Diego left Mexico for the United States when he was 16. His father was working in Arizona and wanted his family to join him.
“He wanted to take the whole family. It wasn’t really my choice,” he said.
Six years later, as Arizona’s laws grew harsher toward the immigrant community, Diego left the state, went out on his own and found Durango.
“It seemed safer for me to be here. I felt the community was welcoming,” said Diego, who didn’t feel comfortable giving his last name. That was November 2009, and now he is working part time in Durango and volunteering with a local nonprofit.
Over the last decade, hundreds of other Hispanic people have followed paths similar to Diego’s, coming to La Plata County because of work, friends or family living here, or a sense that the community is welcoming toward immigrants.
Census data show that between 2000 and 2010, the Hispanic community has increased 44 percent in Durango and 32 percent in La Plata County. Statewide, the Hispanic population increased by 41 percent, said State Demographer Elizabeth Garner.
The new and the old
Though much of the recent growth in the area’s Latino community has been through immigration, many families here trace their roots to the time before Colorado statehood, said Leonard Atencio, a former economics professor at Fort Lewis College and longtime resident. Many early Hispanic families, including Atencio’s, had relatives who came to Durango to work on the railroad or the lead smelter, he said.
But over the years, the composition of the Hispanic community has changed.
“The new population growth has been immigrants,” he said. “The biggest part has to do with the fact that the economy is largely based on service. The majority of people who have immigrated here are service workers.”
A changing picture
Meanwhile, organizations that work with the Hispanic population say the growth story is more complex than census data show.
The census shows just a snapshot of a population that is always fluctuating, said Crystal Harris, with the La Plata Unity Project, a coalition of different organizations working to promote cultural diversity.
After busier years, several organizations that partner with La Plata Unity and serve the Hispanic community have seen recent declines in demand for their services, Harris said.
Demand for English classes at the Adult Education Center reached its peak during the 2008-2009 school year with 200 students and since has declined to 126 this year, said Sarah Macy, who coordinates the center’s English for Speakers of Other Languages Program.
The struggling economy, a lack of lower-skilled jobs such as construction and increases in immigrant arrests by federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers have slowed the influx, Harris said.
People may choose to move away or hide in their homes for fear of being arrested, said Nicole Mosher, director of Compañeros, a resource and advocacy organization for Latinos.
Harris said this makes it hard to know whether a decline in demand for services is because the population has decreased or fewer people are seeking help.
Adjusting to an increase
Year-to-year fluctuations aside, most programs serving Latinos said they have seen demand for their services grow since they began.
A couple of years ago, the Sexual Assault Services Organization started printing all of its handouts in English and Spanish because they were seeing more Spanish speakers walk through their doors, said Olivia DePablo, the community organizing coordinator.
Mosher said she has noticed more organizations around the area have started providing bilingual materials. The Four Corners Office for Resource Efficiency, 4CORE, for example, has started printing all of its weatherization applications in Spanish.
“That says a lot for how the community is responding to an increase in the Spanish-speaking population,” Mosher said.
In the health-care sector, San Juan Basin Health Department started Promoviendo la Salud in 2006 to focus specifically on the treatment and prevention of chronic diseases within the Latino population. Since it began, the program has seen “exponential” increases, said program coordinator Karen Forest.
Translation services, especially in the medical field, are in constant demand, Harris said.
As new arrivals become settled, they increasingly are seeking to help others like them.
More Spanish-speaking people are coming into the Sexual Assault Services Organization to volunteer, which has helped the organization produce more services for the Hispanic community, DePablo said. The organization produced the play “Vagina Monologues” in Spanish for the first time this year thanks to many Latino volunteers and has started a Spanish-speaking support group, she said.
“I see that it’s evolving,” she said. “Whereas 10 or 15 years ago, I didn’t see this response to the Hispanic population, now service providers are trying to outreach. I’ve been here 17 years, and I have never seen that more than now.”