Maria Bocanegra Tejeda awakens as the rising sun lights her room. Her room. In the house her family owns. That fact is still capable of surprising her, so far removed it is from her cousins’ crowded trailer in the crowded mobile home park where she spent nearly half of her 22 years.
The night before, she draped her navy graduation robe over the chair near the bed. Her cap lay nearby, its mortarboard top emblazoned with the words: “Cultura es orgullo. Orgullo es exito.” Culture is pride. Pride is success. The rallying call of her University of Northern Colorado sorority.
She can hear her parents in the kitchen. Her dad would be running on a few hours of sleep after his shift at the beef processing plant and the hour-long midnight bus ride home from Fort Morgan to Greeley. What he feels about his daughter’s graduation, he later will say, is beyond his capacity to put into words. He walks around the house two hours before the ceremony wearing a black cowboy hat and white jeans that puddle over his boots. He tries to keep his tears at bay. Maria’s mother does not even try.
Years ago, when her dad was driving past UNC, Maria pointed to the campus and told him, “One day, I’m gonna come here.” He, with three years of formal education, a laborer his whole life, told her the university was for rich people. She reminded him of this recently. Not to shame him, she says, but to acknowledge how far they had come since settling in Greeley in 2010.
In the decade that followed in this, one of the fastest-growing communities in one of the nation’s fastest-growing states, the Bocanegra Tejedas worked their way from renters to homeowners, from a one-earner household on the poverty line to two earners with a monthly cushion big enough to ensure their mortgage did not devour them. Maria, the eldest of four, became the family’s first high school graduate, its first to enroll in college.
“It’s going to take a while to settle in,” Maria says as she curls her hair on graduation morning. “So much changed. In 2010, I didn’t know if college was a possibility and the optimism wasn’t there. But now, it’s not just dreams. Now, we have a foundation we can build on.”
Inching forward on shaky ground
The Bocanegra Tejeda family symbolizes the most hopeful version of the story of Colorado’s Black and Latino residents from 2010 to 2020. In several key measures of socioeconomic progress, each group moved a little closer to white Coloradans, who also saw many gains.
A Colorado News Collaborative (COLab) analysis of U.S. Census and other data found that over the course of the last decade, poverty rates among the state’s Black and Latino residents fell to historic or near-historic lows, high school graduation rates, particularly for Latinos, shot up, Black and Latino median household income climbed at rates that outpaced inflation, and Latino homeownership cracked the 50% mark for the first time since the Great Recession.
Nowhere else in the nation saw a greater narrowing of the gaps in poverty levels between Latinos and whites than Colorado. Our state was also among the top 10 that experienced narrowing gaps in median household income between Latino and white, and Black and white households.
Progress toward parity is progress toward equity, which, as Colorado Health Foundation President and CEO Karen McNeil-Miller puts it, “is essentially the American promise that people will have what they need in order to thrive economically, socially, spiritually, physically, emotionally.”
That thriving is the engine of Colorado’s future. Population projections show growth will be led by younger Latinos and African Americans, and more Coloradans of color will enter the workforce as aging white workers retire.
But if the upward trends tell one story, the underlying gaps tell another.
Progress was tempered by the reality that in the last decade a Black or Latino Coloradan was still twice as likely to live in poverty as their white neighbors, and Black median household income was two-thirds that of white. Even with the slight upward tick, the rate of homeownership — the main path to generational wealth — among Latinos here remained lower than it was in 1970, while the rate among Blacks hasn’t cracked the 50% mark since at least 1960.
Four-year college graduation rates among Latino residents 25 years and older inched upward during the decade, but still remained in the teens, 10 percentage points lower than Black Coloradans, and 31 points lower than white. The state’s long and acknowledged history of importing college-educated whites while failing to homegrow the potential of its youth of color created the nation’s largest Latino-white higher education gap and the second-largest Black-white gap. Expand the definition of higher education to include two-year degrees and career-technical certifications, and Black and Latino Coloradans attainment rates still remained a fraction of their white peers.
When three of every four students who made up the growth in the state’s high school population over the last decade were Latino, the consequences of the failure to ensure more can achieve a higher education are obvious.
