03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Barrio: Home To Immigrants, Mother Cabrini And My Inner Child

Almost two decades ago, a friend told me that I'd end up in the barrio. Those words pierced my already deflated ego like staccato stilettos. I hadn't even reached the apogee of alcoholic existence when he gave voice to a terror I'd long nurtured but didn't dare acknowledge. Even as a pre-teen, years before I nearly drowned in vodka, I nursed an inebriating dread that my future held poverty rather than prosperity. After all, my Hispanic relatives and friends had big families and little money, barely holding on to the bottom rung of the socioeconomic ladder.

My mixed and amorphous ethnic identity left me a foreigner in my own country. My father didn't cross the Colorado border illegally but he might as well have. When he and other New Mexicans immigrated north looking for menial work in the mines of Gilman and Leadville, Colorado, the reception from the white residents portended the nativist umbrage and fear that frustrates today's national discourse on illegal immigration. To make matters worse, my mother's family, who were of German and Swedish background, was horrified when she married a "Mexican." After all, they were Americans.

In yesteryear, many Hispanics from northern New Mexico, where my father's family hailed, were quick to thumb their noses at the Mexican immigrants they competed with for work in the ski resort's service industry, deriding them as "wetbacks" and "mojados." Inwardly, I laughed at their snobbery. I knew most non-Hispanic residents generically grouped us all as Mexicans, regardless of our legal status or national origin. I decided the pecking order among Hispanics was beneath me. Rather than reside on any of life's lower rungs, I would move not only upward but also horizontally, crossing that childhood border separating Mexicans from Americans.

Despite my American citizenship and education, I have felt somewhat like an immigrant all my life. Leaving behind my Hispanic friends as they settled into blue-collar jobs, I enrolled in a large, relatively privileged college, convinced that diligence, determination, and a degree would distinguish me from the flock. I discovered that all it did was separate me from the flock. I attempted to discard any Hispanic tendencies, assiduously packaging myself as an urbane collegiate. The reinvention wasn't successful. Sometimes going days without encountering another Hispanic on campus, I felt like I had immigrated not to just another country, but another dimension. Looking back, my Hispanic friends were right. I was a whitewashed impostor. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't erase my past, the color of my skin or my perceived inadequacy.

After the failed reinvention and all that studious effort, I have ended up in the barrio, just as that friend predicted. But far from discovering my deepest fears, I've discovered myself.

I happened upon this barrio, East Highlands, over 20 years ago as a college student. I interned at a Denver radio station that specialized in salsa. For some reason since forgotten, I crossed the neighborhood's path. Noticing the shanties obscured by cars on jacks, strewn detritus and dirt heaps, I thought that avoiding this fate was precisely the reason I, and every other Hispanic, went to college. Paradoxically, 20 years later, my education and professional experience allowed me to move into the neighborhood. Most of the narrow shanties are remodeled and overpriced. Lofts are invading the community and rents are skyrocketing. The old corner grocery store now sells Perrier and offers pricey merchandise but priceless charm. In a stunning reversal of the national trend, the Hispanic immigrant population is shrinking. Young professionals pass by my front yard, jogging, biking and skateboarding on the same streets where just a decade ago, my neighbor told me that people were getting shot and overdosing.

Despite the shifting topography, the neighborhood still recalled my ancestral culture and I felt peace and permanence staring at the Italian Catholic church, Our Lady of Mount Carmel. I had no knowledge of it, but for some reason, sitting on my porch staring at the twin spires reaching above its dome or hearing its bells announce Mass, I could connect with my inner child and simultaneously settle my ethnic angst and ambiguity. I no longer was the imagined immigrant bent on assimilation into an upwardly mobile white society.

I couldn't resist my innate curiosity about history, wondering about the church's past and power to elicit such a strange sensation of serenity. It wasn't long before I discovered that Mother Cabrini, the Patron Saint of Immigrants, had a strong presence in the neighborhood. She helped found not only the church and a school, but possibly even entered my living room. Such a stunning supposition isn't a far-fetched fantasy when considering that Mother Cabrini often visited Italian immigrants in the immediate area, offering comfort and requesting support. And, after all, my small residence existed back in the day, having been built in 1891.

For years, the rituals of Hispanic Catholicism, as practiced by my threadbare relatives, resurrected superstitions and saints that seemed at odds with sophistication and spirituality I associated with education. Now I know that Catholicism's blind faith isn't an anachronism peculiar to poor Hispanics. Ostracized Italians and Irish populations kept the medieval faith as shunned newcomers to America. My immediate environment is a microcosm of American history, promise and diversity, home to generations of struggling immigrants, Mother Cabrini's celebrated work and Tom Tancredo's childhood.

After my first look at the property before I purchased it, I met a local Hispanic woman who resided in the subsidized housing around the corner, which I suspect will be revamped into upscale townhouses once the government contracts expire. She borrowed two dollars and disappeared. But not before offering a hug and four words, "Welcome to the 'hood." Another Hispanic welcomed me, excited that a Hispanic was moving in the neighborhood rather than out.

My friend's decades-old prediction rang in my mind with the clarity of the bells tolling from that nearby church. I knew beyond a doubt that this 'hood was where I belonged. However, glancing at the approaching high rises and kitsch lofts, I wondered for just how long.