Immigrant Voices: Irene Avitia
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Irene Avitia considers herself an immigrant, though she is not one in theory. She was born in Merced, California — her parents worked in the agricultural fields there — and when she was two months old, her family moved back to Mexico.
The second youngest of six children, Irene grew up in a very small town in Zacatecas, Mexico, and lived there until she was in sixth grade.
“I never knew I was U.S. born,” Irene said. “My parents never told us. We were just like any other kid in town.”
As she and her siblings grew older, her parents decided they wanted to return to the U.S. to seek a better education for their children.
“Where we lived, we only had elementary and middle school,” Irene said. “If you wanted to do high school, you had to travel to another town, and if you wanted to do college, you had to travel farther.”
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Irene’s dad was a truck driver working in the oil fields near Rangley. He didn’t want the family living there and decided Steamboat Springs was the place he wanted his family to live. They moved to Steamboat in 2004 when Irene was in eighth grade.
At the time, there were only five other Spanish-speaking students in her grade, all boys, and she remembers it being a tough time for her.
“I think the school was learning how to support us — the newcomers,” Irene said.
Irene had her oldest daughter when she was a junior in high school.
“So, my senior year was different than most seniors,” Irene said. “I had to take the bus, drop her off at Young Tracks and then take the bus again to pick her up after school. I didn’t drive back then because I was terrified of the snow.”
Irene’s dream was to work with children, and after she graduated from high school, she applied to work at the preschool and child care center where her daughter attended. Young Tracks hired Irene as a substitute and then a teacher’s aide. She took two years off after her second daughter was born and then returned to Young Tracks, where she worked herself up to the positions of teacher lead and infant supervisor.
In 2017, Irene decided to pursue another dream, which was to use her skills to work with the Spanish-speaking community. Upon the urging of her husband, Adrian, Irene applied and was hired as the early childhood education specialist at Integrated Community, a position she still holds today.
In her role, Irene offers early childhood education programs to Spanish-speaking families, especially those who are at home with their children or who are caregivers. She also works with families to help find a preschool and apply for scholarships.
“I really just help families navigate the educational systems,” Irene said. “If anyone calls in and says ‘Irene, I need help,’ I’ll help with anything and try to connect them to resources. And during the pandemic, it was more about checking in to make sure they were OK, they had food. It was more of a support group.”
Looking back on her first years in Steamboat, Irene said she never felt rejected, though she couldn’t say she felt completely accepted either.
“I don’t know if it was because I was so into helping my mom and didn’t notice, or that I was 12 years old and didn’t see that aspect of people yet,” Irene said.
But she has noticed a shift in how some people view her and her family due to a changing political environment.
“I have never felt as rejected or felt self aware of my language or my skin color as I have the last four years,” Irene said. “I think when you have someone you look up to, and it’s OK for them to act that way and express their feelings that way, it opens the door for people to do the same thing.”
Irene said she and her husband had never previously talked to their children about the possibility they could be targeted because of their skin color.
“We’ve talked about how we are special and unique in a beautiful way and how lucky we are to be bicultural and bilingual,” Irene said. “But now, it’s hard. My daughter Vanessa, who is darker skinned than her sister, has had people say to her, “go back to Mexico; you don’t belong here.’”
The challenges facing the immigrant population in Steamboat are multi-faceted, according to Irene, and include language barriers, cultural differences, transportation and economic disparity.
“There’s such an economic divide in Steamboat — there’s no in between,” she said. “It’s either you have a ton of money, and you have two second homes, or you are working three jobs to barely survive.”
And housing poses another dilemma for immigrant families.
When she and her family first moved to Steamboat 16 years ago, Irene said they all lived together in a rented mobile home.
“It was my mom, my dad, my sister, her two kids, her husband, me and my little brother living in that tiny home,” Irene said. “It was the only thing we could afford.”
Irene said she and her husband have hopes of owning a home in Steamboat one day.
“Every time I see that hope going further and further way, I feel like we’re never going to get that goal.”
Irene, who is often one of the only Latina faces at meetings, is determined to help raise up other leaders like herself, and that is why she helped create the Yampa Valley Latinx Alliance, a new network connecting the local Spanish-speaking community that now has 376 followers on Facebook.
“We want to prepare ourselves and educate others to go out there and serve in the community,” Irene said. “We have to do our part, and organizations, as a whole, have to be open to have that person on their board, not just for diversity, but because you want that person to have a voice at the table and their opinions are respected.”
And when it comes to advice for making immigrants feel more welcome, Irene thinks it comes down to education and a willingness to learn from other cultures.
“Be open and willing to learn from others. Educate yourself and show respect and patience to others. And we need more kindness.”
To reach Lisa Schlichtman, call 970-871-4221, email lschlichtman@SteamboatPilot.com or follow her on Twitter @lschlichtman.
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