Opportunity for everyone

Autumn Phillips

It happened 20 years ago, but Isidro Quezada still cries when he talks about crossing the border with his wife and 2-year-old son.

“For a man traveling by himself, it’s not a big deal to go without eating for three days,” he said. “But when you come with your kid, it’s different.”

It’s a while before he can talk again.

“You go through all that and then you get to a place to work, and they don’t accept you.”

He just covers his face and waits for the tears to stop.

His son, who is now 22 years old and a U.S. citizen, finishes the story for his dad.

“I was the only child back then,” Isidro Quezada Jr. said.

The family paid a coyote, the common term for the human smugglers who get people across the border. Initially, the plan was to get 40 people together, a truckload. They would hide in the back of a tractor-trailer and hope that no one checked the contents on the way into the United States.

The coyote brought them to a barn and told them to wait while he tried to collect 40 people. Days passed. The coyote didn’t want to spend his profits on food, so the roughly 20 people waiting were given very little to eat during that time, Quezada Jr. said. They formed a committee to make sure the little food they were given was divided so everyone in the group could eat.

Weeks passed, and the number never reached 40. Finally, the coyote gave up the idea of a semi and hid them in a compartment inside a van to make the journey.

“They had to keep me from crying, but I guess I was a good kid and pretty quiet,” Quezada Jr. said. They made it across without incident.

Quezada had been promised a job in Moffat County working on a ranch, but when he arrived with his wife and child, the rancher said the job no longer was available.

They took a room at a hotel in Craig, and Quezada kept looking. For years, he had worked in Routt and Moffat counties as a sheepherder or ranch hand, but finding a landowner who would let him live on the property with his family was more difficult than he had imagined.

He finally got a job working on a ranch in Hamilton. That’s where they stayed for seven years.

In the 1980s, Moffat County was experiencing a wave of migrant workers from Central and South America coming to work on the construction of the power plant. There were a lot of jobs and a lot of people to take them, Quezada said. But when the jobs dried up, the workers left, too. Only four or five Mexican families stayed, Quezada said.

In 1986, Quezada became a legal resident of the United States through Ronald Reagan’s Immigration Reform and Control Act. The law granted legal residence to almost 3 million undocumented immigrants (2.3 million of whom were from Mexico), according to the Russell Sage Foundation study “Beyond Smoke and Mirrors: Mexican Immigration in an Era of Economic Integration.”

After that, the family traveled freely between the United States and Mexico. Since then, the Quezadas have tried to visit Mexico at least once a year, keeping close ties with family there.

When Quezada Jr. walked into the classroom for his first day of elementary school, he didn’t speak much English. Those were the days before English Language Learner programs in area public schools. For him, it was a matter of survival to learn the language his teacher was speaking.

He remembers a child his age named Troy who helped him learn.

He remembers making friends and doing well in school, but, like many second-generation immigrants, he lived his life between two worlds. At home, his parents spoke Spanish and worked to preserve the Mexican culture and traditions in their home. At school, Quezada Jr. spoke English.

But his mother died when he was 9 years old, and the differences between himself and his American schoolmates became painfully clear.

“You have friends at school, but you don’t think they really understand you,” he said. “They don’t understand your life or where you’re from. It’s devastating.”


How Quezada Jr. would adapt to his life with one foot in Mexico and one foot in the United States is at the center of the Mexican immigration debate. Many worry that the latest wave of immigrants, because of the proximity to their country of origin, will not integrate the way past immigrants have.

U.S. history is a 200-year story of immigration.

“Mass immigration of low-skilled, non-English-speaking workers is hardly a new phenomenon,” wrote Pia Orrenius, senior economist for the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, in her analysis of the issue. “In the 19th and 20th century, the shores teemed with German, Chinese, Irish, Italian and Polish immigrants.”

In his time, Benjamin Franklin complained that the Germans immigrating to Philadelphia were “generally the most stupid of their nation. … Few of their children know English.”

But the Germans persisted, learned the language and became integrated into American society, just as some Mexicans in Routt and Moffat counties who have lived here for decades are doing. Many have raised children here. Even if they speak little English, their children are fluent. Some are sending their children to college.

