LARAMIE, Wyoming — As the News21 road warriors cruised through the West, they saw the attitudes change with the landscapes.
In Elko, Nevada, a casino town of 20,000 people, several residents said there were no major tensions or divisions in their town.
Janet Peterson, who works at the Cowboy Arts and Gear Museum in Elko, said while there is a climate of hate in America, Elko is very welcoming. She said it is home to about 5,000 Hispanic immigrants.
“They keep to themselves,” she said.
But she sees value in their presence: “There’s a good Mexican store a few blocks away, I can’t remember what it’s called, but I go there because I like the tamales.”
There are problems with hate in America, Peterson said, “but I don’t think it’s one skin color versus another, or one culture versus another.”
Across the dusty Elko bridge, the News21 SUV tracked down the recommended tamales at La Unica Mexican Market.
Patricia Sanchez, a Mexican immigrant who lives in Elko with her family, had a different view of the town, going back a couple of decades.
“I experienced racial bias when I was working here in the 2000s,” Sanchez said. “I was a manager and an American woman didn’t like that I told her what to do. I would ask her to do something and she would ask ‘why?’ and said that I was a Mexican and that she didn’t have to listen to me. It was really tough.”
Sanchez said she worries about the national temperature.
“I’ve seen more racism and discrimination with our current president, who calls us ‘Indians’ that have come to take American jobs,” she said. “Many times, we Latinos do the work that Americans don’t do.”
The News21 SUV headed 230 miles east to Salt Lake City in Utah.
Along the endless I-80, the landscape quickly changed from gray-orange to green as trees and rivers hugged the highway into Utah.
In Salt Lake City, the News21 SUV pulled up outside the Utah Capitol where an estimated 2,500 people were protesting President Donald Trump’s immigration policies, mandating the separation of children from immigrant parents. It was one of more than 700 protests across the country that day calling for families to be reunited.
Lisa Corsetti from Heber City, Utah, said the president’s policies promote hatred and separation between groups.
“Donald Trump has subtle ways of promoting the hatred of certain groups, like calling immigrants animals and saying that they are infesting our country,” Corsetti said. “That is all hate speech that promotes a mob mentality. We’re better if we love people and take people for who they are and not how they look or who they love.”
Corsetti said she believes the president has given permission for hate speech.
“Hatred in America has always been below the surface, but because of Donald Trump, it is now acceptable for people to say they hate people,” Corsetti said. “I’m not proud of America. I’m not going to fly my American flag on the Fourth of July. Instead I’m going to fly my resistance flag.”
Nayeli Huerta from Salt Lake City, who protested with her 16-month-old son Adarius, said she fears for her son’s future because he is biracial.
“There is a lot of brutality and violence and I fear that could be a problem for him, just because of who he is,” she said.
She is hoping it gets better, but for now, she said “it’s worse than the past.”
“In Salt Lake City, there are a lot of racial and political divides,” she added. “I’m not as proud of America as I used to be.”
Brianna Manzanares, a sociology student at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, interviewed at the protest, said her roller derby team strives for diversity and inclusion, but not everyone agrees on some of today’s cultural issues.
“There are divides all across the board,” Manzanares said.
There are those who don’t believe in LGBTQ rights, those that believe that being transgender is inhumane, she explained. One person said having these beliefs is too much for 2018.
Still, Manzanares described Salt Lake City as more open to diverse communities than 10 years ago.
“There is a strong LGBTQ community and there are a lot of immigration programs,” she said. “Salt Lake City has become an inclusive place for everybody, and while there is more work to do, we are taking steps in the right direction.”
After Salt Lake City, the News21 road warriors headed toward greener pastures in Wyoming.
About 150 miles east of Salt Lake City, the SUV stopped outside the Little America hotel on Interstate 80. The location is surrounded by mountains.
Technician Mike Smith and his wife Tirzah, a second grade teacher, were with their church youth group on a road trip to Martin’s Cove, a historic site on the Mormon Trail in Wyoming.
They expressed pride when talking about their diverse home community, Orem, Utah.
“People from Mexico, Brazil, South Africa, Romania live all within three of four blocks of where we live,” Mike Smith said. “Pride is a choice. Friends are friends. You should consider all your neighbors your friends.”
The couple also spoke of frictions beyond their own Utah community of 90,000 people.
“Throughout the whole world there is diversity, but that doesn’t have to divide people,” Mike Smith said. “There will always be small pockets of people who are screaming about the squeaky wheel and they’ll get all the oil. That’s what you hear on the news. It’s a bunch of junk. You don’t see all the anger that you hear on the news. I don’t think the media is creating the hate, but they publicize what they think will sell. It’s just natural. I don’t see the tension that the media reports. I love America. I wish the squeaky wheels would grow up and realize that there is no difference between everybody. The majority of Americans are the best thing in the world. We have a lot of diversity, the people are as different as the landscapes.”
About 100 miles east, the News21 SUV stopped at a fluorescent fireworks business “in the middle of nowhere,” according to brothers Nate and Ross Melchio who run the store at Creston Junction in Wyoming.
The fireworks store, which has been opened for 55 years, stands isolated near I-80, with its only neighbor – an abandoned gas station. The business has its busy times, the brothers said, and a cross-section of American society stops by the store. Many people cross the border from other states to buy their fireworks, especially around July 4.
Nate Melchio said there is “always friction” between people, but that “it’s mostly political and racial at the moment.”
Still, Melchio said, “I am proud of America still though because there is opportunity for people to run businesses like what I’m doing here now. You can make your future better if you are willing to work hard.”
His brother, Ross, added that there is hate wherever you go.
“The media puts out that African-Americans and the LGBTQ community are the most targeted,” but he said he still views America as “a country of freedom and diversity.”
Back on the road again, the News21 SUV headed toward a night’s rest in Laramie, Wyoming, a community of more than 32,000 people.
Outside Laramie, there is no sign of civilization, with vast green fields stretching for miles. Small lakes abutt the roads, and hundreds of cows dotting the fields in the distance.
The town is near where Matthew Shepard, a student at the University of Wyoming was beaten, tortured and left to die near Laramie on the night of Oct. 6, 1998. It has been described as one of the worst anti-gay hate crimes in American history.
Shepard’s murder garnered international attention and spurred federal hate crime legislation. In October 2009, the U.S. Congress passed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.
Buck Ward, who runs the Buckhorn Bar & Parlor, declined to comment on the legacy of Matthew Shepard, saying the event does not represent Laramie today.
“Hate and friction is everywhere around us. Even here in the bar, we disagree about politics,” Ward said. “I think Trump is a big (expletive). He’s out of touch with America and what Americans want. It’s the things he’s saying and not saying that is spurring hate.”
A short distance away at a coffee shop near the University of Wyoming, biracial couple Logan and Fred Lee said they experience hateful comments that vary by where they are in the country.
“There is a clear political and racial divide in America,” Logan Lee said. “Being an interracial couple, we see the race thing. Talking about it and hyping it up makes it worse for us. People have made comments to us, but it’s a lot better in Wyoming than in South Carolina when we go back home. Here, there isn’t the history of racial tensions.”
Fred Lee said he doesn’t have any worries as an interracial couple and the media has a huge influence on the public perception of hate.
“The media is making things a bigger deal than they are,” he said. “Everything becomes more heightened when the media can reach millions of people on their phones.”
News21 fellows Brandon Bounds, Penelope Blackwell and Lenny Martinez Dominguez contributed to this report.
Follow the News21 blog for updates as the team reports on the road.