Archives of Headwaters XVI


The American Dream in the High Borderlands

by George Sibley, Conference Coordinator

"The American Dream," in some form, has been an important driving force in this nation's development over the past three centuries. Millions of immigrants have come to the United States in pursuit of this Dream-and continue to come. Today the Headwaters region is experiencing two significant in-migrations that are driven by The American Dream-or by variations of the American Dream. But there are good reasons today to ask whether the two migrations are driven by a common American Dream, and the quality of life in the Headwaters seems to depend to some extent on a clearer articulation of what it is that brings the new migrants here--and what would make them more a part of the place.

The older of the two present-day migrations into the Headwaters region is the migration of Latinoamericanos from Latin America --a migration finally reaching the mountainous part of the historical "borderlands: of the Southwest (see related article on Page 2). While it is a relatively new phenomenon for most of the Headwaters region, it is just part of a process of the tri-cultural interaction that has been going on for hundreds of years throughout what was "Indian territory" for thousands of years, then Nuevo Mexico for 250 years, before it became part of the United States 157 years ago, after the Mexican War.

The Headwaters region was the northeasternmost part of Nuevo Mexico , but the Latinoamericanos were only able to push their settlements up the Rio Grande watershed to the Santa Fe area until after the United States Army built Fort Massachusetts in the San Luis Valley . Today, however, the Latinoamericano population even up into the high Headwaters valleys has gone from practically none north of the southernmost mountain valleys to about one in seven throughout the region over just the past two decades, with pockets where it is much higher than that.

Many of the Latinoamericanos are here only temporarily today, on seasonal work permits (mostly for resort jobs), but many of them stay after their seasonal permits have expired, and there are large numbers of other undocumented workers here--as many as 90 percent of the Latinos, according to one county official--so it is difficult to tell what portion of this growing minority hopes to stay here and what portion is just here for the money, to take back to Mexico or elsewhere in Latin America.

The other migration into the Headwaters region is more subtle--and many of those who are part of it probably do not care to consider themselves as immigrants. This is the movement into the region of comparatively wealthy people, people coming here to retire, build part-time "second homes" for eventual retirement, or to operate as "lone eagles" finishing out successful urban careers consulting or contracting from a distance.

"Exurbanites" is a workable term for these immigrants into the Headwaters (and many other places in the borderlands). This migration has also increased significantly over the past several decades; many Headwaters counties mail more than half their property tax bills out of the county and out of state today, and building large houses for these new immigrants has become a major part of the local economy in most mountain valleys.

There are obviously significant differences between these two migrations, differences in economic class as well as cultural group. In a sense, they represent the opposite ends of The American Dream, in its traditional sense: the Latinoamericanos are just moving into The Dream; the exurbanites are reaping its ultimate promises. But there are at least two similarities between the two groups that may be as significant as the differences:

1) Both migrations pay their way to some extent--but also lean on the Headwaters communities to some extent. The exurbanites bring a great deal of money into the local economy-earned income from outside the valleys in the case of the "lone eagles" and seasonal visitors, and transfer payments from the retirees. Latinoamericano workers and exurbanites alike buy local when they are here and thus contribute to the local economy and sales tax. Many of the working Latinoamericanos pay national and state income tax and FICA tax, even though they may never collect Social Security. The property owning exurbanites also pay fairly hefty property taxes.

But both migrations, without meaning to, also strain their local communities in significant ways. The Latinoamericano migrants are proud enough as a rule to not ask for help except in emergencies, but emergencies do happen that weigh on county social services throughout the region. The children must attend school by law, but English is at best a second language for them and many come speaking no English at all; integrating them into the classroom puts a serious strain on schools already underfunded. Communities with a basic sense of decency stretch themselves to deal with transportation needs, the newcomers' desire to learn enough English to be conversant, et cetera.

At the other end of the economic spectrum, the money the exurbanites can bring into the mountain valleys tends to escalate the prices for nearly everything, but especially for land and housing. They build huge houses that consume both the open space and the available qualified contractors in the region. High-end construction is attractive to contractors who would otherwise be bidding to build more affordable housing, do upgrades and other less lucrative jobs for their communities--work that needs to be done, but takes a back seat to the big jobs.

2) Neither migration seems to come with the idea of assimilation into the local culture of the region. It is not possible to describe a single "local culture" across the communities of the Headwaters region--a region that encompasses everything from solidly "red" traditional middle-American agricultural communities like those in the Lower Gunnison valley to solidly "blue" resort communities like those in the Upper Gunnison . The only common characteristic that seems to run through all these communities is a love of the mountain places.

