Irene Avitia (native USA)
John F. Russell
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS – Irene Avitia considers herself an immigrant, although in theory she isn't. She was born in Merced, California – her parents worked in the agricultural fields there – and when she was two months old, her family moved back to Mexico.
The second youngest of six children, Irene grew up in a very small town in Zacatecas, Mexico, and lived there through sixth grade.
"I never knew I was born in the US," said Irene. “My parents never told us. We were like any other kid in town. "
As she and her siblings got older, their parents decided to return to the United States to get a better education for their children.
"Where we lived we only had elementary and middle school," said Irene. "If you wanted to go to high school, you had to travel to another city, and if you wanted to go to college, you had to keep traveling."
Irene's father was a truck driver and worked in the oil fields near Rangley. He didn't want the family to live there and decided that Steamboat Springs was where his family should live. They moved to Steamboat in 2004 when Irene was in eighth grade.
There were only five other Spanish-speaking students in her class at the time, all boys, and she remembers it was a difficult time for her.
"I think the school learned to support us – the newcomers," said Irene.
Irene had her oldest daughter when she was in high school.
"So my senior year was different from most seniors," said Irene. “I had to take the bus, drop her off at Young Tracks, and then take the bus again to pick her up after school. I didn't drive back then because I was afraid of the snow. "
Irene's dream was to work with children, and after graduating from high school, she applied to preschool and daycare that her daughter attended. Young Tracks hired Irene as a replacement and then as the teacher's assistant. She took two years off after her second daughter was born and then returned to Young Tracks, where she worked her way up to the positions of head teacher and infant carer.
In 2017, Irene decided to realize another dream, which was to use her skills to work with the Spanish-speaking community. At the insistence of her husband Adrian, Irene applied and was hired as an early childhood education specialist at Integrated Community, a position she still holds today.
In her role, Irene provides early childhood education programs to Spanish speaking families, particularly those who are at home with their children or are caregivers. She also works with families to find a preschool and apply for scholarships.
"I really just help families find their way through the education system," said Irene. “When someone calls and says, 'Irene I need help,' I help with anything and try to connect them to resources. And during the pandemic, it was more about checking in to make sure they were okay and they had food. It was more of a self-help group. "
Looking back on her early years in Steamboat, Irene said she never felt rejected, though she couldn't say she felt fully accepted either.
In the past four years, I've never rejected myself like this or felt conscious of my language or skin color. "
"I don't know if it was because I loved helping my mother and didn't notice it, or because I was 12 and hadn't seen that aspect of people," said Irene.
But she has noticed a change in how some people view her and her family due to a changing political environment.
"I've never rejected myself like this in the past four years, or felt conscious of my language or skin color," said Irene. "I think when you have someone you look up to and it's okay for them to act and express their feelings like this, it opens the door for people to do the same."
Irene said she and her husband had never spoken to their children before about the possibility that they could be targeted because of the color of their skin.
"We talked about how special and unique we are in a beautiful way and how happy we are to be bicultural and bilingual," said Irene. "But it's hard now. My daughter Vanessa, who is darker than her sister, has let people tell her:" Go back to Mexico; you don't belong here. "
The challenges facing the immigrant population in Steamboat are diverse, according to Irene, including language barriers, cultural differences, transportation, and economic differences.
"There is such an economic gap in Steamboat – there is none in between," she said. "Either you have a lot of money and two second homes, or you work three jobs barely to survive."
And housing is another dilemma for immigrant families.
When she and her family first moved to Steamboat 16 years ago, Irene said they all lived together in a rented mobile home.
"It was my mother, my father, my sister, her two children, her husband, myself and my little brother who lived in this tiny house," said Irene. "It was the only thing we could afford."
Irene said she and her husband had the hope of one day owning a house in Steamboat.
"Every time I see that hope goes on and on, I feel like we will never achieve that goal."
Often one of the few Latina faces at meetings, Irene is determined to educate other leaders like herself, and that's why she helped found the Yampa Valley Latinx Alliance, a new network that connects the local Spanish-speaking community 376 Followers on Facebook.
"We want to prepare and educate others to go there and serve in the community," said Irene. “We have to do our part, and organizations as a whole have to be open to have this person on their board, not just to diversity, but because you want that person to have a voice at the table and their opinions to be respected. ”
And when it comes to advice that will make immigrants feel more welcome, Irene believes that education and a willingness to learn from other cultures matter.
“Be open and willing to learn from others. Educate yourself and show others respect and patience. And we need more friendliness. "
To reach Lisa Schlichtman, call 970-871-4221, email lschlichtman@SteamboatPilot.com, or follow her on Twitter @lschlichtman.