Amid fear, Park City’s Latino youth grapple with uncertain future

Students, and a school district, confront a changed world

Rebeca Gonzalez is the coordinator of the Park City School Districts Bright Futures program, which aims to help Latino students achieve academic success and graduate college. In the months since the election, Gonzalez, who graduated from Park City High School in 2014, has sought to comfort Latino students and encourage them to keep fighting for their futures.
(Tanzi Propst/Park Record)

Editor’s note: The Park Record does not typically grant anonymity to sources, but agreed in this story to use false initials to refer to two high school students due to the sensitive nature of the subject.

An undocumented immigrant with brown skin and a Latino last name, B.A. woke up in a different world on Nov. 9, the morning after Election Day.

But it wasn’t until Feb. 17 that it came crashing down.

In April, nearly three months later, B.A., a student at Park City High School, shakes with emotion as she describes the memory. Her father was the one who spotted it while driving her to school that morning — an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent clearly in the middle of an operation. Her stomach plunged. Her breathing quickened. In an instant, whatever relative sense of security her family had built over the last 15 years in Park City disintegrated around her.

Could her parents, who moved here to raise their daughter away from the violence of their impoverished Central American homeland, be the target? The scenario pulsed through her brain.

It was all she could think about. B.A.’s family, like the rest of Park City’s sizeable Latino population, had always been apprehensive of ICE, which had conducted operations here before. But less than a month after the inauguration of Donald Trump, who had promised throughout his presidential campaign to rid the country of people like her, the threat seemed sharp and direct.

“I felt so heavy that day,” B.A. says. “I was genuinely afraid.”

The fear overpowered her when her father dropped her off at class for what she feared could be the last time. Through tears, she describes the terror. She visualized receiving a call from him in jail. She imagined the sound of his voice wavering as he admitted to her that he didn’t know what to do. Only when a text message buzzed her phone, letting her know that he’d made it back home, did the dread begin to subside.

The ICE agents were gone within an hour, after apprehending four people Park City police later said were wanted on felony counts involving re-entering the country or other unspecified offenses. For the time being, B.A.’s father was safe. But the sense of danger has lingered.

“It’s something I don’t want anyone else to go through because you shouldn’t have to feel this way in a country that’s supposed to, like, glorify diversity,” B.A. says. “It’s a country that represents all these different cultures.”

For B.A. and other Latino students in Park City, both legal and undocumented, the ICE operation was just one in a string of events that has shattered any illusions of protection in the idyllic ski town. Many worry about being deported to countries they’ve never known, or what will happen if immigration programs that have given them eligibility for things like driver’s licenses and work permits are ripped away. Others say hateful rhetoric hurled at them, along with multiple racially motivated incidents in the community, make them feel targeted in a way they’ve never been before in Park City, simply because of the color of their skin.

Some have begun to wonder if things will ever be the same again.

“You can feel the tension in the air, do you know what I mean?” B.A. says. “It’s something that you kind of feel in the back of your mind. You’re carrying it around with you.”

It’s left the Latino community reeling and has forced leaders in the Park City School District, which has long espoused diversity and inclusion within its halls, to grapple with an important question: How do you make your most vulnerable students feel safe and welcome at a time when, according to the most prominent voices in American politics and a small but loud segment of the local population, they are anything but?

A sobering wake up

Anna Williams’ phone began to light up at about 9 p.m. on Nov. 8.

She was watching the presidential election coverage with her two daughters and unease had settled in. A few hours earlier, she had brushed off the early returns favoring Trump but now they were holding. She was concerned for her daughters, but her mind fixated on her students.

An English-language learning teacher and Latinos in Action (LIA) adviser at Park City High School, Williams has been a mentor to hundreds of Latino teenagers who have come of age here. And it was becoming obvious that her current crop — who she refers to as her kids — were soon going to need her more than they ever had.

Leading up to the election, she had told them to think positively and to trust that Trump, who seemed to personify every fear they held about America, would not win. But as polls closed on the West Coast, they were seeing the same results she was. They started to message her, seeking a glimmer of comfort on an evening that was quickly unraveling.

