*Denotes names have been changed.
Finally home from her first day of work on a hotel housekeeping staff, Sara Garcia* returns to the Lake Fork Manufactured Home Community, unlocks her front door, and pronounces herself exhausted. Her longtime boyfriend, Pablo Lopez,* walks in behind her with their son, Diego,* who rushes to his tricycle, parked in the kitchen. “Hoo, boy,” Lopez says, putting up a hand to shield himself from the blast of hot, stale air that hits him as soon as he steps inside the trailer. Lopez leaves the door open while Garcia walks to their bedroom to put on a clean shirt and polka-dot pajama pants.
It’s Cinco de Mayo, but Garcia and Lopez, both living in the United States illegally, are in no mood for celebration. It’s been a long day for Garcia at the hotel, located in one of the resort towns far beyond this trailer park in Leadville—a job that requires her to take a winding 45-minute car ride with a friend but pays about $500 a week through the summer. She’d found out about the position from a friend who’d heard the previous housekeeping staff had been rounded up by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. Out of work since her last seasonal housekeeping job ended a couple of months earlier, the 24-year-old now had a regular paycheck and an opportunity.
When Garcia got up at 6 a.m., her boyfriend was already gone, out the door and to work on a maintenance crew at a Breckenridge hotel. Garcia showered and changed into her uniform. She took her son and her daughter, Ana,* across the mobile home park to a friend’s house, then drove to the only grocery store in town to catch a ride the rest of the way to work. She scrubbed toilets and vacuumed floors, fluffed pillows and dusted tabletops. There was a 30-minute lunch break. At the end of the day, she caught her ride back to the Safeway and met up with Lopez. The two collected their son and were home by 7.
Garcia emerges from the bedroom, her long brown hair pulled into a ponytail. She flops onto a stool at the kitchen counter and begins picking at the black polish chipping off her nails. “Is it worth it to live like this?” she asks Lopez.
It was a question she’d been asking herself more and more since this past November’s election, when a historic shift was introduced to her community and to the world at large. The election of President Donald Trump had been built on fervent nationalism, with economic protectionism and border security key components of a campaign promise to “make America great again.” There was talk of an enormous wall along the United States–Mexico border—and in the first 100 days of the president’s administration, arrests of immigrants living in the country illegally, or suspected of living here illegally, rose nearly 40 percent compared with the same period the previous year. To Garcia and the 3,000 immigrants who call Lake County home, it seemed America’s future would be purposefully written without them.
“It’s better than what we would have in Mexico,” Lopez, 28, says as he puts a plate of gorditas into the microwave. The inside of their shotgun trailer is painted various shades of green, a domestic forest that matches the real one outside. There’s a print of Our Lady of Guadalupe, purchased at a flea market in Denver; a couch is wedged into the family room under sagging overhead beams. Their parakeet, Blue, titters in his cage near the door. There are two statues of Jesus on a small glass table and a window that overlooks a neighbor’s yard. A rectangle of patchy grass can be seen through the wooden blinds. Beyond their front porch, Mt. Elbert and Mt. Massive rise like snowcapped walls, hemming Garcia and Lopez into the valley.
Leadville was built by immigrants. At first, there were Swedes and Finns, Italians and Austrians and Irish—people fleeing their old lives for the chance to invent new ones inside the hard-rock mines that encircle the city. Immigrants have recreated this community and molded it time and again, as did the silver crash of 1893, the shutting down of the Climax molybdenum mine in 1982, and the designation of a Superfund environmental site in 1983. Leadville is an old mining town, a historic touchstone, an environmental disaster, an environmental reclamation, an outdoor mecca. Today, it is also a bedroom community for migrant Latinos like Garcia and Lopez, who—like those before them—are trying to make a life for themselves and their families.
One afternoon in April, César Hernandez is in his office, on Harrison Avenue downtown, between visits with Latino residents he’s been helping to find job training. The 49-year-old is the health-equity coordinator for Lake County Build A Generation, an organization with a mission to “build a healthier community for youth and families.” In his role, the bilingual refugee from El Salvador has become perhaps the most influential Latino voice in his community, assisting new immigrants with housing and health care, helping residents pay bills, and generally figuring out the needs of the county’s Latino population.
