Heroes or villains? No, just people
Last week I got caught up in a discussion on “Latinos in the valley.” As always happens when that’s the topic, things got pretty hot pretty quickly.Some people said the wave of Latino immigration was a “problem.” Some people said it was an “opportunity.” Some were concerned about immigration law. Some about economics. Some about education. Some about cultural diversity. Some about crime.But it seemed to me that, as always, almost everyone’s thinking reflected their own narrow concerns. There’s nothing unusual or “evil” about that, but it means we rarely step back and look at that darned “big picture.”The substantial Latino immigrant presence in this valley is, of course, part of a nationwide phenomenon. It’s happening everywhere. But there are also some unique, complex local issues.Let’s drop back 25 or 30 years.Back then, Aspen’s resort economy depended on low-cost labor that was supplied by a corps of classic ski bums. The “dishwasher with a Ph.D.” was a reality back then. College graduates came to Aspen to work menial jobs, buy cheap season ski passes, cram themselves into cheap, funky, overcrowded apartments, ski hard, party hard and have a hell of a time.It was a great life, but the heavy hand of economic reality began to shift the balance.For one thing, the cost of skiing went up. Perhaps that was inevitable. Perhaps the increases weren’t unreasonable. But there’s no denying that it made things more difficult for ski bums. That cheap season pass wasn’t so cheap any more.Heavier still was the burden imposed by Aspen’s success. As America grew wealthier through the 1980s, Aspen’s real estate boom took off. Those cheap, funky overcrowded apartments weren’t so cheap any more. Then they disappeared completely – replaced by million-dollar condos. So those ski bums couldn’t afford lift tickets and they had nowhere to live.Say bye-bye, ski bums.Meanwhile, Aspen’s demand for workers was skyrocketing.This, too, was the result of America’s economic boom, Aspen’s success and that real estate spiral.Along with the million-dollar condos, there was a boom in gigantic second (and third, fourth or fifth) homes for the nation’s new billionaires – who, as tradition has it, “pushed out the millionaires.”Those people – and those houses – demanded ever-higher levels of care and pampering. That created a need for more and more “service workers.”At the same time, Aspen’s new super-luxe resort status brought a wave of super-luxe resort hotels. And they, too, required more and more full-time workers.So we have the traditional labor pool disappearing at the same time that the demand for workers is soaring.That should result in soaring wages, to balance things out. But it didn’t work that way.It’s easy and tempting to blame that on “greedy business owners” who “refuse to pay a living wage.” But it’s not that simple.After all, a lot of local businesses are struggling to survive. Restaurants go bust all the time. A lot of small lodges are closing down. There have been vacant storefronts all over town.Even when they pay low wages, Aspen businesses have a hard time making it. Put it all together and you create a vacuum that has been filled by immigrants – legal and illegal. They’re not here to ski; they’re here to work. The low wages are higher than they’d be getting back home.Indeed, for all that their wages are low, many of these immigrants send a lot of money back home across the border. They may be “scraping by” on our terms, but they’re actually supporting families – even entire communities – in other countries.So, take it all together and you get this: Over the past 30 years, we’ve gone from a highly educated, upper-class all-American work force to … well, something very different: a largely uneducated (by U.S. standards), largely lower-class (again, by U.S. standards), almost all-immigrant work force.Problem or opportunity? I’ll let you debate that.Heroes or villains? I don’t think there are many of either. Just inexorable forces, moving with the irresistible power of continental drift.I know I’ve only covered half the story – the Aspen half. I haven’t talked at all about the economic forces south of the border that are driving those workers here. But as I said, we all just look at our own narrow concerns.Andy Stone is former editor of The Aspen Times. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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People are a little hot and bothered out there. Relax, it’s Aspen.