Tucked between 14,000-foot peaks along the Great Divide, Colorado's fabled Roaring Fork Valley has hosted many cultures: Native American, European miner, rancher, celebrity vacationer, tycoon, ski bum.
Lured by the promise of jobs in Aspen's ski resort, a tide of newcomers from Mexico, Central and South America has made the region a turbulent melting pot where Anglo and Latino cultures jostle.
A decade ago, only a handful of Latinos lived in the 70-mile-long valley. Today, about 15,000 reside here, most employed as dishwashers, cooks, maids and construction workers in Rocky Mountain resorts.
Add to that influx, a lack of experience with people speaking a language other than English, and local Anglos often gripe: "They just don't want to get along."
But after 10 years of Latinos and Anglos viewing each other with suspicion that occasionally has erupted into blunt hostility, an acceptance of cultures is slowly evolving through the emergence of ethnic bridge-builders, peacemakers and liaisons who are preaching accommodation.
In the process, they are changing the face of the valley.
In Aspen, bilingual police officer Marie Munday is trying to organize a coalition of law enforcement agencies to improve relations with Latinos. And City Attorney John Worcester is soliciting donations from local lawyers for a legal aid program for low-income Latino residents. "It's amazing how easy it's been raising money to create this legal program, which . . . will have an annual operating budget of $100,000," Worcester said.
In neighboring Carbondale, where Latino service industry workers are starting to buy mobile homes instead of rent them and to open businesses instead of clean them, a spate of gang-related incidents has led to town hall meetings convened in English and Spanish to smooth rough cultural edges.
"We grasped the moment," said Roaring Fork High School Principal Jerry Schott. "The idea of these meetings was to use people who were fired up as a catalyst to do the work that really needed to be done--close the gap between the two communities and provide more direction for our youth."
Dipping tortilla chips into salsa at a new restaurant managed by a Latino, Carbondale Mayor Randy Vanderhurst explained: "It isn't easy finding common denominators between the two cultures but . . . we have to. For example, we're trying to hire a new police chief, and a bilingual person would be ideal."
Fifty miles north of Aspen in Glenwood Springs, a nonprofit group called Assistencia Para Latinos is dedicated to empowering the Latino community. There too, the Glenwood Post a month ago launched its first Spanish-language edition.
"We believe the biggest barrier between our communities is language," said Bob Zanella, in charge of marketing at the paper. "Yet it is one of the easiest to cross."
Then there are people like Marcelino Yantas, a Peruvian journalist and political exile who is achieving mythic status in the valley's hypersensitive period of transition.
As a translator at Aspen Valley Hospital, he registers, admits and counsels patients and doctors. As a Spanish-language columnist for the Aspen Daily News, he advises Latinos on issues ranging from what mortgage procedures mean in the United States to how to behave if pulled over by a police officer.
But it is as host of the valley's first Spanish-language cable television program that he claims the eyes and ears of Latinos.
"I'm on a mission--to inspire my Latino brothers and sisters here to move up, not down," said Yantas, who also hopes to "teach that we can defeat stereotypes through personal example, learning English, courtesy and diplomacy. Then let others decide for themselves if we are about crime and drugs."
In the bustling Chinese restaurant he bought a year ago in Glenwood Springs, Tomas Cruz would not argue with that.
"Marcelino wants me to be on his show, but I'm too busy," said a laughing Cruz, 35, who entered the United States illegally in 1979 and has worked in Chinese restaurants ever since. "I worked like a donkey for 12 years to save the $50,000 it cost to buy this place.
"I came from Mexico with a third-grade education to wash dishes," he said. "Now, I own the best Chinese restaurant in Colorado, and speak fluent Chinese and English. Next month, I'm opening another restaurant in Newcastle.
"I just bought a house, my first," he added with pride. "It's a two-bedroom with a yard and everything. I'm very happy."