The promise and perils of Denver's immigrant boom

Cruising down west Denver's Federal Boulevard, the backdrop of the Rocky Mountains is occasionally interrupted by billboards in Spanish.

Here, roadside stands selling roasted chilies and firecrackers jostle for attention against neon storefront signs that read "Cambio de Cheques." The English translation - "Checks Cashed" - occasionally appears beneath. Indeed, window notices announcing "Se Habla Espagnol" seem curiously redundant. It's plain that English is a second language and signs of Anglo culture, a couple of fast-food franchises, are few.

The scene here reflects what the latest estimates from the US Census Bureau indicate on paper: That ethnic minorities in Denver now constitute a majority of the city's residents. According to figures released this month by the Census Bureau, whites accounted for 49.9 percent of the population in Denver County in 2002, down from 52 percent in 2000. Meanwhile, the percentage of Hispanics in this city of 560,000 now totals more than one-third, and the number of blacks, Asians, and American- Indians also showed gains.

While minorities now constitute a majority in America's 100 largest cities, their growth in Denver has been much slower. Until now, that is. The magnitude of the booming diversity in Denver - a geographic and economic center for the Rocky Mountain West - marks Denver's coming of age as a metropolitan hub. These demographic changes could herald dramatic shifts in the region's political and cultural landscapes in coming decades.

"There are going to be so many more opportunities for people, in all kinds of businesses and industries. That's always been a strength of diversity in a community," says Donna Langston, an ethnic studies professor at the University of Colorado in Denver.

A cow town no more

The city, about midway between Chicago and Los Angeles, regularly appears on "Best Places to Live" lists. It wasn't always this way. Not so long ago, outsiders - and more than a few locals - labeled it a "cow town." The moniker wasn't meant as a compliment; but it wasn't exactly off-base, either. Indeed, the city was then better known for its "brown cloud" than its culture.

Hispanics have been here since before the 1860s. Colorado was once the property of Spain. Later, part of the territory belonged to Mexico. Then came the gold rush and the arrival of more whites brought opportunities for Hispanics.

By 1960, there were over 43,000 Hispanics in the city. Denver has since grown up, now sporting a sleek skyline of skyscrapers that overshadows the Denver Stockyards (the largest livestock market west of the Missouri River).

As the city has matured, businesses and service industries have become increasingly dependent on Spanish-speaking immigrants for labor. "There are so many jobs that no one else in the community does," says Larry Kallenberger, executive director of Colorado Counties Inc.

Now, experts predict there will be a political sea change within a generation as the Hispanic voting bloc strengthens not only in Denver, but statewide. Hispanics account for 20 percent of Colorado's total population, but looking to birthrate alone, they could become the majority population in the state within 30 years.

For a state with a long history of Republican domination, the implications are potent. And in view of the population shift already under way, change may arrive on an even-nearer horizon: Ken Salazar, Colorado's attorney general, is expected to run for governor in 2006. If elected, he would become the first Hispanic governor in Colorado history.

Minority candidates have already made inroads in this mostly Democratic town. Federico Peña served as the city's mayor 1983-1991, and Wellington Webb - Denver's first black mayor - served 1991-2003. The current Denver City Council includes three Hispanic and two black members.

Certainly, Anglo candidates are increasingly dependent on Hispanic voters. "The reality is that everybody has to start paying attention to Latino voters," says Mr. Kallenberger. "Politicians are probably at the point where they risk their political futures if they continue to bash immigrants."

Snowball effect

The inviting political environment, coupled with cultural and economic opportunities, will continue to draw Hispanics to the region, Kallenberger predicts. "There's an existing Latino core here that's strong, and a good number of people speak Spanish as their first language. You can come to Denver and still be a part of the culture you came from."

For Tirzo Rivas, who three years ago bought a tidy house that sits two blocks from a Denver rail yard and in the shadow of an interstate highway overpass, life in Colorado embodies the American dream. Mr. Rivas, a stone cutter and father of four, says plentiful job opportunities attract Hispanics to Colorado: "If you're a hard worker, you can find work doing almost anything," he says. It isn't necessary to speak English to find employment, either.

When his parents' generation came to the state, immigrants from Mexico struggled to fit in, he says; yet now, they can adjust easily to life here.

Hispanics are also moving up and prospering. With this, comes a growing migration of Hispanic families to Denver suburbs - as they seek the same benefits that have always attracted urban residents: less crime, lower costs, and more living space. But there are problems.

In Denver's school district, Hispanics - who outnumber whites 3 to 1 - struggle to succeed. Twenty percent of the 72,000 students don't speak English. And Hispanics' graduation rate is less than 50 percent.

Education concerns

At Edison Elementary School in northwest Denver, third-grader teacher Esther Smith is often the Anglo in the classes she teaches. The tall, blonde, and energetic teacher is all too aware of the challenges facing these children. "The face of Denver is going to completely change in the next 20 years," she says. "At the same time, the Hispanic dropout rate is more than 50 percent. That's a problem."

While there are no easy answers, she believes current systems must change to accommodate Hispanics. "We as Americans think Hispanic have to assimilate and take on our values. But they have a choice whether they want to integrate or not," she says. "We're in a democratic society, and they have the numbers, not us."

Demographic transitions are never without challenges, says Kallenberger. "As people of one color replace another as a majority, there is a test of whether we can survive culturally and politically."

Some believe the key to smoother integration on both sides is inclusion, and building better bridges between cultures. Although all her neighbors send their children to private schools, Paula Ortlieb chose to enroll her son Owen at the elementary school in their West Washington Park neighborhood. "It did not deter me that it was so diverse," she says. She believes her son has only benefited.

"He has friends of all colors, and he doesn't recognize that there's anything different," she says. "He doesn't care. I like that."

For Rivas, who bought a house in Denver three years ago, life in Colorado is more than a dream come true: Even as his family maintains strong ties to their Hispanic heritage - such as celebrating Cinco de Mayo - they also celebrate the Fourth of July. "Both of these cultures are ours," he says.

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