Indivisible, Part 2 | Voices of color: Racism and reconciliation in Routt County
Editor’s note: This story contains racial slurs. The words are used as part of direct quotes, and their use is crucial to this story.
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The first time Janel Washington was called a racial slur, she was standing by her car in a parking lot in Steamboat Springs.
Less than two weeks ago, Hayden Mayor Tim Redmond, a Black man, was accused of stealing materials off of a job site where he had been working for six weeks. He’s lived in the Yampa Valley for 36 years.
And when Tracy Gomez was riding the bus with a friend, the driver yelled, “Speak English, you’re in America.” Gomez was born in the U.S. and moved to Routt County when she was 6.
The following nine narratives — personal experiences about what it is like to be a person of color in an overwhelmingly white Yampa Valley — also describe Steamboat and Routt County as welcoming places where people of color have found acceptance and community.
The article does not represent an accurate demographic sampling of people of color who live in the Yampa Valley. There are races not included; there are experiences not included.
One person of color, of course, does not experience the same thing as another person of color.
The terms Hispanic, Latinx, Black and African American are all used, based on how people refer to themselves or what is considered to be today’s accepted terminology.
For the purpose of this story, race is discussed in the social context, or as described by W.E.B. Du Bois, the sociohistorical concept of race, which accounts for shared group experience and cumulative social and historical conditions.
Janel Washington moved to Colorado to pursue her dream of combining her work as a licensed professional counselor with her love of animals. Her ultimate goal is to build a ranch where animals are used to assist with mental health therapy.
Once on track to be a veterinarian, Washington took a different direction, earning her master’s degree in clinical health in 2017. She turned 40 that same year and decided, “Now is the time to do the things I want to do.”
Growing up between Chicago, Illinois and California, Washington chose Colorado as the ideal spot to pursue her dream, and she moved to Steamboat, sight unseen, on a friend’s recommendation.
The first time Washington was called a racial slur was in 2018. She had just started working as a school-based therapist for Mind Springs Health and had been in the area for only about six months.
Washington was scheduled to meet a colleague at Steamboat Springs Middle School but, by mistake, pulled into the high school parking lot.
She was standing outside her car when she said she heard a young male voice say, “Hey nigger.” She looked around, and the only person she saw was a teenager standing by his truck.
“It blew my mind,” Washington said. “I thought Steamboat was supposed to be progressive.”
The second time Washington was called by that name was in Craig, where she lived and worked when she first moved to Colorado.
Washington was taking her garbage out, and as she passed another apartment, she said she heard a neighbor call out, “nigger bitch.”
Washington also has been the target of microaggressions, which also cut deep.
While at a grocery story self checkout, Washington said she was getting ready to leave with three cans of cat food, two cans of tuna and a bottle of nail polish. A cashier suddenly appeared behind her, snatched her bag and accused her of not scanning everything.
After going through her bag, the cashier — an older white woman — said “Oh, OK.” But there was no apology.
This type of incident, Washington said, happens often.
At one store, she was followed down aisle after aisle.
“If white people don’t know you, they are suspicious,” Washington said. “Once you have established relationships with everyone, then you a good Negro.”
Asked if she’d had similar experiences in California or Chicago, she said she had not.
“People there are used to seeing Black people,” Washington said.
Here, she said she sees a lot of “deer in the headlights” looks and double takes.
“I’m a Negro — I’m not going to hurt you,” Washington joked, describing how she feels as the subject of those stares.
There’s another anecdote she can’t tell without tearing up. It happened when Washington was working at an elementary school in Steamboat. A kindergartener stopped in the hallway and said, “Excuse me, are you stranger danger?”
At first, Washington was genuinely perplexed.
“What do you mean?” she asked the little girl, who responded, “You’re Black.”
Washington, very gently, said to the girl, “What does being Black have to do with it?”
To which the girl responded, “My mommy and daddy said Black people are dangerous, and I’m supposed to yell ‘stranger danger.’”