Hernandez doubles as the Spanish-language priest at St. George Episcopal Church, a 137-year-old chapel a few blocks from his office. When he’s not at the church, he’s most often in either of Leadville’s two largest mobile home parks, where he helps educate the mostly immigrant residents on tenant rights. After work on warm spring nights, Hernandez sometimes stands outside his double-wide in Lake Fork, washing his family’s van. While his wife cooks dinner in their small kitchen with their two-year-old nearby, Hernandez, a jovial middle-aged man, will chat with anyone who passes his trailer.
Today, though, he’s serious. Round-faced with a soft voice punctuated by a lilting accent, Hernandez leans forward in his chair and begins to talk. “People are scared,” he says. “The immigrants here feel helpless.”
To drive through Leadville these days, he says, is to see the gap between momentum and stasis. It’s boom time in the Cloud City—for some. There’s the historic downtown with its museums and churches and stately Victorians, which have been transformed into popular bed-and-breakfasts and vacation rentals. Investment is happening everywhere. A 250-unit development is planned for the north side of the city on a piece of barren land known as Poverty Flats. The largest apartment complex in the county sold for $13.5 million last year to Japanese investors—$10.5 million more than the former owner paid for it in 2007—and a Texas developer is in the midst of seeking approval for a hotel and golf course.
Just beyond the city limits on each end of Leadville, though, wilting mobile home parks are packed with immigrants. “These feel like our ghettos,” Hernandez says.
Two years ago, Hernandez helped create a survey of immigrants in the trailer parks—the first of its kind anyone in Lake County can remember. In a place where the fastest-growing and most marginalized group in town is Latinos, a welcoming community is necessary to hold families together. Hernandez got mothers and wives to go door to door and talk to their neighbors.
A few weeks later, he got the results. Of the 259 completed surveys, “no more than 20 people said they felt very integrated here,” Hernandez says. “That broke my heart.” And these weren’t simply new immigrants. “Some of them had been here 20 years, raised their children, had their adult children raising children here,” he says. “All these years, and they didn’t feel part of their community. They didn’t feel like they were part of any of this.”
He mentions the largest trailer park in the county: Mountain View Village, a sprawling neighborhood along U.S. 24 on the northwest edge of the city. The 1,000-or-so people who live there have had their share of misfortune over the past couple of years. In May 2015, a trailer fire killed a 10-year-old boy. Then, this past March, a gas leak led to an explosion that ripped apart another unit, injuring one person.
In January, shortly after the presidential inauguration, Hernandez began a series of monthly meetings with Mountain View residents, events that have brought out dozens of people even as an uneasiness has settled over the town’s immigrants. “You can feel it,” he says. “If anyone says anything, they’re exposing themselves, their children, everyone. You complain and you might get evicted or deported.” Since the election, that fear has metastasized. This past spring, Hernandez handed out papers on which he asked immigrants living in the country illegally to list important possessions—trailers, vehicles, bank accounts—in case the federal government began seizing property.
For another meeting—this time to cajole Mountain View’s management to plow the neighborhood after heavy snow left schoolchildren waiting alongside the icy highway for their bus—Hernandez invited his white friends. It was a not-so-subtle sign of solidarity within the community and a signal of Hernandez’s growing influence. Mountain View was plowed the next day.
“Small steps,” Hernandez says. Still, there’s a point he wants to emphasize: Before he and his wife came to Colorado four years ago, they’d been unable to conceive, which Hernandez attributed to the stresses of living in El Salvador, a country where violent death and poverty are everywhere. “Leadville and the people here saved us,” says Hernandez, who has applied for refugee status with his wife. “There are many miracles.”
But there’s the trailer park fire and the dead boy and the explosion and the feeling that events like these only seem to happen to immigrants in Lake County. And the reality that Hernandez can go into downtown Leadville—a city inside a county where roughly 40 percent of the 7,300-plus residents are Latino—and not see another person who looks like him. So he’s frustrated. As easy as it would be to make the situation about good versus bad, it’s not that simple—though it’s certainly easy to see the winners and losers. “I think this community understands the importance of the immigrants who come here,” Hernandez says. “There also has to be an understanding that those immigrants are living in a different world. There are barriers with language, culture, education. They’re not citizens and they don’t feel totally free. They’re tired.”
