March 07, 2002 News » Cover Story

Vivir en Colorado Springs 

The multifaceted facts of life for local Latinos

You don't have to fly south to discover Latin America. Just drive east down Platte Avenue to the Wagon Wheel Lounge or the Tex-Mex Tavern. Inside, tejano and nortea music pipes out of the jukebox. The bar is full of patrons speaking Spanish with a heavy northern Mexican accent.

Or head south through Colorado Springs' longtime ad-hoc Latino neighborhoods to Helen Hunt Elementary School, where on weeknights, the classrooms are packed with adults taking English-language classes. Nearby neighborhood restaurants, bakeries and grocery stores sell imported chili peppers, homemade tortillas and piping-fresh pasteles.

On Sunday, head east to Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church on east Pikes Peak Avenue for a packed Spanish-language mass. With a 500-seat capacity, demand was so high they added a second mass two years ago.

Head to most any construction site. The skills of Spanish-speaking workers are behind much of the area's development, even the pricey, high-end homes emerging in northeast Colorado Springs.

Inside Colorado Springs' finest restaurants and hotels, dishes are being washed and hotel rooms cleaned by immigrant labor, most of them Spanish-speaking workers.

In today's Colorado Springs, Latin America will find you.

Sounds like a whisper

Colorado Springs has long been a powerhouse of mostly white players, but there's a quiet revolution going on that's changing the complexion of the city.

In 1980, the Colorado Springs Hispanic community totaled less than 6 percent, and most of them were longtime Colorado residents who moved here from Pueblo or the San Luis valley.

Thanks to a flood of immigrant workers and a high birthrate, Hispanics in Colorado Springs mushroomed to nearly 12 percent by 2000, totaling more than 43,000 and surpassing African Americans as the city's largest minority group.

Countywide, the number of Hispanics tops 57,000, the third highest in the state behind two Denver-area counties. Statisticians say several thousand more recent immigrants living here were not counted during the latest census.

It's a demographic shift that's hard to ignore.

"You can't stop it. They're coming in, and we're here and always have been here," said Gene Sanchez, president of the Latino Unity Council, a Colorado Springs Hispanic advocacy group. "We've been here, but it's just starting to take off."

Overall, people of color now compose more than 20 percent of the city's population. Classrooms are filling up with Spanish-speaking Latinos; District 2 reports more than 22 percent of its students are Hispanic.

And, the number of local Latino-owned businesses has more than doubled from 492 operations generating $46 million in 1992 to just over 1,000 that, according to the Colorado Springs Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, generated more than $160 million in 1997. Equally dramatic growth is expected when the latest U.S. Census Bureau economic reports are released later this year.

It wasn't always this way.

Hispanics have had a long presence in Colorado, but not in El Paso County until more recently.

Southern neighbor Pueblo, where as much as 40 percent of the city is Latino, has traditionally had a strong Hispanic base. Denver reflects the diversity of a major urban center, with the highest density of Hispanics in the state.

In the Springs, many have just recently ascended to high-profile positions in the community. Joseph Garcia, the new president of Pikes Peak Community College, and Lionel Rivera, Colorado Springs' vice mayor, are just two examples. However, some leaders vow to be an even stronger political force in the coming decade.

"There's an awakening in the Hispanic community," said Roman Tafoya, president of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. "There are more Hispanics in politics, more Hispanics running businesses; we're better educated. We've become more cohesive."

Being Latino

What exactly is a Latino? A Chicano? An Hispanic? All are terms that describe a very diverse, culturally rich, economically divergent people. In 1980, the U.S. government started using "Hispanic" to describe people with cultural and linguistic links to Spain and Latin America.

Colorado Springs Hispanics range from families with ties to the American Southwest dating back several centuries to immigrant workers who arrived here just last week. The Latino community includes everyone from norteas of northern Mexico to Cuban refugees to Puerto Ricans to fifth-generation Mexican Americans who speak no Spanish at all.

Many longtime Chicanos joke that they didn't come to the country; the country came to them -- referring to territories in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado that the United States took from Mexico in 1848 following the Mexican-American War.

And many in the Anglo community incorrectly believe that Hispanics share the same politics and background, says Reyes Garcia, a philosophy professor who teaches part-time at Colorado College.

"They assume that people with Spanish names just got here and know nothing about being Americans. Chicanos have been here 400 years," said Garcia, whose family ranched in Colorado's San Luis Valley 150 years ago.

