Bozeman: Best Place to Live (if You’re White)

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.

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  • Zactar

    Thank you, Chris, for sharing these negative experiences and illustrating for Caucasian Montanans the profound and cumulative effect that “casual” racism can have on others. I appreciate your candor and believe that many Montanans can and should learn a valuable lesson here.

  • Steve Holle

    Most racism in Montana is towards Native Americans. I am guilty of racism. Before we can end racism, we all need to recognize what our own prejudices are.

  • Duke Sharp

    I was raised in Southern California, attended integrated schools, had Black, Mexican and Asian friends, moved to Montana in 1976 when I was 23. You’re speaking the truth, but most white native Montanans would deny that they’re at all bigoted, and in a way they’re almost right. I’m white, but was the ‘new guy from California’ for about 10 years, viewed with more than a little bit of suspicion for a long time. They are often so utterly clueless about other ‘cultures’ and locked into their own isolated world view that they really don’t have much of an opinion about them … every outsider is suspicious, if you know what I mean. Doesn’t excuse or make the racist bs you encountered it OK and it does exclude the more blatant racism that many (most?) hold for the Native Americans. Glad you took the time to share your experience, well done.

  • Possum

    I understand what you are saying and I am sorry that you’ve had this struggle. Well written.

    *forgive me for cherry picking here, because I don’t want to diminish your message.

    Big Brothers Big Sisters of Gallatin County is a great organization that offers so much to so many in our community. Big Brothers Big Sisters of Gallatin County also really desperately needs ‘Bigs’ — I would be astonished if the wait was due to racism, many of my friends have had to wait months and months.

    • Chris Myers

      Thanks for the response, Possum. During the interview process, I was told how excited they were about male applicants. Big brothers must be a little harder to come by than big sisters. So, it is surprising that it would take so long. However, I’m glad to hear I’m not the only one waiting. I’ve been waiting since 2012. So, I should be up any day now.

      I’m sure this is an amazing organization; I’m not saying otherwise. I just wish I would have been given the opportunity to contribute.