But it seems fair to say that neither set of immigrants into the region today is much interested in these local cultures. The Latinoamericanos come with a great work ethic and strong family values, but unlike earlier immigrants to the United States , most of them do not come with the intent of investing those values here; where their hearts lie can be seen on payday nights in the line at the Western Union station. The natural beauty and outdoor opportunities do not attract them; Gunnison's Multicultural Resources Office has tried to organize hikes and other outings for the Latinoamericanos with little success. Their “American Dream” seems to be to work here for the future of their Latin America .

Like the inhabitants of the mountain valleys, red or blue, the exurbanites are drawn to the region by an aesthetic appreciation for the natural world surrounding the Headwaters communities, but they have less appreciation for the low-cost, low-maintenance and often funky culture that drew the outdoorsy element to the declining mining and agriculture communities of the Headwaters. And either consciously or unconsciously, the exurbanites engage in a fair amount of upscaling of the communities. The quality of the coffee and beer improves; the old buildings get new foundations and new paint and new tenants; the arts-and-crafts-and-flea-market fair becomes a juried arts festival; and the late summer rendezvous of mountain musicians is upgraded to a music festival not unlike Aspen's, with an imported conductor or whole orchestra or music school.

The changes both groups bring are often inadvertent and are not entirely negative, but they are unsettling and result in some loss of community spirit and identity.

The question we want to consider at the 16th Headwaters Conference is--what "American Dream" drives these migrations into the region? And whether that is one dream or several, can we articulate it better so that those who bear that dream or dreams here can be incorporated into the common spaces of our communities rather than inadvertently destroying them?

To some extent, the power of The American Dream has probably always resided in a somewhat open-ended vagueness: its consistent promise has always been nothing more specific than freedom from interference in the personal "pursuit of happiness" and improvement in one's material condition. Discussions and essays on The American Dream from the 17th through the 19th centuries seemed to promise success and well-being--originally mostly spiritual but ultimately more material--to all who practiced a good work ethic, thrift, courage, determination and other virtues. A whole literature of stories true (Andrew Carnegie) and fictional (Horatio Alger) were the gospels for The American Dream through the mid-20th century.

More recent commentary on The American Dream, however, suggests that it no longer depends on the qualities of character that underlie material success. Matthew Warshauer, Professor of History at Central Connecticut State University , argues in an essay on "Changing Conceptions of the American Dream" that The American Dream today is to get rich quickly and easily, through winning the lottery, getting on a "get rich quick" television show, or through a "coffee-scald" compensation lawsuit. Through the publicizing of those who do "succeed" that way, according to Dr. Warshauer, "Americans are told again and again that the road to the financial success of the American Dream is more a matter of luck than hard work."

Valid as that depressing analysis might or might not be for the mainstream, it is certainly not the Dream that drives people to move to the Headwaters region. But another contemporary perception on the changing American Dream, from another cultural analyst, Richard Florida, might come closer to what moves at least the exurban migrants.

Dr. Florida , author of a best-selling book, The Creative Class, argues in a recent Washington Monthly essay on "The New American Dream," that creative energy is what drives our post-industrial economy. America is no longer hog-butcher and tool-maker for the world; our economy must therefore depend on being the creator and designer of what the rest of the world is making. And creative people will gather, he claims, in places that appreciate, or at least tolerate, creative people and their "lifestyles," which are often unconventional in behavior, recreations, sexuality, et cetera.

But none of this really explains what brings this convergence of American seekers to the challenging Headwaters region, so the only thing to do is to bring articulate representatives from each group together, in our Headwaters Conference style, and ask them…. Then turn it over to the "Headwaters Café" to try to put it all together. November 4-6 in Gunnison.

--George Sibley, Headwaters Coordinator




English Writing Program, Adams State College, Alamosa

Aaron Abeyta is a poet of the Rio Grande llaña, living in his hometown of Antonito and teaching in the writing program at Adams State College in Alamosa. Ghost Road Press has just published his second book of poetry, as orion falls ; his first collection, Colcha, won a Colorado Book Award.