"I've had people even say to me, 'If you don't like this country, why don't you just go back to Mexico?' My family has been here even before Colorado was part of the United States."

Locally, the Latino community runs the gamut, from wealthy business owners with posh homes in Colorado Springs' most exclusive neighborhoods to poorly educated laborers working for $5 an hour -- less than minimum wage -- and sleeping four to a bedroom.

Pikes Peak Community College president Garcia says many Anglos too often conjure up a negative stereotype when they see a Latino.

"There's a misconception that Hispanics don't want to be part of the larger community," said Garcia, a former attorney who worked for six years with former Gov. Roy Romer and spent two years in the Clinton administration. "They want to be contributing members. They have the same dreams and aspirations as everyone else. They just need the opportunity to succeed.

"People assume the Hispanic community is of one mind," Garcia said. "That's not true."

Within the diversity, there's also division. Some longtime Colorado Springs Hispanics resent the recent surge of Spanish-speaking immigrant workers. The question of heritage splits the Hispanic community along economic lines, says Joe Barrera, a former UCCS professor who served on the now-defunct Colorado Springs' Human Rights Commission in the late 1980s.

"Many of the established Hispanics often resent the presence of the new arrivals. It's a pathetic reaction," Barrera said. "They don't want these people around because they feel they get lumped in with them by the larger community.

"The word 'Mexican' has become a racial slur. Many Hispanics are deluded about their own racial origins. For many, it's better in their own mind to be Spanish and white than Mexican and despised."

Laying the groundwork

Today's emerging Hispanic leaders who have secured strong links to the military and white business community are sometimes criticized for not doing enough for still-struggling Hispanics.

By contrast, with the benefit of strong and often vocal organizations such as the Pikes Peak Urban League and the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Colorado Springs' African-American community has had more of an ability, in organized unity, to respond to real and perceived injustices.

Hispanics, at least those lower on the economic ladder, are still waiting for someone to step forward as a leader that can help them organize.

"We still don't have a grassroots movement in the Hispanic community," said Louis Pancho McFarland, a UCCS sociology professor who published a groundbreaking study on Colorado Springs Hispanics in May 2000.

"The leaders who emerge are middle-class Hispanics," he said. "They don't even live in the neighborhoods where the problems are. They're going down the mainstream road. That's not going to help the new immigrants or the single mothers."

Some suggest that existing leaders, such as Councilman Rivera and the Hispanic Chamber's Tafoya, are out of step with the larger Latino community, still plagued with lower standards of income, education and health care when compared to whites.

"What are they doing for the grassroots community? Do they do something for the less fortunate?" asked Luis Cortez, executive director of WaysOut Academy, a youth services nonprofit group. "They've made it, but now they've forgotten."

Vice Mayor Rivera, the highest-profile Hispanic political leader in Colorado Springs, bristles at such criticism, but admits he views himself as "a community leader who happens to be Hispanic" rather than the other way around.

"There are some people out there that say I'm not radical enough, but I believe in working within the system," said Rivera, a senior financial advisor with Merrill Lynch. "If the system isn't working, you fix it. You don't make superficial changes."

Rivera, a protg of former Mayor Bob Isaac when first elected to City Council in 1997, says Hispanics must become savvier at the game of politics and become active voters so all political candidates will pay more attention to Hispanic issues.

Currently eyeing a bid for mayor next year, Rivera says Hispanics have to work closer with the established Colorado Springs power base to increase their political influence.

"My role on Council is like [that of] every other Council member, and that's to do what's best for the city," remarked Rivera, who said he never promoted nor discounted his Hispanic origin and that his heritage has never become an issue during his campaigns. "My job is to help my fellow Council members understand the Hispanic community."

Consensus-building is a strategy shared by leaders of the Latino Unity Council, a group that transformed itself from a Chicano-rights political organization created in the 1970s into a "trouble-shooting" group that focuses on education. To soften its image, the group recently replaced "Chicano" -- believed by some to have militant connotations -- with "Latino" in its name.

"We have to work together or we're not going to accomplish anything," said Sanchez, the council's president. "Instead of banging down doors, we're trying to work together and collaborate with the larger community to make things right."

That exasperates some outspoken activists like Cortez, himself a former Colorado Springs city councilman.

"You have to blame the Hispanic community for allowing this to happen," Cortez said, referring to the split among Latino leadership. "We need to work for all Hispanics, not just our friends."

