In the 1960s, the giant CF&I steel plant on the southern end of Pueblo was the economic driving engine and racial equalizer for Colorado’s southernmost major city.
Former Pueblo City Council President Ray Aguilera, in his early 20s during the mill’s last heyday as a large-scale employer, recalls wives dropping their husbands — Latinos, Italians, Slovenians — at the tunnel entrance leading under the roadway to the 7,000 lucrative jobs on the other side. The work often did not require college degrees or even high school diplomas.
“Why would anybody want to go college when you can go out to the mill and make (today’s equivalent of) $60,000, $70,000 a year,” Aguilera said.
The towering steel mill stacks and their billowing clouds of smoke were symbols of prosperity, one in which the smelter was a melting pot in more ways than one.
When the city’s soldiers, sailors and Marines returned from War World II, they expected a fair shake from Pueblo’s major employer. Soon, the mill’s segregated showers for whites and Latinos disappeared.
“So in 1945, things began to change even in the mill, CF&I,” Aguilera said. “(Latinos) began to get good jobs. This was the beginning of the transformation of Pueblo, this convergence.
“I thought Pueblo was Shangri-la. It was a period of prosperity for all these guys that worked in the mill.”
One in five Pueblo workers held manufacturing jobs in 1970, according to Census data.
Two-thirds of Pueblo County’s Latino households owned their own homes in 1970, according to an I-News analysis of six decades of U.S. Census data. Latino families, on average, earned more than 80 percent of the countywide average that same year.
“It was a life to go for,” said former state Sen. Abel Tapia, a Pueblo native. “Then all of a sudden, it kind of went away.”
By 1982, manufacturing operations in Pueblo and across the United States were hit by stiff international competition that led to drastic cutbacks and factory closures. CF&I went from 13,000 jobs statewide, including all of its subsidiaries, to eventually 1,300 at its bottom in the 1990s.
Pueblo certainly wasn’t the only steel town in the U.S. to be rocked by change. But when the Colorado Fuel and Iron plant drastically downsized, Pueblo became emblematic in Colorado of the state’s economy pivoting away from heavy manufacturing.
For a large segment of the state’s minority population, it was as if the pathway to the middle class had disappeared.
An I-News analysis of Census Data from 1960 to 2010 tracked important measures of social progress — family income, poverty rates, high school and college graduation, and home ownership — among Colorado’s whites, blacks and Latinos. The study found widening disparities in more recent decades.
Progress made by minorities in the 1960s and 1970s faded in most every measure. One reason why: The state’s economic landscape shifted precipitously from good paying blue-collar jobs.
“It was terrible,” Aguilera said. “The thought of losing all those jobs and closing this plant was absolutely a nightmare, the way the community felt.”
A bumpy ride to jobs
For decades, the fastest route to the middle class for minorities in El Paso County without college degrees has been the government, particularly the federal government, and to a lesser extent, working in manufacturing plants.
That route was not as smooth in 2010 as it was 40 years earlier, in part because the percentage of civilians in the county working either for some level of government or a manufacturer has declined from one-third in 1970 to one-fourth in 2010. Blacks and Latinos made up nearly 30 percent of the government and manufacturing workforce in 1970, but just 12.6 percent of that work force 40 years later.
While the number of blacks and Latinos working for the government or manufacturers has increased more than fourfold between 1970 and 2010, the percentage of blacks and Latinos employed in the two sectors has declined. Nearly 40 percent of both black and Latino workers were employed either in government or manufacturing in 1970. But the percentage of blacks working in either sector had dropped to 28.4 percent by 2010 and the percentage of Latinos working in government or manufacturing fell to 21.4 percent in 2010.
That has occurred in part because the number of manufacturing jobs in the county fell by 7,000 jobs from 2000 to 2010 amid two recessions and a shift of manufacturing work overseas. Plants operated by Intel, Sanmina-SCI, LSI Logic and several others shut down as manufacturing shifted outside the U.S. Federal employment grew during the same period amid a major expansion at Fort Carson that more than doubled the number of soldiers stationed there and increased the number of civilian workers as well.
The county’s reliance on the military likely is a major reason that minority households in the county had among the smallest gaps with white households economically than other major counties in the state.