The most anguishing plea contained only one word: “Señora?” A while later, a single question mark followed.

Williams went to sleep before the final results were in, clawing onto hope they would somehow turn. The voice on her radio alarm clock shred that faith first thing the next morning. At once, every ounce of trepidation for her students that had been building throughout the campaign solidified.

“All I could think about was, ‘I just have to get to school,’” she says. “Sure enough, it was very, very real. The uncertainty and the fear and the devastation just became absolutely real at that moment.”

When she arrived at school, the anguish was thick. The vulnerability exuded from her students’ slumped shoulders and was apparent on their faces, and she decided it would be best if they all stayed together for a while. They crowded into her small office next to her classroom. She tried her best to assuage their anxiety, assuring them they were not going to be deported and summoning any other messages of comfort she could muster.

“It was whatever I could tell them to help them pass through the initial shock,” she says.

For B.A., the realization began settling in that morning that the world was different. Students who supported Trump reveled in his win and chanted his slogan: “Make America Great Again.” Others taunted the Latino students. To her, it felt like a celebration of everything she is not. She had always been aware in many ways of the differences separating her and the majority of her classmates, but now, for the first time, she felt truly isolated.

“It was like, ‘We’re starting a new era and you’re not part of it. In fact, you’re our target we’re going to go after,’” she says. “That’s when it became more serious for us.”

Even amid the backdrop of that day, however, the voices of support outnumbering expressions of hate buoyed Williams. White students passed around a notebook that said, “We love LIA.” In it, dozens wrote messages of acceptance aimed at ensuring the Latino students understood they weren’t alone. The words were more important than anything Williams could say.

“They were just the most beautiful, poignant words of encouragement, shared experiences and things like that,” she says. “I was really deeply moved and impressed by the student body of Park City High.”

That was not the last time their peers would speak up for the Latino students. In the months since the election that have been dotted in town with incidents that have stoked the fears of Latinos, the majority of their classmates have stood by their side.

At times, though, that support has still rung hollow. For G.N., a student at PCHS who was born in Utah but whose parents are undocumented, it’s been easy to allow animosity from people who don’t like the color of her skin to overshadow the love. To her, it was as if Trump’s victory gave people permission to shout their darkest impulses, the types of prejudices they’d previously only whispered in private.

It’s become clear to G.N. that there are people, both across the country and in Park City, who hate her for who she is. That’s been a painful truth to learn, and one with which she is still wrestling. The injustice stings.

“You don’t get to choose where you’re born, you didn’t get to choose what parents you got and you didn’t get to choose your ethnicity,” she says. “People are blaming you for something you never even got to choose.”

Watching her students bear that burden wears on Williams, who was hesitant to be interviewed for this article because of vicious comments she’s received in the past for speaking up about Latino issues. As frustrated as she is, though, she tries hard to understand the perspective of people with anti-immigrant views. She concludes that they simply don’t understand the many barriers to legal immigration, or haven’t met enough Latino people struggling to carve a better future for their families out of pasts filled with violence and poverty.

If they had, she says, they would see the truth about Latino immigrants in Park City.

“They are hard-working, committed, family- and God-loving people,” she says, “who want more than anything to survive and provide their families with basic necessities and basic resources that they did not have the opportunity of having in their native countries.”

Threats become heightened

Intolerance and prejudice has become a part of everyday life for Latino students regardless of legal status, but the greatest threats lurk for ones who are undocumented or whose family members are here illegally.

Chief among them is the promise of increased deportation efforts, which Trump made a central part of his campaign and has continued to focus on as president. Students like B.A. have long lived with the fear of deportation, but it intensified after the election and peaked in the aftermath of the ICE operation. Eric Esquivel, who was hired last fall as the district’s Latino community outreach specialist, tries to imagine what it must be like.

His parents immigrated to the United States from Mexico before he was born. They came legally and eventually earned citizenship, but in recent months he’s envisioned himself in the shoes of the students facing down the prospect of being sent to countries that have never really been their home.