Dealt a bad hand

While many Hispanics are doing well, a majority of Latinos lag behind their Anglo neighbors in just about every measure. In Colorado Springs, Hispanics face higher crime rates, lower pay and higher dropout rates than whites, according to UCCS professor McFarland's 2000 study (see page 19).

The plight of many Colorado Springs Hispanics, McFarland says, reflects a larger economic system that relies on cheap immigrant labor to squeeze out profits for almost every major industry in the city.

"We talk about this quality of life we enjoy here in Colorado Springs, but people don't realize it wouldn't even be possible without the labor of the Latino worker," said McFarland, who prepared the 36-page report for WaysOut Academy while he was working at Colorado College.

"We like to believe that America is a great country because we all work so hard. The reason that America is well-off is that there is a large group of Latino workers [that] will to do the shit work for almost nothing, allowing us to live very nicely."

Among McFarland's findings is that Colorado Springs cops report Hispanic youth are often at the receiving end of their contacts, and it's that reality that gets Cortez' blood pressure racing.

"You look at the kids in detention, who's leading the pack? Who was being stopped by the cops? Who was getting kicked out of schools? Latinos," said Cortez, whose WaysOut Academy helps troubled teens. He believes that youth are often unfairly targeted.

"They've declared war on kids. It's epidemic," Cortez said. "Sure, some kids should be out of classes, but there's too many being picked up."

For their part, Colorado Springs police deny any problem stemming from racial profiling. To deal with the burgeoning Hispanic population, the police department recently introduced the Espaol Service Program, which brings in bilingual community members to help the police deal with Spanish-speaking witnesses and criminals.

McFarland said he is currently working on an in-depth study among blacks and Hispanics to gauge their experiences and determine the extent of the perceived problem. He said he plans to canvass black and Hispanic neighborhoods to ask them about their experiences with police.

"Many people ask, what is the problem with racial profiling? If you're not doing anything, then you should have nothing to worry about," McFarland said. "But the problem is that once the contact is made, the darker-skinned they are, the higher the chances of something happening. If you're stopping darker folks, they may not be doing anything, but they still might get a ticket, or get signed on to a gang list."

That's exactly what happened to Norberto Villanueva, a Springs resident of Puerto Rican descent who was falsely accused of shoplifting in October [See "Shopping While Brown," in the Nov. 1 Independent, online at www.csindy.com]. He hadn't stolen anything but was issued a ticket for verbal harassment when he called an undercover security guard who fingered Villanueva to police a "dumb-ass."

Charges were subsequently dropped against Villanueva, but he's frustrated enough with his experience that he's currently working to organize a community watchdog group to act on reports of racial profiling and police harassment against Colorado Springs' minority community.

In early January he met with McFarland, who read about Villanueva's case and decided to work with him.

Misconceptions run deep

Colorado Springs Hispanics who are integrated into mainstream society generally report relatively few cases of racism and discrimination, McFarland says. That's not true for the undocumented workers or so-called illegal aliens who live largely hidden away from everyday life.

This segment of Spanish-speaking Colorado Springs came here for jobs and economic opportunities that aren't available in their native Latin American countries. Many stay, become citizens and bring the rest of their families from Mexico and other places to Colorado Springs. McFarland says that many new immigrants have been falsely labeled as "gangbangers and illegal immigrants." He said misconceptions run deep that new immigrants deplete the welfare rolls, overrun schools and health-care facilities, and steal jobs from white workers.

"This is completely ridiculous. It's not even close to reality," he said. "The anti-immigrant backlash has had the effect of terrifying the immigrants. They've become scapegoats."

Retired professor Barrera criticizes those who lash out at immigrants.

"The U.S. economy depends on these workers. Our food is cheap because immigrant workers are willing to work these jobs," Barrera said. "They are in a class beyond class. They have no rights. They have no protection."

Pikes Peak Community College president Garcia, who campaigned against English-only legislation proposed by former Colorado Springs State Rep. Barbara Phillips in the mid-1980s, said new Latino arrivals should be looked upon no differently than previous waves of immigrants from Ireland, Italy or Poland.

"A major challenge is to introduce these new immigrants to the American system," Garcia said. "The challenge is to view those immigrants not as a threat, but as a resource."

Several local agencies, ranging from the police to health-care and religious organizations, deal with the new immigrant population. One group trying to introduce new immigrants to Colorado Springs is Centro de la Familia, a nonprofit group.