Through their own sacrifices, they are providing their children with the American Dream, just as the Irish, the Germans and the Polish did before them.

“I grew up in a family of nine children in Degollado, Jalisco (in Mexico),” Quezada said. “My mother killed chickens so we could eat. Life was hard. My son’s life will be different.”

When Quezada Jr. graduated from high school, he decided to become a plumber. He works in Steamboat and lives in Craig. He is married and has a 2-year-old daughter.

Two years ago, he applied for U.S. citizenship. The test, administered in English, is 100 questions about U.S. history. They asked him five or six of the questions and then congratulated him. At his swearing in ceremony in Denver, he looked around and saw a few Australians, some Asians and Germans, but mostly he saw faces like his own — Mexican.

Becoming a citizen

Twenty-seven-year-old Eunice Ponce sits at the kitchen table nursing her 6-week-old baby boy. She studies the 100 questions asked on the U.S. citizenship test, written in a language she is still learning:

“What are the colors of the American flag and what does each color represent?”

“How many changes or amendments are there to the Constitution?”

“How many senators are there in Congress?”

“I want to live here for the rest of my life,” she said. “Now I am a resident, but next month I will try to become a citizen. I don’t know if I will pass, but I want to try.”

Ponce moved to Steamboat Springs 12 years ago, when she was a 15-year-old newlywed. She and her husband left their hometown of Torreon, Coahuila, in Mexico.

In those days, there weren’t any other Mexicans working in the Steamboat restaurants and hotels.

She started learning English by listening to her co-workers. Those were the days before English as a Second Language classes at Colorado Mountain College and long before the days when community volunteers came into the homes of new immigrants to help them learn English.

Even when she is with Spanish speakers, Ponce is a shy woman. She isn’t the type to start a conversation with strangers, let alone strangers who speak a different language. Her friends in Colorado are mostly family members who followed her here throughout the years — her mother, her six brothers and sisters, and several cousins. She knows the Americans who work with her as a housekeeper, but she has no American friends, she said.

Even after 12 years in the United States, her English is halting.

She relies on her 11-year-old daughter, Viviana, to translate the more complicated conversations at doctors’ offices and with teachers at school.

She is the mother of three children, 11, 9 and a newborn. They are American citizens, and the two oldest speak fluent English.

Like Quezada Jr., Viviana has one foot in each world. She speaks Spanish at home with her mother, but at school, where she is popular among the children her age, she speaks English.

According to the study of integration among Mexican immigrants, conducted by Orrenius of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, full economic assimilation into the United States requires educational assimilation.

“Although many immigrants go back to school once they are established in the United States, it is often to learn English and not to pursue degrees such as a GED,” Orrenius wrote. As a result, educational assimilation of low-skilled immigrants is more likely to happen in the second generation.

Among Hispanic immigrants in the first generation, 44 percent lack a high school diploma. The rate improves to 15 percent and 16 percent, respectively, in the second and third generations.

Although Viviana gets embarrassed when her mom asks her to translate in public, she is more than happy to help the new children at school who are struggling to learn the language and culture of the country where their parents now live.

Ponce is saving for Viviana to go to college. She never completed high school but wants her daughter to have all the opportunities she didn’t have.

New arrivals

“Being in the construction trades, I hear racist comments in the bathrooms or I see something written on the walls,” Quezada Jr. said. “But they don’t understand that these people come here to make a better life for their family. They aren’t trying to hurt anyone.”

Quezada estimates that 60 percent of the Mexicans working in Routt and Moffat counties are transients hoping to save enough money to buy a home or a business in Mexico. But the other 40 percent have settled here, he said.

“The rest of us have house payments and credit card payments, and our kids are in school or in college.”

Quezada works at the Trapper Mine near Craig and owns his own fencing company. He coaches the Mexican youth soccer team in Craig and considers himself a part of the community.

But he still remembers how hard it was during those first years in the United States, and he tries to help new immigrants when they first arrive.

