Language remains the main barrier for immigrants moving to Steamboat

Maria Paula Gonzalez (Home country: Columbia)
John F. Russell

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — When it comes to barriers facing the local immigrant population, many point to language as the first and greatest obstacle they face. And then there is an oft-heard sentiment: if you live in America, you should learn to speak English.

“People need to understand English is a really hard language to learn,” said Lluvia Cano, who moved to Steamboat Springs when she was 11 and had to learn English before there was dedicated programming in schools.

There are many people who want to learn English and are working to learn English, but it’s a process, said Ann Coons, English language specialist at Soda Creek Elementary School in Steamboat.

For some students, it may take five to seven years. For other people, especially as they get older, the process can take 10 years, Coons said.

Obviously it is beneficial to know English living in the United States, but should it be a requirement?

“For me, the United States has always been a multicultural country. It was built by immigrants,” said Maria Paula Gonzalez, a resident of Steamboat who moved here from Bogota, Colombia.

“It’s impossible to forget your native language. It’s so tied to memories. It’s tied to who you are,” Gonzalez said. “If you have never been in a place where you cannot communicate and you can’t speak the language, you don’t know what it is like.”

Moving to Steamboat was very hard, she said.

“I didn’t know what my identity was for a very long time,” Gonzalez said.

Today, Gonzalez’s goal as interpretation/translation program coordinator at Integrated Community is to provide people access to all services, regardless of language. That includes health care, the court system, employment and housing.

She knows language is the biggest barrier in the Yampa Valley for non-English speakers, and she said people don’t have access to services and don’t know they have certain rights because of that barrier.

In addition to helping people with interpretation, she also focuses on language justice.

“That means everything being served for people in their own language,” Gonzalez said.

Education: Starting young

In the Steamboat Springs School District, the approach of supporting students in their native language has been transformed during the past few years.

The terminology evolved from English language learners to Emerging Bilinguals.

“Learners indicates a deficit,” Coons said. “Language is not a learning disability.”

Emerging bilinguals, instead, looks at becoming bilingual as a positive attribute, and the methodology takes on an entirely different perspective, Coons said.

Today, the program supports students learning in their own language while learning English.

“We make sure they comprehend in language one while learning in language two,” Coons said.

Often, kids who were learning English were perceived as not as smart, she said. Then educators came to understand they weren’t helping the kids first attain basic reading and writing skills in their native language.

Teaching English without students having an understanding of the fundamentals — like the alphabet — is doing it backwards, she said.

And it hasn’t necessarily required an increase in resources, Coons said, but rather, a more strategic approach to how resources are allocated. However, especially with recent budget cuts, more resources are always needed to support the district’s increasingly diverse population, she added.

Now, there is also more outreach to families to ensure they stay connected and also have help overcoming the language barrier.

Coons also made the distinction between biliterate and bilingual. A lot of younger kids are bilingual but not biliterate and never learned to read and write in their own language, she said, especially when their parents want them to focus on English at home.

By starting a biliteracy program in the district — for any language learners — the schools are highlighting the “unbelievable benefits” of knowing a second language. Coons mentioned one child from Senegal who speaks five languages.

The idea is to focus on strengths, she said, and what the kids bring to the table.

Coons also noted the additional responsibilities many of the young emerging bilinguals have. 

“Many of them go home and watch siblings and make dinner,” Coons said. “They have a tremendous amount of independence and competence.”

During her 20 years with the district, the growth in the academic programming now available to students new to English is tremendous, Coons said.

And other programs supporting emerging bilinguals are also expanding.

There is the Secondary Newcomer Program, created in response to an increase in students enrolling in the district who are both new to the country and new to English. It is aimed at helping middle school and high school students adapt both to the school’s culture and its academics.

There’s also the ACE Club. Every Wednesday, 28 kids, mostly emerging bilinguals who also qualify for free and reduced lunch, take a field trip. They’ve gone to plays and orchestra performances and been mountain biking, swimming and skiing. They’ve taken gardening trips and gotten behind-the-scenes tours of local businesses.

“Regardless of skin color, financial status or language, they get to experience the exact same thing as the most affluent families in Steamboat,” Coons said. “It’s all about education and exposure.”

And many of the experiences are made possible through generous contributions from the community, she said.

There’s also the homework club, which involves about 30 volunteers each week helping kids — mostly emerging bilinguals — with their homework.

But there is still work to be done, and there is discrimination in schools.

There have been instances, when an elementary student told another student, “I don’t want to play with you because you are brown,” said B Torres, the district’s interpreter/translator and community liaison.

There have been instances, when an elementary student told another student, ‘I don’t want to play with you because you are brown.'”


These instances aren’t reported very often, she said, and when they are, they provide a “huge opportunity for conversation.”