The gap between the percent of white and black residents living in poverty in the county has fallen over the five decades between 1970 and 2010. El Paso County is one of only two major counties in the state to see only slight increases in the poverty gap between Latino and white residents over the same time frame.
The downturn in manufacturing hurt minority workers disproportionately in Colorado and across the U.S. It is one of the reasons cited by researchers for the widening gaps with white workers on key economic and educational measures.
I-News found that Colorado was a more equitable state than the national average in the first of the decennial studies covered by the analysis, but that the state’s disparities were greater than the national average in more recent decades.
“In a way, Colorado was by virtue of its older economy a more equal place than the rest of the United States,” said Alan Berube, research director for the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “But it’s just picked up in droves these elements of the national economy and it’s now more like a caricature of the United States in terms of the imbalance between the high end and the low end — where the high end is disproportionately employing highly educated whites and the low is probably employing disproportionately, less educated Latinos and African-Americans.”
I-News found that manufacturing jobs in Colorado fell from 14 percent of jobs in the state in 1970 to 7.5 percent of all jobs in 2010.
The analysis also found Latino workers in Colorado were heavily impacted. In 1970, one in four Latino workers in Colorado had a manufacturing job. Today, it is less than one in 10. The lost manufacturing jobs have not been replaced by similar paying jobs accessible to those without college degrees.
One in seven black workers held manufacturing jobs in 1980 and only one in 15 held similar jobs in 2010.
Dropout rate is high
As the manufacturing jobs dwindled in Pueblo, the gaps between the county’s Latino and white residents widened.
Tapia and Aguilera said decades of not needing college or even high school degrees to get good-paying manufacturing jobs came home to roost when the steel mill jobs disappeared.
Generations grew up thinking a college education was not necessary, Aguilera said.
“A lot of it was their dad didn’t graduate, so they weren’t graduating,” Tapia said.
Many fathers wanted their daughters to stay home and raise families, rather than go to college, added Aguilera.
Consequently, the city has had to deal with a high school dropout rate.
In 1994, a letter to the editor from a high school senior at Central High published in the Pueblo Chieftain brought the problem home. She wrote that she had 390 classmates in her freshman year and two weeks from graduation only 187 remained.
“We were the ones stunned,” Aguilera recalled. “We had no idea. What happened to all of those kids?”
Teenage pregnancies in Pueblo rose to among the highest rates in Colorado, almost double the state rate.
“We have babies raising babies,” Aguilera said. The predominately Latino part of the city had the highest rate in Colorado of grandparents raising grandchildren.
As the decades went by, Latino median family incomes fell to 65 percent of white incomes. Home ownership rates fell to 58 percent and poverty hit more than one out of every four Latinos in the county.
“People up north used to say they’d hate to be in Pueblo because you got that big ugly steel mill,” Tapia said. “Well, the people that raised a family didn’t think it was big and ugly. They thought it was great and then it went away.”
Gazette reporter Wayne Heilman contributed to this story.
For more information: inewsnetwork.org. Contact Burt Hubbard at email@example.com
A FOUR-DAY SERIES
This is the third of a four-day series about racial and ethnic disparities in Colorado.
Tuesday: The changing economy is a root source of growing inequities.
Wednesday: Hispanics and blacks in Colorado have not equally enjoyed the benefits of health care advances.
The project has been assembled as a 128-page e-book in PDF format. The e-book includes stories, graphics, a selection of photos and more. Download at â€¨www.inewsnetwork.org.
• The I-News Network at Rocky Mountain PBS is a nonprofit investigative news service that focuses on investigative reporting. Its funding comes from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation, the McCormick Foundation, The Fund for Investigative Journalism and others. I-News, founded in 2009, this month merged with Rocky Mountain PBS and public radio station KUVO. Learn more about I-News at www.inewsnetwork.org.
• I-News and The Gazette will host a community conversation about the findings of the Losing Ground project 5:30-7 p.m. Feb. 28 at the Tim Gill Center for Public Media in Colorado Springs, 315 E. Costilla St. For information, call Keanna Smith, 418-5851. Other such events are planned along the Front Range.