People of Weld County

History of Immigrants in Weld County

By Mike Peters
The following is a series of articles originally published in the Greeley Tribune on May 14, 2011 (reprinted with permission).

The Road Ahead


By Chris Casey, Greeley Tribune

It’s just after dark on the first balmy day of spring and a group of four teenagers and a young adult ride sparkling chrome bikes that sit low to the ground. They are headed east on 9th Street toward downtown Greeley, one of the bikes flashing a blue blinking light and another towing a stereo with amplifiers. Mexican flags sprout from the back of the bikes.

“It’s coming back to our Mexican culture, and it’s Cinco de Mayo,” says the leader of the group, Raymond Rangel, 26. “We’re just trying to kick it off. Everybody is out pumped up and cheering us. … A lot of younger guys who celebrate Cinco de Mayo don’t know the actual meaning of it. I try to teach it. It’s not just a day to go out and get drunk and get stupid.”

The young Latino men call themselves “Riders Low” and wear airbrushed T-shirts to signify membership in the club, which they emphasize is not a gang, just an outlet for fun. Already this evening, they’ve heard some jeers.

“There’s some white guys in a big ol’ truck,” Rangel says, pointing across the street to a gas station. “They were like, ‘Go back to Mexico!’ I just yelled back to them, ‘Yeah, right on!’ I don’t take it to heart, y’know.”

Rangel has been in Greeley 12 years, moving with his family from Phoenix because he had an uncle here and the weather is nicer. In that time, Rangel said, “there’s a lot more Hispanic people here — it’s grown.”

Just as Greeley became a city of immigrants at the turn of the 20th century, with European, Asian and lastly Latino laborers pouring in to work the area’s booming agriculture industry, the city in the early 21st century is again a magnet for new arrivals, including recent waves of East African and Burmese refugees who have found work at the JBS USA meatpacking plant.

The homogenous vision of the city’s founder, Nathan Meeker, who recruited white Easterners of stature, wealth, education and temperance to the utopian Union Colony, has steadily given way to a patchwork of cultures that some call a “global village.”

Ibrahim Mohamed, a local caseworker for Lutheran Family Services, which provides refugee resettlement services, said there are about 1,200 Somalis in Greeley and about 600 Burmese. That compares with 300 Somalis and virtually no Burmese in early 2008. Also, families from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo continue to arrive in Greeley.

“We used to see mostly singles, but now are seeing mostly families,” Mohamed said. “They came to get a job here at the meat plant in Greeley or maybe Cargill in Fort Morgan.”

The influx of refugees, who began arriving after the Swift & Co. raid in 2006, which picked up hundreds of Latinos suspected of having false documents, now contributes to the 54 languages spoken in Greeley-Evans School District 6. Mohamed said that while the refugees used to congregate in downtown Greeley, they now have learned the bus system and live across the city. Several East African shops have sprouted up, as well as a market geared to the Burmese near the Greeley Mall.

“I think things are running smooth now, compared to when we came,” said Mohamed, himself a Somali refugee. “The community didn’t know who these refugees were. The community is very welcoming and supportive now. If you go to a school and any other place it’s picked up. It’s welcoming.”

Peggy Ford Waldo, Greeley Museums programming curator, said the shift of ownership of the meatpacking plant from Swift to Brazil-based JBS in 2007, sparked the new wave of workers as the plant expanded its operations.
“We are a global village and very much a global economy right now,” she said. “We’re getting that expansion of population with the arrival of new immigrants to work in the same jobs that their predecessors worked in 100 years previously.”

Newcomers often greeted with less-than-open arms

By Chris Casey

The arrival of immigrants and new ethnic groups has not always been welcomed with open arms in Greeley.

The Swedish were one of the first ethnic groups to arrive, digging ditches in the late 1800s that enabled the development of crops, such as sugar beets, in the early 20th century.

The community first recruited Germans from Russia to work the beet fields, followed by the Japanese and lastly the Latinos, starting to arrive around 1910.

In 1910, laborers here were made up of:

  • Germans from Russia, 3,699.
  • Japanese, 3,607.
  • Mexicans, 2,836.
  • Americans, 915.
  • Italians, 579.

According to a history of Greeley at the Greeley Museums, Greeley’s “melting pot,” once known as “Little Russia,” was on the east side of town, between the railroad tracks and the sugar factory. The historical document said the new cultures were warily observed or misunderstood. The Germans from Russia were known as “Rooshuns” or “dirty Rooshuns,” and the Japanese were called “Japs.”

According to the historical document, “during the 1950s and 1960s, Hispanics were not welcomed in certain businesses and restaurants.” A local writer at the time remembers signs in some Greeley restaurants saying, “No Dogs and No Mexicans.”

The Ku Klux Klan rose to power in Colorado in the 1920s, and Germans became targets of derision during both world wars. In 1918, the city’s historical record says, several “patriots” in Larimer County forced a German from Russia to buy war bonds and swear an oath of allegiance.

Rutilio Martinez, an associate professor of business at the University of Northern Colorado, who specializes in the economics of Latin America and immigration, said the thousands of Latinos who have arrived in Greeley over time have contributed to a somewhat divided community.

“This is typical immigrant behavior. They come to communities and they are afraid of coming out of their (own) communities,” he said. “It is their children who integrate a little more.”

The Latino immigrants tend to come from rural areas in Latin America and Mexico — the states of Chihuahua, Durango and Zacatecas, especially — and tend not to be well-educated, Martinez said.

“Rural people are more inclined to cluster,” Martinez said, “… and they continue to draw more folks from those areas because of family connections. … The guys who are really inclined to work in the slaughterhouses are the guys from the rural areas.”
Early residents of the Spanish Colony in Greeley, which was set up to provide permanent homes for laborers of the Great Western Sugar Co., were mostly all related.

Gabe Lopez of Greeley, a descendent of one of the colony’s original families and co-author of a colony history, “White Gold Laborers,” said Latinos, especially after the Spanish-American War in the late 19th century, were mistreated in America. Restaurants would double the prices for Latino customers and some stores wouldn’t service them, he said.

“The prejudism was very strong then, as it is today,” Lopez said. “Unfortunately, we will always have it. They put up with a lot (at the Spanish Colony), but they overcame it by being a tight-knit community and doing what they wanted to do.”
Juan Moran, who has lived in Greeley since 1988 and works for the Miguel Martinez law firm, said prejudice today is not prevalent, but there are pockets.

“Greeley is full of wonderful people, but there is a group of people who I would say are uneasy with our presence here and will take every opportunity to make the differences sharper than they need to be or different from what they really are,” Moran said. “Obviously, it has not deterred us and it won’t.”

Much of the derision is directed at illegal immigrants who are among the estimated 12 million living in the United States.

Moran, who is in his 40s, became a naturalized citizen in his late teens. His other nine siblings also became naturalized citizens. His parents, originally from Mexico, were able to get U.S. residency after one of Moran’s sisters was born in Texas while his dad was working on a ranch. That allowed the other children to ultimately become naturalized.

While he is a legal resident, he doesn’t begrudge those trying to come into the United States — whether documented or not — in search of opportunity. “I know the employers that are luring them,” Moran said. “I know other people don’t want the jobs because they are not jobs that are hard to find. They take on the Mexicans who are grateful for the work, and they are pursuing what is essentially not the American dream, but I guess you could call it the human being dream: have a decent job where you can support your family, pay your bills and have a better life than you would have imagined you could have had.”