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`Invisible people' want to be heard

These days there are two separate Americas in this high-elevation, high-dollar town, where the surface is peopled by sun-tanned skiers and real-estate agents flush from the wealth of a bull-run real estate market.

One is the commercial veneer, with its well-known facade of upscale eateries and resort hotels frequented by overnight tourists who visit at an annual rate 52 times the year-round population of about 7,500.The other encompasses the "invisible people," as Martha Morena calls her fellow Hispanic residents, most of whom are employed in Park City sculleries and backrooms, supporting a flourishing tourism industry that wouldn't function without their presence.

Estimates on the size of the shadowy but substantial Hispanic population in Park City and the surrounding Snyderville Basin vary drastically from 700 to 1,200, but one fact is widely agreed upon: It has doubled or tripled during the mid-1990s, and few of its members are here on vacation.

"The majority of these people don't come to the U.S. to have a good time," said Moreno, manager of the local office for the Planned Parenthood Association of Utah.

The allure of $7-an-hour jobs is what draws Hispanics north from Mexico, where $7 an hour is an almost unheard-of good wage.

"When we come here, it's to look for a better life," said Abelardo Rea, a newly minted restaurateur who embodies one result of the growth in Hispanic numbers.

Rea this summer opened El Chubasco, a cafe in the neighborhood of Prospector Square that boasts the city's first authentic Mexican fare and serves dually as a meeting place for local Latino residents and a colorful draw for tourists.

"They get both in there," said Moreno, whose husband, Israel, almost simultaneously christened a similar and apparently just as successful establishment on Main Street, dubbed Las Tarasacas.

"It's a beautiful thing," Moreno said, but Rea and Israel Moreno, after working for years in the food-service sector before striking out on their own, remain the Hispanic exception in an economy controlled almost completely by "Anglo" interests.

Most local Hispanics work at behind-the-scene jobs, though the once-underground population of Mexican nationals and Mexican-Americans in Utah's richest town has at last begun to surface in ways that are apparent to even casual observers.

Hispanic families are seen regularly around the resort town now. They compose entire condominium enclaves, and 150 Hispanic children have enrolled this year in Park City's public schools, which count a total of about 3,500 students, most of them white.

Minority immigration, for the first time in a century, has become an issue in Park City, appearing most noticeably in the mayoral race, where two-term incumbent Brad Olch and challenger Nikki Lowry have both been taken to task for remarks tied to the subject.

Olch was lambasted by critics who suggested he was racist for saying recently on a local radio program that some constituents had complained to him about public drunkenness among Hispanics. Lowry was criticized for talking about the "ghetto-ization" of Park City and for noting the growing appearance of Hispanic children in local schools.

Both have said their comments were misconstrued.

Miles Rademan, a spokesman for the city, said Olch, who is out of town this week, "would never make a racist comment."

Lowry, a longtime member of the Park City Board of Education, said this week that Hispanic children are welcome in public classrooms.

"Diversity is a wonderful thing," she said.

The controversy has added an element unknown in modern times to local politics, where debate typically has centered around parking problems and how to manage the town's spectacular rate of new construction.

In a sermon earlier this month to parishioners at the Catholic parish of St. Mary's Church near Kimball Junction, the Rev. Robert J. Bussen offered a scathing critique of "Anglo" hostility to the Hispanic boom.

"We hear phrases like `ghetto-izing our low-income housing' or `unintended consequences to building low-cost housing,' or, `they are flooding our schools,' or talk of `drunken Mexicans on the streets' or `Mexican drug dealers pushing the dope on Main Street,' " Bussen said.

"Make no mistake about it, it is the language of hate," said Bussen, who likened current anti-Hispanic attitudes to ones that prevailed locally during the 1890s when Chinese laborers were forced out of Park City, and much of Utah, by ethnic animosity.

Bussen admonished non-Hispanic residents to volunteer to help teach Hispanics English and to sponsor ski lessons for Hispanic children.

"An hour or two eyeball to eyeball with our Hispanic community can change a lot of attitudes quickly," he said.

The controversy has also forced an admission of sorts from some community leaders, including Olch and Lowry, who say openly now that Park City is dependent on its Hispanic workers.

Larger forces have contributed to such realities. Utah's booming economy in the past two or three years has created a dearth of workers, and whites previously employed in housekeeping and food service have taken better jobs a half hour away along the Wasatch Front.

Hispanics have filled the local void.

"The truth is, nobody else will do these jobs for the pay that's offered," explained Shelly Weiss, vice president of Conexion Amigos, a local Hispanic-advocacy group.

Weiss is one of many voices calling for better public services for Park City's Hispanics. Last week, the Utah Office of Hispanic Affairs in Salt Lake City issued a formal report noting the town's failure to address everything from health-service needs to elementary education for its Hispanic population, though some efforts have been made.

Rademan noted the city, in the past few years, has built almost 300 subsidized-housing units for its service workers, which carry "affordable" rents of $800 per month, about what many Hispanic workers earn.

The sheer cost of local housing, subsidized or not, forces many families to live two or three to a dwelling, a practice frowned on by some who want Park City to remain a city of well-to-do, single-family homeowners.

While local rents are lofty by Mexican standards, they are paltry by Park City measures, where the sale price of simple townhouses in wall-to-wall complexes often exceeds $250,000 and nightly rentals during ski season can top $500.

Some residents say quietly that business owners in Park City are to blame for the creation of the town's underclass by keeping wages low to maximize profits, a practice that encourages immigrant labor but one that is hardly exclusive to the area.

"A lot of people moved here because they thought it was paradise and that we don't have problems like the ones they left behind," said City Councilman Chuck Klingenstein.

Klingenstein said Park City is merely - and finally - mirroring a larger social phenomenon.

"This is the local manifestation of a national issue," Klingenstein said. "The question really is a national one, and we need to face it as a nation."