Latinos feel at home, finally, in Southwest |

Latinos feel at home, finally, in Southwest

Eben Harrell
Latino Youth Camp participants warm up after a chilly night in Utah's La Sal mountains. Aspen Times photo/Paul Conrad.

It looks like any other migrant camp – scattered tents, a makeshift fire, clusters of dark bodies huddled together for warmth.At the sound of footsteps, a group of Mexican boys scatter like deer into the trees. In the hills high above the Utah desert, they are on the run again.”Manuel, Francisco, Estaban,” the shout comes. “Stop hiding and finish rehearsing your skit for the rest of the group.”Slow and slouching, the boys emerge from the trees, grins on their faces. Up here they are safe. Up here they are with their own.The boys are part of the annual Latino Youth Camp organized by A Grassroots Aspen Experience. The four-day excursion takes 25 teenage Latinos from the Roaring Fork Valley to a campsite in the La Sal mountains near Moab, Utah.

The campsite is an enchanted place, set on the banks of a mountain lake, where the late evening sun imbues even the most mundane with a magical presence. Up here, mosquitoes look like fairies. The students are mostly Mexican, themselves or their parents foreign-born. They speak English fluently and attend local schools. They are not dropouts or junkies. Yet to Grassroots Aspen, a nonprofit group that runs programs and activities for troubled youth, these students are still “at risk.”They are at risk because they are outsiders, members of a population who on the whole are still unassimilated.”These kids come from families that are completely closed off,” program coordinator Denise Sanchez says. “To them, discussion is not an option – ‘Our business is our business.’ This is a tough environment for a teenage kid.”Here is the national immigration debate made real, the human face of what many believe to be the greatest challenge to American identity. It’s not just extremists. A respected Harvard political scientist recently declared Latino immigrants the greatest threat to U.S. democracy. A former Colorado governor and an Aspen city councilman have joined the national debate, two of many locals who vocally oppose immigrants in America.The quest for identity is played out on a smaller, more personal scale for these students. Locating oneself, never straightforward for teenagers, is particularly difficult here, where students wear hats with Mexican flags above T-shirts with USA written on the back.

Near the campsite, there’s a sign for a hike called the “burro” trail. In a part of the country that shows signs of a heritage it has little desire to embrace, where Latinos feel at once foreign and indigenous, what does it mean to be a Mexican in America?One girl has set up a battery-operated boombox in the corner. Tall, overdeveloped for her frame, she choreographs some raw street moves, showing off her curves. “Who do you think you are, J-Lo?,” a boy teases.Another student has smuggled a toy gun on the trip. It’s a strange sort of security blanket – when he feels awkward, he cocks it sideways and pretends to fire it, almost like a nervous twitch. “Back off, ese”- even here, among the splendor and whisper of lakeside trees, it’s hard to break from stereotypes.It is the goal of the Grassroots trip to begin to resolve some of these identity issues. The days of the camp are spent participating in “trust-building” activities. One day the students help each other leap and crawl through the vertiginous rock beds of Arches National Park. The next afternoon they paddle together down the Colorado River. It’s a fun-filled couple of days.But it is the evening activities in which the counselors hope the most progress is made.Each night, the counselors run a “rap session,” an open discussion around a campfire where students can feel safe to address issues of concern. There are no guidelines, except respect and a willingness to listen.

“We make the trip all Latino because there are students here that simply won’t talk in front of Anglos. They are too shy,” Sanchez says. “Here they can be among their peers and feel safe to come out of their shell.”On the first night, the students are divided into five-person troupes to perform skits for the rest of the group. There’s little censorship. One group addresses schoolyard bullying, another alcohol abuse. The jittery giggles of teenagers reluctant to talk about themselves begin to dissipate. There’s a feeling of preternatural comfort and safety around the fire.The final group – the boys who earlier scattered into the trees – puts on a short play about immigrants crossing illegally into America.”We took a little swim in the Rio Grande,” a boy says fearlessly in the skit, “because we wanted a better life.”As the sun sets on the campsite and the temperature drops, the students return to their camps. Flashlights remain on for hours, lighting up the tents like glowing balls. Inside, shadows of small bodies dance against the incandescent canvas. High in the mountains above the Utah desert, for a magical couple of days, these students aren’t Latinos or migrants or outsiders; they are living the better life, if only for a night.Eben Harrell’s e-mail address is

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