Hernandez is, too. He sighs. “It’s not the American dream we saw on TV,” he says, “but maybe we can find some of it.”
For the past four years, mornings in Lake Fork have been Garcia’s most reliable part of the day. Her boyfriend rolls out of bed at 5:30 and ambles to the bathroom in the predawn darkness. He brushes his teeth and throws on jeans and a T-shirt. The rumble of his Dodge Stratus fills their end of the trailer park, joining dozens of other vehicles coming to life across the neighborhood. There are around 140 modest homes in Lake Fork, single- and double-wide trailers with small lawns and porches off their front doors. Most of the residents are Mexican immigrants like Lopez and Garcia and are employed in the resorts, hotels, and restaurants outside Leadville. With million-dollar homes common in neighboring Summit and Eagle counties, Lake County has been the lone pocket of affordability for resort workers, a “ciudad dormitorio”—a place to rest your head before the long drive to work the next morning.
When Garcia and Lopez speak about America, it’s in a sentimental, romantic way. They use words like “dream” and “opportunity” and “future.” Both grew up in Leadville—Garcia arrived with her parents when she was four; Lopez was a teenager. They both attended Lake County High School, and the two talk with pride about their children being American citizens. Still, they know the limitations and challenges of their adopted town. For the thousands of immigrants who have moved into Lake County’s only city, it has become less a place to thrive and more a place to simply exist. The idea of upward mobility, of using a job as a stepping-stone to something better, is almost nonexistent. Every day it’s home and work, bills and worries, and not much else.
Garcia and Lopez say their children will finish high school here, then go to college. Afterward, they hope their children will find good jobs far outside this place, with health benefits and vacation days and retirement plans.
After work one night, the pair is talking about a neighbor who planned a family trip to Walt Disney World. Garcia closes her eyes and leans her head back. “I’d love to take a trip,” she says. “Get away without being afraid.”
“And what if we’re caught?” Lopez asks.
Neither Garcia nor her boyfriend knew anyone who’d recently been deported, but that didn’t make them worry less about the possibility. Garcia often found herself imagining it happening to her or to Lopez. When she and her friends gathered in Lake Fork, they talked about how ICE could someday show up and start hauling them away. And what could they do about it? Garcia and Lopez both paid taxes, and identifying information was recorded in all the places they’d worked, a direct line to their front door. What if ICE found their address and arrived when Lopez was getting ready for work, while the kids were still in their beds?
Not long ago, the two sat in their family room and came up with an emergency plan. If Lopez were deported, they agreed, Garcia and the kids would follow him to North-Central Mexico, to their home state of Zacatecas, where they still had family. If Garcia were sent back, the kids would come with her. Taking her children out of America would be the most difficult decision Garcia had ever made, but Lopez would need to stay behind and earn money without the burden of finding daycare for their son or risking losing his job so he could get his daughter off to the school bus in the morning. He’d save the $5,500 it would take to pay the coyotes and the cartels, part of the enormous underground network that would help Garcia get back to Colorado and back to her life in Lake Fork.
When she allows herself, Garcia dreams of having a house in downtown Leadville—a two-story with a big yard—where her children could walk to school and she and Lopez wouldn’t have to navigate the four extra miles along U.S. 24 in the wintertime. She’d grown up in Mountain View, lived in another trailer park in town with Lopez and his mother, and finally settled in Lake Fork, which, to her, seemed like their best option. Garcia and Lopez paid $7,000 for their trailer in 2013, investing much of their savings into their new home. For a while, her mother, along with her best friend and the woman’s family, lived there too, sharing space until they could find places of their own. Along with raising her two children, Garcia lists home ownership among her proudest achievements. The wooden blinds in the front of their trailer are cracked, and the siding is peeling. Lopez put insulation over the back windows to keep their bedroom from freezing at night. Still, it’s their place, and they feel fortunate to have it.
One afternoon, Garcia is sitting at the kitchen table with her friend Isabel Luna,* looking out a window toward the double-wide across the lawn. Word around Lake Fork was that their new neighbor, a young man whose father ran a carpet-installation business in town, paid $47,000 for the trailer—nearly seven times what Garcia and Lopez spent on theirs. It was a stark sign of how rapidly Lake County was changing.
“He put in new carpet,” Garcia says.
