Ray Aguilera is a longtime Pueblo resident and former president of the Pueblo City Council.
“We have the highest illegitimate birth rate in the state of Colorado. We produce in the neighborhood of 300 to 400 illegitimate kids every year. We have babies raising babies.”
Mexicans were treated generally very poorly in Pueblo. They accepted the hardest, the toughest, the lowest paying jobs in the city and at the CF&I. It wasn’t until the end of World War II that all those guys who fought in the war came back and said, “Hey, I should be able to go to that dance hall and dance. You can’t keep me away because I’m a Mexican anymore because I went to the war and fought. I have certain rights because of the fact that I went to the war.” So in 1945, things began to change even in the mill, CF&I. They began to get good jobs. This was the beginning of the transformation of Pueblo, this convergence.
For a long time, people from other parts of Colorado had this perception that the mafia ran Pueblo and that there were way too many Mexicans. In those days, the mill ran three shifts. If you got off at 7, you would come in here (Gus’s) have a beer and a shooter, and then go home. Then when they got off at 3, they would come in, and when they got off at 11.
By the 1960s, I thought Pueblo was Shangra-la. It was a period of prosperity, all of these guys who worked in the mill, their kids were going to college and getting good jobs. The ‘60s were a high point. Everybody worked. There were 6,000-7,000 working at the mill. There were a couple of thousand people working at the Pueblo Ordinance Depot. The depot downsized to nothing after that and all those people lost their jobs. CF&I began to wane because of the way they manufactured their steel. Everything changed.
By the time of the 1960s the attitude toward the Latino community was improving. Before, it was hostile. Then there was a big difference. The Mexicans produced these beautiful girls. They are breathtaking. Our young men were good looking. So there were lots of intermarriages. That was really the beginning of how things changed. Like right now, 60 percent of all the kids in our school district are Hispanic. So that just goes to show you the difference in how things are.
When the mill was going strong, it was based on labor. The white kids went away to school and they ended up in Colorado Springs and Denver when they graduated. For others, the mill provided lots of jobs and lots of opportunities.
And why would somebody want to go to college when you can go out to the mill and make $60,000, $70,000 a year?
Now, the mill will not hire you if you don’t have a high school diploma. And actually they are being very selective in who they hire. They have much more sophisticated plant and it’s all run on computers.
But by the mid-60s, CF&I was in decline. I thought it was a result of poor negotiations. CF&I was willing to give workers anything they wanted, they gave them some ridiculous things. For the unions it was windfall. Whatever they asked for they got. But that was actually the decline. Then we went through a series of owners that owned CF&I. This Crane Co. came in here and bought the plant. They began to sell all their assets. At one time, CF&I was the biggest owner of all assets – iron, coal, water. They owned everything. Crane came in here (buying the company in 1969 and spinning it off in 1985 as a separate company) and sold everything at ridiculous prices to get rid of it and justify them owning the steel mill.
It was terrible. The thought of losing all those jobs and closing this plant, it was absolutely a nightmare the way the community felt. Eventually, a Russian company, Evraz, came in here and bought them. They invested in the plant and brought this new process for making steel, making them very profitable.
They make all the steel now in one building. Last year, the Canadians ordered this huge shipment of rails from the Chinese. Soon after they got the rails, they noticed they were cracking and brittle. So the Canadians told the Chinese they were not going to take any more rails. They wouldn’t last long enough. They gave the full order here. It was almost like a one year order of rails. The quality of the steel they are making is the best in the world.
See the smokestacks? The city finally stopped them from tearing them all down. When you talked about Pueblo, that was the face of Pueblo. That’s what everyone remembers when those smokestacks would be bellowing the smoke.
I know for a long time, Pueblo was the brunt of a lot of jokes. In terms of quality of living, though, Pueblo is hard to beat. This year, it was September before we had our first murder in town. Do we have gangs here? Yeah, we do. Do have drugs here? Yes, we do.
