Population of Mexican immigrants growing

Need for services also increasing

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— A sign reads "Abierto Ahora!" (Open now!) in the window of a tiny store called "Mercadito" in the Dream Island Mobile Home Community.

The store is no larger than the foyer of most homes. The walls are lined floor to ceiling with shelves holding dried chili peppers, Mexican sodas and candies, corn meal and bulk spices. The prices are low and if you don't speak Spanish, you'll need a pen and a paper to calculate your total.

No English is spoken here.

The Mercadito keeps short hours and doesn't see much business, but it's only a matter of time.

It's a symbol of a growing population that lives three families to a condo or trailer, enduring crowded conditions that most people would find unbearable.

They work low-paying, menial labor jobs as housekeepers, janitors and construction workers.

When "Rachel" came to Steamboat Springs, she was 22 years old, nine months pregnant and visiting her sister on a tourist visa from Mexico. She has been here for one year and seven months -- as long as her first child has been alive.

With her second child due in August, Rachel, who is here illegally, doesn't think she's going back to Mexico anytime soon.

Her hometown is beautiful, she said through a translator, but there is no work and the few jobs pay very low wages. Four of her siblings are already living in Steamboat. Only her mother and two sisters remain in Mexico.

She lives in constant fear of being deported, but the $10 per condo that she makes as a housekeeper will offer her children a better life than she could provide them in Mexico.

When her baby was young, Rachel returned to Mexico to visit her mother and to ask her husband for a divorce. On her way back to the United States, Rachel's visa was taken from her and she had to sneak across the border with her child.

Rachel is just one of an ever-

increasing number of Mexicans who have found a way to work and live in Steamboat. She is as big a part of this community as anyone who lives here, but she can count on one hand the number of non-Mexicans who even know her name.

Different lifestyle

Rachel doesn't speak English, and it makes her invisible.

Rachel, her relatives and her friends are our neighbors. Their cars idle at traffic lights beside ours. They shop in the same supermarkets. It is common to see them on the job, but rare to see them in the Gondola line or riding a mountain bike down a rocky trail.

Like so many others who have come to Steamboat Springs, the Mexican immigrants come for "the lifestyle." But in their case, the lifestyle means working and working and working and sending every spare penny home to waiting spouses, parents and children.

More than language keeps the Mexican workers from fully integrating into the community, said Eli Vega, who recently resigned his position as the Colorado Workforce diversity coordinator for this area.

"People live inside social cocoons," Vega said. "They stay within what feels comfortable."

Vega was born to a Mexican mother in a boxcar as she crossed the border into Texas. He lived in the United States, but didn't know any English when he entered the first grade.

Unable to understand the teacher, Vega failed his first year of school.

He struggled from the back of the classroom, and no one intervened.

The reason he speaks English today, he said, is because he started keeping a Spanish/English dictionary on his desk in the third grade.

What the statistics say

No one knows how rapidly the Hispanic community is growing in Steamboat, but Lance Eldridge, director of occupational and community education at Colorado Mountain College, has been independently researching that population.

He believes official numbers do not adequately capture the reality of the situation.

According to the Yampa Valley Partners Community Indicators Project 2002-03 Report, the Hispanic population of Routt County increased by 0.7 percent between 1990 and 2000, but English as a Second Language (ESL) numbers at CMC's Alpine Campus in Steamboat increased 506 percent from 1999 to 2002.

The difference in the data occurs, Eldridge said, because the immigrant Hispanic population often does not report to the census. "I think there is a concern on their part if they are not here legally," Eldridge said. "I don't think we should depend on census data to create policy.

"I have no clue how many are out there. Colorado has dealt with this on the Front Range, but we are not isolated from the phenomenon. We need to decide now how we are going to approach it."

As the Hispanic population grows, the first sectors of the community to be affected will be health care and the school system, Eldridge said.

Education needs

Soon, Rachel's children, who were born in America and are U.S. citizens, will be ready for school.

Kelly Stanford, director of content standards for the Steamboat Springs School District, saw the number of non-English speaking students increase from less than 15 last year to 32 at the height of this school year.

