By Will Grandbois
Sopris Sun Staff

If you think the Department of Motor Vehicles is the worst kind of bureaucracy, you might ask Jesus Ortiz about his 17-year journey to citizenship.

“It’s been hard,” he’ll tell you. “It’s not just sending in an application. It’s a long, long process.”

Ortiz, 46, has been part of Carbondale’s Public Works crew since 2012 and officially became an American in April, an accomplishment he credits largely to his sponsor, former Pour House Manager Skip Bell.

“He helped me a lot,” Ortiz said. “He saw my struggles. I’m thankful for that and grateful that I’m in a position to share it.”

Originally from a town near Mexico City, Ortiz decided to move to the United States after four years in the Mexican Army.

“When I got out, I wanted to have a better life,” he explained.

In 1994, he moved in with his uncle in California, where he lived for three years. He also had family in the Roaring Fork Valley, but when he made the move, it turned out they wanted him to deal drugs. He preferred to strike out on his own.

“I ended up sleeping in my little minivan,” Ortiz recalled.

He finally found an unfurnished apartment above Construction Junction, a now-defunct used furniture and building supplies store on Buggy Circle. Around the same time, he started as a dishwasher at the Pour House, then moved up to line cook and eventually to assistant manager. That’s where he met his wife, Janelle, with whom he has two sons.

It’s also where he came up against the language barrier and decided to conquer it.

“It’s hard when you move to a different country to have a better life. It’s really important to communicate, no matter what,” he said. “Some American people will make fun of how you say a word, but they’ll correct you. It forced me to go back to school to learn the language.”

Ortiz not only took classes, he stopped watching Spanish television and listening to Spanish music. Meanwhile, he asked Bell to sponsor him toward a formal work visa — a process that starts with the sort of Catch-22 of already having reliable employment. That process took six years, at which point he was able to file for a green card. In some ways, the in between stages were harder than being undocumented.

“If you make a little mistake, they send it back and you have to do it again,” Ortiz explained.

“When you’re in the process and you get in trouble, you’re done.”

There are also significant financial costs, and Ortiz’s 10-year green card actually expired before the money came together to apply for full citizenship. Although he still has family back in Mexico, it’s his family here that motivates him.

“My kids are from here. I want to be with them for the rest of my life,” he said. “It’s hard to live with the fear. They can change the laws in a minute.”

The next step was a civics test and a language assessment, followed by three or four more months of waiting.

“You have to be patient,” Ortiz asserted. “If you give up, you’re not going anywhere.”

The final ceremony took place alongside around a dozen other immigrants from around the world.

“Everybody had different stories,” Ortiz observed.

Each of them were handed an envelope with The Declaration of Independence, The Bill of Rights and an American Flag before taking the oath of citizenship.

“It’s still kind of weird to me when I open my wallet and don’t see my green card. It really feels like I’m born again — like 300 pounds are gone from my shoulders,” he said. “This country gives you a lot of opportunities, and you have to take them.”