Mexican immigrants return home with Jackson skills
SAN SIMEON XIPETZINCO — Like much of Mexico, the streets of San Simeon are lined with homes in bright hues of sapphire blues, sunny yellows and terracotta reds. But the homes also boast a touch of the mountain-modern architectural style you might see in East Jackson.
That’s no coincidence. German Marquina Sanchez slowly built his home in San Simeon during the 10 years he lived and worked in Jackson Hole.
The connection between Jackson and San Simeon is so tight that residents in the Mexican community affectionately call Jackson “Jack-Simeon.” With so many Tlaxcalans in Jackson, almost everyone in San Simeon knows at least someone living in the Tetons, often a family member.
A Toyota Tacoma and sleek seven-speed road bike sit parked outside Marquina’s home. Inside, twin cream-colored couches grace a spacious living room outfitted with a large flat-screen TV and modern sound system. A few paces to the right, granite countertops sparkle in an open kitchen. Upstairs, a rooftop patio offers a view of the surrounding mountains. On a clear day, when the sky opens up, the snow-dusted peaks encircling San Simeon include La Malinche, Volcan Iztaccihuatl and Mexico’s second-tallest peak, Popocatepetl, which climbs to 17,802 feet.
On a tour of town, Marquina draws the connection to his second home some 2,000 miles, as the crow flies, to the north.
“They lived in Jackson,” he says, pointing to what feels like every other home.
“They currently live in Jackson, and no one is in that large home,” he says, as he walks, a Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival visor shading his eyes from the warm afternoon sun.
A slow breeze rolls through, swaying the magenta wildflowers and tall grass from side to side while the olive-green maguey plants stand firmly planted, unfazed by the wind’s power. Marquina stands tall as he shows off his home. Walking through the center of the town, it’s evident which communal spaces are the most valued: the church and the soccer field, in that order.
Continuing to the other side of town, he passes more impressive and colorful homes that belong to individuals somehow linked to Jackson.
“That big house over there, it’s a sad story, actually,” Marquina says, “because that man died when he tried to return to Mexico. No one knows exactly what happened, but now his family lives in that big house without him.”
Marquina’s house sits in the center of San Simeon, home to about 3,000 residents in the state of Tlaxcala, one of Mexico’s smallest states geographically. Drive two hours west and you’ll hit Mexico City.
Jackson Hole is such a defining characteristic here that one of the few restaurants boasts the name “Teton Tavern” and serves American fare.
Teton County immigration attorney Elisabeth Trefonas said nine times out of 10, when a Spanish-speaking client walks into her office, it’s a Tlaxcalan from Mexico.
“There’s a rough estimate that there’s about 30 percent of our community that is Spanish-speaking,” Trefonas said. “I would say that predominantly that category of folk is coming from Tlaxcala. I would venture a guess at 75, 80 percent, maybe more.”
Trefonas said there was a wave of immigration from Tlaxcala from the mid-1990s to 2007, but the influx slowed when worker visas became harder to come by. Then, she said, Jackson started to rely more heavily on student visa workers from Eastern Europe.
Walking the streets of San Simeon with Marquina, we meet Luz. In Spanish, her name means “light,” but that also describes her boisterous personality. She has a deep belly laugh and is quick to befriend visitors in San Simeon, inviting them to share a cup of pulque, a sweet agave spirit common in this region of Mexico.
Luz speaks of her three children who have lived in Jackson for the past two decades.
“Twenty years since I’ve seen them,” she says in Spanish. “We talk on the phone when I have the opportunity. They’re there because, well, they went out of necessity, to give their families a better life. Because here in our town there isn’t work. For that reason they migrate, they go.”
She now has six grandchildren, some of whom she has never met. She worries about their safety and that if the U.S. government sends them away, her family might become further separated. She declines to share her last name as an added measure to protect them.
Luz also has friends in Jackson she hasn’t seen in years.
“They have a lot of people from here in San Simeon, many many,” she says. “All of them are bringing our customs there.”
Although Luz’s children have stayed in Jackson, more workers like Marquina are beginning to return to San Simeon. They’re returning with more than money. The former Jackson residents are bringing skills from years working in construction and landscaping and new ideas about how to care for their community.
