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Culture and Consensus

Column by George Sibley

Resort economy – February 2002 – Colorado Central Magazine

“What is a culture if it is not a consensus?”

That’s a question I encountered in an essay, “The World in Pieces,” by anthropologist Clifford Geertz. It’s a question that eventually occurs to anyone who is experiencing the phenomenon of “multiculturalism” today — “cultural diversity” is something that one might like to celebrate, if one could only figure out how.

After half a century of white American monoculture, we’ve been getting some cultural diversity in the Upper Gunnison valley again. This winter, and for the past two winters, a large part of the hard work in the valley’s service economy is being done by workers from other countries, primarily Mexico, who are here on temporary H2B work permits. This significantly enlarges a trend that has been going on in the Gunnison valley’s ranching sector for more than a decade. There are more caballeros than cowboys in the valley these days.

Labor, of course, has been globalizing here for quite a while. From the 1880s through the 1930s, the coal mines up in Crested Butte attracted a very international and multicultural labor force — from the British Isles early on, and then from the nations of central and southern Europe. Here, as was generally the case elsewhere in America, the melting pot produced a pretty lumpy alloy for a generation or two. Italians, Germans, Slovenes, Croatians, Mexicans, Scotch-Irish and Anglos all had their own neighborhoods, even in small towns like Crested Butte, and they all practiced a lot of the ethnic separatism that still marks European politics.

There wasn’t much that was warm and fuzzy about that early multiculturalism. For at least the first generation of labor immigrants, life offered “competitive multiculturalism.” Each ethnic group wanted to fill up the mines with its own kin from the old country. They all hung with their own, and the kids ran in ethnic gangs that beat up on anyone off his own turf.

Nonetheless, there was a “culture of consensus” in the valley, which could be called Americanization. They kept to a lot of their Old Country ways; residents planted gardens, put up traditional foods, and raised a pig or chickens to convert garbage back into food — not out of nostalgia but due to economic necessity. The “melting pot” was basically an economic pressure cooker. But they weren’t here to be ethnics. They were refugees from failed cultures, and they were ultimately united in a common desire to succeed in America on American terms. Their consensual culture was probably most expressed, and finally realized, through the labor movement that led to the ascendance — in the coal towns — of the United Mine Workers of America, which got those immigrant families into the American middle class.

By the time I got to the Upper Gunnison in the mid-Sixties, all the multicultural competition was over. The mines had been closed for over a decade, and most of the miners and their second generation kids had scattered to Pueblo, Denver and other places where assimilation into the generic mainstream proceeded at an accelerated pace. There was no critical mass of “diversity” left in the valley, and the last remnants of the old ethnic gangs all drank beer together in Starika’s bar — talking about the good old days when they all fought with each other.

In a reserved kind of way, they welcomed newcomers like me into their circle, new listeners to old stories. But it soon became apparent that, even though we were all mostly white, “cultural diversity” would often rise up and rear its ambiguous head. There was no longer a “culture of consensus” in the town. I was a middle-class kid with no sense of how hard it was to get into the middle class. I was here to ski and play in the mountains, and I only wanted to work as much as it was necessary to support my desire to be in the mountains.

THEY EVENTUALLY CHANGED ME somewhat. I got serious about the valley, and wanted to stay here to work on the consensual part of culture that I think has to underlie, and occasionally trump, the local diversity if a place is to actually be a community.

But I don’t think we are gaining any ground on that these days, and the affordability issue pretty well insures that. Most of the people who come here, like I first did, to play a lot and only work as necessary, will move on in a few years. Today, there aren’t enough ski bums willing to stay a few years to do all of the necessary low-wage work, so the big resort employers are bringing in temporary H2B workers from Russia, Europe and (primarily) Mexico. Most of them are only here for the season; they aren’t building their lives here. They send their wages home, and go home themselves at the end of the winter. Their lives are elsewhere.

So are we getting increasingly multicultural? Perhaps, but I’m not sure we have a culture, or a community, in the deeper sense of the term. What is a community, if it is not at least partly a consensus about how and why we live in a place?

George Sibley teaches at Western State College in Gunnison and writes when he’s not teaching.