By Sarah Tory, The Colorado Trust
Early one morning last spring, Ana Vasquez drove through the deserted streets of Aspen to the office of a luxury real estate firm across the street from the gondola that goes up Aspen Mountain. At 6 a.m., the streets were empty as Ana lugged a vacuum from the trunk of her car to the glass door leading into the office. She pulled a key out and crouched down to open the bottom lock and then, because she stands less than five feet tall, stepped onto the top of the vacuum cleaner to reach — just barely — the second lock at the very top of the door.
She was wearing jeans, a maroon and black top, and matching maroon Puma high tops — her usual outfit. She’s 45, but you wouldn’t know it; her long black hair has barely a strand of grey, and her skin is smooth. If there’s any hint of her age, it’s in her eyes, which are often tired from long hours spent cleaning with too little sleep.
Inside the office, there’s a large, mirrored wall behind the staircase to the second floor and an assortment of art for sale throughout the office. Behind the white leather couch are pictures of homes for sale: a “cabin” for $8.3 million; a 4-bedroom home in downtown Aspen for $9.9 million; an estate on Red Mountain for $22 million. Ana pointed to one property (the only one) listed for less than $1 million — a one-bedroom condo in Snowmass, a few miles down valley from Aspen.
“We could buy it together,” she joked, before admitting it would be too small for both of us to live in.
Ana pulled her hair into a ponytail and started taking out cleaning supplies from a room at the back of the office. She worked quickly and efficiently, emptying trash cans, wiping down the desks. Behind the large glass windows, the sun rose, illuminating the ski slopes with their layer of dusty, late spring snow still clinging to them. Despite having worked in Aspen for almost 23 years, Ana has never ridden the gondola in front of us, nor had the chance to ski. She would like to learn, she said — “for the pictures,” giving me her characteristic mischievous smile.
Pathway to America
I met Ana in early 2019 through an organization called English in Action, which provides volunteer tutors to immigrants in the Roaring Fork Valley who want to learn English. I had just moved to Carbondale, one of several towns that make up the Roaring Fork Valley region extending southeast from Glenwood Springs to Aspen, a famously expensive resort town. Aspen drives much of the valley’s economy through its ski resort, festivals and the billionaires that come to live (at least some of the time) and play in the mountains. Much of the workforce serving that economy — from construction workers to hotel cleaners — are Latin American immigrants like Ana working low-wage jobs.
When I met Ana, she had lived almost 20 years in Colorado, but had not been able to learn much English. Several times, she had signed up for and even paid for English classes, only to have her work get in the way. For Ana, work always had to come first. She had her mother back in El Salvador to support, along with her now 25-year-old son, Fernando, and various other family members who occasionally need her financial help.
My reasons for signing up to be a tutor were less practical. I had just moved to Carbondale and after years of never feeling settled anywhere, I was looking for connection within my new community. After a few weeks, Ana and I settled into a routine, meeting every Monday at 5 p.m. at the local library. When the weather was nice, we’d go for a walk, me asking her questions and gently correcting her when she attempted to answer in English with the wrong word or phrase, or helping her find the words she was looking for. Other times, we’d get pizza — her favorite food — Ana pointing shyly at the slices she wanted while I encouraged her to order in English. One time, she showed me how to make pupusas, a Salvadoran dish of corn patties stuffed with cheese and beans or meat.
Gradually, she opened up to me about her life. She came to the U.S. from El Salvador at age 21, a new mother who had made the heartbreaking decision to leave her 1-year-old son behind and then bring him here six years later. She didn’t say much about how she came here, or her journey crossing the border — only that it was dangerous.
Instead, we talked about her work cleaning offices and rich people’s houses in Aspen; about her uncle and brother, and about her son. “Crazy man,” she still likes to say, after describing the antics of the various men in her life.
