FEATURE: The Valley’s Divide

By on August 18, 2015

Combating covert racism in Jackson Hole


Jackson Hole, Wyoming – The Tetons frame a land of scenic contrast: stark mountain peaks, alpine hillsides, pristine lakes formed by ancient glaciers and deep canyons cut by rivers. Of more subtle and troublesome contrast is the cultural and economic divide between Jackson Hole’s two major population groups — whites and Latinos.

Social division of this sort can serve as an incubator for brooding, unformed resentments and fear along racial lines. “People may not think they’re biased,” wrote Scott Timberg, a contributor to the online magazine Salon, “but prejudice is driving the perception of threat.”

Here in the greater Jackson Hole region, local media and Latino community organizations aim to address what they see as a quietly unhealthy situation by offering an age-old cure for misunderstanding and racial bias: storytelling.

Roxana Gastañaga Wortman’s story namely describes the wisdom she has gained as a Peruvian émigré.

“Until we learn that society is really diverse, we will consider that one culture is contaminating another,” Wortman said. “People who don’t have the opportunity to interact with another human being from another culture will always be afraid, intimidated and threatened. We need to teach our children that … actions – what you do – are what matters.”

Latent attitudes

In the July 21 edition of The Planet “The Buzz: The faces of Blair” exposed small-minded attitudes toward Latinos vis-á-vis anonymous online comments. Jorge Moreno, the subject of the article, came from Mexico City to Jackson, where he is a caseworker for the Latino Resource Center. He is also a volunteer translator for local attorneys and nonprofit agencies such as the Teton County Access to Justice Center, and a board member of the Doug Coombs Foundation. Carina Ostberg, executive director of the Center, calls him “invaluable” in helping Spanish speakers in the area.

Regardless of Moreno’s bona fide credentials, an online comment by “Patty” bared frequent and regrettable racism directed at Latinos while referencing his employer in an insulting manner: “Using an employee of the Illegal-Immigrant Resource Center is interesting. Housing is often unavailable for Americans because so many undocumented immigrants occupy it … and visa workers keep wages depressed.” Moreno has served the valley for 18 years and is a legal resident.

Wortman chose to use her own name online, rather than an alias, in response to the Moreno comments: “It just shows how much ignorance is out there when a person equates the word ‘Latino’ with the word ‘illegal.’ Did someone ask, ‘where is the hate?’ Plain racism.”

Dr. John Reid-Hresko, a professor of sociology and social science at Qwest University in British Columbia, attributes the underlying racism to a perceived threat.

“U.S. corporate interest encourages immigration as long as the economic engine is strong enough that everyone has work,” he said.  “When hard times hit, the first thing we do is demonize the people that we brought to do the jobs and tell them to go home.

“In large part, anti-immigrant sentiments are rooted in learned racism and economic disenfranchisement,” he said. “It would be better to return to U.S. history, which is largely responsible for the policies they [Americans] perceive that harm them.”

These latent perceptions invite the question of whether society places any value on the individual, according to scholars Ronald L. Mize and Alicia C.S.  Swords, authors of “Consuming Mexican Labor: From the Bracero Program to NAFTA.” They point out that “the most egregious characteristic of the forms of exploitation of Mexican labor for North American consumption is unquestionably the callous view that labor is disposable.”

Reid-Hresko illuminates how ideas of disposable workers are socially constructed.

“No one is born with biologically rooted anti-Latino ideas,” he said. “These are things we are taught. The political and economic history of the U.S. has been one example after another of the exploitation of brown and black bodies in this country. We are not born with racism; we learn it.  When you combine that learned racism with economic hard times, there is a consistent pattern of people trying to shift the blame onto populations or ethnic groups other than their own.”

Demographics in the valley

From 2000 to 2010, Latinos accounted for two thirds of local population growth. According to the 2010 Census, they constituted 28 percent of the Town of Jackson population. Today, that figure is likely 33 percent. While the terms Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish are often used interchangeably in the political sphere, many whites ignore ethnic and linguistic distinctions by referencing Latinos in the valley as “Mexicans.” It is a misnomer meant to stigmatize non-English speaking workers, assumed by many to be undocumented. This low-key racism is perhaps inadvertent; nevertheless, it creates ethnic stereotypes that thwart the Latino Resource Center’s mission of cultural integration.

Sonia Capece, executive director of the Latino Resource Center, originally from Ushuaia, Argentina, has lived in the valley for 15 years, and has always been a legal resident. When she enrolled in a QuickBooks class at Central Wyoming College in 2008, she was initially asked to pay a higher tuition rate than her white colleague.

“It was an ordeal to get the same rate as my co-worker whose last name is Jones,” Capece said. “Some people say racism no longer exists in this country.”

The center seeks to bring awareness to the issues that divide whites and Latinos through cross-cultural exchange. Recently, Capece met with the Art Association of Jackson Hole to find ways of attracting more Latinos into its programs. She also has advised the Teton County School District, which sought her out, on how Latino parents might more effectively advocate for their children in light of their tendency to accept authority without question.

