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In The Mountain West, Latino Families Stabilize Shrinking Small Towns

Melodie Edwards
Entrepreneur Katrina Molina shows a flooring display at her Rawlins business, Interiors Galore.

A Tour Of Rawlins

Longtime Rawlins city councilor and former mayor DeBari Martinez gives me a tour around town in his truck. He points out all the Latino-owned businesses we pass: a flower shop, a photographer's studio, a steakhouse.

"We have plumbers," he says, "we have carpenters, we have restaurants."

DeBari says Rawlins has about 17 Latino-owned businesses and more to come. He says it's nothing new though. He sits on the local museum board and says Latinos homesteaded here at the same time whites did.

"They started out with the lumber industry," he says, "and when it fell apart they ended up in the sheep industry."

After sheep, jobs opened up at the railroad, the penitentiary and the Sinclair refinery, where DeBari spent 40 years of his career. Now, the refinery is expanding and recently hired hundreds more workers. DeBari says Latinos are more willing to take such jobs than white workers, and more willing to stay.

"They're going to make their homes here," he says. "The wages, you wouldn't believe it. If you got out of high school, you could make $90,000 in a year."

Kept Afloat

Those kind of living wages have prompted a growth spurt in minority populations in rural towns across the West, and especially in Wyoming, according to a new study by Headwaters Economics, a research group that studies community development issues.

"Because of people of color moving into a community, these places are kind of in some ways being kept afloat," says economist Megan Lawson.

Six counties in Wyoming would have lost total population, she says, if it wasn't for minority groups settling there. In Rawlins, a quarter of the population is from a minority group, and in Carbon County, where Rawlins sits, it's even more — almost a third of the population. Small towns on Wyoming's eastern and northern plains are also seeing a population bump because white workers have vacated farming jobs in those regions. Greybull is now 20 percent minority and Guernsey is 14 percent.

In other small towns around the West, minorities clean hotel rooms, build new homes and serve as nurses to tend the elderly who have been left behind.

"Folks moving in are keeping schools open, they're keeping grocery stores solvent, and those kind of day-to-day things that really sustain a place," says Lawson.

Credit Melodie Edwards
City Councilor DeBari Martinez at the gazebo where he hosted a Latino Festival this summer.

North Vs. South

Josh Martinez, assistant director of the Rawlins Chamber of Commerce, and his family came here for the railroad and the sheep in the 1890's. He says he remembers how divided the town used to be.

"It's kind of the way it was growing up. The south side of Rawlins was the Mexican side," says Josh.

But Josh grew up on the north side, a sign of how integrated the community has become in recent decades. He says that integration coupled with Rawlins' rich Latino history has made it more welcoming for families arriving from places like Texas and Mexico. But he says, they also move to Rawlins for the same reason anyone might, for the wide-open spaces.

"Us as a culture," Josh says, referring to his Latino heritage, "we're very outdoorsy type of group and it's very natural for us to want to be around nature."

"People Are Scared"

Entrepreneur Katrina Molina agrees with that description of why she chooses to make Rawlins her home.

"We go out camping, fishing. My kids love it," she says. "We spend the weekend. We have fun. We go and hang out with friends. It's amazing.

Molina just opened an interior decorating store in downtown Rawlins.

"Flooring and cabinets, that's what we do."

Molina grew up in Mexico and moved to Denver when she was 16.

"It was kind of scary, kind of emotional, because you have to give up your other citizenship," she says.

About ten years ago, Molina's husband found work in Rawlins building homes. More recently, they bought the interior decorating business to complement his construction work.

"It just fits so we just decided to buy it and give it a try," she says with a laugh. "It's been going really, really good."

So good, in fact, that they bought a house in Sinclair, then another in Rawlins they're remodeling. Molina says she feels comfortable in Rawlins and finds it a good place to raise her kids because there are lots of people who share their language and culture.

But she says, lately, a few of those friends have been moving back to Mexico.

"I know some people that left actually when the president was elected because they were afraid of what was going to happen," says Molina. "So, people are scared. They are."

The Latino Festival

At the end of our tour, City Councilor DeBari Martinez drives to the city park and climbs out of his truck. As we walk across, he says he's worried that the recent rise in anti-immigrant sentiment in the country could slow down his town's growth, so he decided to get proactive. This year, he threw a Latino Festival here with food trucks and a live traditional Latino band. Almost 500 people showed up.

"It was full, it was all the way back there," he says, gesturing past a large gazebo. "And there was people yelling and screaming. The hard part was trying to dance!"

DeBari says he plans to host a Latino Festival in Rawlins every year from now on.

Melodie Edwards is the host and producer of WPM's award-winning podcast The Modern West. Her Ghost Town(ing) series looks at rural despair and resilience through the lens of her hometown of Walden, Colorado. She has been a radio reporter at WPM since 2013, covering topics from wildlife to Native American issues to agriculture.
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