‘The legacy we leave behind’ — Garfield County Latino leaders celebrate heritage at Aspen Glen Club
Rifle Police Officer Carlos Cornejo was off duty. His service uniform replaced by suit and tie, he began strumming a Spanish folk song just after guests finished feasting on chef-served tacos, gourmet chocolates topped with salsa and glasses of red wine.
It was Friday night, and gathered at the Aspen Glen Club were leaders from the Latino community jovially immersing themselves in the area’s first-ever Hispanic Heritage Celebration, an event hosted by local Latina figures Crystal Mariscal and Janeth Stancle.
An early fall chill crept through the dim, yellow-lit patio section of the main clubhouse. Light drizzles sometimes threatened to summon heavier rain, but they fizzled out just as darkness began to veil the snow-capped peak of Mount Sopris in the distance.
Yessenia Arreola, a well-known Roaring Fork Valley Latina and Colorado Mountain College administrator, sat at a table inside an indoor dining section. Cornejo’s singing voice started to drift into the room.
“He’s playing a song called ‘Mojado,'” she said. In deliberately derogatory fashion, mojado means wetback. “It talks about the undocumented journey, and it talks about how the moon travels across the earth without any borders.”
The 2005 Roaring Fork High School graduate who migrated to the United States at age 6 had just finished giving a captivating speech in “Spanglish,” an international blend of Spanish and English. Details touched on Arreola’s journey to an eventual college degree from Regis University, and it espoused the true power of leading by example.
Of the formally-dressed Latino business owners, real estate agents, government officials and various other professionals brimming in designer fashion, some rounded the white-cloth tables and eagerly recorded video footage of Arreola’s speech on their smartphones.
This is the type of event that celebrates what it means to be Hispanic in the valley and an invitation for unity, Arreola said.
“It’s not about me — it’s about everyone else,” she said. “And like I said in my speech, it’s about the legacy we leave behind. I think that’s what being a Latino means. We don’t do it for us, we do it for all of us.”
Many of those who causally trickled in Friday night were accompanied by significant others and, of course, personal stories of how they attained success in the Roaring Fork and Colorado River valleys.
Take, for instance, Ignacio Mendoza.
Originally from the alps of Michoacán, Mexico, where the nearest grocery was three hours away, Mendoza eventually joined his brother, Jose Luis Mendoza, to open a local concrete operation in 1986.
“At that time, I think we were the very first Latinos with a business here,” Mendoza said. “I’m very grateful for all the people here. Everybody was so nice to us. Everybody’s been treating us well, but we didn’t think much about it. We just wanted to have our own business.”
Time has yielded good fortune for Mendoza. His original business venture has since branched out into residential construction contracting, while he also operates storefronts in Rifle, such as San Jose Carniceria Meat Market and Plaza Liquors.
This success is what Mendoza wants for the future of younger Latinos in the valleys.
“I want to see them progress and take steps a whole lot bigger than we did, because everything we’ve done, we’ve done it with our hands. They can do with their minds,” he said. “Because we showed up, we had limited English, limited education.”
“There’s nine of us in my family, and I’m the one that had the most education, … I went up to junior high school.”
Sky’s the limit
Annie Baldo has focused her attention on serving the valley’s Latino community for the past 40 years, brokering real estate from Aspen to Rifle.
“I decided to gear towards the Latino community just because I felt that using my language skills, I could help and assist clients to buy their first home,” she said. Baldo is fluent in Portuguese and Spanish. “They’re just kind of afraid of the process because of the language barrier.”
Baldo is originally from Brazil, where she grew up in a family of farmers, according to her biography found on her company’s website, Compass.com.
Soon, Baldo became a corporate flight attendant for a private jet service. Having traveled the world, however, she eventually settled in Aspen, where she’d manage luxury fashion brands in markets in both Aspen and New York for the next 20 years.
Changing professions, Baldo not only brokers real estate, she teaches local Latinos the best practices in buying their first homes
“The perception is that they cannot afford it, but they actually can,” Baldo said. “It’s just really navigating through that — do you pay your bills on time, do you have a credit card? It’s just giving them the steps.”
Asked her thoughts on the first-ever Hispanic Heritage celebration, Baldo said it helps put names to faces she hasn’t in awhile — a prolonged disconnection caused by COVID-19.
“It’s just a connection,” she said.
What’s in store
Gloria Castillo had lived back and forth between the Roaring Fork Valley and Mexico since 1982.
Having graduated Roaring Fork High School, Castillo held various jobs: a certified nursing assistant, a jewelry salesperson, a dishwasher.
At one point living in Carbondale, she spent seven years working days and nights at a local care center; weekends too.
“I was working 16-hour days, with my son,” she said. “So it was hard to do without a babysitter.”
One life-changing day, however, Castillo decided she wanted to open her own shop.
“I decided I’m going to sell the house, and I just started my own business because I was just selling jewelry at home and working at Heritage Park,” she said.
For the past 21 years, Castillo has owned and operated Gloria’s Boutique in Carbondale. Though the journey has been long, Castillo said she’s been taking some time off, using the break as a way to relax.
From what she’s seeing around her community, their time to relax will one day come.
“I see a lot of people finding their homes, a lot of people having their businesses, a lot of people having their construction companies,” she said. “It’s very nice to see people prosper.”
Savoring the night
As Friday night grew colder, the dancing began to heat up.
Cornejo, who’s become a social media sensation over his tenure as a Rifle Police officer, continued to play his guitar. When he began the tune “La Bamba,” most of the guests began waving small flags donning countries from across the Americas: Colombia, Brazil, Mexico, the United States …
For Arreola, the music means so much to so many. Sometimes it’s literal, sometimes figurative.
But there’s always more to it, she said.
“We can pause and celebrate the heritage that we bring and contribute to this valley,” Arreola said. “But also, I think it’s a moment of reflection. What does it mean for our future and the future of our kids and the future of our future generations? And so for me today, we use our platforms to send a positive message and to hopefully inspire our other Latinos to continue to savor the richness of our heritage.”
Reporter Ray K. Erku can be reached at 612-423-5273 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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