The center coordinates cultural events aimed to integrate Latinos into the broad fabric of the American system. This year, for instance, a group of Latinos marched in the Independence Day parade alongside a Latino Resource Center float. Through the center, Latinos are urged to participate in events outside of their cultural traditions, which can be a positive learning experience for all.

Latinos, Capece said, are often unsure they “belong” at majority white events. Their demeanor in speaking English is often very different, unintentionally, than when speaking Spanish. Whites, she said, must “be willing to look past color and listen past accent.”

“One of the most amazing things I enjoy about speaking English is all the people I have met because I can communicate with them,” she said. “Thanksgiving is now my favorite holiday. I grew up without it.”

Capece worries that harboring biased racial mindsets will mostly manifest in the next generation.

“America is a country of opportunities, and if these are available, people will shine,” Capece said. “The cost [of socioeconomic disparities between ethnic groups] is continuing to create barriers. It will create generational poverty, especially for those young people referred to as “ni … ni,” or “neither from here nor there.”

If young immigrants are not fully integrated, and have no real identity with their country of heritage because they grew up in America, they risk having no cultural identity at all, Capece said.

“We have an amazing opportunity to make this a really vibrant community,” she said. “You have to be openhearted and willing to integrate the two majority communities. Our attitudes have a lot to do with outcomes.”

A glimpse into the lives of jackson latinos

Gustavo Ajxup came to the U.S. from Guatemala in July 2007, speaking only Spanish and his indigenous language K’iche’. Once here, he studied English at the Teton Literacy Center and Central Wyoming College. Although he holds a bachelor’s degree from a Guatemalan university, and worked as an electrician in his birth country, his first American jobs were washing dishes at Rendezvous Bistro, shoveling horse manure and occasionally carpentry.

“When I first came here, I would see people skiing and playing in the snow,” he said.  “Almost four years later when I finally had the confidence in English, I started making small talk. That is how I learned to snowboard and to ski.”

He now is pursuing an electrical engineering degree to advance his position at AJ’s Electric, where he works full time. Ajxup also volunteers to translate for the priests at Our Lady of the Mountain Catholic Church.

“I do it because I have been helped,” he said. “This community has given me so much. I’d like to give back some of that. I am not just translating; I am also doing something that is sacred for me. I am helping people to listen to God’s word in their language.”

Ajxup leads and participates in Central Wyoming’s “Spanglish” program, in which whites and Latinos meet informally to help one another improve their second language skills.

His participation in community events, and that of fellow Latinos, Ajxup believes, can help unite the Jackson Hole community. He was the only Latino in the annual Snow King Hill Climb this year. He also paraglides and mountain bikes.

“Because of this, I have a lot of white friends,” he said. “I still am looking for ways to fully engage with white people. We need people to be open, even just to small conversations with the person who serves you in a restaurant or sits next to you on the bus.” 

Wortman, who teaches Spanish at Jackson Hole Community School, has lived in the valley for three years, and has always been a legal resident. She earned a master’s degree in engineering at Universidad Católica Santa Maria in Arequipa, Peru, and grew up bilingual and bicultural. Married to an American now, she is thankful to live in a multicultural community where her son attends the dual immersion program at Jackson Elementary, one that is actively breaking down language barriers. She sees that as the first step toward socioeconomic equality: English-speaking youngsters comfortably speaking Spanish and vice versa. Bridging the language barrier is paramount in the effort toward integration of the two communities.

She also advocates for undocumented workers.

“Any person who is willing to work, follow the law, contribute to the economy and sense of community in this nation has the right to stay,” Wortman said. “It’s not fair and it’s not right to have people living in fear or without freedom when the country is benefiting from their work. The U.S. needs to take responsibility on an individual level.”

Wortman routinely invites Latinos into her classroom to tell their stories to her immigrant and native-born students alike.

“The immigrant population has helped build this country,” she said. “Every resident of the United States should exist on the record, pay their taxes and should be treated with dignity and accountability regardless of their ethnicity. The current regulations on immigration are feeding sentiments of racism, exploitation and division. The idea that culture is not going to change is dangerous.”

Cristina Campos Bayse, early childhood teacher for Early Head Start, is originally from Bogotá, Colombia. When she arrived in America, she did casework management helping refugees from Somalia, Eretria and Ehtiopia in Boise, Idaho. Later, she worked at a hotel in in Driggs, and after three work visas, finally gained permanent residence status.

In Colombia, Campos Bayse worked as a Civil Engineer developing water systems, schools and roads with the Colombia Department of Agriculture. She has worked for Early Head Start and the Children’s Learning Center in Jackson for 12 years. Bayse also runs a bilingual Bible study each Monday at River Crossing Church.

“I don’t see walls,” she said. “I see the opportunity to work together, to enjoy each other’s differences from both sides.”

Bayse also participates in a bilingual book club for English speakers who want to learn.

“It is wonderful to see the development and help supply people’s needs,” she said. “We have fun together. We are totally integrated. It feels like family, really. We love each other.”