In 2001, the year Ana came to the U.S., a catastrophic 7.6-magnitude earthquake struck El Salvador in January, followed by another 6.6-magnitude earthquake one month later. The two quakes caused over 1,000 deaths and more than 1.5 million people to be displaced (17% of the population). In light of the disasters, President George W. Bush granted Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to all Salvadorans who were in the U.S., giving them protection from deportation and work authorization, but not a pathway to permanent residency or citizenship. For Ana, TPS is both her savior and curse — she can live and work in the U.S. legally, but without any kind of certainty that it will last.
Ana lives in a trailer that she owns in Glenwood Springs, shared with Fernando and a renter, a man from El Salvador who also works in Aspen. She also owns a house in San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador, where her mother lives, and she would like to buy another one — a small place for when she moves back. Not if she moves back, but when, she clarified when I asked. I was as struck by her matter-of-factness as I was by the reality that after more than two decades of building a life here for herself and for her son, one day, Ana knows she must leave.
Landing in Aspen
Ana did not come to the U.S. because of the earthquakes that struck El Salvador in 2001. A young single mother, she wanted to escape her life in her home country. She had dropped out of high school when she got pregnant with Fernando. She needed to work to support her son, but wages in El Salvador were so low that she saw no way to provide for him, nor a good future for either of them. A few years earlier, her uncle had come to Colorado’s Roaring Fork Valley and found good work, and Ana decided she would go, too.
She left El Salvador knowing almost nothing about where she was headed. “I thought I was going to a big city with tall office buildings, you know, like Denver or L.A.,” she said as we drove Highway 82 from Carbondale to Aspen, the still-dark Elk Mountains rising beyond the valley. Even more bewildering, she told me, laughing, it didn’t even occur to her that most people would speak English.
That day, Ana had woken up at 4:30 a.m. so she could make the 40-minute drive to Aspen. At that early hour there was no traffic, but by 6:30 a.m. there are often so many cars on the road from workers commuting up valley that it can add 25 minutes to the trip, and even more in the winter when the highway gets slick with ice and snow.
Ana didn’t know how to drive when she arrived so her uncle would take her to apply for jobs. It took her three months to find one as a cleaner on the night shift at the St. Regis Aspen Resort, making a little over $7 an hour. She would take the bus from Carbondale, where she lived, and work from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. before getting back on the bus to head to more work cleaning houses and offices throughout the valley during the day. Often, she would nod off on the morning bus ride back from the St. Regis, her only real sleep being whatever she could fit in between 6 and 9 p.m. It was too much and after a few months, she quit working at the St. Regis and stuck to the day work.
The work is often physical. Ana is on her feet sometimes 12-14 hours a day. I’ve watched her scrubbing giant glass showers and jacuzzi bathtubs, stretching her whole body across a king-size bed to wrestle the sheets on, and dragging the heavy vacuum up and down stairs. She is typically responsible for cleaning 20-25 homes and offices throughout the valley, rotating among them on a weekly or monthly basis. Ana makes $20-$25 an hour these days, depending on the property; it’s certainly more than her wage at the St. Regis two decades ago, but still barely qualifies as a living wage in Pitkin or Garfield counties.
Houses in the Aspen area are usually quite large and can take 6-7 hours to clean. The biggest ones require two or three cleaners, so Ana occasionally hires other women to help her. One of them is Yamile, who came from Colombia a few years ago. Though she has a degree in international business, Yamile doesn’t speak much English and doesn’t have work authorization yet — she is in the process of getting a green card through her husband (her last name is omitted due to her immigration status) — so her work options are limited, she told me.
“It’s for the money,” Yamile said when I asked her if she liked the work. She was cleaning the granite countertops in a five-bedroom house that backs onto a golf course in Carbondale. There’s a movie theatre in the basement and the living room has massive two-story-tall, floor-to-ceiling windows looking up at 13,000-foot Mount Sopris.
Yamile admitted that marrying a citizen is often the only way immigrants in the valley can gain legal status. “But Ana isn’t marrying anyone,” she said, shaking her head — either in admiration or frustration, I couldn’t tell.