Co-executive director Mary Ann Carter says the Centro de la Familia (Family Center) visits local English-language classes three times during each spring and fall session as part of its "Viviendo en Colorado Springs" (Living in Colorado Springs) Spanish-language outreach program. [For more on this program, read "Bienvenidos a Colorado Springs," in the Nov. 22 Independent, online at www.csindy.com.]

The idea is to help the immigrant community adjust to the laws and etiquette of living in Colorado Springs, which is sometimes bewildering to people new to the United States.

"This helps people with the acculturation process," Carter said. "It can be confusing for these people to deal with these issues in a different country and culture."

Force to reckon with

Despite some infighting, Hispanic leaders say the community is more unified than ever. And they promise to become a larger force politically and economically in the coming years.

"There are a lot of success stories," said the Hispanic Chamber's Tafoya, a Pueblo native, a vice president at People's Mortgage and an 18-year Colorado Springs resident. "You can't dwell on the negative. Hispanics are not just about dropouts; we're not just about discrimination. If that's all we talk about, then everyone's going to see us as crybabies. That's not what we want to be."

Tafoya, who took over as president of the Hispanic Chamber in 1999, has helped reshape that group into a bridge between the Anglo and Hispanic business communities.

The group is stepping out politically for the first time. Last year, it raised $4,000 to create the Hispanic Leadership Forum, which uses matching funds from the El Pomar Foundation and other businesses to select emerging leaders for leadership training. The Hispanic Chamber has also raised $5,000 in scholarship money to help promising Hispanic information technology students with tuition costs.

Tafoya says the Hispanic Chamber remains a nonpartisan group, but sees the Hispanic Leadership Forum as "an excellent platform to get into the political arena and to endorse candidates. That's a significant step."

And some see entree into political power as the best way to create permanent change.

"That's a challenge we need to face and educating the Hispanic community about voting and participating in the system really makes a difference," said Rivera. "If you don't want to be left behind, you have to vote."

For those left behind, it will always be a struggle, but there's power in numbers.

"It's not about just getting Hispanics elected, but getting others elected who are helpful to Hispanics," Joseph Garcia said. "My hope is that white leaders will see Hispanics as a significant portion of the community and will have to take care of them to get elected."

The Realities

In May 2000, while working at Colorado College, Louis Pancho McFarland (currently a UCCS sociology professor) published a 36-page study on everyday realities for Colorado Springs Hispanics. Among the findings of the groundbreaking report:

Jobs and income

Hispanics earn less than whites and often have worse jobs. Nearly one in every four Hispanics in Colorado Springs worked in service or labor jobs, compared to one in nine for whites. On average, whites living in Colorado Springs earn $9,000 more per year than Hispanics. Twenty-percent of all Hispanic families were headed by a single mother, and half of those were below poverty level. In 1989, 18 percent of all Hispanic families in the Colorado Springs area lived in poverty. McFarland said that number is likely higher today.


McFarland found that Hispanics are the most undereducated population in El Paso County and have higher high-school dropout rates. In El Paso County in 1998-1999, the dropout rate among Hispanic sophomores was almost double that of whites. Twenty-eight percent of Hispanics in the Colorado Springs area don't have a high-school degree.

Health care

Thirty-three percent of Latino youth have no insurance, compared to 12 percent for white youth. Nearly 21 percent of all births to Hispanics in 1998 were to women under 20 years old, compared to 11 percent for non-Hispanic whites. More than one-third of these were to unwed mothers.

Law enforcement

McFarland found that the "three strikes and out" policies, mandatory minimums, tougher sentencing and charging juveniles as adults results in a disproportionate rate of incarceration for Hispanics. In 1997, Hispanics accounted for 12.7 percent of the state's population, but 26.7 percent of all state inmates were Hispanic. McFarland highlights a 1997 study by the UCCS Center for Community Development and Design that found that, though Hispanic students account for only 11.5 percent of Colorado Springs' school enrollment, 24 percent of all police contact with Colorado Springs youth was with Hispanic youth.

In compiling his research, McFarland relied on the 1990 Census and more recent reports from jails, schools, the police and other sources. The study was funded by the Gay and Lesbian Fund for Colorado, endorsed by the Latino Unity Council and reported to WaysOut Academy. McFarland's results and recommendations can be reviewed in full at www.hispanianews.com/archive/2000/may19/02.htm.


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