Right now, the West is struggling to diversify its economy. But would our economy have already been diversified if a greater diversity of people had been allowed to make their homes here? How the history of racial erasure has hurt small towns, and how welcoming newcomers could turn that around.
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[ ↓ Transcript ↓ ]
In lots of history books, we learn this idyllic story of the American West. Like the one I heard about Teller City, settled by European pioneers sent here by destiny to make this land their home. The heroes of the story were European and Native Americans were usually the bad guys. Other immigrant stories were missing altogether. And growing up, I believed that narrative even though I could see with my own eyes it didn’t fit reality.
One of my good friends growing up in tiny Walden, Colorado was Lorenza. Winter, we spent all day on ice skates on the rink next door to her house. Summer, jumping double dutch in the middle of the street. Working at the sawmill, my dad used his clunky Spanish to chit chat with her dad on lunch breaks. And over the years, the number of immigrants increased in North Park, filling a need for construction workers to build log homes for the wealthy. We heard all about that shortage in episode three when Jim Moore had trouble getting workers to build his giant lodge. My husband Ken spoke Spanish all day working on construction crews in Walden and made good friends there.
In communities that are ghost towning, there are so many holes left gaping open, and a lot of times it’s immigrants who step up to fill those holes, such as Eastern Europeans working in restaurants or South Americans herding sheep. When my town grocery went bankrupt, it was Rosa who opened up a little grocery market selling fresh produce. Then there’s the Gonzalez family who now has a successful business selling firewood by the cord. Not to mention Rosio Nezarez.
Before Rosio was born, her dad started traveling up from Mexico to North Park for work.
“My dad was here a long time ago. I wasn’t even born when he came to Walden. That’s when I actually, you know, we first moved here, and I guess we went back and forth,” Rosio said.
Then, when she was six years old, her dad moved her whole family to Walden. And so, just like me, all she’s ever really known is North Park.
“And I did go, like when I was teenager, out of town, I went to Denver and Texas and I came back and I’m still here. But I wouldn’t be able to live in the hot weather. Maybe because I lived here so long,” she said with a laugh. “I go to Denver to visit my sister and I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s so hot here!’ I get a headache.”
But during that short time when she lived in Denver, she got a job at a senior center.
“[In] the kitchen, and I really enjoyed the old people. I don’t know why. Because I don’t have friends my age. The people that I hang out with are usually older than me. And people are like, ‘you’re weird’ and I’m like, ‘it’s fine.’ For me, a party is having cookies and coffee and that’s what the older people usually have,” she said.
Taking care of the elderly became a lifelong passion for Rosio. She started by cleaning houses and it wasn’t long before she was taking care of the people living in those homes.
“I like to help people, that’s my main thing, especially older people. I know that there’s such a need to take care of our seniors here [more] than anything else,” said Rosio. “And I enjoy that. I just like talking to them and seeing them and getting a smile out of them. And just, you know, giving them a little bit of hope, when they’re alone and nobody visits them.”
I mentioned in an earlier episode that Jackson County has the highest number of people over 90 per capita of any other in the state. So yeah, the population here is aging rapidly. Without Rosio, many seniors in North Park would have no one to care for them. There’s no senior housing here, no assisted living facility, many seniors live on fixed incomes or in outright poverty. So the need for eldercare here is not just dire, it’s a full-blown emergency. And some of them don’t speak English. So Rosio, she’s also the town translator.
“Sometimes they call me from, like, the post office, ‘Hey, I can’t understand the amount they’re saying?’ Or ‘I don’t know if we did it right.’ ‘Oh, just put me on speaker.’ They put me on speaker and we get it all over with. I go down there, whatever it is, [I tell them] you know, just holler,” said Rosio. “And it’s not like I live out of town, I live just in town, and it’ll take me a minute to get to the post office or to the bank. Wherever I’m needed.”
Meanwhile, Rosio has her own family to take care of. She’s in her mid-30’s now with three children. She has other family here too.
“My dad is retired, so he doesn’t work. My brother-in-law, he has his own company [in] construction. My husband has been working at the pellet mill for 13 years,” she said.
The Nezerez family, each of them stepping up to fill needs in a struggling town. Sustaining it a little longer before it slides all the way into ghost towning.
Today, we continue the story of migration in the American West. We see how the trajectory of our history was leading toward more diverse communities but where that derailed–and is still derailing. Ivy Engel is a lot like me. She grew up in Glenrock, Wyoming, a town of 2,500 that sits right in the middle of the nation’s energy basket, and grew up with that same screwy view of Western history that I did. She started digging in search of a more accurate picture.
