Hispanics putting down roots in big numbers in Garfield County

Ignacio Mendoza, his wife Maria, and their children Paulina, 4, and Janet, 1. When Mendoza first moved to Carbondale in 1986 there were maybe 20 Spanish-speaking people there, he says. Garfield County’s Hispanic population reached 28 percent in 2010, the U.S. Census Bureau reports. Mendoza, who is originally from Mexico, is shown outside a restaurant he just reopened in Rifle after remodeling it.

Reuben Hernandez cleans the grill in the kitchen of a newly remodeled and reopened restaurant in Rifle owned by Ignacio Mendoza, who is originally from Mexico.

When Mexico native Ignacio Mendoza first moved to Carbondale in 1986, “it was hard to find Hispanic people to talk to,” he remembers.

“Probably about 20 of us spoke Spanish in Carbondale,” Mendoza said.

These are different times in Carbondale and Garfield County. The 2010 Census showed that 28 percent of Garfield County’s population was Hispanic.

The county’s Hispanic numbers more than doubled from 7,300 to 15,978 from 2000 to 2010, the Census Bureau reports. Hispanics have come in search of better economic opportunities than those available to them in Mexico and the other places they left behind.

Today, Mendoza’s brother runs a Mexican-oriented market in Rifle where most of the customers are Hispanic. It is the kind of business that would have had difficulty thriving 20 years ago, Mendoza said.

The market is located in part of a commercial strip in which Mendoza’s sister operates a liquor store, another sister runs a meat market, a Mexican tenant owns a bakery, and Mendoza just reopened a remodeled restaurant now called Nacho’s. It exemplifies how one Hispanic family, like so many in recent years, has put down roots in the county.

As Hispanics such as Mendoza make the county their home, they also are raising families. The growth of the Hispanic community in the county is even more pronounced in the under-18 population. In 2010, Hispanics accounted for 41 percent of all minors in the county. In Parachute, Hispanics made up 51 percent of all youths; in Glenwood Springs, they were 49 percent of the total.

A test for schools

Judy Haptonstall, superintendent of the Roaring Fork Re-1 School District, which extends from Glenwood Springs to Basalt, said Hispanics this year make up 52 percent of enrollment. At Crystal River Elementary School in Carbondale, they amount to about three-quarters of all students.

As with a lot of districts across the country, Hispanic student numbers are growing “primarily because the white families are typically having one or two kids, and Latino families typically have bigger families,” she said.

The trend has created challenges for the district, such as trying to meet standardized-test expectations despite some students’ minimal English skills.

“There’s an assumption on the part of the federal government that the student is supposed to come to you not speaking English and be able to perform on an equitable level with their English-speaking peers in a year,” she said.

In fact, research indicates it may take such a student five to seven years to do that well, Haptonstall said. That’s not to mention situations such as the occasional 16-year-old who may arrive from a place such as Mexico having had little formal education and not being literate in Spanish, much less English, she said.

Haptonstall said the district has made a point to report test results to the public broken down between Anglos and Hispanics, to show that Anglo students generally are performing on a high level, despite what overall school performance might indicate.

As with other local employers ranging from police departments to human-service providers, the school district tries to hire bilingual staff members where it can find them. While it has some fluent staff in each school, they probably amount to around 5 percent or fewer of district employees.

“There is a shortage of teachers and administrators who are fluent in Spanish, and we compete with many states for hiring those folks,” Haptonstall said.

Garfield County’s Human Services Department pays a higher rate to its bilingual workers, and its case intake supervisor and four of its five intake technicians are bilingual, Human Services Director Mary Baydarian said. Latinos now account for 45 percent of self-sufficiency assistance cases, up from 33 percent in 2007, but up nearly 400 percent in actual numbers as a result of the recession.

The department’s applications, informational materials and voice mail are bilingual.

New ballot-box requirements?

Rising Hispanic numbers soon may create new challenges for the Garfield County Clerk’s Office. It has been notified that it may be required by the U.S. Department of Justice to begin providing dual-language ballots and bilingual election judges, County Clerk Jean Alberico said. That’s based on preliminary data indicating the county has a “language minority population” totaling 12.2 percent of the total voting-age population. Anything above 5 percent triggers the dual-language ballot requirement.

Ten counties in the state must comply with the requirement now. Sixteen more — Montrose, Delta, Eagle and Pitkin counties also being among them — have been notified they may have to comply, as may the state itself for state ballot issues.

Alberico said that up to now, voters with limited English have exercised their right to bring an assistant to help them fill out their ballot.

“If we have to do it as a dual-language, if you’ve got a three-page ballot, it’s going to be a six-page ballot, so … you’re going to have higher printing costs, higher mailing costs,” she said.

She said her office received at least one phone call from someone questioning why her office should have to take on such costs.

“But you know, we can’t say no because the Voting Rights Act of 1973 requires this,” she said.

It’s not as if local Hispanics aren’t trying to learn English. In 1994 the local nonprofit group Literacy Outreach had three English-language learners, with the rest of its clients already speaking English, said executive director Martha Fredendall. Now English-language learners account for about 85 of the organization’s 100 or so clients, including about 80 who speak Spanish, she said.

When the recession hit locally the waiting list for clients wanting tutors more than doubled, to 80, in a matter of weeks, she said. Whereas students used to want to learn English to be able to communicate with their children’s teachers or get a better job, now many are doing so in order to get a job or help them keep the one they have, she said.

She said she’s seeing more Hispanic fathers seeking Literacy Outreach’s services. While they may have lost jobs in construction or oil and gas, the moms were more likely to remain employed in areas such as the hospitality industry, she said.

Since the census was taken, an exodus of Hispanics and Anglos alike has continued in Garfield County due to the downturn. Fredendall said growing numbers of Hispanics left in the last year, with some headed to seek work in other states.

Enriched by diversity

Mendoza has seen the recession-related exodus of Hispanics and Anglos affect business at his location, where he previously owned another restaurant. Gone are the oil and gas boomtown days when a line of patrons awaiting a seat used to wind out the door.

Still, he’s happy to have followed his older brother to Colorado, originally to do construction work. He left for awhile before deciding to return.

“I like the open country. The people are a lot nicer than they are in the cities,” he said.

He also appreciates the opportunities for someone such as himself to make a living, and his presence here provides Anglos and Hispanics alike a chance to enjoy authentic Mexican fare.

Such a mingling of cultures has been a decided upside resulting from Garfield’s growing Hispanic numbers. Fredendall said her tutors “love the glimpses into a foreign culture.”

“And I think they gain appreciation for how difficult it is to enter a new culture and make some sense of it,” whether that’s buying a car, shopping for groceries or talking to a child’s teacher, she said.

Haptonstall said the rising Hispanic numbers in her district have led to things such as a bilingual program in which subjects are taught partly in English and partly in Spanish, enabling Anglos to better learn Spanish as well. But the best part of the rising Hispanic numbers in her district is that it reminds Anglo students that the world is a diverse place, she said.

“It helps kids look at things more as taking the person into account first and any other aspects next,” she said.

The result has been cross-cultural friendships and acceptance.

“It’s nice to see whether it’s student council or at prom or homecoming that there’s an equitable opportunity for anybody to be the prom king or homecoming queen or be on the football team,” she said.


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