Ana prefers it when the offices are empty and the homeowners are gone. It’s easier, she told me as she vacuumed, as she’s not in their way. One homeowner chronically accuses Ana of putting items back in the wrong place after cleaning, but Ana shrugs it off.
I asked her if she’s ever curious about the lives of the people whose homes she cleans. “Not really,” she said. “What I’m curious about is how people can buy these houses.”
Immigrants from Latin America have been coming to the Roaring Fork Valley since at least the 1980s when employers began recruiting workers to fill jobs in the local tourist industry — jobs that were impossible to fill with enough Americans. Today, roughly 60% of the Roaring Fork School District is Latinx and statewide, more than 20% of workers in the service industry and nearly 15% in the construction industry are immigrants.
While researching the history of immigrants in the Roaring Fork Valley, I learned that in 1999, just a couple of years before Ana arrived, the Aspen City Council unanimously passed a resolution calling on the U.S. Congress and the president to restrict the number of immigrants entering the U.S. because of their supposed negative impact on the environment. As Lisa Sun-Hee Park writes in her 2011 book The Slums of Aspen: Immigrants vs. the Environment in America’s Eden, it appeared that no one on the Aspen City Council recognized “the profound irony that the everyday reality of this playground for the rich depends enormously upon low-wage immigrant labor.”
Park’s observation remains largely true more than a decade later: It is immigrants like Ana whose unseen labor creates so much of the Roaring Fork Valley’s image as a mountain town utopia.
Ana has never complained about these dynamics. She relies on her pragmatism and her work, which leaves her little time for much else, apart from learning English. What she wants more than anything is stability for her son and for herself, and enough money to support her mom back in El Salvador and for her eventual retirement.
A few months earlier, Ana’s cousin had come to the U.S. to work. The thought of him making the journey scared her — it was even more dangerous now than it was when she crossed. In the end, she resigned herself to the risks. All he wanted was to make enough money to buy his parents a house in El Salvador. That’s why everyone comes, she explained.
Most weeks, when I ask her what she did on the weekend, she tells me she slept, watched T.V. or cleaned her own house. But sometimes, she allows herself to dream. She would like to be her own boss, instead of working through a cleaning company that takes half of what she would otherwise make. Or, if she could ever finish school, she would be a nurse, she told me. When she’s not too tired, she’ll go for a walk on some trails near town, with views of Mount Sopris. One day, she told me, she would like to climb to the top.
Not a forever option
The hardest thing Ana has ever done was leaving her son in El Salvador so she could come to the U.S. He was a little over a year old when she left him in the care of her mother. Fernando was seven years old by the time he joined Ana in Colorado.
Reconnecting was hard. Fernando came with Ana’s brother, who was 14 at the time, and both boys struggled. One day, Ana saw something Fernando had written on her bedpost: Te odio mamá. “I hate you mom.”
At one point, Ana grew so frustrated with the boys that she told them that if they hated it here so much, she would buy them tickets back to El Salvador. But they stayed. By the end of the year, Fernando was nearly fluent in English.
Ana thought they’d stay in Colorado just for a few years. She’d make enough money to buy a house in El Salvador and then she and Fernando would move back after he’d had the opportunity to grow up here and learn English. The plan was never to live in the U.S. forever, but as Fernando grew older, the plan became more complicated.
Fernando has a work permit and protection from deportation through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which helps young people brought to the U.S. as children without authorization. He graduated from Colorado Mesa University in 2021 with a degree in psychology, and though DACA has been in legal limbo for years and does not offer a pathway to permanent residency or citizenship, Fernando has no desire to move to back El Salvador, a country he barely remembers.
Ana realized that she and her son will eventually be separated again. She told Fernando that she will move back to El Salvador when she’s 50 — in five years — though she admitted to me that it might be 55. By then, she hopes that Fernando, who currently lives with her while he’s applying for jobs at various clinics, will be settled in his career.