“She had no malice in her heart,” Washington said. “She was doing what she was trained to do.”
But the encounter affected Washington physically. She stood there in the hallway, frozen. She didn’t know what to do. Other staff members in earshot disappeared.
”The people who could help me left me,” she said.
Washington called for a counselor, who came over and talked with the girl, explaining why skin color doesn’t mean someone is dangerous. Later in the day, when the parents came to pick the girl up, Washington informed them of what happened.
“It didn’t end well,” she said.
The incident turned into an attack on Washington for accusing the parents of being racist, she said. And she was reproached for informing the parents.
“It felt like no one really wanted to deal with it,” she added.
At this time, Washington isn’t sure if she will stay in the Yampa Valley.
Her sister wants to visit with Washington’s three nephews — all tall, young Black men. Based on too many of her own painful experiences, she is not sure she wants them to come.
“I don’t feel safe in bringing them here,” Washington said.
At the core, Washington is optimistic about human nature, and when these things happen to her, she first assumes it isn’t about race. But then, when it becomes clear she is being treated differently because of her skin color, “it crushes my soul every single time,” she said.
She is no less determined to build her animal therapy ranch.
“I have so much hope. I want to make it work. I want to be here. I want to fit in.”
Born to an African American and Native American father and a Russian and Italian mother, Winter Clark was raised in the East Village of New York City.
The mountains called to her when it became clear she needed more space and more nature in her work as an author, a master Reiki healer and a spiritual guide.
With New York City as the “ultimate melting pot,” Clark knew she was coming to a much whiter environment.
When she made her way to Steamboat about a year ago, the first thing she noticed was the scenery.
“I thought, ‘oh my god, this is epic,’” Clark said.
The second thing she thought was “where are all the brown people?”
She met her partner — a blonde, blue-eyed man from Indiana — in Denver, and the two now live in Oak Creek.
In her experience thus far, Clark said her interactions in the community have been positive. She finds people to be down to earth, and she hasn’t really experienced discrimination.
When she does see other Black people, there is an acknowledgement — a head nod — an “I see you,” she said.
In Oak Creek, she is the only person of color in her neighborhood. Clark has lighter skin but also distinguishing African American and Native American features.
Clark mostly thinks of herself as mixed race, and she knows that gives her a unique lens.
“Some people think I’m Spanish. Some people think I’m Black. I grew up in a gray area,” she said.
But after George Floyd’s death, as protests spread across the nation, she grew closer to the Black part of her identity.
When the protests started, she posted on social media about coming “from a place of being mixed — from both sides. It’s the only place I can speak from. Not one or the other. I have to speak from the middle.”
Her partner, she said, can only see things through his lens.
“He can’t help it. It’s the lens we grow up with.”
But they do talk about it.
“We make sure both people are heard,” Clark said.
And, they hope to have a baby.
“It’s good to talk about it, so we know where we are as we begin to create more mixed kids and show children how things are and how things could be,” Clark said.
They incorporate humor as they talk about race.
“With an interracial relationship, there has to be lightness. There has to be humor,” she said.
On Sunday, Sept. 20, Hayden Mayor Tim Redmond — also a plumbing and heating contractor — was cleaning up one of his work sites. He was taking leftover material to his storage shed when he noticed a Routt County Sheriff’s Office deputy following him.
They stopped and spoke in front of the storage shed. The deputy told Redmond someone called to report he was stealing materials from a job site. Redmond explained he owned the materials.
A sergeant from the Hayden Police Department who knew Redmond showed up and apologized — telling Redmond it bothered him the reporting party asked to remain anonymous and wouldn’t put their name behind the allegation.
Redmond said what really bothered him was that he’d been working on the site for six weeks, coming and going in the same work truck and work clothes.
During his lifetime, including 36 years in the Yampa Valley, Redmond has faced discrimination, but overall, Redmond has had a positive experience living here.