150819CoverFeature-3Acknowledging the divide

Jacqueline Vulcano, an American married to an Argentinian, and a veteran teacher of English as a Second Language at Central Wyoming College, echoed Wortman’s respect for struggling immigrants.

“Most Latinos in our community have traveled long distance on foot and by car to get their family out of dangerous situations and to create a better life for their future,” Vulcano said. “They are extremely hard workers. Along with learning English, they often work full-time jobs and part time jobs, while balancing family and school.”

Interestingly, despite the Latino Resource Center’s efforts, even new members of the Jackson community recognize the cultural divide.

“There is a large Latino population here that is very stifled and very ignored,” said Michael Stratton, local river guide for Dave Hansen. “It is not a celebrated or embraced culture.”

Undocumented immigration for labor

There are economic imperatives to American immigration. In 1942, for instance, a mass exodus of native-born men drafted to serve in WWII depleted the agricultural and industrial workforces. Accordingly, the U.S. negotiated with the Mexican government for the importation of manual workers, thus spawning the Bracero movement. (Bracero is a Spanish term for a manual worker derived from the word brazo, or arm, that literally means “one who works with his arms.”) More than 2,000,000 contracts for temporary workers were signed.

Wyoming was one of eight states banned from participation in the temporary worker program of the 1940s, due to poor treatment of immigrants. Colorado, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Montana, Minnesota, Texas and Wisconsin were also excluded. The ban resulted in the first major illegal economic immigration event – the so-called El Paso Incident of 1948, in which Texas Farmers and the U.S. Border Patrol allied to throw open the gates and admit 4,000 more undocumented workers.

Signed under the Clinton administration and developed under the George W. Bush administration, the North American Free Trade Agreement, (NAFTA) between the U.S., Canada and Mexico took effect in 1994. Its purpose was to encourage economic activity between the U.S., Mexico and Canada. Many American labor unions opposed NAFTA claiming that it took away jobs from American workers while companies relocated to Mexico to take advantage of cheaper labor, and critics worried that it would move U.S. jobs to Mexico. “The history of U.S. immigration law informs the current strategies that regulate the immigrant labor pool,” said scholars Mize and Swords.

150819CoverFeature-4Who is to blame?

In the current state of socioeconomic division and covert racism toward Latinos and undocumented laborers, Reid-Hresko said it is not “greedy Mexicans” who come to take jobs.

“People who are suffering come here because of economic policies pursued by our own government,” he said. “The economic system is predicated on exploitation of all workers, and immigrants are one of them.”

Illegal immigration is an essential component of the health of the U.S. economy and the Jackson Hole economy,” Reid-Hresko said. “If you buy a house, eat a tomato, go to a restaurant, you benefit from undocumented labor. Every citizen is complicit on an economic level in supporting this system. There are no bad people here, only misguided policies and institutional arrangements that benefit a small group of business elite at the expense of many.”

Society’s tendency is to place blame, he said.

“For the average person in Jackson who feels that they are suffering, your adversary is not the dishwasher in the kitchen,” Reid-Hresko said. “It is a system of political economic exportation that is global in nature, and has brought that immigrant to Jackson Hole in the first place. Immigrants often occupy jobs that whites simply do not want or are not willing to do for the salaries provided. In no small part, the economies of Jackson and the U.S., are built up on a system predicated on illegal immigration.”

More alike than different

The real challenge to full integration of the two main communities in Jackson lies not in the language barrier alone or socioeconomic obstacles, but rather in larger government policy.

Integration today is happening organically in communities despite a lack of comprehensive government policies, according to Tomás R. Jiménez, author of “Immigrants in the United States: How Well Are They Integrating into Society?”

But, English proficiency is a “virtual requirement for full participation in U.S. society,” he said. Jiménez is not surprised that “English language use continues to be a flashpoint for debates about immigrant integration and cohesion.”

English fluency is a process that happens over time through daily interaction. Immigration is a natural process that has been going on since the early history of European settlement on American soil. Just as Wortman pointed out, we all need to play a part in fully integrating the two communities, and uphold what Jiménez defines as real integration: “a culmination of everyday interactions between and among immigrant newcomers and host communities.”

Ultimately, the responsibility lies within both communities and true integration demands mutual change, both in attitude and in action. Jiménez said, “integration is a function of the characteristics of both immigrants and their host communities.”

Reid-Hresko reminds us that a shift in perception is central to this process.

“Everyone needs to recognize that we all have the same hopes, dreams, and goals for our children,” he said. “Individual hard work is seen as one avenue toward that self-improvement.  We all want the same thing.  Many immigrants pursue integration and education to secure upward mobility. We are all pursuing our economic interests in the places that are most conducive to doing that.”

A perfect example of individual hard work is Juan E. Morales, owner of Rosa’s Tamales, in Victor, originally from Guanajuato, Mexico. He holds dual citizenship in the U.S. and Mexico and speaks five languages including English and Spanish.

“Better understanding someone who is different than you will increase your understanding of life tenfold,” he said. 

About Jessica L. Flammang

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