A History Built On The Backs Of Immigrants
Right now, the West is struggling to diversify its economy. But would our economy have already been diversified if a greater diversity of people had been allowed to make their homes here? And maybe, just maybe, do we still have a chance to build such an economy now? Or could history start to repeat itself with the anti-immigrant rhetoric and policy decisions of the past few years?
To answer these questions, it’s useful to look at immigrant towns of the past. First, the Chinatowns of the West. They offer a good look at how the West might have been different if immigration hadn’t been so mishandled here.
When you think of Chinatown it might be the one in San Francisco. And many men did come from China to California during the gold rush, hoping to strike it rich like everyone else. But following the rush, they spread across the West, following employment with the transcontinental railroad. I remember learning about it in fourth grade. The railroad allowed East Coasters to migrate west and colonize. But that’s about all we learned on the topic. There was no mention of who built all these railroads. Turns out, it was largely Chinese immigrants.
I found that out from Dudley Gardner, a historian and archeologist who has been excavating Chinatowns in Wyoming for over 40 years. He said that most Chinese workers worked for the railroad either repairing the rails or mining coal to feed the trains, and Chinese businesses sprang up along the tracks to serve all these workers.
“They would open restaurants, and they would open laundries. Statistically, it cost only $200 to open up the laundry, you would make that money back in two or three months. Through time, there were less and less Chinese coal miners, less and less Chinese railroad workers, but more and more Chinese entrepreneurs,” he said.
These merchants helped make Chinatowns feel more like real towns. But Chinese immigrants weren’t allowed to bring their families with them to America, so some of the hallmarks of towns, like schools, didn’t exist. And it’s no wonder many Chinese immigrants started their own businesses. They continuously got the short end of the stick from the rail companies.
William Wei is a history professor at the University of Colorado Boulder who specializes in modern Chinese history. He said Chinese immigrants that worked for the railroad did back-breaking work.
“They were recruited to do this work, a work that was comparable to what other railroad workers, White railroad workers, were doing, but they were paid less for the same work. And not only were they paid less, but they had to do it in worse working conditions. And they had to work longer hours,” he said.
Chinese rail workers tried striking once to demand higher wages, but the Union Pacific Railroad Company quickly defeated them.
Rock Springs is a little sagebrush town along the railroad in the Southwestern part of the state. Colorful hills surround it where wild horses roam. Its quaint downtown sits by the train tracks and it’s not hard to imagine its wild west era. The town was one of the stops that had a thriving Chinatown.
Jennifer Messer is the Museum Coordinator at the Rock Springs Historical Museum. She said that Chinese laborers not only faced discrimination at work, but they also had to live in a different section of the coal towns. U.P. built them their own set of houses on the outskirts of town away from everyone else.
“There are hundreds and hundreds of examples of communities being extremely anti-Chinese, and being really ugly and really angry about them,” she said. “Here in Rock Springs wasn’t any different. The Finnish miners here in town were trying really hard to unionize and they were trying to raise the price per day of coal. The Chinese miners weren’t having any of that.”
The White miners were angry because the Chinese workers felt like they couldn’t rock the boat. Even though they faced discrimination, they were glad to just have a job. That fed the powder keg that eventually blew in 1885.
In September of that year, one of the mine bosses in Rock Springs sent a few Chinese miners into a coal room to be cleaned out. Miners were paid by the ton of coal. Other miners had already gotten down to the coal and now the Chinese workers just had to finish cleaning it out of the pit. They were going to get paid for the coal when they didn’t do the hard work of getting to it. The Chinese miners protested, but the mine bosses insisted. So they went to work.
“And when the Finnish miners showed up, a fight started underground,” said Jennifer. “One of the Chinese miners was killed underground. The mine bosses actually shut the mine down, sent everybody home. There’s accounts that for probably the only time ever they closed all the bars in Rock Springs so that people would try to stay sober and this would not turn into a major production. But a group of the European miners, the White miners, got together and talked about forcing the Chinese out of town, and so they marched on Chinatown. They ended up killing 28 of the Chinese miners here.”
The bodies of those 28 miners were the only ones they could identify, but there were reports of pieces of bodies that were never attached to a name. Lots of miners fled into nearby hills and were apparently never seen again. It’s likely that many more died from wounds or the elements.