“People in Colorado will tend to stand back and see who you are and then make a judgment,” Redmond said. “If you come, work hard, keep your word and do the right thing — people respect you and give you chances.”
Growing up in Philadelphia, Redmond is accustomed to being in a majority white setting. In elementary school, he and his brother were the only two Black kids out of about 500 students.
He remembers being in second grade and waiting in line for the drinking fountain. One kid broadcast to the rest of the white kids not to take a drink after Redmond because, “’He’s dirty. And he stinks, too.’”
When Redmond was a Boy Scout, he remembers being told by his Scout leader to get in the back of the car and cover himself with a blanket. They were driving through a town in Maryland during a Ku Klux Klan rally.
“Society at a young age lets people of color know they are different,” he said.
In 1984, Redmond stopped in Steamboat to visit a friend. He took a two-week job offered by a concrete contractor and decided to stay — cooking at night and working construction during the day.
Unable to afford a house in Steamboat, Redmond and his wife at the time found a home — and a community they loved — in Hayden. His wife, who is white, ran a day care, and he launched his own contracting business. They started a family, and Redmond began coaching youth football, basketball, soccer and baseball.
“If people are willing to trust you with their kids, that says a lot,” he said.
Redmond became a member of the town board, focused on providing positive opportunities for youth.
Redmond’s biracial son, Jack, looks Black and was the only Black kid attending Hayden schools. As Jack got older, Redmond worried life might get more challenging.
But it didn’t. Jack was captain of the football team, played basketball, ran track and was nominated for homecoming king.
“He became a leader, which is what I raised him to be,” Redmond said, tears welling up in his eyes. And the challenges he faced “made him a stronger person.”
Redmond remembers having “the talk” with his son.
“When you get stopped by the police, put your hands on the wheel, roll the window down, turn the engine off,” Redmond said. “The important thing to remember is to come home alive.”
And father and son remain aware of the realities, despite being an established part of the community.
When an out-of-town neighbor recently asked Jack to pick up a box from their home, Jack requested his mom accompany him. He knew how it would look if “neighbors saw some Black guy taking a box off a front porch.”
Decades later, the pain and frustration in Redmond’s voice is clear as he recounts the incident that happened a few Sundays ago. He isn’t angry and maintains his usual calm and balanced demeanor, but it hurts.
“It’s nice to be in a community where people know and recognize you,” he said. “But there are still times when people just see a Black man.”
Tony Counts, who was born in California and went to high school in Denver, moved to Steamboat in 2000. There weren’t many Black people here 20 years ago, Counts said, and there still aren’t.
“Steamboat is never going to be diverse,” he said.
Visitors are often surprised to find out he lives here, Counts said. They sometimes ask, “How?”
Working as a coach, a radio personality and a restaurant manager — among other roles — Counts has found success and acceptance. He is married, and he and his wife are parents to a 10-year-old son.
But he’s also been pulled over for things that a white person likely would not have. In Denver, Counts was pulled over for “not pausing long enough between lane changes,” and prior to coming to Steamboat, he’s been called racial slurs and denied an apartment rental.
On one occasion, Counts was working for the tennis center in Steamboat and taking trash to a dumpster. A police car sped over, an officer jumped out, yelling, “What are you doing here?”
Counts was wearing his uniform with tennis center logo and explained, “I work here.”
Counts said his mother taught him to behave and not judge others. He had cousins who were less diplomatic in tense situations with law enforcement.
“They went to jail a lot,” Counts said.
His mom also told him to go to college, get a job and find a place he loves. And he did.
But Counts has an angry side. He describes it as Hulk in “The Avengers.” Most people know Counts as very nice, with a great sense of humor, but part of that is survival, he said. He just turned 50, and as a black male in this world, he said he is genuinely happy to still be alive.
Counts’ wife, who is part Native American and part Swedish, calls out her friends, he said, when they say something racist. And she’s lost friends because of it.
