A typical summer day in Durango
can be anything but for local minority residents who
say that racism in the form of inferior service, racial
slurs and discrimination is alive and well locally./Photo
by Todd Newcomer.
W ith two American Indian reservations bordering Durango and a strong
Hispanic history, the number of racial minorities here may be higher
than some other places in the West. And over the years, there has been
much grumbling and some documentation of the minorities clashing with
the majority. More than once, the U.S. Civil Rights Commission has been
in La Plata County, listening to community leaders and residents air
their defenses or complaints about what many call blatant biases. With
promises from leaders to improve such problems, they persist.
"Of course, any community has racial problems, but we are still very
vitally concerned about the civil rights problems going on in Durango," says
John Dulles, director of the Rocky Mountain Region of the U.S. Civil
Twice in the past year, the commission has visited Durango to hear about
civil rights issues. In September 2003, the commission held a meeting
to gauge the progress of discrimination issues at Fort Lewis College.
Commission members were dismayed that "little progress" had been made
over the past 10 years. Members returned in March to hear the public
speak about more than just the issues at FLC. Dulles says that since
the commission is only an advisory group and not a regulatory agency,
no formal report was created based on those hearings. However, the overall
commission does summarize such information in annual reports. If you
look at those reports, Dulles says the same issues tend to arise with
each visit, just with varying degrees. The past hearing, he explains,
focused on issues in the Hispanic community, not solely on the college.
Racial tension with Hispanics has long been a thorn in the community.
Because Durango is often a gateway for native Mexicans traveling to look
for work in the United States, the issues are at the forefront for local
advocacy organizations such as Los CompaF1eros.
Recently, the group successfully convinced the Durango City Council
to pass a resolution declaring Durango a "safe zone," meaning the city
agrees to make sure Durango is a place where legal and illegal immigrants
can communicate with the local government without fear of prejudice.
While it won't cure the racial problems Hispanics encounter here, advocates
say, it at least gives the town's largest minority group a voice and
presence that has long remained silent because of fright.
"I think this will help people have respect for the Hispanic community," says
Aracely Martinez, a volunteer for Los CompaF1eros. "We have to educate
other people about us and show them that we are honest people."
She hopes that it will encourage some of the Mexican immigrants who
are afraid of becoming part of the community to assimilate themselves
so that they feel at home. She says many of the legal workers living
in the county flat-out refuse to go downtown Durango because of others'
"Many of them are so afraid, especially of the police. But I often think
(the Mexicans) don't understand the system."
Dulles said he supports the city's safe-zone resolution.
"I personally think it's a very positive step," he says.
Martinez emigrated from Mexico 17 years ago and has been in Durango
for 15 of those. She says she's encountered and witnessed racial discrimination
the entire time, but only from community members, never law enforcement.
"Constantly I hear people refer to us as 'stupid Mexicans,'" she says.
There is a whole list of racial slurs Martinez hears people use against
Hispanics. Many high school students fling them at their fellow minority
students, including Martinez's son. She said her son, who will be a junior
at Durango High School this year, is constantly subjected to insensitive
treatment. He's not alone, he tells his mother. Sometimes, his Hispanic
peers drop out of school before year's end because they can't endure
the treatment. This happened to Martinez's cousin, who came to Durango
from Texas to finish high school but eventually quit. He never graduated
from high school.
"He told me that the teasing was so bad, and that he was disappointed," Martinez
explains. "My son now says this too. A lot of times he thinks about quitting,
but I tell him he needs to do his best. He needs to try."
Martinez also has experienced inner-racial discrimination. She works
as a hairdresser at a local salon. Some of her co-workers, who are Durango
natives but from Hispanic families, recently made disparaging remarks
to Martinez - about her and other Mexicans. Martinez says she ended up
defending herself against her own people. When she asked them to stop,
they simply tried to appease her.
"They said to me, 'Well, we aren't talking about you,'" she says. "But
they are because they are my people. Some of my customers are Mexican,
and when they heard these people talk like that, I lost them as customers."
As old as time itself
American Indian students at Fort Lewis College also report problems
with racism. They have repeatedly aired their discontent to the Civil
Rights Commission. Commission reports document that the students claim
they experience "cultural insensitivity from students and the school
administration." One American Indian student, who asked for anonymity,
recalled confrontations between American Indian students and non- American
Indian students a few years ago. The students were protesting the demolition
of campus housing that was mostly inhabited by tribal students. As they
were protesting, the student recalls, others passed by and verbally harassed
them, telling them to go back to their reservations or to stop complaining
since the students don't pay tuition at the college. They called them "free
"I was floored," says the FLC student. "These people didn't even understand
what we were facing."
Under a treaty from 1910, when the school was founded on land donated
by the Southern Ute Tribe, American Indian students from any tribe were
guaranteed free tuition at FLC. That long-standing guarantee has caused
many problems over the years for the students.
