I’ll never forget leaving the valley for the first time to attend college more than 20 years ago and experiencing different communities. I still remember being shocked about how easy it felt to be Latino in my new communities.
From Fort Collins to Denver to Austin to Chicago to New York to West Palm Beach to Barcelona, I felt more liberated to be my true self in those places than I had ever felt growing up in the Roaring Fork Valley as a son of Mexican immigrants.
And when I returned to the valley in 2019 as a nonprofit leader of color, I was shocked again to encounter the same old dominant culture and systemic biases so prevalent within institutions in the Roaring Fork Valley today. Sometimes they are subtle and sometimes they are not, yet rarely are they a topic of conversation.
Before I knew what to call it, I would explain the Aspen and Roaring Fork Valley's culture to non-locals this way: It’s one thing to be a housekeeper, but it’s another when you are treated as such, kept there by design and expected to stay in that lane without making any fuss.
This simple example, using the title of the job my mother did for more than 20 years in Aspen, helped express what I and many other Latinos who grew up here have felt through the years — that we are not yet fully accepted as equals. We are invited to the table, so long as we know our place and don’t push too many buttons. We can serve in management, but only if our leadership doesn't disrupt the status quo. We can use our voice, but not if our advocacy makes others uncomfortable. We can participate in politics, so long as the power balance is undisturbed. We remain stuck in the no-passing lane.
This treatment and the feelings it triggers are no way to live. It’s why so many homegrown Latinos — especially those with a college degree — have chosen to leave the valley for opportunities in more inclusive communities and have yet to return. I know plenty of Latino attorneys, teachers, assistant principals, nurses and others who chose to leave the valley and pursue their careers elsewhere rather than remain in a system that’s ill-equipped to support leaders of color.
We also have a problem retaining some of the non-local Latinos who get recruited to positions of power in the valley. For those who make the brave decision to not to be tokenized by the system, they not only face the unfair double-standard typically associated with being the first leader of color in their role, but they also have to deal with the small town microaggressions that are predictable with the introduction of new perspectives and leadership styles.
A few weeks ago, I learned that one of the few people of color in management and the highest-ranking Latina on the academic side of Colorado Mountain College is leaving to take a promotion as a vice president at another college in New Mexico, two years after she was recruited from Texas. It’s a terrible loss for our community, but I understand why she and others decide not to stick around and put up with the prevailing culture. After all, they don’t need to be here. They are talented professionals in their fields and other communities may treat them better.
Some in the mainstream community may reject the idea that these examples are about race. Most of us would prefer to imagine a Roaring Fork Valley that is more inclusive and welcoming, even if only on the surface. But according to the Colorado Latino Agenda public research initiative, Latino adults on the Western Slope expressed having experienced discrimination based on race more than any other region in the state.
In my day job, I interact with thousands of Latino leaders on the Western Slope each year, and the data reflects the experiences I often hear about from them. As a community, we can either ignore that race continues to play a role in our culture and systems or we can acknowledge the root cause of the biases we face and own the fact that we still have work to do.
Why is it that many Latino professionals are able to find more success in other communities but rarely in our valley? Why are Latinos able to climb the career ladder quickly in other places, yet kept from advancing too fast here? Why are so few Latinos here in positions of leadership, influence or decision-making? And why can’t we retain those talented Latinos who manage to rise to the top? These are the questions that the larger community needs to look inward to answer. We can no longer view the exodus of Latino talent as an unfortunate trend.
Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley are amazing places. But even amazing has its limits. As we’re seeing with CMC, if Latinos don’t feel at home here, we will vote with our feet, leaving not just the school systems but the resorts that drive local economies to fend for themselves. And while no one wants to see it come to that, we simply cannot continue to ignore the elephant in the room that has created this exodus of Latino talent.
Simply saying we must do better to make our communities more inclusive and equitable for all is not enough. I invite other Latino leaders, especially those who grew up here and have left, to share your story and your perspective on this topic. I also invite elected, business and civic leaders to share their experiences and ideas about ways to make our valley more equitable and welcoming for everyone, not just some.
More importantly, I invite all of us to act, by treating each other with respect, as equals, and confront our biases head on.
Systemic change takes time and it will be a huge challenge to figure out how to repair the established culture, followed by a lot of hard work. But we are no strangers to challenges or hard work. This is simply the job we face today.
Alex Sánchez is the founder and CEO of Voces Unidas de las Montañas and Voces Unidas Action Fund, nonprofit organizations working in Summit, Lake, Eagle, Pitkin and Garfield counties. This opinion was published in the Aspen Daily News.