“She has my back,” Counts said. “She has my son’s back.”
There are some other Black kids in his son’s school, but Counts hasn’t met any other Black dads. For now, his son is doing really well in school and doesn’t seem to face much discrimination, but Counts worries about that changing as he gets older. He also said he’s optimistic about hate lessening by generation.
“I hope life will be a lot easier for him,” he said. “I hope he’s just another person on the planet.”
Second-grade teacher Mary Yamamoto has lived in Steamboat for more than 30 years, and then — and now — Asian people are “few and far between,” she said.
Born to Japanese parents, Yamamoto was raised on a farm in Washington state.
Her family was locked up in internment camps during World War II, but her father, at the age of 22, was recruited to travel via an underground railroad-like system to the East, where Japanese men were still allowed to work. He was provided an escape plan prior to entering the internment camp and then driven to Chicago, hidden on the floor of a pickup truck.
When the war ended and the rest of Yamamoto’s family was released, her father had been able to work and save money to provide a future for the rest of the family.
“This really impacted me growing up — those stories are why I became a teacher,” she said.
Growing up, Yamamoto was mostly surrounded by white people.
“In my earliest memories, I knew I was different,” she said.
When she brought dried shrimp to school, her classmates were grossed out. In high school, some boys wanted to date her because she was Asian; others didn’t want to date her because she was Asian.
When she was in college in San Francisco, a man yelled at her and her boyfriend, “You gooks go home.” He spit on Yamamoto.
“Those incidents happened throughout my life,” she said. “I don’t carry that on my shoulders all the time, but I’m mindful of it.”
Yamamoto prefers to the think of the world as the bigger community and teaches that way.
“But if you are a minority, it’s always there,” she said.
Yamamoto’s two sons grew up in Steamboat. One is biological, and the other was adopted from Korea. Her husband is Norwegian. She calls them a “rainbow family.”
Playing hockey, insults like “you Chink” and “you can’t see out of those slits” were hurtled at her boys by players on opposing teams. It wasn’t unusual, she said.
They talked about it as a family. Yamamoto told her sons they actually should feel sorry for those boys. Communication and openness are key in her family, she said.
For the most part, Yamamoto said her sons have been embraced by their friends and accepted for their different backgrounds. In turn, her sons embrace others who are different.
And they both have a good sense of humor. One’s nickname on his hockey team was Ling Ling.
“That sounds racist, right?” Yamamoto asked. “But he loved it. He laughed about it.”
In her three decades in Steamboat, Yamamoto said she really hasn’t experienced discrimination.
“I live life with a truly open heart and don’t bring in that judgment piece.”
“I’ve lived with it my whole life,” Gabe Castro said of being treated differently because of the color of his skin.
Castro lives with his wife, who is white, in Clark. Their retirement goal was always to move to the mountains.
Growing up in Denver to Mexican-born parents, Castro said he was “pulled over, roughed up and thrown in the back of a car because of the color of my skin.”
One of Castro’s first memories of racism occurred when his mother took the kids into Woolworths in downtown Denver to shop for school clothes. Before they went in, his mother had to show the clerks she had money, and they were followed while they shopped.
Castro would see his classmates sitting at the soda fountain, having a slice of pizza. His mother would approach the soda fountain, again first showing she had money, and come out with the pizza. She’d tell the kids there wasn’t anywhere to sit, and they’d eat their pizza on the curb.
Castro, who didn’t fully realize what was happening at the time, remembers noticing there were seats available.
“We weren’t allowed to go in,” he said.
But Castro said he was taught that was just the way it was. He was told to go to school, go to college and learn to take care of himself.
“I had to be stronger and better,” Castro said.
When Castro bought a house in Denver in a predominately white neighborhood, he would get notes on his door saying things like, “You don’t belong here.” There were a lot of notes he didn’t show his wife.
“I was raised with enough confidence to know it was their ignorance, not mine,” Castro said. “I don’t sink to their level.”
