From Peru to Aspen: Overcoming adversity and the American Dream | AspenTimes.com

From Peru to Aspen: Overcoming adversity and the American Dream

When Marta Arbildo immigrated to Aspen from Cajamarca, Peru, 15 years ago, the single mother to two young children was cold, broke and barely spoke English.

But Arbildo knew she needed to get out of her hometown in Peru.

"I come from a society that is — men have the power," Arbildo explained.

For instance, "If someone harasses you, it's your fault, not theirs. It's because you didn't dress correctly or you'd probably been flirting."

“Your role (in Peru 20 years ago) with your husband was to serve him. And maybe work on top of that.” -Marta Arbildo

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In a nutshell, she said, "Your role (in Peru) with your husband was to serve him. And maybe work on top of that."

Back in Cajamarca, Arbildo and her husband at the time had a daughter, Tiffany, and a son, Martin.

The young mother was in her early 20s and had just finished school, where she studied to become a teacher, but said she needed to get out of her marriage — a radical concept for a wife living in that region of Peru 20 years ago, according to Arbildo.

Not only did the laws at that time favor men more than women, she said, but so did the people — including the other women.

"In a society like that, with no money, it was really hard to say, 'I'm out of this marriage,' because not only was my husband going to fight me back, but also the society judged me really hard," Arbildo said. "People used to say, 'You're crazy, you're out of you're mind, you're horrible.' I've been called all the bad names and more. So it was really hard for me, but at the end, I stood up for myself and said, 'I'm out of here.'"

Arbildo had an older brother living in Carbondale, who encouraged his sister to give the mountains a shot.

With nothing left to lose, the Peruvian native set her eyes on the Roaring Fork Valley, vowing to create a better life for her children.

Arbildo, without getting into the details, described the journey from Cajamarca to Colorado as a "depressing, traumatic process."

Her first moments in Aspen, contrary to some peoples' first impression of the tiny mountain town, were neither enchanting nor picturesque.

"I remember driving through town (with my brother), it was full of snow in the middle of October, and I said, "When are we going to make it to Aspen?' And he said, 'This is it.'"

The transition from a balmy, beach climate with Latin culture and a bustling metropolis to Aspen in mid-October was a shock to the system, she said.

"It just seemed so, so small. I was like, 'This is it?' OK…," Arbildo said with a laugh. "It was hard for me to deal with the cold. I thought, 'How am I going to make it here?'"

Arbildo instead directed her focus to learning English and enrolled in a language course at Colorado Mountain College.

She started cleaning houses for pay but needed additional income to support her two children.

Arbildo applied to a job at Main Street Bakery and Cafe, where a manager turned her away because of her English.

But for Arbildo to say 'OK' and walk away from such a situation would have been out of character, her friends, family and former employers said.

"She's never, ever given up," said Arbildo's son, Martin. "I know that's how she's been her whole life."

Arbildo returned to the bakery one day later, determined to leave with a job this time.

She asked to speak with a different manager, who she convinced to give her a chance upon promising she would quickly improve her English.

The next day, Arbildo started working at Main Street Bakery, where she remained for 15 years until the cafe's closure in October.

Main Street Bakery co-owner Jane Disnmoor said she "was impressed almost immediately" with Arbildo when they first met.

"She's always been so determined," Disnmoor said. "I admired her. I don't think I'd have that ambition coming into a strange country with two kids — I'd be more timid than that. But she was going to do it."

After initially staying with a few Peruvian friends who lived in an apartment across from the police station, Arbildo found a little place of her own and enrolled her children at Aspen Elementary School.

Set on running her own business, she started a property management firm during her second year in Aspen, while also working at the bakery and often juggling a third job.

"I was busy because I really started from scratch. The only thing I wanted is to have my kids get the best education possible, because I do believe in education, and to me, that's one of the most important ways to succeed through life," Arbildo said. "My kids were my priority. I just had to do what I had to do."

Sometimes this involved rolling out of bed at 3 a.m. to slide cookie trays into the oven at Paradise Bakery; other times it meant operating the cashier at McDonald's or escorting restaurant patrons to their designated tables.

"Marta is probably one of the hardest workers I've ever known," said Aspen real estate broker Carrie Bryant, who met Arbildo several years ago while leasing properties Arbildo was managing.

"She makes me want to be a better person because she works so hard and is so dedicated to her commitments and her kids," said Bryant, who has since formed a close friendship with Arbildo.

"She is living the American dream," Bryant said. "She has overcome a tremendous amount of adversity — I mean, a tremendous amount. I have a huge amount of respect for her."

Arbildo's daughter, Tiffany, echoed Bryant's sentiment.

"My mother is one of the most inspirational people I know. She has dealt with great adversity and has always come out on top," Tiffany said. "When my brother and I were younger, she worked tirelessly to balance being there for us as a parent and going to work every day to give us a comfortable life. It was often overwhelming but she always managed to do it. Regardless of her busy schedule, she always found time to make us breakfast every morning, watch our games and once in a while take us on family trips."

Despite not having the time to take advantage of aspects of Aspen life — including skiing, hiking and spending time outside or around town — Arbildo said she couldn't have dreamed of a better place to raise her children.

"As a single mother, raising my kids here was so easy because the community gets involved with them, the schools really get involved, the Buddy Program," she said. "Aspen was, to me, one of the blessings that happened."

Both of Arbildo's children graduated from the Aspen School District and are exactly where she wants them — in college earning their degrees.

Tiffany is a senior at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., studying political science and psychology.

"When I was going through the college process, she told me to apply everywhere and not to limit myself to certain universities," Tiffany said. "I often worried about the expenses, but she always reminded me that we would deal with it one way or another."

The college senior — who will forever hold the title as "Aspen's first Peruvian hockey player," according to Arbildo — said her mother has always encouraged her to pursue her dreams head-on.

Martin is working toward his associate's degree at Colorado Mountain College and will transition to Denver University, where he intends to study business, next fall.

Growing up, Martin said his mother always told him, "You can be whatever you want to be, but you have to be the best."

He credits his mother for his resilient character today.

"One of the most valuable skills I have is not giving up. Other people can inspire and motivate you with words, but that's as far as it ever goes," Martin said. "My mom, on the other hand, can inspire and motivate with her words, too, but I think her actions speak louder than her words do."

Arbildo said if she could impart one message onto anyone who is struggling, it would be to never lose hope or sight of what is important.

"Every single step I had to take built who I am now," Arbildo said. "No matter how much you struggle, you're always going to find the light at the end of the tunnel."

erobbie@aspentimes.com