When Samuel Garcia opened his grocery in New Castle a decade ago, it was a sign of changing times. The town’s old general store became a grocery serving the Latino population at the same time New Castle’s complexion was beginning to change.
By 2010, New Castle’s Hispanic population grew five times its size in 2000, according to the latest census.
“I can notice the difference,” Garcia said.
New Castle saw the region’s biggest growth in Hispanics, but their numbers are growing throughout the Roaring Fork and Colorado River valleys, marking the biggest demographic shift in the region.
Their actual numbers may be higher. Demographers say the census count among Hispanics may be low due to language barriers and fears among illegal immigrants that filling out the form or talking to census workers could lead to deportation.
The numbers may have been even higher before the 2010 census was taken. Like other workers, many Hispanics left the Roaring Fork Valley when the recession ground the construction industry and other sectors of the economy to a halt.
“A lot of people went back to Mexico or different places in the US because there was no work around,” Garcia said.
A third Hispanic
Garfield and Eagle counties are nearly one-third Hispanic. Pitkin County is now 9 percent Hispanic; its Hispanic population grew 60 percent over the decade.
In New Castle, the 15th fastest-growing town overall in the state, the Hispanic population grew from a mere 236 in 2000 to 1,282, a 443 percent change.
Hispanics tripled in Silt and Battlement Mesa and doubled in Snowmass Village, Basalt, Glenwood Springs, Rifle and Parachute.
Gains were more modest in El Jebel and Carbondale, which already had large Hispanic populations, but along with Parachute, those communities are now nearly 40 percent Hispanic.
"I think it’s just part of the way the West is growing these days,” said Steve Rippy, manager of Battlement Mesa Service Association, where growing numbers of blue-collar workers, including construction workers and roughnecks, transformed what had been a quiet retirement community.
“The number of Hispanics in the construction industry really boomed in the last decade,” he said.
Changes among children
Hispanic gains are even greater among children. Anglo children are now in the minority in El Jebel, Glenwood and Parachute. They make up less than 60 percent of young people in new Castle, Silt and Rifle.
The growth in Hispanics was mirrored statewide. Hispanics weren’t the fastest-growing group in the state. Asians outpaced them. But Hispanic numbers are much higher.
“We are more diverse, and we have been becoming more diverse over the past several decades,” said state demographer Elizabeth Garner.
The biggest growth has been among the under-18 age group, Garner said. The last census showed immigrants moving in. This one shows them settling down. “They have kids, form families,” she said. “That’s where a lot of our growth has been taking place.”
“I tried to open that restaurant last year, but the economy went down, down, and I said, ‘Wait a little bit.’”
He sells basic food, like tacos and burritos, at his lunch counter in the back of the grocery. A few years ago, when the construction industry was booming, the lunch counter was, too.
“Now it’s completely dead,” he said.
Mayor Frank Breslin calls Garcia “the ambassador” of the Latino community.
“If people in general or myself in particular have a question about something or want to get a word in Spanish, we ask Sam,” he said.
Those kind of connections are becoming increasingly important. Breslin said he was surprised to see the census showed the Hispanic population to be so high, but it was no secret that it was growing.
He said the town is seeking a translator to publish its Town Council agendas in Spanish “to invite participation and show that we respect that population.”
Editor's note: This is the third of a four-part series on what the 2010 census reveals about the Aspen region. It's been produced in collaboration with The Aspen Times, the Glenwood Springs Post Independent and Aspen Public Radio. This article was also published in the Vail Daily.