In terms of describing his experience in Steamboat, Castro said he notices people being treated differently because of wealth and privilege rather than race.
“It’s hard for someone to live here if they aren’t wealthy,” Castro said.
In North Routt, Castro said he does experience racism but mostly from people who are visitors or new to the area. In an attempt to address an issue with a new neighbor, he was threatened and told, “’I don’t need to listen to a stupid Mexican.'”
“If you say something, it starts out pleasant, and then gets racial,” he said.
Castro believes there are serious problems concerning race relations in the U.S. that need to be addressed, but he doesn’t believe in dwelling on the past when it comes creating change.
“If I meet you, I’m not going to hold you responsible to what happened 100 years ago,” he said. “History is history. We can’t change it. We have to make it better.”
In his 19 years in Steamboat, Jorge Avila, who grew up between the Mexican border town of Mexicali and Los Angeles, has felt welcomed in the Yampa Valley.
He knows all Latinx people have not had his same experience, especially those who have move here recently during the current political climate.
Avila raised his son, now 27, in Steamboat. His son, who Avila describes as a “white Mexican,” never felt discrimination, which, Avila notes, proves his belief that racism is rooted in ignorance. His son is Mexican, but he is also white by all appearances and has been treated as such throughout his life.
Avila has had very few experiences during his time in Steamboat that he would describe as racist. He did have one recent experience when he was told, “English is the official language of the hospital,” and he said he felt derided for his broken English.
A playwright and author, Avila said the local arts community has been open and supportive. Avila describes the play he is working to turn into a movie as an American border tale. That is his way of resisting injustice and working to foster awareness.
“Every one of us has the opportunity to do activism,” he said. “I love to do that through art.”
Lluvia Cano and Tracy Gomez
Tracy Gomez, 27, came to the Yampa Valley when she was 6 years old. She was born in the U.S. but didn’t speak any English. The schools didn’t have nearly the language resources they have now, and she spent a lot of time trying to understand what was going on.
She doesn’t have negative memories of school and her childhood, but it wasn’t easy, and she said she was often lonely. As Gomez grew older, she would hear comments from fellow students who asked if she was going to get pregnant at 16 or get a job cleaning houses.
In high school, she had different groups of friends, including other Latinx kids, who mostly gathered in what she called the “Mexican corner.”
Lluvia Cano, Gomez’s friend and co-worker, arrived in Steamboat when she was 11. She was born in Mexico and moved to the U.S. when she was very young. Cano is now 25.
“It was really hard for me,” Cano said.
There were just two other Hispanic boys and one girl, and the girl was mean, she recalled — though they later became friends.
Without knowing English, Cano said it was hard to make friends. But by ninth-grade, Cano felt comfortable with her English. But even into her senior year, Cano said teachers treated her as if she didn’t know English.
Today, answering phone calls at work, Cano has people tell her “You’re a Mexican, you shouldn’t be working there.”
Both Cano and Gomez have been instructed by employers not to speak Spanish, especially in front of customers.
Recently, Cano noticed a woman who lived in her neighborhood going around videoing all the Hispanic houses on her block. Cano’s niece confronted the woman, who told her, “This place is full of illegals. They shouldn’t be here.”
Both say they’ve seen and felt more animosity under the current political climate, but for the most part, the young women said they consider the Steamboat community to be welcoming.
Gomez said she isn’t sure if she will stay in the area because she doesn’t know if she can afford to purchase a home.
“I might have to relocate because of that,” she said.
But Gomez likes the sense of community and security she feels, especially for her young daughter.
Both Gomez’s and Cano’s parents speak very little English, and they haven’t had the same work opportunities as their daughters.
“I’ve gotten so many jobs because I am bilingual,” Gomez said.
And that’s why both women said they speak Spanish with their preschool-aged daughters.
To reach Kari Dequine Harden, call 970-871-4205, email kharden@SteamboatPilot.com or follow her on Twitter @kariharden.
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