What she does know is that staying in the U.S. forever is not an option. Under TPS, Ana will never qualify for Social Security or any other government benefits. Retirement here would never be possible; she’d have to keep working until the day she dies to pay the rent for the land beneath her trailer. “I want to enjoy my life,” she said.
I wondered, too, if there were other reasons behind Ana’s desire to leave. Before we left the realty office on that spring morning, Ana asked me if I’d heard about the new law in Florida “banning immigrants” and sent me a T.V. news clip in Spanish she’d seen on Facebook. She was referring to a sweeping new anti-immigration bill passed by Florida lawmakers limiting social services for undocumented immigrants, invalidating their driver’s licenses issued by other states, and requiring hospitals that receive Medicaid funding to ask for a patient’s immigration status.
I thought about how, if you kept hearing that many parts of the country were actively trying to criminalize your existence, you might start believing you were never really welcome here.
Immigrants coming together
When Ana told me her plans to return to El Salvador someday, I felt like I’d failed somehow as her tutor. As if learning enough English would make her feel like she belonged here in a way that teaching had helped root me. And I felt sad, too, for the vast differences in how our journeys as immigrants would end.
I was born and raised in Canada and after coming to the U.S. for college on a student visa, I’d lived in this country for almost a decade under a temporary work visa offered to Mexicans and Canadians through the North American Free Trade Agreement. I had to renew the visa almost yearly or every time I got a new work contract; there were never any guarantees that my visa would be renewed, so I got used to living with a lot of uncertainty. Yet beyond that, Ana’s and my immigrant realities diverged.
We would often talk about navigating the U.S. immigration system and what our various options were for getting permanent residency. Ana couldn’t understand why my then-partner and I had not gotten married already. It was such an obvious solution to her. I laughed and tried to explain the whole “green-card marriage” cliché, but I knew she thought I was being impractical in a way she could not afford to be.
After nearly four years of dating and a lot of research into other options for receiving a green card (of which there were none), my partner and I got married last summer. Neither of us wanted to keep dealing with the yearly stress of visa renewals and the risk that we would be separated. I had still not applied for a green card, however, when last Christmas, on my way home from visiting family in Canada, I went to renew my work visa at U.S. Customs and Border Protection in the Vancouver airport. The agent denied my renewal. I didn’t have time to plead my case before he called Canadian customs officers to escort me out of the airport.
Until that point, I had taken my sense of belonging in the U.S. for granted in a way that only I — a white, Anglo woman — could. But in that moment, I understood what it was to feel like your life does not belong to you, but to an often cruel and bewildering bureaucracy.
I called a lawyer, who coached me through getting back into the U.S. on a tourist visa, and then immediately applied for a green card. When I told Ana what happened, she joked to me that she had briefly considered asking a nice, older man she knew who was a U.S. citizen to marry her so she could get her green card. But the idea was a bit too uncomfortable, even for her.
“I could never do it,” she said.
One evening, Ana and I walked around the dog park below my apartment before sitting on a picnic bench to work on grammar. I reminded her that learning English as an adult when you rarely have the chance to practice is hard — there are so many strange nuances and irrational rules. Take, for instance, the difference between “may be” and “maybe,” or how the verb “to read” is conjugated the same in the past and the present. Though Ana has improved at English a lot in our four years working together, she still forgets words and mixes up sentence structures. Often, she is frustrated by what she sees as her lack of progress.
Ana told me once that learning English is for her life now and for her life later, when, back in El Salvador she could earn some good money working at a call center or as a translator. English would be a bridge between the worlds she inhabits and between the lives she will build. And when the time comes for her to leave, her English will be the one thing she can take with her.
Sarah Tory wrote this story for the Collective Colorado, which is an initiative of The Colorado Trust, a statewide philanthropic foundation that works on health equity issues statewide and also funds a reporting position at The Colorado Sun. It appeared at coloradotrust.org on July 20, 2023, and can be read in Spanish at collective.coloradotrust.org/es.