The Slums of Aspen is a much needed exploration of the largely hidden lives of Latino immigrants and their experiences in a rapidly changing American West. In Colorado's Roaring Fork Valley -- an area popularly perceived of as a rural, mountainous region synonymous with progressive environmentalism and outdoor recreation -- the now long-established demographic trend of low-wage immigrant labor is heightening community tensions. As Park and Pellow frame it, a growing Hispanic population is scapegoated for perceived environmental degradation, crime and just about any other social ill unbecoming of an exclusive community, especially in famous Aspen. The non-white population, meanwhile, frequently works long hours with little security and is routinely marginalized, whether by local politicians, ICE, police, employers, or more simply by the fact that its members commute vast distances daily to work in hotels and restaurants, and return to crowded housing. More specifically still, it is in fact environmentalism itself that fosters a "nativist" (ie., racist, anti-immigrant) stance by community leaders. The Aspen Logic, as Park and Pellow label it, mistakenly conflates environmentalism with hyper-capitalism, whereas the plight of non-whites is an externality that cannot be accounted for, paradoxically, and is thus actively scrubbed, hidden, or ignored by the majority.
Crucially, Slums highlights what has been an evolving demographic shift throughout Colorado, and indeed the American West, with little in the way of adequate public policy response. Park and Pellow, sociologists by training, are owed praise for drawing attention to a critical matter for mountain regions that has otherwise been overlooked. They adequately demonstrate the structural barriers that new and native-born immigrants alike face with respect to health and prosperity. In the parlance of others (from public health officials to political scientists), Latinos in the Roaring Fork (as well as in Lake, Routt, Garfield and northwest Eagle Counties, which were not discussed) are vulnerable populations subject to the structural violence of an economy that exploits low-wage labor, wile denying it access to advancement through education and adequate health care. On several occasions, the authors allude to living conditions that were cramped, but also relegated to the most marginal of land space, usually flood plains. And this is where the authors fall short form our perspective.
This observation on housing is in fact critical, and worthy of more exploration. A more quantitative exploration of housing location, for example, would underscore how subtle structural barriers, like long commutes and a lack of health insurance, directly bear on well-being. Instead, the authors appear more concerned with drawing an unconvincing link between gratuitous wealth in Aspen and an oft-alluded to, but never fully articulated conspiracy against immigrant populations. The gross disparity between the experiences of Latinos in the Roaring Fork and the "conspicuous consumption" of Aspen is indeed compelling. But the work's focus on a handful of overtly racist officials and businessmen, as well as its superficial exploration and otherwise dismissive treatment of "capitalism," distracts more than augments the findings of Slums.
Slums therefore never brings us closer to a more nuanced understanding of the Latino experience, nor avenues of reconciliation and advancement. The reader is ultimately exposed to well-intentioned advocates, Latino and White, who battle uphill to overcome stereotypes and to help their neighbors in the Valley. But the authors, other than wishfully hoping for an undisclosed and sweeping reform of market economics, fail to more deeply probe how state, county and local officials might meaningfully untangle the overlap between non-white identity and vulnerability -- to dismantle the structural barriers to health welfare that most of the Latinos in the Roaring Fork face. And, as noted, while the Roaring Fork makes for a compelling narrative, given the starkness of inequalities, the phenomenon of "environmental racism" and vulnerability persists throughout the Rocky Mountains, in far less obvious ways. Latinos from Leadville travel an hour, over Tennessee pass, on hired buses, to work in resorts surrounding Vail, but return to where they can find affordable housing (which may or may not be on lead-poisoned land). This reflects a greater social ecology in Colorado where the presence of resort-based and labor-based communities, with more affordable housing, reinforce theses divisions, reflecting a perverse symbiosis across counties.
Leadville and Lake County, unlike Aspen, have now struggled for over two decades to rebuild an economic base without a famous resort, relying instead on a combination of outdoor amenities, renewed molybdenum mining , and, finally, a growing tax base from immigrant families. The experience of Latinos in the American West is a complicated one, and Slums deserves attention and credit for shining a spotlight on an overlooked phenomenon. But it disappoints too -- by avoiding the harder work of grappling with solutions, and reducing the problem to, on the one hand, a small cadre of racist elites, and on the other hand the unmanageable heft of global capitalism.
AMRDI will be soon launching a research project on the links between immigration and public health in Lake County. Data will be available as the project progresses.