This attack shaped the future of the West by destroying the growing diversity of the region. But for me, a kid growing up only a few hours away in Glenrock, Wyoming, I’d never heard of it until just recently. My history classes conveniently left out this messy bit of local history. And teachers across the state aren’t required by the Wyoming Department of Education to cover it either.
Dr. Wei described it as intentional suppression of history.
“They are erased from American history because of the way we construct our master narrative. That is to say, how we understand ourselves. And how we understand ourselves is, essentially, as a White nation,” he said. “And therefore, all other folks, and that includes other people of color, including Blacks, Latinx, American Indians, as well as Asian Americans have been marginalized in that history. If anything, we have been relegated to the margins”
To make sure it stayed a White majority, the United States passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. The government didn’t allow new Chinese immigrants into the country until the act was repealed in 1943. Even after Congress repealed it, Asian-Americans didn’t have the option to become citizens and vote for another nine years. And they weren’t the only group the United States government blocked from citizenship. The U.S. didn’t grant Native Americans citizenship until 1924, but the right to vote was governed by state law. Some states barred Native Americans from voting until 1957. These deliberate attempts to erase whole groups of people worked.
“It’s difficult to believe today that there were Chinatowns all over the American West,” said Dr. Wei. “As many as over 200 of them. And yet they were driven out of those. Often, they were burned out, violently driven out.”
And these events weren’t just perpetrated by just some random people. Police officers and judges oftentimes looked the other way, and sometimes even joined in.
Take Porvenir, Texas. It’s a tiny town in deep desert West Texas, right on the border with Mexico. It’s one of those towns that started in Mexico and then found itself in the U.S. when the border crossed it after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848.
In 1918, Texas Rangers, U.S. Cavalry soldiers, and local ranchers descended on the village, separated fifteen men and boys from their families, brought them out of town, and shot them at close range. The women and children fled across the nearby border to Mexico and shortly after, the posse razed the town. The Rangers claimed that they had found evidence that the people of Porvenir had been involved in the raid of a nearby ranch, but their claims were never proven.
Only after pressure from the Mexican government, the Texas Ranger Company B was disbanded. A few men were fired, but none of the posse were convicted for the murders.
Many small Latino towns like Porvenir became ghost towns because of racist events like this one. Now, all that’s left of Porvenir is a historic marker recognizing the massacre. It’s a simple sign beside the highway that summarizes the events of that terrible night and lists the names of the victims. But that small remembrance took over a century to get erected, and even that saw a lot of pushback.
That’s something Rock Springs knows a lot about. Local schools didn’t teach the Rock Springs Massacre until the year 2000. There’s a museum exhibit and a few local monuments and art pieces dedicated to the Chinese immigrants and the massacre. But the city didn’t erect the monument until 2016. It’s nothing more than a large sandstone rock with a plaque on it just on the edge of the historic Chinatown’s location.
Some residents say this isn’t enough, while others fight the idea of creating more monuments and drawing more attention to past mistakes. And Jennifer said this debate isn’t a new one.
“I think Rock Springs has this very complicated feeling towards it. It’s this really awful thing,” she said. “There was political commentary in newspapers back East that they should raze Rock Springs to the ground. That it should cease to exist post-Chinese Massacre, because what is wrong with you people? Except the whole country already has this sentiment, you have the Chinese Exclusion Act. That’s literally what you guys want to do!”
And Dr. Wei said an unwelcoming past can make an area still feel unwelcoming today. But there are a few small steps the town can make to set things right and make it more welcoming for those of Chinese descent and maybe other immigrants too. Coming to terms with the past is a major step, and that starts with recognizing that the events occurred and sharing that history with others.
“But you can at least render an apology, say you understand that this was a tragedy, and you can apologize for it. I think that means a lot to the descendants. You know, people appreciate when people own up to their mistakes, right?” he said. “And I think if you want to prevent this thing from happening, again, you have to basically teach people about these past events, and put them in historical context. You know, why did it occur?”
Which makes me think, is a monument enough?
An Attractive West For New Groups
Immigrant stories may have been buried in the ruins of ghost towns of the Old West, but lately, those stories have been rising up out of the ashes once again.
I grew up in Glenrock, Wyoming, a town that’s almost completely dependent on the boom and bust cycle of coal and oil. I’ve seen businesses born in boom times that die a few short years later when the next bust rolls through town. It’s a common tune in the West and it’s caused many young people to leave for better opportunities. A larger immigrant population could help Glenrock and other small towns break free from the cycle.