The son of a man who flourished in the U.S. and instilled in his children a deep love for the country, Esquivel finds it painful to watch America turn its back on Latinos like the students and families he works with in Park City each day.

He takes a deep breath and grimaces.

“Some of these families have been here for 20 years or more,” he says. “They’re part of the community. They won’t know how to navigate being deported. Their country of origin will be the foreign country, truthfully. And when I say that, I’m thinking of my own family and personal experience. How do you do things? You wouldn’t even know where to go.”

Being expelled from the country is the most visceral risk undocumented students face, but it isn’t the only one. Many Park City students have been granted a legal presence in the U.S. through Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a policy started under President Obama that allows people who came to the U.S. under age 16 to apply for work authorization, Social Security numbers and state financial aid for college.

Since taking office, Trump has signaled that he may keep DACA in place, but he’s also followed through on his promise to ratchet up deportation efforts. That disconnect has left Park City Latinos uncertain about the policy’s future.

For students like B.A., losing DACA would be devastating. She intends to go to college after high school and hopes to eventually build a successful career. But without DACA, the possibility of receiving financial aid from the state would vanish. And without work authorization, paying her own way through school would also be challenging.

Returning to her home country in Central America that has been ravaged by violence and drug trafficking and poverty is not an option. There’s no way for people like her, she says, to start a life there.

“The second I get off the plane, I know that I’m a target and that I’m probably going to be dead within a week,” says B.A., who has never returned to her country of origin after leaving when she was 3. “Because when you go back, people assume that you came from the U.S. and have all this money.”

Park City’s Latino students are also grappling with myriad other worries. G.N., for instance, was born in Utah, so a repeal of DACA would not affect her personally, and she has no reason to fear being deported. However, the political climate still threatens to derail her life by taking away the thing she cares about most. Her parents, undocumented immigrants, plan to return to Mexico after G.N. graduates high school because they are so scared of what would happen if they stay.

The thought tugs always at G.N., who would remain in America, but picturing it is painful. She planned to attend the University of Utah after high school simply to stay close to her mother, her best friend. But through tears, she confronts what she knows to be true about America in 2017.

“I know,” she says, “they’re going to be happier if they go back.”

The district reacts

Knowing that many of her students are living in fear has agonized Ember Conley, superintendent of the Park City School District. This isn’t the first school system she’s worked in with a sizeable Latino population — about 22 percent — but the tension has never been this palpable.

She sees all the time how the tenor of the national political conversation has infected Park City, and on any given day, there are dozens of students who are physically present in her schools but checked out mentally because of the anxiety in their lives.

The pointed comments that have flooded the district’s Facebook page in recent months is proof enough of how things have changed. Many deliver the same general message: “If you weren’t spending so many resources on illegals, you’d have more for the rest of the students.” Conley and district personnel cannot delete the posts, but they try to hide them as fast as possible.

Conley is quick to note that the district respects the political views of all residents, but what people who don’t believe the schools should accommodate undocumented students fail to understand is this, she says: Districts are legally obligated to teach every student that enters their classrooms, and ethically obligated to do so to the best of their abilities.

Given that, helping Latino students and their families who have been suffering is one of the district’s top priorities. Esquivel, the Latino outreach specialist, has played a critical role. He keeps contact with as many families as possible, connecting them with resources in the community and stressing to them that their children are safe in Park City schools. He works with other outreach leaders and counselors to coordinate similar efforts at individual schools.

This summer, he even intends to go door to door to give books to Latino families to demonstrate how much the district values them and the education of their children. But he worries that incidents like the ICE operation chip away at the bridges the district is building with the Latino community.

“It keeps that fear factor constantly at the forefront because fear will override comfort,” he says. “You could go months of doing nothing but great work for these people, and one negative event erases all of that. It renews the fear.”

Other school leaders have also sought to comfort the students. Rebeca Gonzalez, for one, has felt a particular obligation to stand as a pillar of support because, not too long ago, she was one of them. A 2014 graduate of Park City High School, Gonzalez is the coordinator of the district’s Bright Futures program, which aims to help Latino students thrive academically and ultimately graduate college, and she understands the challenges they confront.