“If we don’t (close the gaps), we will continue, decades on, the way we have decades past where we have this blaring equity gap, and we have unfulfilled, unactivated potential,” says Colorado Department of Higher Education Executive Director Angie Paccione, who in 2020 launched the agency’s Office of Educational Equity. “And how sad is that? How bad — not just sad — how bad for this state?”
Education affects employment. It affects wages. It affects who gets hired first and fired last, and in Colorado, as elsewhere, Black and Hispanic unemployment rates pegged higher than whites in the hard days of 2010 and the humming days of 2019.
Progress was also tempered by the nature of the decade itself. The economy rose from the trough of the Great Recession and its lopsided decimation of Black and Latino income and wealth to settle into a historically long, slow expansion that brought low unemployment, gradual wage increases and huge gains in home equity. Then the pandemic struck.
COVID-19’s disproportionately deadly path through Black and Latino communities and its hammerblow upon the lower-paying industries in which they are overrepresented reframe the view of narrowing equity gaps as something temporary, a side-effect of economic recovery. In a matter of months, the pandemic revealed truths about the hard-wired nature of inequity that the years before may have blurred, says state Rep. Jennifer Bacon (D-Denver), who calls the Census data a representation of a “dream unrealized.”
”We have not been intentional in undoing the intentional harm of the past,” she says. “For centuries, we denied people access not just to homes and jobs, but to knowledge because of their skin color and place of birth. And unless we are intentional, a sustained intentionality, we are going to see these gaps persist.”
The most skeptical view, shared by Pastor Del Phillips, chairman of the Colorado Black Leadership Coalition, sees any uncritical celebration of the data as the most dangerous kind of placation, “a trademark of the oppressor to always make you think you are better off than you are.” Accepting a narrowing gap at face value, he says, creates an escape hatch that allows the wielders of power to dodge responsibility for past harm and future repair.
“If the gap represents me on one side of the Grand Canyon and whites on the other side of the Grand Canyon, and they’re saying, ‘Just jump. The gap is not as large as it was before,‘ well, I’m still going to fall to the bottom,“ Phillips says. “And that’s the way I look at this. It doesn’t matter that (the gap) is less. The challenge is that it’s there.”
Connecting the dots
COLab and its partners, including The Colorado Sun, Chalkbeat, Kaiser Health News, The Denver Post, KGNU, the Boulder Reporting Lab, and the Denver Voice, are working together to examine the last decade’s trends. Long-term changes are often imperceptible in real time. By analyzing a decade of data in hindsight and pairing that data with Coloradans’ experiences we can begin to take stock of what has changed, how, why, and what’s next.
In coming weeks, news outlets around the state will be reporting on homeownership, high school graduation rates and Black infant mortality. Future stories will cover higher education and poverty, among other issues.
Because our state’s Indigenous and Asian American and Pacific Islander populations are so small, the Census data is unreliable for similar analysis of those communities. But state data, particularly about educational attainment and health inequities, show our state’s Native population faces among the greatest barriers to well-being.
Numbers never tell the whole story. The Census Bureau’s data are no different. COLab started with the Census’ five-year American Community Survey (ACS), a daily rolling poll conducted over 60 months. The every-five-year statistical snapshots can be good for measuring changes over time, but are terrible for pinpointing the events of a single year. For that reason and the Census Bureau’s challenges surveying communities of color, particularly during the pandemic, this data cannot size up the socioeconomic impacts of 2020’s hardships.
But we can see from state data that the single last year of the decade upended previous years’ positive trends in, among other things, high school graduation, college enrollment and unemployment rates. Life expectancy reversed across all groups, with Black life expectancy plummeting from 78 years old to 74, what it was in 2000. White life expectancy, in comparison, fell by a little more than a year to just over 80 years old.
What numbers don’t reveal about the decade, day-to-day experiences do. Data shows a greater percentage of people have moved above what the federal government defines as poverty. This is not the same thing as being self-sufficient, stable, flourishing.
“Sure, families might be financially doing better on paper,” says Nita Gonzales, a longtime community leader in Denver. “But that may mean that you’ve got both parents working or one parent working two jobs, and they’re transporting all over the place because they have to look for housing out of the city farther away from the metro area, and that reduces time with their kids.
“ …I’m seeing that we made gains, I am not discounting that. But it’s not enough. And I don’t know how permanent it is. That’s my concern. It’s no time to sit back.”