“If you don’t have anyone to help you, how can you get a job?” he said. “You don’t know the language. I tell them, ‘Don’t give up. Keep trying and don’t get in trouble. This is a good place to raise a family, and there’s opportunity for everyone.'”

A helping hand

No matter how badly immigrants want to integrate into their new community, it is impossible if the community itself does not extend a welcoming hand. And, it’s up to community members to decide whether they want to do that.

With the passage of a resolution by the City Council in April, Steamboat Springs took a step toward embracing its growing Hispanic population.

Although Mexicans such as Ponce and the Quezadas have been living in Routt and Moffat counties for the better part of two decades, it is only recently that their faces were noticed by local government and social services officials.

As the number of migrant workers has grown in the past five years, a dialogue has opened up among local policy-makers in Steamboat.

“Probably two years ago, when I was having my garage redone, I noticed that most of the workers were Hispanic,” Steamboat Springs City Manager Paul Hughes said. “I started asking around to find out how large a segment of our labor force was of Hispanic origin. I wondered where they lived, where they came from. And more importantly, how are they doing and what can we do to make things a little easier for them to be a part of our community.”

By 2005, a large group of people were beginning to ask the same questions. Steamboat residents Summer Laws and Cody Reed had just formed an organization called Communidad Integrada (translated “Integrated Community”).

In January, an informal meeting was called among community leaders who were interested in the growing Hispanic population.

Hughes was present, along with Robert Ritschel, then president of Colorado Mountain College’s Alpine Campus, Steamboat Springs School District Superintendent Donna Howell, Routt County Manager Tom Sullivan, Deputy City Manger Wendy DuBord, City Intergovernmental Services Director Linda Kakela and Linda Haltom, finance director for the Yampa Valley Community Foundation.

“Wendy DuBord and I had just attended a convention where author Richard Florida was the keynote speaker,” Hughes said. “He told us that tolerance is not just a good-intentioned thing to do. It’s smart. The most tolerant communities are also the most productive and creative.

“Steamboat is (made of) overwhelmingly one type of person, and sometimes people are very resistant to change.”

The result of the informal meeting was a decision to bring a resolution in front of the City Council that declared Steamboat to be a tolerant place, which “respects diversity, abhors discrimination, promotes tolerance and provides a place where all persons will be treated equally and with respect and dignity.”

“We thought it would be good to go on the record,” Hughes said.

The resolution was read in front of the City Council in English, Spanish and French. It passed unanimously by the council. “We value talent and energy wherever it comes from and in valuing that we become a stronger community.”

The resolution was just a first step. In the fall, Hughes and others plan to meet again to decide where to go next. “It’s important to notes that this resolution is just an initiative. It needs to become a program.”

As part of his public commitment to the integration process, Hughes joined the Board of Directors of Communidad Integrada in June. The fledgling organization is the brainchild of two 20-something women who wanted to reach out to the isolated Spanish-speaking community. In the seven months since their official incorporation as a nonprofit, Laws and Reed have paired English-speaking volunteers with immigrants who are struggling to learn their new language. The nonprofit acts as a referral and translation resource for any Spanish speakers in need.

Its office in Bogue Hall on the CMC campus belies the newness of their organization. The fax machine is still unplugged and on the floor. Papers are waiting in piles for the purchase of a filing cabinet, and the walls are bare except for one handmade brown paper sign advertising a Latin dance night. They answer the phones with a friendly, “bueno” and help new immigrants work their way through opening bank accounts or making medical appointments.

“We talk people through their culture shock,” Laws said. “People call us, and they are emotionally struggling. They are lonely. The social system is completely different from where they came. It’s like being in a maze.

“Throw in the identity shift that comes from maybe being a professional in Mexico to being a housekeeper in Steamboat. It multiplies the confusion. They’re trying to figure out, where do I fit in?”

How well a person integrates into life in the United States largely depends on the individual personality and their ability to adapt.

“But the kind of courage it takes to leave your small town in Mexico to look for opportunity in another country, that kind of person is driven,” Laws said.

To reach Autumn Phillips, call 871-4210 or e-mail

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