Knowing to ask the right question is always the issue. So for years, we chased down this idea of the school dropout rate. They would always give us this very precise number that the dropout rate was only 3.7 percent. But that wasn’t the real question that we should have been asking. We should been asking about the persistence rate. How many kids start as freshman and how many kids graduate? Then about 1994, this little girl, an Anglo girl, wrote this letter to the editor and she said, “I want to know what happened to all my classmates. When I started here in Central four years ago, there were 390 kids in my freshman class. In two weeks I’m going to graduate and there are 187 kids in my graduating class.”
We were the ones that were stunned. What happened to all those kids? Where did they disappear to? What we were missing were the number of kids that had simply dropped out, that we had no idea.
Probably for a lot of kids, high school had no relevance. The Hispanic families liked their kids like everyone else, but they didn’t put that idea in the kids’ minds that education was an important component of life. A lot of Hispanic fathers, in fact, didn’t want their daughters to go to college. They wanted them to stay home and be homemakers. They wanted them to be mothers.
We thought maybe scholarships would be the answer. So we raised over $2 million and have given over 2,000 scholarships. That hasn’t been the final solution. It’s about trying to place values on what an education represents to people. We have to convince the families that their kids have to go to school and have to be successful. Truthfully, Hispanic kids start school two or three years behind. Anglo children when they start in the 1st grade they usually have a vocabulary of about 5,000 words. Hispanic and poor black kids generally start with vocabularies of about 2,500 words. From the first day, they enter school they are entering at a disadvantage. When white kids start in the 1st grade, they know their colors, they know their ABCs, they can spell their name. They have all of these abilities on the first day. Hispanic kids don’t have those abilities. So what we are trying to do is find a way get our kids – Hispanic poor and black kids – caught up by the 3rd grade, which is the critical year. Everybody is talking about holding kids back in the 3rd grade if they can’t read at grade level. I’m fully in favor of that if it gives them the ability to get caught up so they are able to graduate from high school and go to college and be successful like all of the other kids.
The two main hospitals in Pueblo give about $120 million worth of indigent care. That in a nutshell gives you a birds’ eye view of the poverty here in Pueblo.
When I was on the city council, I was convinced that we have this economic development tool and that we wouldn’t allow employers to come to Pueblo unless they paid a minimum of $10 an hour. You know what? That was the last time we brought anybody in here. The jobs we have gotten here haven’t been good quality, high paying jobs that most other communities have.
Another statistic that I wanted to tell you, the 81001 zip code has the largest number of grandchildren being raised by grandparents of any zip code in the United States. There have literally been hundreds and hundreds of kids that are being raised by grandparents. We have the highest illegitimate birth rate in the state of Colorado. We produce in the neighborhood of 300 to 400 illegitimate kids every year. We have babies raising babies. So what happens is a 15-, 16-year old girl gets pregnant. And what’s the first thing that happens? It is difficult to raise that child. So they go by grandma’s house and say will you babysit for the kids for a day? And they don’t come back.
I have a daughter and I know what I had to do to raise her. I was a single parent. When I got ready to send her to school, Sunset Park had the best grades of all of the grade schools. So I went and asked who is the best 1st grade teacher? And they told me, and so she became Andrea’s 1st and 2nd grade teacher. And then in the 3rd grade, I went to see who the best math teacher was and they told me, so I put her in there. When they get ready to go to junior high, they give a test in the 6th grade, and if your kids do good on that test they can take pre-algebra. And that is a gatekeeper for college, that one single year. If your kids do good, they can take pre-algebra, then algebra and then geometry. I made sure my kid took all of those hard classes.
There’s a woman in town, head of the United Way, and she teaches in Rocky Ford. Andrea and I were asked if we would go to that school and talk to the kids. And both, Andrea and I, were stunned by the girls in the 4th, 5th, 6th grade classes and how articulate they were and how smart. I truly felt if somebody took them aside and ran them through this gear-up program they honestly and truly wouldn’t get pregnant. You have to have programs to work with girls.