I am re-posting this from the Exponent. The student newspaper at Montana State University. I also grew up in Bozeman.
Author: Chris Meyers
There are few states whose residents exhibit such an exceedingly powerful sense of pride as those of Montana; and for good reason. Montana’s unique and diverse geography is incomparable to any other landlocked state. This is one of the many reasons its residents seem so wary of population growth and tourism. Montana natives simply want to safeguard its natural beauty, often joking that the state is at capacity before referring out-of-staters to neighboring areas. This is done with an overt and overly protective sense of state pride; generally targeted at Californians. Yet, while there is nothing immoral about state pride, friendly banter and competitive dispositions, these conceptions are fueling sociocultural poisons; specifically, xenophobia and racism. I am sharing my perspectives as a Latino resident.
There is a societal mentality present that has indoctrinated a negative perception of anything foreign to the state. When Bozeman’s population is roughly 94 percent Caucasian, it is easy to regard the remaining six percent as alien. This is an issue that extends well beyond Montana and is ever timely. The nation’s state of xenophobia is why I was removed from the Denver International Airport’s U.S. Citizen entry line, despite the possession of a U.S. passport, and placed in a line for non-immigrant visitors after a thorough frisking. Although the mentality is nationally present, Montana maintains a xenophobic mindset unlike any other state, with the exception of Wyoming; a state in which I was denied dining services in two different towns.
Xenophobia and racism are two distinct terms but often result in similar experiences. For most MSU students, racism is a dim light that is rarely seen. However, a short walk off campus can reveal a blinding blaze of racial discrimination. I spent a year working at a local grocery store where I gained personal insight and experience on the matter. I found that a large percentage of the store’s elderly customers felt uncomfortable by my presence. These customers generally avoided eye contact with me, would refuse my assistance, ignore me entirely and wait in lines for my Caucasian co-workers as I idly stood by. These customers were the motivating force behind my departure from the position.
Bozeman’s xenophobia, small town attitude and overall distaste for population growth has developed an aversion to construction and seasonal workers. This is where I learned that the city’s discriminatory background is not restricted to its elderly population. Never was I more enveloped by racism than when I worked construction in the Bozeman/Big Sky area. As I moved from one jobsite to another, I received a lot of advice, particularly from strangers: I should move to an area where I would better fit in; I should keep all my tools in my truck and out of reach of the Mexicans; I should learn English (my hearing impairment was often construed as a linguistic ineptitude) or return to my home country (the U.S.). Moreover, it was explained to me that “my kind” (individuals of Mexican heritage) were stripping the Bozeman area of employment.
Montana’s racism also led to repeated attempts to have my mother deported. She became a U.S. citizen during my childhood, when dual citizenship was not available. This racism caused her to give up her Mexican citizenship and all her possessions in the country. I had to attend speech therapy throughout my elementary education in Billings to be rid of my accent, a situation I attribute to Montana’s xenophobic outlook. The community’s racism is why, after months of waiting, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Gallatin County was unable to find me an “appropriate match.”
What these experiences tell me is that I am without a home. For over three years, I helped build Bozeman. I even failed a semester working 12 hour night shifts in the process. For over three years, I bore the label of the stereotypical Mexican laborer that my Caucasian colleagues bestowed upon me. As a member of the state’s National Guard, I aided in the response to two statewide fire emergencies, demanding weeks of academic makeup. Despite my contributions to this community, I still have yet to earn my place here; that is a right I failed to achieve over 26 years ago.
I wrote this in the hopes that even one individual may gain a better understanding of those around them. I wrote this for my mother, who sacrificed her identity to ensure me a peaceful upbringing.