“It must be nice in there,” Luna says. “But for that money, I’d want a house.”
“Heck yeah, a down payment,” Garcia says. “A nice place.”
The likelihood of that happening, though, seemed to be less each day. The previous summer, former mayor Bud Elliott was sitting at a brewpub in downtown Leadville when he noticed paint going up on a two-story rental on Seventh Street—a collage of green and yellow and red in a perfectly symmetrical V down the front. In a city like Leadville, a new coat of paint—especially one as colorful as this—stood out. “It looked pretty cool,” Elliott says, “but I knew something was up.”
The Victorian had sold a few weeks earlier to a buyer from North Carolina. Elliott heard from someone in town that the rental’s tenants—a family of six who’d lived there for more than half a decade—had been given 30 days to move out, after which the property would be listed on the online vacation-rental service Airbnb.
A few weeks later, the two-story next to the multicolored house got a similar makeover—this one in pastel blue and yellow, like an Easter egg. “Real nice looking,” Elliott says. “It made me worry.” Sure enough, those renters also got 30-day notices. In less than a month, Elliott calculated, about a dozen people in town lost a place to live and Leadville got two vacation rentals.
Standing on the sidewalk across from what’s now marketed as “The Happy Hippie Tie Dye House,” Elliott gives a little snort. “It all really ramped up,” he says. In the past year, rents and house prices in Leadville have increased exponentially—nearly doubling in some instances. In April, four houses in Lake County sold for $250,000 or more—far less than in the resort towns, but nonetheless a massive increase for a working-class community that exists, at least partly, because of its affordability.
Tall, gray-haired, and barrel-chested, Elliott lumbers down Seventh Street, his feet perpetually fixed at 45-degree angles. A former hospital executive from Kansas City, Missouri, he has spent 23 years in Leadville, was mayor for eight of them, and has been among the primary agitators when it comes to keeping Leadville affordable for working families. This afternoon, he’s wearing a denim work jacket to keep out the spring chill. He heads down the hill, away from the Tie Dye House, across traffic on Harrison Avenue, and into a neighborhood that is quite possibly one of the fastest-changing in Colorado’s high country.
At the corner of Pine and West Seventh streets: “That blue house was for sale a year ago. Now they fixed it up, raised the price, and it’s for sale again.”
At Sixth Street: “Vacation rental by owner. See the Realtor lock on the door?”
Across the street: “Vacation rental.”
A couple of blocks from the Silver Dollar Saloon, Elliott stops in front of another house. This one has a sign out front with a property management company’s name and phone number. “It feels like there’s a hundred of these same signs all across town,” he says. “This should be prime real estate for a family, but instead we get entire blocks with vacation rentals.” He shakes his head. “This is absolutely destructive.”
About the same time the Tie Dye House was sold, the largest apartment complex in Leadville went on the market. Eagles Nest, with 162 units northwest of the city, sold in June 2016. Along with the trailer parks, Eagles Nest has been a popular spot for immigrants. To many, the $13.5 million price was an unfathomable amount for a nearly 50-year-old, nine-building complex that had sold for just $3 million nine years earlier. “When I saw the final numbers, I thought it was insane,” says Bill Korn, a local landlord who’d seen the sales prospectus. The property received around a dozen offers. “It was gone like that,” Korn says.
That an ancient apartment complex could fetch such an exorbitant price was a testament to Leadville’s ascent from a hardscrabble mountain town to an investment haven. The town hosts the Leadville Trail 100 Run, the most popular trail ultramarathon in the United States and part of a larger Leadville race series now owned by Life Time Fitness. The Climax mine reopened in 2012 with a few hundred workers and is the world’s largest producer of molybdenum chemical products (molybdenum is used to strengthen steel). A brewery opened in late 2015; hip coffeeshops and food trucks are popping up across the city.
With the Eagles Nest sale, a wave was unleashed across the county. Potentially as a way to entice buyers, the previous owner had increased rents on many of the units. Residents reported spending $1,000 or more for two-bedroom apartments—significantly more than what they’d previously paid—though few tenants moved. That was all the affirmation landlords across Lake County needed. Soon after the Eagles Nest deal, rents spiked throughout the area. Homes in downtown Leadville that would have fetched $180,000 suddenly were edging toward $300,000. Converted motel rooms near the Safeway were being offered on Craigslist for $750 per month. Many of the county’s 3,400-some homes are now listed as vacation rentals or second residences, owned by individuals and trusts from Denver to Australia.