The tide’s ebb and flow
Maria, along with her mother, Raquel, and her three siblings, moved to Greeley from Mexico in 2010, during the aftershocks of the Great Recession. Her father, Guadalupe, was already working a union job at the Cargill meatpacking plant, where he was bloodletting cow after cow suspended before him. He remembers the recession meant reduced working hours. Maria remembers him coming home smelling of blood.
The family of six and two nephews lived in the aging three-bedroom mobile home. The plumbing backed up. The kids took turns doing homework at the small kitchen table.
The family’s best hope for homeownership lay in the Greeley-Weld Habitat for Humanity with its $500 down payments, lower-than-conventional interest rates, and mission to serve families like theirs. The organization wants its homeowners to stay homeowners and build generational wealth, so it requires that no more than 30% of before-taxes monthly income go to the mortgage. For the Bocanegra Tejedas, the line between enough and not enough was too thin for comfort.
In late 2018, Raquel took a cleaning job at McDonald’s. The timing was good. Weld County was booming. The state was in the second year of an escalating minimum wage hike that would take it from $8.31 an hour in 2016 to $12 an hour in 2020.
Their $257,000 house was the last of 14 built on a block just off Highway 34 in south Greeley. As Habitat families do, the Bocanegra Tejedas helped build their neighbors’ homes. They helped build their own. The living room with a picture window looking out upon the front porch and the front lawn. The two bathrooms. A bedroom for mom and dad. A bedroom for Maria. A bedroom for Herminia. A bedroom for Rosalinda. A bedroom for Jose. And a kitchen big enough for a table where all the kids could sit together and do their homework.
They moved in in February 2020, a month before the pandemic hit.
Among the challenges of interpreting the decade’s narrowing gaps in Colorado is teasing out the complex interplay of larger economic or demographic forces with state or local policies and programs. How much was the tide? How much was the boat?
When it comes to poverty, income and homeownership, the overwhelming response to those questions was that the tide was everything.
The Bocanegra Tejedas would not have become homeowners last decade without a targeted local affordable-housing program like Habitat. They, like hundreds of thousands of Coloradans, also benefited from the state’s push to expand access to health care before and after its 2013 Medicaid expansion. For the Bocanegra Tejedas, Medicaid offered secondary insurance to help cover the costs of treating Guadalupe’s diabetes and other chronic medical conditions. Health insurance doesn’t show up in Census household income or poverty data, which mostly counts wages, but being able to afford seeing a doctor has ripple effects in well-being that stretch into classrooms, workplaces and pocketbooks as well as into the economy. And the state’s 2016 voter-approved gradual increase of the minimum wage helped Black and Latino workers like Raquel who are disproportionately concentrated in lower-wage jobs.
The decade was also bookended by two emergency booster shots: The Federal Reserve’s Great-Recession policies to goose the economy and the housing market with low long-term interest rates and Congress’ pandemic aid. The straight-to-bank-account stimulus payments in addition to expanded unemployment assistance and child tax credits kept some of the gaps from worsening, says Christian Weller, a Center for American Progress senior fellow and public policy professor at the University of Massachusetts-Boston. Thanks to the housing boom, wealth gaps actually shrunk marginally in the first two years of the pandemic because Black and Latino households hold more of their wealth in homes, says Weller, who studies the Black-white wealth gap nationally.
But the headwinds of this current decade are strong. Both inflation and the raising of interest rates to combat it exact a greater toll on Blacks and Latinos, he says, “and those are the groups less able to sustain an economic shock … because they have less wealth, less money in the bank.”
The Colorado Health Foundation’s recently released annual Pulse poll of nearly 3,000 state residents found the rising cost of living and housing a top concern across race and ethnicity. (The Foundation is a COLab funder.)
Among those surveyed, a greater percentage of people of color reported they had to work multiple jobs to afford housing in the last year and are worried they may lose their homes in the next.
Seizing a fleeting moment
Equity as a byproduct of the economy and equity as a goal are two very different things. The former can co-exist with a myth. The latter exposes it.
“The myth is that people are a product of their individual choices,” The Colorado Health Foundation’s McNeil-Miller says. “So, ‘people are poor because they make poor decisions. People are behind in education because they didn’t study hard enough. People don’t own houses because they didn’t work hard enough.’”
