PARRAL, CHIHUAHUA There are similarities between Parral, Mexico, and Craig, Colo.
Nestled on the eastern slope of the Sierra Madre mountain range in the Mexican state of Chihuahua, Parral is a historic mining town that serves as a center of commerce for cattle ranches that dot the parched countryside.
Parral is much bigger -- about 10 times the size of Craig -- with more bustle. Craig is more verdant, but the treeless rolling hills that rim the town must strike a familiar chord with the people from Parral who settle here. Perhaps they find the physical landscape a soothing reminder of home. But that's not the reason they come.
"You can make more money here," said Parral native Armida Tarango, a part-time housekeeper who drives to Steamboat Springs three days a week to clean a home. "That's the motivation for all Mexicans."
Tarango doesn't need to work. Her husband makes good money as a stone mason. But she finds the commute worth her time for the $18 an hour she collects while her children are in school.
Natives of Parral are abundant in Craig. There are so many, in fact, that Tarango doesn't know everyone from her hometown who has moved here. Her circle of acquaintances includes about 30 people.
She finds the growing number of Mexicans unsettling. More Mexicans make it difficult to be inconspicuous -- to enjoy life in quiet anonymity without raising suspicions about who they are and what they're doing in America. Tarango's countrymen have overtaken parks in Craig on the weekends, and law enforcement officials confirm that some Anglo residents are starting to voice anger about it.
Like many Parral natives, Tarango came to Moffat County because friends and relatives told her there was work here. Her husband had been working in Los Angeles for $5 an hour and sending money home to Parral -- until someone told him he could make $12 an hour here.
Many Mexicans live in Craig, where housing is more affordable, and commute to Steamboat Springs. They hear about opportunities from family and friends, Tarango said. Usually, the men come first. Tarango estimates that nearly half the Mexicans who live in Craig are single men.
Tarango's older brothers have been in Craig for 20 years. One found a job at the Craig Station Power Plant. Her mother came to live with another brother, so now nearly all of her immediate family lives in Craig.
Familial relationships are very important in Mexican culture, said Father Jose Saenz of St. Michael's Catholic Church in Craig. "Even those who have passports are afraid to travel back and forth between Mexico because they think they might not be able to get back in. So the family comes and joins them."
Juan Marcos GutiÃ ©rrez, the consul general who administers the Mexican Consulate offices in Denver, says it's very common for many people from one Mexican village to inhabit the same Colorado town. About 16 percent of the state's Mexican immigrants are from Chihuahua. "They tend to gather in specific areas," GutiÃ ©rrez said.
Gerardo Sanchez is from Cuernavaca, the capital of the southern state of Morelos. He has permanent resident status and came to Craig when friends told him Twentymile Coal Co. was hiring.
"It pays better than meat packing," he said.
Sanchez says Craig is a natural fit for people from Chihuahua, many of whom own small ranches in Mexico and come here to find work as ranch hands and sheep herders. If there's no ranch work to be had, they can find work as laborers or dishwashers in Steamboat for far more money than they can make raising livestock in Mexico.
Parral native Martha Reyes lives in the Shadow Mountain subdivision with her husband, also a stone mason, and two younger sisters. She recently quit a job at a Craig motel because of "petty jealousies" among her co-workers.
"In Mexico, we have nothing, and we all help each other," she said. "But here, everyone is out for themselves."
Reyes used to work in a retail store in Parral, "like Kmart," where she earned $5 a day. She still marvels at how she survived on such meager wages.
"I would have to work a day and a half to buy a pair of pants," she said. "I don't know how I bought gas, went to parties and paid utilities."
Reyes has been married to her American-born husband for five months. She came to Craig with her family on a tourist visa and met her future husband, Francisco Reyes, at a dance. Francisco was born in Los Angeles but spent most of his youth in Aguascalientes, Mexico. He moved to Oak Creek when he was a teenager and attended Soroco High School to learn English, which he speaks fluently.
Martha's sisters want to return to Parral; her cousin, Edgar Duarte, also prefers life there. The people are less uptight there, he said. Duarte, who will be a senior at Moffat County High School in the fall, usually visits Parral yearly. But he knows there's no future for him there.
Duarte was Moffat County High School homecoming king, and he says he's the first Mexican to get the honor. In Craig, homecoming royalty is a reflection of how much time and energy people put into helping stage the prom. The faculty votes on who they think is most deserving of the honor.
"Craig can be kind of tough if you're from Mexico," he said.
His sentiment is shared by many. Once money has been made and saved, many Mexican workers are eager to return home rather than linger in the United States.
After four years of cleaning condos in Steamboat Springs, a homesick Mireya Calderon and her 2-year-old daughter returned to Parral in March. She still has Colorado license plates on her Ford Explorer.
With a car and some money saved, she is settling into a career as a real estate agent.
To see her in her office, confident and professional, it's hard to imagine her making beds and cleaning bathrooms.
But even as a real estate agent in Mexico, her commission on the sale of a home is only $180.
Wages are low in Mexico, yet there are no government-subsidized loans to help people buy their first homes or start businesses, Calderon said. In Parral, the average wage is $5 a day, and the average home sells for about $30,000.
Heading north to save money for a house is many people's only hope.
Now 22, Calderon arrived in Steamboat when she was 17 years old. She came to marry a Mexican man who had been working here for eight years.
"I didn't want to go," she said. "If you don't speak English, it's very hard to live there. You feel like you're just watching."
Calderon flew to Denver with an eight-year tourist visa. When she applied for a job as a housekeeper, no one asked to see documentation, she said.
That first year, her three brothers followed her to Steamboat and took jobs in the construction trades. A year later, her sister came. She estimated that there are 1,000 people from Parral living in Steamboat and Craig.
Parral is a town of 80,000 people struggling to find a new source of income at the copper, gold, zinc and silver mines that supported them for generations close. Their old colonial churches and once-a-year festival dedicated to a re-enactment of Pancho Villa's assassination is the base of what they hope can become a tourism-based economy. Until then, its residents head north and send money south.
Sending money home
Antonio Villalobos is the news director of Parral's radio station, La Ke Suave 96.9 FM. He has the loud, confident voice of a radio announcer. He has a degree in journalism from the University of Chihuahua, but even with a college education, a good job and a prominent social position in Parral, he made the trip north to Colorado.
He drove across on the Fourth of July. His guide, a friend who had crossed many times, was in the truck in front on him.
He had one close call with the Border Patrol, he said. They were doing a sweep of the area in Abega and an Apache couple hid him in their store.
Villalobos drove to Denver and bought a green card for $100.
For two years, he sent money back to this three children and his wife by working at a Spanish-language radio station in Greeley. He worked 12-hour shifts, but it was not the work that was hard for Villalobos. It was the daily fear.
"You are always running," he said. "On the street, in a restaurant, at the grocery store, you are always afraid of getting caught.
"It was hard to be away from my family for so long," he said. "But I did it because I don't want my children to go through what I did."