All of which leads to a simple question: What happens when one of the last slivers of affordability in Colorado’s high country suddenly becomes unaffordable?
Elliott says it’s not difficult to imagine what comes next. Inflated rents will lead to even higher real estate prices, which will make it more challenging for working-class families to remain in the community. There’s been talk that the planned development on Poverty Flats will include at least 125 affordable units, though there are questions about whether that will really happen. “A developer has to make money, and there’s more money in $300,000 homes than there is in anything that might be considered affordable for a family living here,” Elliott says. “The reality is it’s going to become more difficult for people to get ahead. In a town this size, you push out 15 people here and 15 people there, and that adds up to a huge problem.”
One morning in April, spring snow coated car windows outside and a thin, gray fog covered Mt. Massive in the distance. Garcia dressed Ana, poured bowls of cereal, then grabbed her daughter’s backpack and watched from the porch as the girl walked up the street toward the bus stop. A few minutes later, Luna pulled onto the rock driveway in front of the trailer. At St. George Episcopal Church, a few miles up the road, people would soon begin to line up for the monthly food bank pickup.
Garcia and her son piled into Luna’s car. Luna pulled out of Lake Fork and made a right and then a left onto the highway. Ten minutes later, they arrived at St. George’s.
Luna parked along a sidewalk, away from the delivery truck that was blocking Pine Street. The truck’s back door was pulled up, exposing boxes packed with potatoes, frozen chicken, bread, cheese, and milk. A forklift was pulling out a pallet of parsley. On the sidewalk next to the church, five tables were covered with orange juice, coffee, and boxes of granola bars and cereal. Dozens of people had already arrived to get a number guaranteeing them a place in line.
From the church’s front door, Ali Lufkin, one of St. George’s priests, called to the women. Fifty-four and red-haired with blue eyes, Lufkin arrived in Leadville 19 years ago with her husband, George, also an Episcopal priest, after leaving her job as a counselor in Syracuse, New York. The pair raised two daughters in Lake County and often say the decision to move here was among the best of their lives. As part of their small ministry, the Lufkins have made it a mission to better involve Latinos in the city. They’ve offered everything from temporary housing to the food bank to free weekday lunches prepared by community members. Lufkin hired a Spanish-speaking meal coordinator and soon after, immigrants offered to make meals. In turn, more families from the trailer parks started to attend the lunches. Garcia’s mother was one of Lufkin’s first Latina volunteers. Luna regularly cooks at St. George’s and is known for working magic with ham. Garcia often helps her friend in the kitchen.
After Trump’s election and the uncertainty that followed, the Lufkins decided they needed to do even more. They offered the church as a sanctuary—a place where immigrants living in the country illegally could go if the feds executed a raid in the area. The idea, Lufkin admits, “wasn’t completely thought out. We’re kind of feeling our way through as we go. But if something goes down and those people can get from the trailer parks to our front door, we’ll take them in and we’ll protect them.”
Although a weekday service at St. George’s might get a couple dozen people on a good day, hundreds of Latinos showed up at a meeting at the high school, where an immigration attorney spoke and Lufkin announced the sanctuary plan. The high school’s new principal—a bilingual transplant from Denver—promised families he’d care for the students as if they were his own children. “It was kind of a great moment,” Lufkin says. “It made me proud to be here, around so many people who care.”
At around noon, the food line finally begins to move. More than 100 families show up and start filling their boxes. Inside a stained-glass room off the church entrance, Garcia and Luna hand out food.
While the two pass out canned beans and bags of cheese, they begin to talk about some of the changes in town. Their conversation, as it often does, veers to the president and his policies. Garcia says her boyfriend called a family member in Mexico who said the town was filling up with people who’d left the United States, who’d given up on opportunity in America. Garcia and Luna found themselves discussing American politics, changes in immigration policy, and the huge number of Latinos in Lake County. After the election, Garcia says, a female student at the high school posted a Facebook message saying the Mexican kids should leave now that a new president was in charge.
“I don’t feel like this is my town,” Garcia tells her friend. “And I grew up here.”
