STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — When Irene Avitia moved to Steamboat Springs from a small town in Zacatecas, Mexico, in 2004, she was an eighth-grader, and there were only five other Spanish-speaking students in her grade.
“It was tough,” said Avitia, who now serves as the early childhood interventionist for Integrated Community, the Steamboat-based nonprofit that serves the community’s immigrant population. “I think the school was still trying to figure out how to support us — the newcomers.
“It was so hard; I wanted to cry,” Avitia said, remembering the day when she tried to get electricity and water hooked up at the family’s mobile home and also figure out how to get immunizations, so she could attend her first day of school. “It took us the entire day to find the hospital and the medical office building, and it was our first time getting on the bus. With my limited English, it was a challenge. We got up at 6 in the morning, and we got home around 6 at night. I was exhausted, and I was only 12.
“Then, you didn’t see many people who spoke Spanish,” Avitia explained. “It was a big change definitely for us.”
Steamboat’s Latinx population has grown in the 16 years since Avitia’s family moved here, but census data underscores just how white Steamboat Springs and Routt County still are.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Routt County’s population is 90% white non-Latinx, 7% Latinx and the remaining 3% is a mix of Black, Asian, Native Americans and those who describe themselves as multiracial or members of some other race.
But looking at the makeup of Steamboat Springs School District’s student population tells a slightly different story — one that reveals a diversity that is sometimes hidden.
The district currently serves over 247 students classified as English language learners, representing 9.7% of total enrollment for the 2020-21 school year. These students speak 16 different languages, including Mandarin Chinese, Jamaican Creole French, Portuguese and Russian.
“Having students in our district from various parts of the world is a huge asset,” Steamboat Superintendent Brad Meeks said. “As much as we have to teach them, they have just as much to teach us. Sharing and understanding different cultures, perspectives and experiences opens our minds and teaches compassion and empathy.”
Beginning Wednesday, Sept. 23, Steamboat Pilot & Today is taking a deeper look at the community’s racial, ethnic and cultural makeup as well as bringing to light other divides that exist in Steamboat and Routt County through a six-week series focused on issues of diversity, equity and inclusivity.
The series is titled “Indivisible” to reflect the experience of those community members who are made to feel invisible by the fact they are different from the majority of the population. Reporting will also uncover the resources and programs in place to help bridge those divides and create a more inclusive, indivisible community.
This week, readers are introduced to the premise behind the series and given tools to help them understand some of the terms used to discuss the complex issues of diversity, equity and inclusivity, often referred to as DEI. In addition to definitions, a list of resources has been compiled for those readers who choose to pursue some self-study on the topics illuminated by the series. These lists are by no means exhaustive or authoritative but instead provide a foundation that people can build upon as they begin to educate themselves on these issues, which are often uncomfortable to discuss.
The second and third weeks of the series — scheduled for Sept. 30 and Oct. 7 — will focus on the ethnic, racial and cultural divides that exist in Steamboat and Routt County. First-person accounts will reveal what it’s like to be a person of color living in a mostly white, remote, mountain resort town, and readers will learn about the barriers created by that lack of diversity. In addition to highlighting the obstacles minorities face, Kari Dequine Harden’s reporting also uncovers programs aimed at helping people navigate those challenges and efforts underway to create a more integrated community.
In week four, the series shifts its focus to the divides of gender and sexuality. Reporter Derek Maiolo looks at the issues facing the local LGBTQ community, including access to mental health services and medical care and the struggles that are unique to life in a relatively small, isolated ski town. This installment also includes a first-person look at what it was like for an LGBTQ teen to come out to his peers at Steamboat Springs High School.
The series’ fifth installment, which will publish Oct. 21, dissects Routt County’s urban/rural divide. Reporting will cover the dichotomies that exist between the desire to maintain Steamboat’s rural integrity and the growth of the ski area and expansion of recreational opportunities. Maiolo also will touch upon local political divides, the need for economic diversification in response to the transition away from coal and the pressure to preserve rural landscapes in the face of development.
And finally, in the sixth part of the series, the stark disparity of wealth that exists in the Yampa Valley will be exposed through the reporting of Digital Engagement Editor Bryce Martin. Focusing on issues of affordability that affect access to housing, child care and health care, this installment explores the serious socioeconomic challenges that many people living and working here face as well as the division that sometimes arises between local residents, second homeowners and tourists.
Other supplementary articles include:
• A look at religious divides that exist in a county that is among the one in five counties nationally where fewer than 35% of the population is a member of a congregation
• A story detailing the history of the Ute Nation and its legacy in the Yampa Valley
• An article explaining the effects of white privilege and inherent bias on individuals and society
• Several stories highlighting divisions through the lens of sports and outdoor recreation written by Sports Editor Shelby Reardon.
Each week of the series also will feature an “Immigrant Voices” profile, offering a glimpse into the life of someone who immigrated to Steamboat from another country.
This week, we share Maria Paula Gonzalez’s story. The permanent resident from Bogota, Colombia, has lived in Steamboat off and on since 2004. She spent her teenage years bouncing back and forth between the U.S. and her home country trying to establish her identity. As an interpreter and translator for Integrated Community, she now works to help immigrants find their place in a new country.
“We’re here because we want to improve our lives,” Gonzalez said. “I know people who are running away because their lives are in danger, or they don’t have enough to eat. And if you’ve never experienced violence in your life or if you’ve never experienced not being able to communicate with others when you need it, it’s hard for people not to judge from a very privileged place and be like, ‘Go back to your country.’”
Telling the stories of people who left behind their home countries to make a new life in Steamboat puts a face to issues of diversity, equity and inclusivity, making it hard for people to look away and pretend paradise doesn’t come with problems and challenges for those who live here, especially minority populations.
And through the photography of John F. Russell, the “Faces of Routt County” will be revealed through individual portraits of people from diverse backgrounds who live here in the Yampa Valley.
For those who think diversity, equity and inclusivity are not issues important to Routt County, Avitia, one of Steamboat’s emerging young Latina leaders, would disagree, especially when it comes to the county’s growing population of immigrants.
“We are diverse, but how can we be inclusive and how can we support those members to rise and be out of the shadows?” she asked.
“Regardless of your immigration status, it’s always scary to be in a new home country and learn a new language. If you move to another country, regardless of who you are, it’s going to take time before you get out of that comfort zone. But it’s also the responsibility of those who surround you to make you comfortable to step out of those shadows.”