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Cultural Diversity in the Unc Valley

The Uncompahgre Valley might not, at least on the surface, appear to be particularly culturally diverse, but scratch just beneath the surface and ask some questions and you’ll find representatives from most, if not all, 50 states as well as dozens of countries, all of whom add to the tapestry of life here

The Uncompahgre Valley has people from all over the country. Literally, there are Cheeseheads, Swamp Yankees, Okies, Buckeyes, Hawkeyes, Tar Heels, Bugeaters, Cornhuskers, Muskrats and Prune Pickers, to name a few. There are also Oregonians, a few from the Garden and Empire states as well as the Mitten State Mafia - a cadre of Michiganders that might be slowly taking over. Go international, and you’ll find people here who were born in places as far flung as can be flung. We have Antipodeans, people from Thailand, Nepal, the Philippines, Indonesia, Cambodia, South Korea, and Japan; South Africa, Guinea, Sudan, and Kenya; there is a veritable battalion of Brits (including Scotsmen and at least one Welshman), Germans, at least one Belgian, an Austrian, Italians, as well as French, Dutch, Swedes, Russians, Poles, and Norwegians. From south of the border, there are Guatemalans, Hondurans, Costa Ricans, Columbians, Mexicans, Peruvians, and El Salvadorians. There are even a few puck chasers from the Great White North!

What do they do here and how did they get here? They do all of the things the rest of us do: they are police officers, pilots, doctors, dentists and nurses; they work at animal shelters, in restaurants, they are construction workers and small business owners; they teach our children, and they work the land. They are us.

Made in Japan

Tomoko Vonseggern is one of a small group of Japanese that call the Uncompahgre Valley home. The lead customer service representative at the Montrose Animal Shelter, Vonseggern is originally from Yorii, a small town northwest of Tokyo, but lived in Tokyo for 17 years. There she met her husband who is originally from San Diego. After they met in Tokyo and eventually got married, they decided that the US would give them the kind of life they wanted. That was 14 years ago, and while Vonseggern loves to travel - and has visited many states - Colorado is the only state she has lived in. She is not only glad to have settled in Colorado, but is happy to be in Montrose and the Uncompahgre Valley. One thing Vonseggern loves about this area is the access to water, from the Montrose Water Sports Park and Ouray Hot Springs to the Montrose Rec center.

Vonseggern understandably misses Japan sometimes, especially her family and the food, but one thing she doesn’t miss is the weather. “Japanese summers are always uncomfortable because they are so humid because Japan is surrounded by the ocean, so the dry summers here are much better.” Vonseggern’s compatriot, Chiyo Tirona, also works at the Montrose Animal Shelter.

Indian but not Indigenous

Rahul Salunke was born and raised in Mumbai, India. A dentist both there and here, Salunke and his wife Aparna began the process of moving to the US about five years ago for the sake of their children’s education. They have one son and one daughter, the latter of whom is about to graduate from Montrose High School.

The path for Salunke and his family to get here was far from easy. After graduation as a dentist he did his residency and became an orthodontist. Then he ran his own practice for 25 years. When he began the process of trying to relocate to the US he found out he would pretty much have to go to dental school again. He was not deterred. He studied in India to take exams in the US, before being accepted to the University of Colorado at Anschutz Medical campus, where he completed his graduation. He is now a fully qualified and certified dentist.

After so long running his own practice, Salunke decided this time around to work at a community practice. He was offered options in Connecticut, Portland, and Montrose, in addition to numerous corporate dental offices in the US. His first visit to Montrose was for an interview at the PIC Place. A brief tour of the town followed the interview. Before he came, his plan was to live and work in the US for a while to see if it was right for his family, but mere hours after his interview and tour he called his wife back in India and told them this was the place for them. It was a bold decision as it would be his family’s first visit ever to the US, but he hasn’t regretted it.

Life in Montrose is obviously very different to life in India, and Salunke and his family miss certain things about India, including the street food (bhel puri and pav bahji especially), but life in Montrose is treating the Salunkes very well and he says they very much feel part of the community.

Hear the Drums Echo Tonight

Etienne Tolno is from the West African country of Guinea. The 34-year old came to the US three years ago with his wife Mary Beth. They met while she was volunteering for the Kissidugu Foundation, an organization run by Etienne’s older brother, Gabriel Fara Tolno.

Initially, Tolno lived in Salida for 1.5 years and then Crested Butte for a summer with Mary Beth’s sister. They moved to Montrose with their children, Faya and Forest, in November 2020 to be closer to Mary Beth’s mother.

Tolno had dreamed of coming to the US ever since his brother came as an artist with the prestigious Merveilles Ballet company over 20 years ago. Fara is a respected teacher of West African drum and dance, and so it was no surprise when Tolno followed in his footsteps; Tolno plays several drums including the traditional Guinean drums the djembe and dunduns.Tolno holds classes and seminars at schools throughout western Colorado, New Mexico, California, Hawaii, and has taught workshops at Yoga House in Montrose. He will be teaching a five-week series through Weehawken Creative arts starting in April (visit to find out more).

Adapting to a new way of life is always difficult, and Tolno says he does miss certain aspects of the culture back in Guinea including the drumming, dancing and singing (which are a big part of life in Guinea) as well as the communal eating, which is usually done by hand. He has, however, found life in the US to be much better in some ways, including some of the more simple things that aren’t as prevalent in Guinea such as access to blenders, vacuums, washing machines and dishwashers. The availability and variety of food in the US is also very different from Guinea where rice, vegetables, and mangoes feature heavily. Before arriving here, Tolno had never tried broccoli.

Tolno is attending Colorado Mesa Community college’s free ESL classes, and studies English three times a week. Soccer is massively popular in West Africa, and something that Etienne has played since he was young. When Mary Beth saw a flier at the rec center announcing a new indoor soccer season, Tolno signed up and now plays every Monday in the adult co-ed league.

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