A Colorado county offers a glimpse of America’s future

People walk in the Reunion community in Commerce City, Colo., on July 16, 2021. (Rachel Woolf for The Washington Post)
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A previous version of this article misstated the last name of Cultivando's executive director. She is Olga Gonzalez, not Olga Custodio. The article has been corrected.

Nearly a quarter-century ago, when Maria de Lourdes Zavala moved from Michoacán, Mexico, Commerce City, Colo., was a hub for mostly White agricultural and oil refinery workers.

“There weren’t any Mexicans, almost nobody spoke Spanish,” said Zavala, 65, reflecting on a time when the surrounding county was more than two-thirds White. “Now it’s all different.”

As she makes her way to her restaurant each morning, she passes by quinceañera venues, a tamale cafe, a Mexican candy store and shops for wire transfer services. Her customers often greet her in Spanish, standing at the counter below a string of papel picado — colorful Mexican banners — and in front of a menu with a mix of Spanish and English words, advertising items like “chicken nuggets con papas” — with fries.

The changes Zavala has witnessed are reflected in a momentous shift in the 2020 Census figures released Thursday: For the first time in its history, the majority of Adams County, Colo., residents are people of color.

In fact, the census figures confirm, the entire American West has flipped to majority-minority — the first major geographical region in the United States to do so. The South is not far behind. And by the 2040s, the entire nation is expected to follow.

Mapping America’s racial population shifts over the last decade

Adams joined 64 other counties that shifted to majority-minority in the past decade, and together they offer a glimpse into the future of a nation undergoing a rapid demographic transformation. Only four decades ago, 80 percent of the U.S. population was White. Now, it’s 57 percent, marking the first time the population’s share of White people has dipped below 60 percent.

White share of population

declines nationwide

Since 2010, 65 counties (outlined in black) have shifted from majority-White to majority-minority, as the share of White residents has dropped across the country.

Change in White share

of population, 2000-2020

-30%

+20%

±0%

Adams County, Colo.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

JOE FOX/THE WASHINGTON POST

White share of population declines

Since 2010, 65 counties (outlined in black) have shifted from majority-White to majority-minority, as the share of White residents has dropped across the country.

Change in White share

of population, 2000-2020

-30%

+20%

±0%

Adams County, Colo.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

JOE FOX/THE WASHINGTON POST

White share of population declines nationwide

Since 2010, 65 counties (outlined in black) have shifted from majority-White to majority-minority, as the share of White residents has dropped across the country.

Change in White share

of population, 2000-2020

-30%

+20%

±0%

Adams County, Colo.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

JOE FOX/THE WASHINGTON POST

With the change has come a struggle, and a question of whether a country that has historically offered preferential treatment to its White majority can evolve its power structures to better reflect the new multiracial reality.

Census data shows the number of White people in the U.S. fell for first time since 1790

In Adams, the question has become especially relevant: A proslavery colonel was one of the first settlers in the area in the mid-19th century, and for most of its history, its leaders have been White. But in recent years, communities of color — predominantly Mexican American — have begun to gain political representation and speak up against conditions they feel adversely affect them, including environmental pollution and substandard schools.

Still, advocates here say there remains a long road ahead for non-White groups to achieve representation and services in proportion to their growing size.

Local officials “use this term ‘We are Adams,’” said Maria Gonzalez, who runs Adelante Community Development, an area nonprofit that helps small businesses owned by Mexican immigrants. “What does that really mean?”

The answer to that question has been changing rapidly.

Diversity and divisions

In the United States and in Colorado, “our fastest growth is in our Asian and Hispanic populations, especially at the youngest ages,” state demographer Elizabeth Garner said. “In Adams County, it’s even faster.”

Most of this growth in the county has been caused by natural increase, via births. But there has also been strong growth among new arrivals, with people moving here from elsewhere in Colorado, from other parts of the United States and from beyond its borders.

Where America's developed areas are growing

Latinos have contributed most of the growth to the county: They were 29 percent of the population two decades ago and account for 41 percent of the population today. Black, Native and Asian American groups represent between 2 and 4 percent of the population.