She’s also heard young students make the comment, “I wish I was lighter skinned.”

“The further you are from being white, the more disenfranchised you are,” Torres acknowledged.

Creating an authentically inclusive community is hard work, Torres said. It requires making sure all students feel included and welcome to participate in all aspects of school and thinking about how to “weave it” into everything the district does, not just holding one assembly on diversity.

Coons and Torres point to financial barriers as another significant obstacle facing students who are also working to learn English. The emerging bilinguals face a lot of challenges, including transportation, a lack of health care and food insecurity, in addition to adjusting to a new language and culture, Torres said.

“A lot of families lack access to safe and affordable housing,” she said. “They are sharing rooms and homes, which can lead to chronic stress and domestic violence.” These issues compound, she said, “and directly impact the student’s ability to focus in school.”

Torres said the district works hard to connect families to resources in the community, of which fortunately, there are many.

The challenges are immense for younger kids, as they navigate systemic barriers, Torres said, and once they get to high school, many go to work as soon as they get off school, often working until late at night.

“The resiliency of these kids is astounding,” Torres said. “They are some of the most inspiring kids I have ever met.”

Finding their voice

Gonzales and Torres acknowledge the Latinx community in the Yampa Valley is not as visible, engaged and involved as it could and should be.

Irene Avitia, early childhood education specialist at Integrated Community, recently started the Latinx Alliance. The group, still in its infancy, is intended to “invite and empower leaders to raise the Latinx voice.” 

There are amazing leaders in the Latinx community, Avitia said, but it can be intimidating, and the new group is designed to be a support system and gateway. Many people left professional careers in their home countries and have valuable skills to contribute to their local communities, Avitia said.

From trainings to running for office to serving on boards, the hope is to create a platform for Latinx voices, Avitia explained. That starts with learning how the systems here work and how to access opportunities to get involved.

“I feel like fear is big and a major part of the atmosphere within the immigrant community,” Gonzalez said, especially in the current political environment, “People are unsure of what is going to happen. Most of my clients just want to be low key. They want to work and provide for their family. They are here to have a better future.”

And if there are things that should be changed, she said they are afraid to speak up.

“Sometimes you don’t feel welcome, and if you don’t feel like the community makes you a part of it, you don’t care as much,” Gonzalez said.

Torres said many members of the immigrant population work in housekeeping or in the kitchen and not in the most visible positions. And it should be remembered, she said, many of these people left their country as professionals — accountants, dentists and lawyers — fleeing violence and hoping to give their kids a better opportunity. 

“They don’t want to rock the boat, which is not great for social change,” Torres said. “They need to be more visible. I hope their kids, if they stay in Steamboat, will be more visible.”

Renewed focus on DEI issues

Numerous groups, governments and businesses in the Yampa Valley have started the conversation about how to foster diversity, equity and inclusion in their own organizations. Many of those committees are in the process of being built, but DEI committees or offices now exist within many organizations.

There is a local DEI task force that started meeting a few months ago. It is comprised of representatives from business, government, health care and nonprofit organizations.

The Steamboat Springs Chamber also started a DEI committee, which meets every other week.

“DEI is now a standing agenda item at all board meetings with different speakers having open and honest conversations about their experiences as diverse individuals,” said Chamber CEO Kara Stoller.

And the chamber-sponsored 2020 Leadership Steamboat class created a Do-It-Yourself Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Toolkit, which outlines strategies local community members, businesses, governmental entities and nonprofits can employ to actively work toward a more diverse, equitable and inclusive community.

At UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center, communications specialist Lindsey Reznicek said the local hospital holds listening sessions, asks employees about issues of racial inequality and insensitivity and offers training sessions. She said the hospital also has systems in place to reach out to underserved populations.

Steamboat Ski & Resort Corp. has tapped Sarah Jones, its director of sustainability and community engagement, to lead Steamboat Resort’s plan to diversify the makeup of its workforce and visitors. Ski Corp. also recently announced an annual scholarship for people of color studying at Colorado Mountain College.

A task force at Steamboat Springs High School, created in response to allegations of sexual misconduct, is focused on a larger mission of creating a more respectful and dignified culture across the district.

“We want to make things better for all students, not just upperclass white students,” Torres said.

The city of Steamboat Springs has established a DEI subcommittee, which will make a presentation to the City Council in November. There is a language bonus for city employees who speak a second language, and discussions are underway to collaborate with local law enforcement, behavioral health care providers, Integrated Community and local public defenders to find ways to better serve the whole community. 

“There is such value in diversity,” Gonzalez said. “We do live in a diverse community and a diverse world. It’s important to have everyone counted.”

To reach Kari Dequine Harden, call 970-871-4205, email or follow her on Twitter @kariharden.

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