A diverse Durango
The local melting pot opens to all comers

People of all stripes walk down Main Avenue early this week. As Durango grows, the city is becoming increasingly  diverse and attracting residents from all corners of the world. Durangoans with roots ranging from India and Nepal to the Bronx and Front Range agree that the community’s spirit has kept them here./Photo by Stephen Eginoire

by Malia Durbano

Jenny Martinez is a second-generation resident of Durango. She remembers the ’60s, when the only local diversity was which side of town you lived on – the east side or the “other side.” The east side was mostly Latino, and the “other side” was middle class white. “Back then, the neighborhoods were really segregated,” she said “Now, it’s so mixed, I love it! Now we all just live and play together. Durango has grown so much.”

Preliminary U.S. Census Bureau numbers validate the growing diversity of our population, though the final tally from the 2010 Census won’t be available until next February or March. Determining the breakdown of population is achieved by a systematic and scientific formula, according to Pat Rodriguez, Government Partnership Specialist with the U.S. Census Bureau in the Denver Region. The “What is your race?” question is divided into two questions: White or Non-Hispanic and then Spanish/Hispanic or Latino? “The wording of the question was just changed last year to garner the most accurate response,” Rodriguez explains. “It allows people to self-identify. The categories are further broken down to Mexican, American/Latino or Chicano, or Puerto Rican or Cuban.”

Jared Ewy, a graduate of Fort Lewis College and former DJ for the Point who now works as a media specialist with the Census Bureau, said the outreach for the 2010 Census was unprecedented and impressive. “We reached many of the traditionally uncounted,” he said. “For 2010, Colorado’s participation rate grew by 2 percent over the previous decade, to 70 percent. America, as a whole, had a 72 percent participation rate.

Estimates rank counties by percentage of White/Non-Hispanic residents, and La Plata County falls right in the middle of the 64 counties in the state at 33rd, tied with Archuleta County. That ranking equates to 80.3 percent of the local population being White/Non-Hispanic.

Diversity can be defined in many ways, explained one 30-year resident, Bill Bolden, a former administrator at Fort Lewis College. “Diversity is not just about skin color,” he said. “We have the ranchers, the tree huggers, the cyclists, the staunch Republicans, the farmers, the bluegrass crowd, the Music in the Mountains crowd. Durango is very diverse. The West has always been a place where people who want something different were drawn.”

Bolden added that it is high time for “diversity” to take on a deeper meaning. “Our paradigm of diversity has always been black or white,” he said. “It needs to be broader than that. Stereotyping is taking something complex and making it simple.” 

Finding diversity of every kind in Durango is simple. Local residents come from hundreds of backgrounds, and their reasons for moving to Durango are as varied as the countries from which they came.

The Bhotia brothers, from Kathmandu, Nepal, moved here a little over a year ago from Los Angeles. Wang and Kenjok, both students at FLC and employees at Himalayan Kitchen, agreed that people in Durango are genuinely interested in their language and culture. “People are curious – they ask questions. People who have been to our country ask about it,” they said.

Wang said that he likes Durango more than L.A., even though L.A. was far more diverse. People were too busy there and always in a hurry. Here, people are friendly. The brothers don’t feel as though they are singled out as being different. “Sometimes we are mistakenly identified as being Filipino, or Native American, or just lumped into Asian,” Wang said. “So we just tell people where we’re from, and they get excited.”

Amita Nathwami, a local Ayurvedic doctor from India, has had similar experiences in Durango. “Because I look different, if people see me once, they remember me,” she said. “Some people go out of their way to pretend they don’t notice that I’m not American. I sound American, but I do have a different color of skin, my culture is different, the way I think is different. It’s not something to ignore. We are different. We need to embrace our cultures.”

People have been generally accepting of Nathwami’s background. “In the seven years that I’ve been here, I’ve only had two people make rude, racist remarks,” she said. “They didn’t recognize that I am East Indian and not from a terrorist country.”

A few Durangoans have made it here from the Caribbean and South America. A few salsa dancers from Cuba, Columbia and the Dominican Republic show up for Salsa Night at Moe’s Starlight Lounge on Thursday nights.

Kathy Huntsinger, a native of the Dominican Republic and waitress at Carver Brewing Co., came to Durango six years ago via the Bronx, N.Y. “It was culture shock,” she said. “People are so nice here. They really want to know if you’re having a good day. I do miss the diversity of meeting people from all over the world and the arts, but I don’t miss the hustle-bustle of the city.”

Although she is noticed more here, Huntsigner added, “I never feel uncomfortable. People are always curious and interested in where I’m from. I think there’s only one other Dominican person here.”

Will O’Neal, one of Durango’s newest residents, arrived about six weeks ago from Denver. As an African-American man, O’Neal said he already knows, “I don’t exactly blend in.” However, he was ready to make a new start in life and was told by friends to choose a bigger city. “My first impression is the exact opposite of what I was told,” he said. “People are really nice, but I do wonder about bringing my kids here. As bi-racial kids, what are they going to have to deal with? How are they going to fit in and adjust?”

Other forms of diversity are also obvious in our community. Greg Weiss, Board Chair of the Four Corners Gay and Lesbian Alliance for Diversity, noted, “We have 300 people on our mailing list in the region. Durango, Cortez, Mancos and Farmington all have thriving communities.”

Weiss pointed to this year’s inaugural Four Corners Pride Fest, which was held June 26, as evidence of growing diversity. “We had a bigger turn-out than expected at about 500 to 600 people,” he said. “The general community is very accepting, but as you get farther out in the outskirts, it’s not as easy. Durango is more liberal than the outlying communities. Here people can be who they are. More diversity makes for a more vibrant community.”

Durango is further diversified by its special needs population. According to the Census Bureau, the 2000 count reported that Durango had 1,784 residents with some form of disability, which equates to 19.3 percent of the population.

The current diversity in our population proves that people from all over the world are drawn to Durango. Many come for the natural beauty but most come because they have a family member or friend who already discovered Durango. The Wang brothers came because their father was here. Nathwami came because her husband’s brother lived here. Huntsinger came because her husband’s father lived here. Bolden came for a job. O’Neal came to start a new chapter in his life.

Regardless of where they came from and what brought them here, all have come to the same conclusion. As the Bhotia brothers said, “We feel comfortable here, the people are really nice, and we’re glad we live here.” •