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Steven Camarota is the Director of Research at the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington D.C., so this is a subject he thinks a lot about. He says many immigrants in the West today are like Rosio Nezerez, who came to Walden from Mexico when she was six. They come for jobs and end up staying for the outdoorsy lifestyle.
“The Mountain West has certain advantages. It has a reasonably good economy, it has low cost of living and relatively available jobs. So, these things have attracted more and more native-born people and you know, immigrants and natives tend to move to the same sorts of places,” he said.
So if small towns are already failing, a big question is how they can attract immigrants to move there and then keep them there once they come.
Well, Rosio for one, says she has no desire to move away from Walden.
“I honestly don’t see me living out of Walden. You know, it’s a great place for the kids to grow,” she said, “I like the peace, with the people, the community, how when you get to know them, they take care of you, you take care of them, and it’s a family thing that you’re not going to find anywhere else.”
But she said it hasn’t been that easy for other Latino families.
“When I was little, there used to be a lot of families and a lot of them moved. Alot of them went to Laramie. A lot of them went to Fraser [and] Granby. They used to live here. So they didn’t go very far, but they did move,” she said. “There’s not enough jobs here in Walden. Like it’s just basically The River Rock, the Mad Moose, the grocery stores, gas stations, and pretty much that’s it. Then they opened the pellet mill. But other than that, it’s pretty small.”
Rosio said with so few jobs, Walden is losing Latino families fast. She said, that might be because, without easy access to basic necessities, it’s a hard place to raise kids.
“I don’t know, maybe like a real store. And we have a little grocery store [and] we have the dollar store and thank god they put in the dollar store. That has helped a lot,” Rosio said. “But like, maybe say, like for showering, stuff like that? Or clothing? Then you would have to go either to Fort Collins, Steamboat, or Laramie.”
But that means that towns like Walden need to value the work of people like Rosio. She told this one story:
“Like right now, I was helping a lady, she has cancer and she had to go to Laramie to get her chemo, sometimes. She comes back and she’s really sick. She’s not in the mood, you know, she’s very weak. Then she says, ‘I recoup for a day or two and then I have to go back’ and she’s like, ‘it’s just killing me’. And she lives by herself. Her husband died a few years ago. And I tell her, ‘If you need help with anything, just let me know. I’m happy to help you. And if you don’t have the income, that’s fine. You don’t need to pay me. I just want you to be okay.’”
In other words, Rosio was often giving care to Walden’s seniors for free. She thought of it as an extension of the other charity work she does through her church.
“I don’t make a lot of money. Like right now, I’m not getting [much]. I used to work at the clinic and they used to pay me when they called me, and then usually now the people call me and I don’t charge the people,” she said.
So Rosio is doing an absolutely essential service in Walden and getting very little payment for her vital services.
But she’s hoping to turn that around. These days she’s attending online training to get her nursing certificate so she can help people with even more services.
“I heard about workforce in Steamboat and they’re gonna help me pay for them just to get certified and go more the legal way,” she said. “I started some and then they canceled them for the COVID so they say maybe they start getting going in the spring. Hopefully, we’ll do that. I’m working on some online for now, getting some training and stuff like that.”
The state is now paying to get Rosio her nursing certification, but small towns could do more for community members like Rosio. Like, help entrepreneurs remodel their buildings, make sure opportunities are advertised bilingually, and make people feel welcome, the way Rosio says she does in Walden. Recently, she says a member of Jackson County’s school board invited her to join. But she’s so swamped with all the other work she does in the community that she had to tell him she’ll think about it.
“I said, ‘Look, give me a year to think about it. Let me see. And I’ll get back with you.’ And he asked me again, ‘Have you thought about it?’ Like, yeah, I thought about it. So I might just go in and see what happens. Who knows?” she said.
Building More Inclusive Communities
Making people feel more welcome is exactly the type of thing that can help save a small town. Megan Lawson is an economist with the research group Headwaters Economics. She worked on a study that found that three out of every four counties in the rural West grew in population since 1980, and most of that growth came from the influx of minority populations. Of the 75 counties where the overall population decreased, minority populations continued to grow in all but two counties.
“About a quarter of all counties in the West would have lost population, if it were not for growth in minorities. So because of people of color moving into a community, these places are kind of in some ways being kept afloat,” Megan said. “So folks moving in are keeping schools open, they’re keeping grocery stores solvent and those kinds of day-to-day things that really sustain a place.”
Steven Camarota, the immigration studies researcher, agrees. He says a lot of people are like Rosio and immigrate because of family and friends who have already moved to the United States.