There are many reasons Adams has become such a magnet. The county is seen as a less expensive and more tranquil place to live compared with Denver, which has experienced skyrocketing housing prices and increasingly congested roads. And then there are the jobs. Construction is Adams’s No. 1 industry, according to Garner, followed by transportation and warehousing, as well as state government work.

The growing diversity in Adams is reflected in the county’s coronavirus testing materials, which are issued in English, Spanish, Hmong and Farsi.

Latinos, predominantly Mexican Americans, are largely concentrated in the county’s Southwest corner, near Denver. Several years ago, the county fair decided to re-create its final day, which was often the least attended, as “Dia de la Familia.” Now it’s the most popular one, bringing in about 30,000 visitors, county officials said.

How the racial makeup of where you live has changed since 1990

In Aurora, which straddles three counties, including Adams, thousands of refugees from the world over have made themselves at home. With them came West African restaurants, Asian supermarkets and multicultural church services.

Farther north, though still in the Denver suburbs, Japanese Americans are an integral part of Brighton, the county seat. A historic farm named after a Japanese family offers agricultural education and workshops to the public.

The county sprawls for dozens of miles to the east through sparsely populated farmland that resembles what much of the county used to look like, before the suburbs and exurbs began to boom.

America is more diverse than ever — but still segregated

With that growth, of course, has come some tension. And nowhere are the fraught dynamics more visible than in Commerce City, a 60,000-person municipality near Denver that is increasingly regarded as two cities, with the southern half lower-income and more Hispanic than the north.

“There’s a big disconnect,” said Debra Bullock, co-founder of the Commerce City Historical Society.

The city’s northern and southern neighborhoods are physically divided by a nature preserve — once a chemical weapons arsenal during World War II — that is wedged in the middle.

On the northeast side, in a neighborhood called Reunion, cars wind along tree-lined streets with tidy homes. It’s quiet except at the edges, where developers are feverishly building replicas.

For more census stories

The homes here are cheaper than in Denver, but remain out of reach for many of those who live in downtown Commerce City, near the county’s southwest side. Known as the Derby Downtown District, it’s a historic neighborhood and was once the city’s beating heart.

But the area is no longer a focal point for many of its residents. Unhoused people, who local residents say were pushed out of Denver, wander the streets and sleep on park benches. Unlike the school district in the north — which receives passing grades from the state — the district serving the south, which is predominantly Latino, is being run by a consulting company after repeatedly failing state benchmarks.

In 2010, a civil rights complaint against the school district alleged that bilingual teachers were being harassed and that students were banned from speaking any language but English, among other forms of discrimination. Four years later, the federal Office for Civil Rights issued a scathing report that charged the district with violating civil rights and creating a hostile environment for Latinos. District officials reached a settlement agreement with the agency.

The district has also struggled with how to teach its students for whom English is not their first language — more than half the population. At the end of 2017 and into 2018, an uproar broke out among parents and community members when the new superintendent announced plans to shrink the biliteracy program. The district has since revised its plans.

Infrastructure has also been a flash point. Voters have defeated bond proposals that would have paid for school renovations that community advocates say are acutely needed.

“In the core city, there’s a lot of immigrants and our whole school district has changed,” said Bullock, who is White and was raised in the area. “A lot of people don’t welcome that and don’t want that.”

‘Fed up’

On a recent day, a rhythmic drum emanated from the center of Fairfax Park in Commerce City’s south side as the smell of tamales, rice and beans wafted through the air.

Olga Gonzalez, executive director of the nonprofit Cultivando, sat down on a park bench facing several signs demanding clean air and corporate accountability. It was EcoFiesta, the launch of a community effort to install air-monitoring systems throughout the city to evaluate pollution levels caused by the nearby oil and gas refinery, operated by Suncor Energy.

The company agreed to pay up to $9 million in a settlement with the state last year to resolve several violations of air-pollution regulations dating back to 2017.