She expects the number to continue to increase. "How do I know they will increase? Because Moffat County went from almost no English language learners five years ago to 150," Stanford said. "Our challenge is to get the programming in place."

Because the numbers are still small and the school district is already struggling with an anticipated $500,000 shortfall between revenues and expenditures, it's a matter of priorities.

"We're assessing the situation," Stanford said.

The district sends interested teachers for state-funded ESL training. The school district will actively begin looking for teachers who have an ESL endorsement on their teaching certificate as early as next year, Stanford said. "More realistically, we will encourage our existing teachers to become ESL endorsed."

Sending money home

Until that time, Mexicans such as Isaac Delgadillo, the maintenance man for Sundance Plaza, send their children back to Mexico so they will do well in school.

Before he arrived in America, Delgadillo worked an office job in Mexico City for most of his life. But at 40, he was sick of struggling under the unpredictable Mexican economy. Mexico City is home to 20 million people, a city with sprawling slums and 24-hour traffic congestion.

"I didn't like life in the city," Delgadillo said through a translator. "I was always agitated. It's like you are always running. There is smog and traffic and way too many people."

There are jobs in the city, but they always advertise for younger people, he said.

Delgadillo had heard that there was work in America. Three years ago, he made the move to Steamboat.

He first arrived in a van with his wife and three children, ages 9, 11 and 13. They stayed with his brother and sister-in-law in an apartment in Craig until he found a place in the Walton Pond Apartments with other Mexicans.

His family returned to Mexico, and Delgadillo sends most of his paycheck home to them.

A recent study of five Latin American countries indicated workers from those countries in the United States, and other countries send $5.4 billion home annually. The study further focused on Western Mexico, where workers from Mexico living in the United States made an average of $7,455 a year and sent an average of $221 a month home to their families.

"Most of the Mexicans here work two jobs," Delgadillo said. "It takes a lot of discipline to be able to send money home. I just don't buy things I don't need and we all help each other out to make it easier."

Importance of family

Cecilia Lee is an interpreter for Craig Mental Health. She spends most of her time in Moffat County, but more and more finds herself in Steamboat.

She grew up with Mexican parents who didn't speak English and was punished a lot in elementary school for not understanding the teacher, she said. She learned English from flashcards.

Because of her own experience, Lee has a lot of compassion for the people she works with, she said. "They are foreigners in a funny land," Lee said. "It can be hard for them to adjust because Mexicans have strong customs and family is at the center of that."

Lee said she knows a lot of Mexican men like Delgadillo who live in the Yampa Valley far from their families. "I saw Isaac sitting in his van one day and I asked him if he wanted to trade it in for a smaller car," Vega said. "He said, 'No. I would rather have my family here to fill it.'

"They don't talk about it much, but it is very hard for them to be away from their families. They live here for the wages. He makes a lot more money that he would ever make in Mexico."

Land of opportunity

Lee cries when she talks about the American principles that attract Mexican workers. "I think a lot about Lady Liberty. She tells us to bring her your sick, your poor, your hungry. She doesn't tell anyone to go away. I cry every time. I cry when I say the Pledge of Allegiance. I cry when I sing God Bless America."

Lee and her supervisor, Susie Clark, know there are those who would seal the border with Mexico and believe the Mexicans should not be here.

"I know a lot of people who say that the Mexicans are here taking our jobs and driving down wages," Clark said. "But once you get to know them, it changes the way you see everything."

For two years, Delgadillo didn't speak a word of English and didn't meet any of Steamboat's non-Spanish speaking residents as a result. But recently, Delgadillo has been studying English whenever he has a spare minute.

He sits in his van during his lunch hour listening to English lesson tapes and carries a pad of paper with an ever-growing list of English words and their Spanish translations.

He tries to use his English with people he meets and at the grocery store. "It's a mystery," he said. "I will speak to one cashier and she will understand me, but the next person I talk to can't understand a word I say."

More than anything, Delgadillo wants to fit into his new home.

"I love America," he said. "It's the land of opportunity."

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