During his time in Jackson, Marquina learned a great deal about social services and how to preserve public and communal space.
“I was surprised how in Jackson that rich people, young people, old people all take care of their towns, their places, their streets,” he says.
Years ago, a road that connected Mexico City to Veracruz ran through San Simeon. With it came commerce from those traveling between the two major cities.
Then, a decade ago, a newer highway was built that bypassed San Simeon. Now, most storefronts sit vacant along a quiet road. Facing a depressed economy, San Simeon’s residents have few choices: stay in Tlaxcala working long hours for little pay, move to Mexico City and make a bit more, or immigrate to the United States and make enough to live a more financially stable life with the possibility of returning home one day.
After Marquina graduated from college in Tlaxcala, he found it difficult to land a lucrative job.
He wanted to work in Mexico, he said, “but there were few opportunities, and the salaries were poor, and the shifts were really long like 7 to 7.”
“I tried working for two months in one place but didn’t like it because, oh, my gosh, the pay was really cheap and you know the jobs are not here in San Simeon they’re in Tlaxcala [City] or Apizaco, so you need to spend [money] on transportation and food, and basically half of your check is going to be for that, and then the rest you save, but, no, it’s not a lot.”
As news of a beautiful, safe and lucrative place to live made its way back to San Simeon, Tlaxcalans started to make their way to Jackson Hole. Over the past few decades, more and more families uprooted their lives to move to the northwest corner of the Cowboy State. Marquina first moved to Jackson in 2006.
“I had two brothers in Jackson already, and they invited me to go over there,” he said through a grin.
Echoing the liberal arts school graduates who flock to Jackson Hole in search of powder, “just one season,” Marquina’s brothers said, “Come just one season.”
Marquina heeded his brothers’ advice. His first job was at the Dairy Queen, then the Sagebrush Motel, Spring Creek and The Four Seasons. Eventually he ran his own cleaning business. He met his wife, who was also from Tlaxcala, in Jackson, and both of his daughters were born in Teton County. American citizens, his daughters attended public schools in Teton County.
His daughters are part of the reason he returned to San Simeon. In Jackson, he found most of his time was spent working.
“On one side I’m getting more money, and on the other side I’m losing time with my daughters,” he said. “I don’t want to be a rich person. I just want to have enough for whatever I need.”
The chance to spend more time with his family and pursue other activities that he loves drew him back to Mexico.
“I didn’t enjoy my time over there in Jackson,” he said.
He lived in the Blair Apartments near the Jackson Hole High School soccer fields. He likes to play soccer, something he couldn’t find time to do in Jackson.
Every Sunday, he passed by soccer games unfolding on the field on his way to work.
“I saw my friends playing soccer with their families — really happy — and me, going to work,” he said. “I was like ‘Is this what I want? What do I want for me and my family?’
“So I decided that’s OK, whatever I’m going to make to this date that’s all, and then I’m going back to Mexico.”
Marquina is not the only Tlaxcalan who decided to return home. Fernando Garcia, 22, chose to return to Mexico to learn about the country of his birth.
“I was 11 or 12 years old when I came back,” he said at a coffee shop in Apizaco, where he attends school.
Garcia studies linguistics with aspirations to become a teacher in Mexico.
“I wanted to figure out how was Mexico,” he said. “You know I left at 3 years old and didn’t know anything about my own country except for movies and my parents talking about it. My whole family is in Mexico; that was one of the main reasons I wanted to come back.”
There is a lack of a young adults in San Simeon. Garcia described feeling lonely sometimes because most of the kids and young adults around his age live in Jackson. During Christmas break, Garcia obtained a visa to return to Jackson to visit a relative he hadn’t seen in seven years.
Once Marquina saved enough money to build his house and live comfortably in Mexico, he and his family returned to San Simeon in November 2015. Though Marquina, who was undocumented while living in Jackson, decided to return on his own, other workers return due to both forced deportations and self-deportation.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement end-of-year reports indicate there were 256,000 deportations nationwide in 2018, an increase from 2017, but the number still falls behind peak years during the Obama administration.