In one instance that still haunts local memory, the refinery emitted a billowing, orange cloud that settled like fine mist on top of cars and homes. The company later said the substance was harmless.

Around $2.6 million of the settlement money was reserved for community programing, and a panel put together by the state selected Cultivando’s proposal to establish an independent evaluation of air pollution in the area, granting it $1.7 million, Gonzalez said.

She sees the program as one of many ways that Commerce City’s Latinos are finally speaking up for themselves.

“You hear stories from community members that say their children have had headaches, and problems breathing, and frequent nose bleeds, and some have developed cancer. They are wondering now if that’s tied to what’s coming out of Suncor,” Gonzalez said.

A Black community in Northeast D.C. is surrounded by industrial pollution. The city plans to add more.

An Indigenous group blessed the land at the park, while community members took the microphone, giving testimony about the illnesses they faced and calling for the closure of the facility.

Concerns over the refinery’s emissions have troubled community members for years, but it wasn’t until recently that they started to take action.

“People got fed up,” Gonzalez said.

In a statement, Suncor said it is actively listening to community concerns and helping with the installation of third-party air monitors.

‘Finding our way’

Not all the tensions exist along racial lines, or between communities and companies.

Several residents described a fault line within the Mexican American community — between those whose families recently arrived in the United States and those who have been in the country for generations, known as Chicanos.

“They’re the ones that say the border crossed them,” said Maria Gonzalez, the Adelante chief executive officer. “That’s where you get the majority of your racism from.”

She was one of four candidates of color who unsuccessfully ran for mayor in 2019. The incumbent, a White man, won. The city has never had a non-White mayor.

She said, on the campaign trail, there was a sense that Chicanos looked down on her for being a first-generation Mexican American. She met Mexican Americans who pronounced their Hispanic last names with Anglicized accents.

Many Mexican Americans whose families have been here for generations don’t speak Spanish because their grandparents were punished as children for speaking it in American schools.

The tension “is everywhere,” said Maria Zubia, a community advocate and southern Adams County school board member.

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But the community still comes together for historic firsts.

Raymond Gonzales is Adams’s first county manager of color, and he began prioritizing inclusivity and culturally accessible services soon after he was appointed in 2017. He has also sought to eliminate questionable practices that appeared designed to favor Whites.

In one instance, he discovered the county had an informal policy that required board approval to hire a bilingual staff member — a step in the vetting process that English-only staff members didn’t have to go through.

He wasn’t sure why it was there, or who began the practice, but he saw it as an extra obstacle for non-White prospective employees and it was soon eliminated. Instead, Gonzales built incentives to hire and retain bilingual employees.

This year, Lynn Baca was the first woman of color elected to the county commission in Adams. Baca, who is half Filipina, half Mexican, grew up in Brighton as a second-generation American.

A diverse suburb’s biggest pandemic challenge: Distributing the vaccine equitably

Since her election, Baca has helped to stage vaccine clinics that target communities with historically poor access to health care, including agricultural workers and the Hmong population. She is optimistic about the future for non-White communities in Adams.

“We’re no longer in the shadows. We are at the forefront. We sit on nonprofits, and we’re engaged in our community,” Baca said. “We are finding our way.”

Getting ahead

Zavala works in the kitchen and at the counter of her restaurant, Birrieria La Guera Michoacana, every single day. She no longer relies on her daughter to translate when she interacts with customers or store clerks. She speaks a little more English, and more people speak Spanish. Sometimes people post discriminatory comments on her restaurant’s Facebook page, she said, but her son deletes them so she doesn’t have to see them.

After more than two decades in Commerce City, Zavala has no plans to move. Her children and grandchildren were born here, and she’s found prosperity in the United States, just as she had hoped when she came here.

Her restaurant started as a business out of her house. Now it has four walls, a Google Maps location and 183 reviews.

“The U.S., what it is, has helped so many people get ahead,” Zavala said. “There’s everything you need.”

Ted Mellnick contributed to this report.

silvia.foster-frau@washpost.com

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