Attorney at Law, Gunnison

Luke Danielson recently made the Upper Gunnison valley his home base, having first been here professionally in the early 1980s representing several environmental organizations in the Homestake Mine permitting process. He was nine years a member of the Colorado Mined Land Reclamation Board, the government agency that administers mine closure programs. He was three times its Chairman. In the aftermath of the financial collapse of the Summitville Project, he led the multistakeholder process that led to new legislation. He has advised the State Council of the Peoples Republic of China. Mr. Danielson was a Visiting Professor at the University of Chile Faculty of Law, where he coauthored a major study of mine closure policies for the Ministry of Mining. He was first Director of the Mining Policy Research Initiative at the International Development Research Centre, and Project Director of the Mining Minerals and Sustainable Development Project. He has authored several articles on mine closure. He was a Trustee of the Colorado Abandoned Mined Land Trust .


Executive Artistic Director, El Centro Su Teatro in Denver.

Anthony J. Garcia has been the Executive Artistic Director at El Centro Su Teatro since 1989 and has been Director of the Su Teatro company since 1974. He is an instructor in Chicano Studies at the Metro State College of Denver, participates in the NEWSED-Santa Fe Redevelopment Authority and the Community Development Coalition - Elyria Swansea. Garcia serves as resident playwright at the Centro, generating successes such as the 1986 production of "Introduction to Chicano History: 101," which was featured in Joseph Papp's Latino Theater Festival in New York and subsequently toured the U.S. Southwest and Mexico. In 1991, Ludlow, Grita de las Minas, also by Garcia was performed at the TENAZ Festival in San Antonio, TX. La Carpa Aztlan presents: "I Don't Speak English Only!" is the company's most successful touring production to date. Written in 1993 by Garcia and the late Jose Guadalupe Saucedo, the production has toured Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Kansas, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Texas, and California. Garcia's most recent work-in-progress is "Journey to Mictlan," the second act in a three act collaboration with Daniel Valdez (El Teatro Campesino) entitled, "El Sol que Tu Eres" ("The Sun that You Are"). A review of this play is online with the University of Colorado/Denver Advocate.


Hispanic Advocate, Gunnison

Mary Burt was born in Alamosa , Colorado , raised in Gunnison, and proudly honors her deep family roots in the San Luis Valley . Her service to the Latino community was inspired by her parents Gloria and Bill Gilliam and her late father Ben Chavez, a Spanish Teacher and Advocate Rights leader. Ms. Burt's service to the Latino community began during her time at Western State College of Gunnison, earning her Bachelors degree in Spanish, in 1994. After many years of volunteer work with Immigrants, Ms. Burt played a key role in forming the Hispanic Advocacy Group in 1996. By 1999, Ms. Burt's advocate work eventually evolved into Director of the Gunnison Literacy Program, an additional program for recent immigrants. In 2001 she helped create and operate the Multicultural Resource Office, a part of the Gunnison County Public Health Department. The purpose of the office is to provide health services, referrals and facilitating a smooth transition for new families in the Gunnison Community. With a staff of forty volunteers, this office currently meets the needs of over two hundred immigrant families and thirty different agencies. Ms. Burt also wrote and co-produced a Spanish language video addressing assimilation and acculturation issues, along with basic community information. For her work with the Office, she received the prestigious Bernie Valdez award in 2003 from the Latin America Research and Service Agency. She left the Office temporarily to focus on being a mother to her son. Currently she is Coordinator for the Immigrant Integration Grant that Gunnison County Public Health received in 2004. The grant is part of The Colorado Trust Supporting Immigrant and Refugee Family Initiative. It focuses on providing support to Colorado Organizations that serve Immigrant populations. She has just finished compiling 9 months of planning in which she organized the Gunnison Community to help write a Comprehensive Action Plan for Immigrant Integration. This 4-year. $300,000 grant will focus on activities to promote Integration such as English Classes, Living in America Workshops, a Bilingual Services guide and Banking classes. She is a non-paid consultant for the Multicultural Resource Office and continues her tireless efforts for immigrant families pursuing the American dream.


Poet, San Miguel County Commissioner

Art Goodtimes is a poet, performer, founder of the Street Poets Union, and--now in his third term--County Commissioner of San Miguel County. He is on the board of Club 20, an association of Western Colorado counties, and has been director or founder of several environmentally-oriented organizations in the Headwaters Region, including the Western Colorado Congress.