“Yeah,” Luna says. “It’s weird.”
Garcia mentions another recent point of tension in Leadville: Along with the deadly fire and the gas explosion, in February, a video was posted online from one of the trailer parks that showed a Latino man handcuffed and on the ground while a woman was being yanked around her kitchen by a Leadville police officer. Luna takes out her cell phone and pulls up the video on YouTube.
A baby is crying in the background while another woman films the incident. At one point, the woman yells, “You can’t be doing this shit! You guys don’t have a warrant to be getting into people’s houses like this!” After the video went public, Leadville police said three officers had been called to the mobile home on a report of a domestic disturbance. When police arrived and no one answered, officers forced open the door and said they were attacked by a woman and a man, who they eventually wrestled to the ground. Both were arrested and charged with resisting arrest and obstructing a peace officer. (The man was also charged with harassment.) The couple said they didn’t call police and that the officers’ decision amounted to illegal entry. The video made the news in Denver, and the incident was sent to the Lake County district attorney’s office, which eventually cleared the officers of any wrongdoing.
“Look at that,” Garcia says, pointing to the video on Luna’s phone. “She’s handcuffed and asking for water, and they’re not giving it to her. How’s that right?” Luna frowns. She’s 35 and always thoughtful, less prone to emotion than her younger friend. “I don’t know,” Luna says. “I can kind of see both sides. I mean, if my baby was crying and no one was answering the door, I’d want them to break in.”
“It just doesn’t seem right,” Garcia says.
“I’m saying there are two sides,” Luna tells her friend. “I think it’s important to know the whole story.”
There’s a long pause between them. “With everyone already freaked out, this is what happens?” Garcia finally says. “That was the last thing we needed.”
With the television off and the parakeet napping, the only sound in Garcia’s trailer is the shaking of sheet metal. Wind whips a plastic bag covering the broken back window of a van parked out front; a neighbor’s Chihuahua scampers across the street and seeks cover under an abandoned sheet of plywood.
One of Garcia and Luna’s acquaintances recently left Leadville to find work and a new, more affordable place to live. As the two women sit at the table, neither can remember where the woman moved or if she found another job.
“I heard she was making $8 an hour,” Garcia says. “You couldn’t live on that even if you worked 80 hours a week.”
The woman was actually making $10 an hour, Luna says, then adds, “How can you live on $10 an hour?”
“You’ve got bills and rent,” Garcia says. “No wonder she left.”
Another gust of wind rattles the trailer.
“You know,” Garcia says, “it’s so crazy around here right now.”
A few hours later, the trailer park’s children will return home from school. Their buses will move through Leadville, past the new vacation rentals and the future renovations, over roads without sidewalks. They’ll pass the Shopko retail store and a motel at the edge of the city. The road meanders in lazy curves over small hills, past a junkyard on the right and the Saturday’s Discount store, with its sign out front advertising the “Best Beer in Town.” There’s a turn—over a railroad line—and another turn.
When the buses pull into Lake Fork, each makes the same stop, lights flashing. Mothers gather, greeting their little ones with hugs and kisses before marching them home. A pack of boys disembarks—laughing, jumping, screaming up the street. A boy dribbles a basketball and sees a neighbor’s wobbly fiberglass hoop. He shoots, and the ball goes in.
The buses pass Garcia and Lopez’s trailer and head back toward the entrance. One goes right, to the highway. The other turns left, in the direction of Mt. Massive. That bus crosses a bridge over the Arkansas River, which today is little more than a stream. From this point just beyond Lake Fork, it’s hard to imagine the water becoming much more.
A few hundred feet away, though, its edges begin to grow. The river quickly takes shape. It weaves with the contours of the land, past spring grasses that have sprouted along the banks. A brown foal balances on matchstick legs while another horse dips its muzzle into the water. The river is gaining strength for a journey that will lead it across Colorado to Kansas and then southeast through Oklahoma and Arkansas, a 1,450-mile trip. On the way from here, it will change and adapt until it finally merges with the Mississippi River.
But here, near this two-lane road in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains, with a trailer park in the distance, the Arkansas is more of an abstract idea, a thought not yet realized. These are the first moments on a path to somewhere else. In the distance, the river turns, always moving away, until it finally disappears from sight.