"Racism is as old as time itself," says Sage Douglas Remington, a Southern
Ute tribal elder and activist. "So the fact that it exists in the 21st
century comes as no surprise."
Remington assures that racism exists in Durango. He cites several incidents
of Southern Utes not receiving adequate or fair treatment at downtown
Durango establishments, saying that it often comes from employees in
the service sector. Southern Utes frequently wait longer for service
and feel slighted when having face-to-face communication. Even though
Ignacio incorporates the tribe's land and there is a higher population
of tribal residents, Remington says they are still discriminated against
Remington says the problem worsened when the tribe and its members'
personal wealth grew. As tribal members began getting expendable income,
they often took advantage of eating out. Yet, this added to the number
of discrimination incidents.
"[It] has been so bad recently that many of them have stopped going
to Durango and instead go to Farmington, because it's easier to deal
with," Remington says.
Up until two years ago, Remington says, store employees followed his
mother around while she shopped. It was an indication,
he adds, of the "white" peoples' distrust
For Remington, any discrimination he encounters comes doubly as hard.
He is a tribal member and he is gay. In addition to being an activist
against racial bigotry, he has also dedicated himself to eradicating
gay and lesbian prejudice.
"Homophobia around here isn't as blatant as it used to be," he says. "But
I've experienced it in Durango and Ignacio. I was raised in Ignacio too.
I grew up with the cowboys and rednecks and experienced discrimination
Over the years, he has seen some education take place to help bridge
the sensitivity gap, but he still believes a serious issue exists in
Under the radar
Law enforcement numbers don't seem to tell how serious it is.
Durango Police Sgt. Tony Archuleta says that the city department had
only one hate crime recorded in 2003. So far this year, no such crimes
have been reported. Archuleta says the numbers don't necessarily mean
that incidents don't occur. He says officers sometimes attend to calls
of arguments that might entail minorities and nonminorities. He adds
that the police department saw more activity when it had jurisdiction
over Fort Lewis College.
"In the past, there was more with the college students doing the name-calling," he
Still, he says, the problems likely exist to an extent. Archuleta says
hate-filled actions sometimes escalate when there is a larger issue being
addressed in the community.
Hate crimes encompass a wide range of offenses. It may entail any incident
where someone felt offended by an action regarding ethnicity, sexual
identity or religious affiliation. Though hate crimes are governed by
federal law, not city law, Archuleta says police officers can still charge
someone, usually under the scope of disorderly conduct. Most of the time,
the person facing the disorderly conduct with hate attached to it ends
up facing harsher punishment.
"Calling it a hate crime usually ends up being used as sentence enhancer," Archuleta
But while racism toward American Indians and Hispanics seems to be prevalent
and identifiable, there's little to gauge the racism toward other ethnic
Anand K. (who asked not to have his last name used) moved from India
to the United States six years ago. He first lived in Ohio, where he
attended Ohio State University. After a few years in San Jose, Calif.,
where there is a large Indian population, Anand moved to Durango in 2002
to work as a software engineer.
Since moving to Durango, he explains that he has experienced only some
peripheral discrimination. Most mistreatment comes, he believes, when
he's dressed "shabbily" and unshaven.
"If I ever feel it, it's when I'm alone," he says. "When I'm with a
group of people, it's not as bad."
Anand says when he's dining alone and starts to ask questions about
food ingredients and preparation, because he's a strict vegetarian, wait
staff is impatient and suspect. Immediately, he knows how accepting a
person is based on first impressions. If someone is unfriendly in the
way they talk, they never do warm up to him.
Yet, he hasn't been subject to name-calling or blatant refusal of service.
Though he's one of only a handful of Indians living in Durango, he says
he often thinks he passes off as being Hispanic.
"That makes me feel a little bit safer," he says.
His anxiety about leaving a large and diverse city for a small town
with less racial mixture has mostly been tamed. To integrate with the
community, he says he just engaged in activities he has always enjoyed.
He's been accepted.
"I don't feel alienated. The only thing is that when I go to a restaurant,
I expect friendly service."
Reciprocity and education
Activist Remington, who has been awarded the Cinco de Mayo civil rights
award from Denver's Latino community and the Martin Luther King Jr. Humanitarian
Award from the Colorado Civil Rights Commission and the Denver Mayor's
Office, says that combating discrimination takes the will of all in society.
"I think often institutions fail to live up to their responsibilities" he
says. "I believe that it's also up to parents and grandparents to discard
their old beliefs. Kids have perceived notions about the way people should
be. And that comes from the adults."
Anand K. believes peoples' intentions come only from ignorance. He wants
to believe that people aren't truly that hateful in their hearts. It
is, he says, about reciprocity and education. Both he and Remington still
hold onto hope that it can change and that such incidents won't scar
children, especially, forever.
Says Remington: "It didn't break me; it didn't break me. I survived
it all, but it was no joy growing up."
The Durango Telegraph's coverage of local racial tension will continue
with a look at solutions in next week's edition.