Gonzalez, whose parents emigrated from Mexico to Park City before she was born, admits to feeling the same worry the students have experienced following the election. The concern proved warranted in January, she says, when a man harassed her after she spoke about Latino issues at a panel following a film screening at the Park City Library. He followed her into the parking lot and shouted at her to go back to Mexico.

The apprehension was justified again early last month when a family member was the target of an anti-Latino tirade at the Java Cow coffee shop on Main Street that made news throughout the state.

But for the students, Gonzalez has tried to mask her vulnerability. She knows that if they see fear from her, a student at the University of Utah who has forged the kind of path they hope to follow, their belief that they, too, can still succeed will wane. She has urged them to push forward in their studies because wrecking their own future would be even worse than having it stripped away.

“If you have that mentality that you’ve lost hope, that’s going to destroy all of your hard work,” she says. “That’s the biggest failure that could happen, is giving up this early on.”

As much as district officials have done to help, the reaction of the majority of the students’ peers has perhaps been most important. According to Conley, the district has not been immune to instances of other students harassing Latinos and espousing harsh anti-immigrant views, but she’s been encouraged to see how the student bodies of each school in the district have embraced Latinos since the election.

The starkest example came when students responded en masse when vandals spray painted the word “Illegal” on the Aspen Villas apartments across from the high school, which are home to many Latino families.

A group of high school students and teachers painted over the graffiti that day, and the next morning, the school’s parking lot filled with vehicles emblazoned with messages of support for Latinos, written on windows with car paint or simply printed onto paper and affixed with tape.

To Williams, the LIA adviser, the size and intensity of the effort, which was featured on multiple Salt Lake City newscasts that week, was important. The message was clear and it rang throughout the area.

“Our response was big and real and encompassed a larger community,” she says. “We weren’t going to make an announcement on the Miner Morning Show the next day and say, ‘Please respect your fellow students.’ We had to do something big and huge and public, and we needed to respond immediately.”

It heartened Esquivel, too, and he hopes to see more of the same in order to effectively counteract the fear within the Latino community. The number of organizations throughout Park City that have teamed up with the district to offer their help has reassured him, as well, but he knows the task of making the students and their families feel safe will not end anytime soon.

“There’s still work to be done,” he says.

A united voice

To Williams, the months since the election have been a call to action that has grown louder as the incidents locally have heightened fears. For too long, she says, Latino students have been complacent, somewhat secure in the notion that they were safe and welcome in the liberal bubble of Park City. Since Nov. 8, however, she’s preached to her students that they can no longer afford inaction. She has urged them to self-advocate and to speak up and to show the community, and the world, who they are.

She describes it to her students with a metaphor: They are wearing, she says, invisible badges designating them as ambassadors for the Latino community. Now more than ever, their voices must be united and they must be heard.

The responsibility, though, can wear on students like B.A., who finds it difficult to toe the line between standing up for herself and her heritage and becoming a target for people with anti-immigrant views.

“It’s definitely been rough because you have to find this balance,” she says. “I need to be professional and I need to be academic, but I also need to express that this is an experience that is happening and not something you can avoid and needs to be taken care of with compassion.”

Students have told Williams how hard it is to wear the invisible badge, how heavily it weighs on them. She understands the unfairness of it. She wishes more than anything that her students, who she loves like her own children, didn’t have to carry the burden. But she tells them to push on, undeterred, because the alternative, to stay silent, would be a disservice to themselves and to the people who sacrificed so much for them to be here.

“Not only do you need to wear it,” she says, “you need to proclaim to anyone and everyone you know that we bring to the table cultural, linguistic and social capital. We are hard-working and want a place at the table. That badge can’t be invisible now.”

It is apparent school leaders are willing to stand by their side. Many of their peers are, too. But in times like these, when fear and distrust have enveloped even an idyllic ski town, Williams says the Latino students themselves can deliver the most powerful message by refusing to give in. It’s a proclamation, she believes, that will reverberate throughout Park City and across the country — even if it’s now one that, at times, they no longer recognize.


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