Gunnison elects the first Cora Indian to the city council, giving voice to a community that lived mainly in the shadows
The Colorado Sun originally published this story at 3:20 AM on Nov 26, 2023.
Marisela Ballesteros was overcome with pride when she received her Gunnison County ballot in the mail last month. The 26-year-old daughter of immigrants rushed to show it to her mother.
“I was, like, ‘Mom, my name is somewhere important. Look at this.’”
There it was: Marisela Ballesteros, listed as a candidate running unopposed for a seat on the Gunnison City Council.
Ballesteros, a Cora Indian, received 940 votes in the election and will be sworn in as a council member on Dec. 12.
Her win has landmark significance for a growing Western Slope university town.
Gunnison is believed to have the largest U.S. population of the indigenous Cora people who, over decades, have come to the Western Slope from an area in the Sierra Madre Occidental Mountains of Nayarit state in Mexico. The Cora population, which has a cultural tendency to be shy and retiring, has lived mainly in the shadows in Gunnison without much interaction with mainstream communities. The Cora have had little to do with local politics.
“I would never even have dreamed that this would happen,” said Magdaleno Diaz, a Cora who has worked in the Gunnison area for decades and has taken on the role as a liaison between the Cora and social service organizations in the Gunnison Valley.
The Coras’ separation is heightened by the fact that many of them do not have legal status in the U.S. Their language is also isolating. The Cora speak indigenous dialects that are more similar to the Ute language than to Spanish.
Ballesteros, who speaks English, Spanish, and Cora, recognizes that she is going to be able to give the Cora a local voice.
“One of the reasons I ran is to give people a chance to hear me,” she said.
As the first member of the Cora community to hold a public office in Gunnison, Ballesteros said she has a unique connection to a population that most often works as ranch hands, in construction, or in cleaning businesses in a county struggling to find enough workers. Those Cora workers, who often send money back to family members in Mexico, have struggled over decades to maintain housing, mainly in run-down trailer parks.
Housing is a problem the Cora share with people in Ballesteros’ age group. She pointed out that many people in their 20s are working six days a week to be able to afford even sub-par housing.
“That’s not OK that everyone is struggling,” she said. “We are all aspiring to be better. Not just the people of my race, but also the people of my generation.”
Her parents came to Colorado with aspirations for their children
Like many second-generation millennial Cora, Ballesteros has had an easier time of assimilation because of her education and her birthright citizenship.
It was much different for Ballesteros’ parents, who left Cora villages to escape drug cartel violence and some of the most crushing poverty in Mexico. They have worked in service jobs for decades to give their children opportunities they never had.
Ballesteros said in spite of those hopes for betterment, her status as a city council person-elect has left her parents in shock, and those in the wider Cora community “still kind of wrapping their heads around it.”
Ballesteros was born in Montrose and moved with her family to Gunnison when she was a toddler. She grew up immersed in the wider community outside her family’s circle of Cora friends, attending Gunnison public schools from kindergarten through high school.
She earned a cosmetology certification after high school and went on to earn a double major in Spanish and business administration from Western Colorado University.
She has worked as a salon stylist since she was 18. She currently works at Salon One Forty Four, the only Cora-owned business in Gunnison. For the past three years, Ballesteros has also been the director of operations for Project Hope of the Gunnison Valley, a resource for domestic violence, sexual assault, and human trafficking victims in Gunnison and Hinsdale counties.
Even before her election, other changes have been slowly happening to meld the Cora more into a community that Ballesteros calls “not racist at all.” One of the most visible is a Cora band that has taken on musical ambassadorship over the past several years by performing at multicultural events and playing concerts from a flatbed truck that is hauled around town while fans follow on foot and on bikes.
How political life became possible
An immigrant from the Czech Republic planted the seeds for that slow transition for the Cora nearly two decades ago.
In her role as a representative of the Gunnison Hispanic Affairs Project, Marketa Zubkova realized there was a unique indigenous population living in Gunnison. More than 15% of Gunnison County identifies as Hispanic, but Zubkova discovered that many of those counted in that population are actually part of the Cora tribe.
She helped to research the Cora culture and published a guidebook to teach Gunnison residents about this indigenous group in their midst.
Zubkova said the pandemic helped to shine a light on the differences in the Hispanic population because Gunnison County officials made a concerted effort to reach out to those residents with information about COVID. They particularly made efforts to translate medical information into Cora and to have interpreters visit Cora homes.
The Gunnison Food Pantry left boxes of groceries at the doors of Cora residents. Emigrantes Unidos de Gunnison helped those who were out of work with rent assistance.
“Everyone came closer and closer in that time,” Diaz said.
That helped to make a political move more than a fantasy for Ballesteros.
She declared her candidacy after listening to Ricardo Esqueda, Gunnison’s community outreach liaison, give a presentation about city government at an Inmigrantes Unidos de Gunnison meeting this fall.
“I definitely encouraged her to go through with it,” he said. “She has a really strong background in business and budgets and nonprofits.”
Ballesteros said she feels like her background makes her very versatile.
“I can be a tool for so many things, from the environment to city maintenance. I can help with the need for bilingual people in government agencies,” she said.
Housing challenges are top of mind
Ballesteros said she recognizes thathousing is a big issue she will need to deal with right out of the gate in her new role.
She said she is aware of many people, not only Cora workers, who have become homeless over the past several years. Those struggling with housing include the residents of a Gunnison trailer park that was scraped this summer to make way for new trailers that will likely be out of reach of many workers. Most of the residents of that park were Cora.
Some were relocated by the county into a hodgepodge of temporary housing units. Some moved to Montrose, where there is also a significant Cora population.
Housing was a topic two weeks ago when more than 30 Cora residents came to a meeting, and Ballesteros addressed them and explained what she hoped to accomplish. Many of them couldn’t vote for her because of their immigration status, but they support her mission and her promise to look out for their interests.
Zubkova said she believes Ballesteros will be an inspiration and a motivating force.
“I think the Cora will be more comfortable raising issues and attending meetings,” she said.
Ballesteros said she has a message for them: She will be their mouthpiece.
“You don’t have to be a citizen to be heard,” she said, noting that the Cora now has a seat at the council table.