Yes, McNeill-Miller says, individual choices are important, but the fact is “people can do all the right things and make all the right decisions and still, they can’t move forward because there are policies and practices and programs that disadvantage them.”
Ask Rosemarie Allen, founder, president and CEO of the Aurora-based Center for Equity & Excellence, about her family’s home-buying experiences, about having 800-plus credit scores and good incomes and money in the bank for downpayments, only to be turned down by lenders or offered subprime or higher-interest loans. Ask Allen, who is Black, about the family’s decision to circumvent possible racial bias in appraisals during her son’s 2018 refinance. The pipes in his home burst. The house was freezing. The toilets weren’t working.
“We thought, ‘Oh, my goodness, the appraiser is coming, and it’s going to be too low’. So we had our white friend go. I didn’t ask him to lie. I just said ‘Can you be there? They’re going to assume you’re the owner. If they ask, you can say no.’ “ Allen says. “They gave us the most amazing appraisal ever. In that condition. I never would have believed it ever because we’ve had appraisals come in very low.”
Here, as elsewhere, the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 and the demands for justice that followed accelerated state government’s ongoing shift away from individual departments working in isolation to close gaps toward a collaborative approach. The state unleashed a blizzard of new or updated executive orders, strategic plans and equity toolkits.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), which created an office targeting disparities in the late 2000s, declared racism a public health crisis in July 2020. The department explicitly named systemic racism in explaining why people of color in Colorado get sick and/or die at disproportionate rates. Black, Latino and Indigenous Coloradans have higher rates of asthma, cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease, among other conditions. According to a Kaiser Health News data analysis, if Black and Hispanic infants had the same infant mortality rate as non-Hispanic white infants in the state, about 200 babies would have been spared from 2018 to 2020 alone.
One of CDPHE’s presentations on COVID-19’s higher toll in communities of color traces biased policies affecting where people could live, where they could send their children to school, where they work, how much they earn, whose neighborhoods got trees and whose got highways and industry and pollution.
Ryan Ross, CEO of the Urban Leadership Foundation has been part of the state’s efforts to close gaps as co-chair of the Colorado Equity Champions Coalition. In December 2020, the coalition released what it touted as the state’s first equity report for higher education.
Still, Ross says he has trouble believing the efforts will endure.
“You’re seeing work being done, or at least conversations happening to move things forward. But you are also seeing more actions that speak against that work in a louder way,” he says, pointing to the firing earlier this year of Aurora’s Police Chief Vanessa Wilson, who had strong support from Black and Latino community members.
Still, Ross says, he is noticing “a greater sense of accountability and empathy and humanity around the treatment of Black and Brown folks, which I hope becomes the catalyst or catapult to real meaningful change.”
Building new doors
Maria understands her bachelor’s degree makes her an exception among Latinos. She gives credit to high school programs that support first-generation and lower-income students like the Greeley Dream Team and Gear Up, to counselors and advisers who helped broaden her vision, to the Pell grants and scholarships that ensured she would graduate debt-free. She says she found connection and guidance at UNC’s Center for Human Enrichment, which supports first-generation students. In her last year, she received additional support from the statewide College Opportunity Scholarship Initiative, whose students, most of them lower-income and students of color, outperform students with similar backgrounds with scholarships and mentoring.
Even with support, Maria says she was plagued by imposter syndrome. Did she belong? Maybe a business administration degree was a mistake.
But the big picture never left her. The Bocanegra Tejedas are immigrants and citizens. Even in their struggle, she says she never forgot she had choices her family in Guanajuato did not. You have to imagine your future, she remembers telling her siblings during shared homework sessions.
“I’m doing it for my siblings, and then eventually for generations to come,” she says. “This is a huge change, not only for my family, but I think for our community.”
To Maria, “equity is the American Dream.” It does not only open wider the doors of opportunity, It demands new doorways. New builders. Like her. Like her brother and sisters.
Two weeks after Maria graduated from college, Herminia graduated from Northridge High School. She was second in her class, and one of 50 students statewide to win the prestigious full-ride Boettcher Scholarship, which aims to keep the brightest Colorado minds in Colorado. Herminia starts her engineering classes this fall at the Colorado School of Mines.
Kaiser Health News reporter Rae Ellen Bichell contributed to this story.
Email Tina Griego: firstname.lastname@example.org
To learn more about COLab, visit colabnews.co.