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Loyola University; two other daughters, Marisol and Dessire, work in Aspen; and their son, Emmanuel, is planning to open a restaurant in New Orleans.
The daily grind of the restaurant business is tough “and the business is seasonal and the valley is seasonal,” Curiel said. “Everything is expensive here. Compared to other places, this valley is higher. The food. Everything. For the Latino community, it is very tough.”
The American Immigration Council reports from 2006 to 2010, Colorado saw 27,645 new immigrant business owners. In 2010, 9.7 percent of all new business owners in Colorado were foreign-born and they had total business income of $1.2 billion, 7.3 percent of all net business income in the state.
The Curiels say they may pack it in and head to New Orleans.
“Our son Emanuel wants to open a ceviche bar there,” Francisco said. “We can help him do something. In the tradition of Mexico people, of all Latino/American people, we try to stay family, together. We want to make dreams.”
When work in California dried up for Raphael Duenas in 1998, he headed to the Roaring Fork Valley. He had heard that it was a great place to get a job and to make money.
His first job here was working in the laundry room at Aspen’s St. Regis Hotel.
“To pay the rent, to pay the money you owe, you have to sacrifice yourself,” said Duenas. “Nothing comes easy.”
Duenas, his wife, Maria, and their three young children, Adrian, Jasmin and Henry, live in a mobile home in West Glenwood.
His workday begins at 5 a.m. when he drives to the 27th Street bus stop and takes the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority rapid transit bus to the Aspen airport. There, he maintains rental cars for Alamo. His day is over at 4 p.m. and he catches the bus back home, covering 80 miles by bus every workday.
His RFTA costs are $163 month, $1,956 a year from his gross annual pay of $30,000. He has health coverage and Maria and the children qualify for Medicaid. “If I get health coverage for the whole family, I probably get zero for a paycheck,” he explained.
They pay $800 a month in rent, but the mobile home this summer was up for sale. The owner promised to give the Duenas family a 30-day notice.
“It’s very stressful,” Duenas said. “Sometimes, we don’t have enough money, so we use the credit card. Sometimes, when you don’t have enough money to pay the bills, you get a headache.”
They spend around $400 a month for food.
“I really compare prices when I go to the grocery story,” Maria said. “I go to Catholic Charities. But it’s very hard to live day-by-day. Sometimes I go to a store and the kids want toys and I can’t provide. I can’t give my family what I want to. But the hardest part is that I don’t have my family here to help. My parents, my siblings, they are all back in Mexico.”
Kenia Pinela, family co-coordinator of the Valley Settlement Project, understands.
“Those feelings of not having the same support system as back home lead people like Maria to fall into depression,” she said.
The nonprofit VSP aids approximately 450 low-income families from Basalt to Glenwood. It provides education and financial stability through programs including El Busesito (The Little Bus), a mobile preschool; Family, Friends & Neighbors, a training program for babysitters; LifeLong Learning, which is adult education; and leadership training for community organizing.
“Not having that support system as back home leads people like Maria to feel negatively. They cannot get past the anger of coming here because their husbands needed a better job or a better opportunity,” Pinela said. “Back home, they have comfort. When they come here, they are limited because of the language and education obstacles.”
But working with the nonprofit’s Parent Mentor Program, Maria acts as a classroom translator and is no longer an isolated stay-at-home mom.
“In the past, the isolation she lived led her to falling into depression and loneliness,” Pinela added. “Loss of appetite, excitement, even for her children. She is now more engaged, happier. I was a witness of how her story and lifestyle have changed. She went from not knowing a single word of English to completing her GED in six months. She began to drive without fear. She began to participate in community and events. I think back home is where she would want to be. The difference now is that she is accepting and comfortable with where she lives.”
Coming Friday: The Roaring Fork Valley is a magnet for Millennials — many of whom value the right location over a big salary.
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In June 1960, Barbara and Peter Guy helped open the Steak Pit restaurant in Aspen. Saturday, the couple will be inducted into the Aspen Hall of Fame