“And then more people come as friends and family and social networks develop, then you get more follow-on immigration. And so that’s the kind of thing you’re seeing in a place like Nebraska, [where] people come to work in particular industries. And now you’re getting more follow-on immigration as people from the same community, or from the same family join people in Nebraska,” he said.
But Steven said the rhetoric and the legislation of the Trump era has had a ripple effect on such communities. Fewer immigrants have been trying to enter the country and the ones who do have faced tougher restrictions.
And in the face of harsher crackdowns, undocumented workers may decide to return to their home country and bring any native-born or documented family members, including children, with them. That “extra” outmigration could have a really big impact on rural Western towns, because not only would these towns lose their immigrant populations which are helping stabilize them, but they would also lose even more of their native-born population than they already were.
Luckily, Rosio has no plans to leave Walden, but if she did, many elderly residents might have to move away too. This could spell doom for an already declining small town.
According to US Census Bureau data, the most common age of all minorities in the US in 2018 was 27. The most common age of Hispanics was just 11 years old! Meanwhile, the most common age in the White population was 58. As the already older White population continues aging, the younger immigrant population can continue to carry their communities forward. Without minorities, small towns will lose population much faster and start ghost towning as businesses and people leave the area.
It got me wondering what could help make a community like Glenrock appeal to immigrants.
So I called Mo Kantner, the Director of State and Local Initiative at the New American Economy. They’re a bipartisan research and advocacy organization focused on making an economic case for smarter immigration reform.
“We have an amazing research team that can look at the role of immigrants within specific communities, within specific industries and within subsets of the quote-unquote immigrant population. So looking at those that are highly skilled and working in the STEM field or looking at refugees or looking at the DACA population,” said Mo. “And we use this original research to really bring people together from both sides of the aisle who were really tired of having these polarized conversations and wanted to have sort of a baseline conversation rooted in the fact of immigration and how we need immigrants as a country.”
And New American Economy has this really cool program that they co-manage called Gateways For Growth (G4G), which works to help communities become more welcoming and supportive of immigrants at a local level. Towns can receive localized research on the impacts of immigrants on their community and their economy, or information on barriers that can keep immigrants from being successful. Communities can also receive assistance to build a strategic welcoming plan or a strategic immigrant integration plan. Those plans help build a structure within the community that supports immigrants by increasing accessibility and creating and supporting existing resources. Each plan is tailored to each community and Mo said there are a lot of similarities between communities that apply for G4G. And those similarities sound an awful lot like many places in the rural West.
“Where we tend to find the most interest from communities is where there is a bit of population decline. Where there is this risk of a combination of an aging population and a population that’s leaving some of these sort of Midwest communities that are looking for opportunities elsewhere. And that’s really where immigrants can play a huge role in helping support those communities and revive some of those local economies and communities,” Mo said.
But I wanted to know, if it’s already struggling, what can attract immigrants to a small town?
“A lot of the times, it’s access to workforce. It’s access to a job. It’s filling in those job openings and those job gaps that we’re seeing in places across the country. That can be really compelling for an immigrant community,” said Mo. “And then the second thing they look for is for others within their own community. That’s how they can transition to a community within the US a bit more smoothly is by having a support system in place that’s there, that understands their cultural needs, their linguistic needs, anything like that, just sort of helping ensure a smooth transition into the U.S.”
But immigration policies have left many families feeling under attack. Lowered immigration caps keep new migrants from coming into the country, and the “Remain In Mexico” policy that requires asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for entry into the country even further limits the number of immigrants. Some of these new policies really do feel like a flashback to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1943.
“It has definitely been a tumultuous time for the past few years for the immigration community, just with a lot of changes and a lot of things being changed and then being changed back and a lot of uncertainty. And I know that that uncertainty has been difficult for a number of folks that work in the immigration space. So we will see what the years ahead bring, but we are hoping for at least a little bit more stability in that area,” said Mo.
Steven, the immigration researcher, said the next four years are expected to be a bit more stable.
“Biden has said, for example, that he doesn’t want to deport anyone in the first hundred days. So you would guess anyone here who’s thinking about going or worrying about running afoul of the law would be more likely to stay and see how things play out, you know? So I think there’s that,” he said.
A newfound sense of security could help immigrants become comfortable enough to put down roots in their community, and this could encourage the type of follow-on immigration that Steven talked about, bringing in and building strong rural communities.
Ghost Town(ing) episode art by John McNamis
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