August 24, 2004
"Te gusta Montana?" asks my mother.
Do I like Montana? "Si."
My Costa Rican mum, who lives in Miami, is skeptical. After all, what is a nice bilingual girl like me doing in a place that doesn't have a Lord & Taylor or a Major League Baseball team but does have an abundance of monster pick-up trucks and men who hunt elk?
But my Wild West Time-Out, as I call it, is a fruitful experiment. My husband and I are longtime East Coast home schoolers. We decided that Montana, with its unlimited opportunities for outdoor play and for interacting with the two-legged species known as middle Americanus, was the place for our youngest son to spend at least some portion of his adolescence.
Before moving to Montana, our home for the past seventeen years—minus another time-out in Oklahoma —had been the college town of Amherst, Massachusetts, where Emily Dickinson wrote her poems.
Today, the United Nations flag flies outside Amherst's Town Hall, the high school students perform the Vagina Monologues, but not West Side Story, compact cars sport "Free Mumia" bumper stickers, and moderate Republicans provoke a "Wanted" photo at the post office.
That's Amherst—part New England charm and part New England weirdness.
In my opinion, growing teenage boys need large doses of meat and potatoes, not a daily fare of exotic nouveau cuisine. So, off we went to Lewis and Clark territory.
Our corner of southwestern Montana is the little blue-collar city of Belgrade, where 96.5% of the 5,728 residents are white. Belgrade abuts the Dutch farming community of Manhattan.
Don't be fooled by the cosmopolitan names. The locals don't give a rip what the elites in the great centers of the United States or Europe do and say.
Before you picture a Shangri-La with cowboys on Harleys, let me air a few personal complaints. Droughts and tacky casinos are common. The daily commute is a prayful endeavor on narrow, twisting, two-lane highways with speed limits that reach 80MPH. Food prices are high. And summer lasts ten minutes.
Montana's ruling class isn't especially conservative. The state income tax rate is as high as 11 percent.
But no doubt about it—the Treasure State provides a scenic safety net for Americans weary of urban and suburban. And one surprise: It's becoming a haven for rural dwellers whose lives have been disrupted by illegal immigration.
Take, for example, my friend Brenda.
I met petite Brenda while she was working as a front desk clerk at a local hotel. I soon learned that we both share a Hispanic background. Her reasons for moving to Montana are an interesting part of her story.
Brenda and her husband once owned a 400-acre farm in New Mexico. In addition to growing tomatoes, green chilies and lettuce, Gary, Brenda's husband, worked for the Office of the State Engineer. Brenda drove a public school bus.
Gradually, their farming lifestyle became risky. Their farm was located 33 miles from the southern border of the U.S., in Luna County, which was designated a "High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area" by the Office of National Drug Control Policy in 1990.
El Diario, a Mexican newspaper, has reported that during fiscal year 2000 the Border Patrol apprehended over 30,000 undocumented immigrants at that station.
The day the cops arrived, Brenda and Gary's thoughts turned toward the northern Rockies.
"Someone was coming from Mexico, in a van, that had drugs, and the police surrounded that van right in front of our house. My son was just a year old and playing outside," she recalls. "You could hear 'Get out of the car, we've got guns.' "
"At that point, we decided we had to go," she says of the decision they made seven years ago. They sold their acreage, rented out their house, bid farewell to their family, and moved north.
"The first six months, I was a little homesick. It was a big adjustment," remembers Brenda of her early days in Belgrade. "But we love it here. It's so clean, and there are fewer drugs. No drive-by shootings or gangs. No graffiti."
And no more forced multicultural bonding.
"They (the Mexican illegals) would hide in our sheds or come knocking at our door asking for food, money, or work. I would tell them, 'I'm not going to give you food,' or 'No, we don't have jobs for you,' " says Brenda of the desperate men who trespassed on their land. "Once you gave them something, they would always come back, and then they would tell their friends."
Brenda and Gary, who recently relocated to Butte, have no plans to return to New Mexico.
It remains to be seen if other Montana cities will retain their unique Western character. Native-born Montanans like my friend Clint, approaching retirement, fear that desirable communities like Bozeman will become upscale recreation playpens for politically active liberals. Look what happened to Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
Clint's wife Judy worries that the tree-huggers will turn Montana, which has fewer than a million residents, into a pseudo-national park.
Pushy environmentalists have succeeded in shutting down most of Montana's mining industry. Ironic, given that the phrase, oro y plata (gold and silver) appears on the state seal, and that mining, for years, kept many clothed and fed.
Consequently, now that the logging industry has also taken a beating, the low-skill, low-wage jobs are easily filled these days.
My husband Wid, who is spending the summer working in a manufacturing plant, has several older co-workers who toil long, hard days but earn only eight dollars an hour.
The never-ending supply of local labor hasn't stopped some companies from going South of the Border for workers. Recently, the Belgrade News ran a photo of a trio whose last names were Perez, Meraz, and Galindo. The three amigos were erecting a wooden fence for a subdivision located near my home. The paper noted that the laborers, all from Mexico, were contracted for work by a Bozeman company.
If such trends continue in grizzly bear country, Brenda and I may be speaking more Spanish than originally planned.
But, meantime, it's still the "last best place."
Izzy Lyman, author of The Homeschooling Revolution, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her work has appeared in the w, Miami Herald, Dallas Morning News, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and elsewhere. Her blog at http://icky.blogspot.com/ often links to Vdare.Com.