Immigration attorney Trefonas, who has practiced in Teton County for the past decade, is seeing more families and individuals without criminal backgrounds being detained. ICE agents come to Jackson more often, visiting at least once a month and sometimes more, she said.
“The tactics for enforcement have changed drastically over the year,” Trefonas said. “It used to be that deportations were started if there were significant crimes, and someone was in custody in the jail. Now we are seeing those deportations start just one on one in the street with interactions with ICE when they’re here.”
The constant threat of running into ICE right outside the door has made people afraid to leave their homes, she said. Another recent tactic involved ICE officers from Casper sending letters to people they had on file from old worker visa applications. The letter said the recipient needed to arrive in Casper to discuss their immigration situation and custody determination. Though this was an official letter, it was merely an invitation, and the individual receiving it was allowed to decline. However, some people didn’t know that and when they showed up to the meeting, they were often starting their own deportation case, she said.
“What we’re finding is the letter makes people feel unwanted and makes people feel like it’s time to go,” Trefonas said.
Trefonas sees the tactic as a Trump administration strategy to encourage people to self-deport and save ICE the trouble and expense of deporting undocumented citizens.
According to a 2018 Pew Study, more Mexican-born immigrants returned to Mexico last year than any year in the last decade, with more than 300,000 people going back. The numbers could indicate new opportunities back in Mexico or people self-deporting out of fear.
“In my 14 years doing this, the conversation has always been, ‘How can we make it better?’ and ‘How can we continue to survive here?’” Trefonas said. “Now the question is, ‘What are the steps I need to take to relocate my family back to Mexico? Particularly in June once school is out for my kids.’”
While Trefonas might be seeing more clients returning to Mexico, migrants are still crossing the southern border in record numbers (for this decade), despite stepped-up immigration enforcement. According to data from ICE, more than 76,000 migrants crossed the border in February, many fleeing violence in Central American countries. Along the way, some Central American migrants find their way to shelters, including one in Apizaco, Tlaxcala, just 15 miles southwest of San Simeon.
Marquina visits the La Sagrada Familia shelter about once a month. His commitment to social service, which he developed in Jackson, influenced his involvement with the shelter. He and a few other parish members from Iglesia de San Simeon Obispo donate what they can, whether it’s supplies, money or time. Marquina empathizes with those migrating to the U.S. from Central American countries.
“You see it’s easier for us [Mexicans] to get across the border,” he said. “We just take a bus or a plane to a border town and then we must cross the border, but for someone coming from Central America, they must travel all the way through Mexico.”
Marquina visited the shelter in October to drop off a donation and see how things were going. Though statistically more families have been making their way to the U.S. border, on this particular day at the shelter the 13 migrants were men, mostly from Honduras. At the shelter, migrants are given a bed for the night, warm meals, a shower and basic medical care before catching the train north to continue their journey. When they’re not resting or helping the staff prepare meals, most migrants can be found behind the shelter waiting by the train tracks looking forward to what lies ahead.
Marquina’s social work at the Apizaco shelter is just one example of the service work that he and others are bringing home.
A group of about 15 San Simeon residents sometimes meets for community service. On one occasion, volunteers picked up trash and trimmed overgrown vegetation on a piece of publicly owned land, a wooded hillside overlooking town. They loaded branches into a van belonging to the good-natured Margarito Tzompa, who returned to San Simeon after 20 years working in Jackson as a landscaper. When he returned to Tlaxcala, he brought a van that has been useful with the community service projects. Marquina points to Tzompa as a shining example of social service in San Simeon.
“Sometimes he comes to the park here alone, and he cuts the grass, trims the trees, the bushes,” Marquina said. “He helps.”
The team broke for a communal lunch, spread out in the back of a truck. As they ate, they discussed other opportunities to improve their community — like a new library project now underway. The library will bring a much-needed resource to the small town’s children. Marquina is also involved in this project, which is just steps from his front door. (See the March 20 edition or visit JHNewsAndGuide.com to read more about the library project.)
For Marquina, Jackson will always be home.
“First of all, this is my first home,” he said, during his tour of San Simeon.
But after so many years in Jackson, that connection also remains.
“Jackson is my second home,” he said. “It’s my second-favorite place. We are very grateful for Jackson. Because of Jackson we have whatever we have.”