We have to integrate
April 3, 2007
In a class of seven Latino students and one Nepalese person studying English, not one person raised a hand when asked, "How many people moved to Jackson for the great skiing?"
Not one raised a hand when asked, "How many people moved here for the great hiking?"
But all eight raised their hands when asked, "How many people moved here for jobs?"
Such answers illustrate one reason for a cultural divide in this resort town. It's a problem a local group, "Changing Community, Changing Faces," is trying to address.
Javier Maldonado has been in Jackson for 10 years and understands it is Latinos' responsibility to learn English and be part of the American culture, "because it's not our country," he said. Although infrequent, he can feel racial tensions from time to time.
"They don't say anything, but you know -- you can feel when they use the race," he said.
Jackson has one of the highest Latino populations in the state, at around 20 percent.
Sonia Adriana Shaw has been in Jackson for a year and is married to a man from Texas. She agreed it is "very important for families to learn English," so they can communicate in grocery stores, in shops and at the hospital.
But in a room of eight people, three of them are working two jobs each, and several knew others who had three or more jobs. That work life leaves little time for assimilation with Jackson's white population.
Religion is also a factor. Most of those in the English class, for example, go to church every Sunday, meeting a lot of people at the same Catholic church. Jackson is not a particularly religious town, perhaps furthering the divide and providing fewer opportunities for races to intermingle.
"Changing Faces, Changing Community" has been meeting for weeks in small groups, and the organization made a presentation to about 100 people here this month highlighting what it thinks are the appropriate "first steps" toward bridging the cultural divide.
Top ideas include creation of a task force to gather facts about the Latino community, to stem the tide of what many consider false information being purveyed. Creating opportunities for cross-cultural interaction and allowing employees to learn English through employer-sponsored time off or classes were also suggested. Allowing Latinos to have a Teton County driver's license was also a top idea, although police representatives said that was unlikely to happen.
Valley Peters, who works with the Teton Literacy Program and was part of the steering committee that put together the Changing Faces program, said the idea for community discussions began in the summer of 2005, when two sexual assaults near the Jackson Town Square involving Latinos occurred.
"In August '05, there was a lot of fear," Peters said. "Fear in the Anglo community, fear in the Latino community. We just realized there's a lot of misunderstanding here."
The goal, she said, is to "convey a more realistic and broad picture of immigration." For example, people have written letters to the local paper that Latinos are taking jobs, and putting an undue strain on social services.
"How is the community benefiting in positive ways by having more Latinos in the community?" Peters asked. The idea of complete cultural integration is idealistic, she said, but the Changing Faces group wants to be able to present the community with facts and help people see the Jackson Hole experience from the "other side."
The wealth disparity in Jackson may also makes racial issues more complicated, as Latinos are building the middle and lower classes in a town with mainly upper-class economic residents.
Melissa Turley, a bilingual town council member who works with the Latino community, said there is a push to create a task force to track facts to educate the community, such as how many Latinos work in certain sectors and how many whites have applied for similar positions. There are always rumors that immigrants don't pay taxes, and Turley said the task group could look at how much money is paid in taxes and how many refunds are not claimed by both legal and illegal immigrants, to help educate the community.
That task group could be under the umbrella of community government, and may involve the University of Wyoming.
Many of the "action ideas" presented by the Changing Faces group focused on the responsibility of employers helping Latino workers learn English. Suggestions ranged from having paid time off to learn, setting aside an hour a day for language learning, and having employers pay for English classes. In fact, many of the sponsors of the Changing Faces group are employers who hire Latinos, and are looking to assimilate them into the community.
Other ideas focused on schools, where cultural and language integration could happen at younger ages.
Another suggestion surrounded a broader education campaign, primarily through the media, to frame immigration issues in a historical context. That same group suggested creating the task group within Teton County to gather data including school enrollment, employment, housing and assimilation to be able to accurately portray Latinos' involvement in the community.
The goal, ultimately, is to make everyone feel safe here. Turley said law enforcement's involvement in the Changing Faces program is key, because some Latinos are afraid to be outside their homes or work for fear something will happen to them, and they can't report it to the police because they are here illegally.
Still, there is work to be done to bridge the divide between the two cultures.
"We would like to give some of our culture, but you know, we have to integrate with the American people," Maldonado said.
Reporter Whitney Royster can be reached at (307) 734-0260 or at .
* Last we knew: Jackson's Latino population has surged in recent years, with Latinos now making up about 20 percent of the resort town's population.
* The latest: A community group is working to bridge the resulting cultural divide.
* What's next: The group will try to implement some of its ideas, including helping immigrants learn English.
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