Retired Engineer/Analyst, Mt. Crested Butte

Don is retired and lives fulltime in Mt. Crested Butte. He arrived there after a 38-year career in diverse areas of physics and engineering at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Building on a varied background in the research laboratory, he ultimately became an intelligence analyst, considering how technology, politics and economics interact to determine the course of action that a foreign government will likely pursue. His academic preparation for this career was a BS in Engineering Physics from the University of Illinois , Urbana , and a PhD in Applied Physics from Stanford University . He first visited the Gunnison, Crested Butte, and Aspen areas on a jeeping vacation in 1960. About 14 years ago, Betsy and Don bought a small ski and vacation home in Mt. Crested Butte, finally becoming full-timers seven years ago. He has been an observer of many changes in the region, as well as an unintentional cause of change.


Social Ecologist, Basalt

James Kent, a social ecologist, heads up James Kent Associates, the Center for Social Ecology and Public Policy, and Natural Borders LLC that designs and markets Human Geographic Mapping services, with offices in Basalt, Colorado, Ashland, Oregon and Kona, Hawaii. He was raised in the northern Appalachian mountains in New York state; he received his B.A. in Human Relations from Salem College in West Virginia , his M.A. in Sociology from Kent State University , and his Jurist Doctors degree from Denver University . He helped establish several “Great Society” programs, including Head Start, in the 1960s, and then worked with an associate to establish the Foundation for Urban and Neighborhood Development, a social justice group that pioneered the original concepts of the Discovery Process, which is designed to empower people to predict, participate in and control their environments in a manner that does not oppress others.



Donna L. Lipinski is an immigration lawyer and has been working in the field of immigration for over 20 years. She has gained national recognition for her expertise on H-2A visas for Agricultural Workers and H-2B visas for temporary, seasonal workers who typically work in the resort, landscaping, and construction industries. She is the CEO of Lipinski & Associates and is serving her sixth year as a Director nationally to the Board of Governors of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. She has been a faculty member at numerous immigration conferences on the subjects of H-2A and H-2B visas and has written extensively on those subjects. She has received national recognition for her advocacy efforts on behalf of immigrants. She received her BS degree in Elementary Education from the University of Minnesota and her JD from Golden Gate University in San Francisco, CA.


CEO, Romero & Wilson

Ed Romero is the Chief Executive Officer of Romero & Wilson , a multi-cultural marketing, public relations and advertising agency, and Co-Publisher of Kaleidoscope Publishing, producer of Emerging Markets Magazine and RedEarth Magazine. Previous management positions include Director of Business and Corporate Relations for Metropolitan State College; Director of Public Relations & Governmental Affairs for KVDR, Fox Television, Denver; President and CEO of Latino Broadcasting Corporation – KBNO Spanish Radio; Manager of Public Relations, Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce and Vice President and General Manager of La Luz Publications. His involvement in social policy and international relations has led to meetings, under the Reagan and Bush administrations, with recent Mexican Presidents Salinas and Fox, and other consultations on Latin American foreign policy. His education is from the University of New Mexico and Metropolitan State College of Denver, which awarded him an Honorary Doctorate in Public Service for his work with such organizations as the Urban League, Greater Auraria Neighbors Affiliated for Service, Denver Downtown Partners Business Association, the Latino Institute for Education and the Advisory Board for the Museo de Las Americas; he has also served as the President of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Denver.


Planner, Garfield County, Colorado
Randy has an undergraduate degree in Sociology from Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio and a Master's in Urban and Regional Planning/Community Development from the University of Colorado at Denver.  He grew up as a child in Denver and Grand Junction.  For the past four and a half years he has been the Senior Long Range Planner for Garfield County in western Colorado working on projects that range from comprehensive plan updates, to transportation planning, staff liaison on federal land management issues, work on population projections and land use implications, affordable housing, watershed studies, and regulatory updates.  He was employed by the Colorado Department of Local Affairs Impact Office during the oil shale boom and bust years in western Colorado.  He has served as Executive Director of the Region 10 Planning Commission in Montrose, Executive Director of the San Luis Valley Economic Development Council in Alamosa, and as an Economic Development Field Representative for the Department of Local Affairs in the southern high plains region based in Las Animas.  He also served briefly as the Director of the Telluride Institute focusing on watershed education and action issues, and as Director of Carbon County Future in Price, Utah dealing with economic development and tourism enhancement projects. Randy has attended all of the previous Headwaters events, either as a panelist, a volunteer organizer or simply as a participant.  He currently also volunteers his time representing the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Glenwood Springs in an interfaith effort to address some of the local concerns created by immigration issues