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El Otro Lado: The Other Side

El Otro Lado: The Other Side

In just about every ski town in the United States, Mexican immigrants cook your food, build your vacation house, and clean your hotel. But what you know about them usually ends there.
By Kimberly Beekman, Managing Editor, SKI Magazine
posted: 08/04/2009
Pedro's father, Delfino Pérez Carrillo, with his newest granddaughter at home near San Simeon. Delfino was perhaps the first San Simeon local to leave family behind for work in Wyoming.
Spread out a map of Mexico, close your eyes and point to a spot in the middle. That’s where I am, in a concrete cocina on the side of a dusty highway, drinking Nescafé from a Styrofoam cup and waiting for what I hope will be eggs and bacon. Or eggs and ham. Or eggs and any other pig part that’s not directly involved in digestion. I’ve just arrived in San Simeon, Tlaxcala, a town of 4,000 located about 100 miles east—a treacherous, smog-choked four-hour drive—of Mexico City. It’s about as far from snow and Subarus as you can get. But the guy behind the counter wears a T-shirt that he probably bought at the Mangy Moose. It says “Jackson Hole, Wyo.” Outside the iron-barred windows, a truck slows to ease over a speed bump, its diesel exhaust momentarily masking the heavy smell of burning fields and trash that hangs, as far as I can tell, over all of Mexico. Beyond the highway, undulating hills of cactus and agave stretch to the horizon, golden in the morning haze. On the other horizon, Popocatepetl, or “Popo” as the locals refer to the 17,802-foot volcano, looms purple, like a shadow.

Over the roar of trucks, the guy in the T-shirt tells me his name is Mario and that he worked in housekeeping at Jackson’s posh Amangani hotel. He and his brothers—like most people here—made the five-day bus journey to Jackson Hole to make money for their families, he says in Spanish. Then he smiles with gold-capped teeth and pulls from under the counter a panoramic picture of himself, standing in front of the snowy Tetons.

As incongruous as they may seem, Jackson Hole T-shirts, photos, license plates and posters are ubiquitous in this town. The Wyoming resort, like so many in America, has come to rely on workers from Mexico—they now make up more than 20 percent of Jackson’s population—for a much-needed work force of laborers, cooks and housekeepers. In Jackson, almost all of them come from this tiny town of San Simeon, a sister city of sorts, 3,000 miles south. Each year, half the town’s population travels by bus to the resort town. Husbands leave wives and children—sometimes for years at a time. Some never return. Most have work visas; some come illegally. They can earn 10 times what they make in Mexico, and though they’re grateful for the work, almost all of them want to go home.

***

Two weeks earlier, I’m standing, as Mario did in his picture, in front of the snowy Tetons. I’m with Pedro Pérez Diaz, a 24-year-old from the San Simeon area. He works construction in Jackson, building a $6 million house that will be the temporary residence of a couple whose permanent home is still being designed. He walks me around his work site. The spring day is overcast but warm, and Pedro wears a sweatshirt, jeans, tool belt, baseball cap and a pair of Merrell sneakers. (In the middle of winter, when temperatures dip to 30 below, he wears three or four pairs of pants, a few sweaters and a jacket from K-Mart. He doesn’t own long underwear.) He has shy, kind eyes, a contractor’s pencil tucked behind his ear and a medallion that his wife gave him around his neck. “It’s for luck,” he says, pulling it out of his collar.

Pedro has lived in Jackson for eight years. “Since March 3, 2001,” he says, his shoes squelching in the mud. He works 70 hours a week, construction by day and housekeeping at the Snake River Lodge and Spa in Teton Village by night. He has a 3-year-old daughter, Jasmine, and another baby girl on the way. (“In Mexico,” he says, “when the baby’s coming, they take your wife, and you wait outside. Here, they let me...how you say...cut the cord. It’s incredible.”) I ask why he moved here, and he gives me a quizzical look. “There’s no jobs and no money in Mexico,” he says. But why Jackson Hole, an isolated ski town in Wyoming that’s about the coldest and most difficult to get to? He shrugs. “Almost everyone from my town comes here.” Behind him, the plastic sheets covering unfinished walls snap in the wind.

***

Triny Lopez, a 30-something woman with dark, sad eyes, was among the first to come to Jackson from San Simeon. That was 18 years ago. Now, she owns her own housekeeping business, cleaning mansions for second-home owners. She dreams of moving back to San Simeon with her husband, Miguel, and her two teenage sons, Freddie and Fernando, who, she tells me when I meet her in her trailer south of town, are out snowboarding on Teton Pass. It’s a cloudy afternoon, and the blue light of early spring filters in through her lace curtains.

“I want to go back to my mom and my sister,” Triny says. She’s perched on the edge of her sofa, wearing a flowing black shirt with chiffon sleeves and large silver hoop earrings. Miguel, a barrel-bellied man with a kind face and easy grin, sits in a swivel chair opposite her. When Triny speaks, her voice is smooth but heavy; each word feels like a river rock pressed into your hand. “But Freddie and Fernando, they don’t like it in San Simeon,” she says. “They don’t like the music, Mexican parties are too loud, the towns are too small, and they don’t like to speak Spanish.” She pauses and looks down at her hands. “You know it’s something you always keep in your heart, where you came from. It’s part of yourself, part of who you are. And they grew up here. They love it. Since they were little they’d go crazy about the snow.”

The first winter the Lopez family came to Jackson, they didn’t have a car. “It was cold, you know, and we were walking everywhere with the kids,” Triny says. “And we had no way to ask anyone what kinds of clothes to wear.” A moment passes, and a rare smile lights her face. “Miguel, remember the first week the kids were in day care?” He blinks his eyes and then starts laughing so hard his eyes tear up. “Yes, yes,” he says. The day care gave Triny a list of clothes to bring: snow pants, a jacket and snow boots. “So we went to the store and bought everything.” Then they dressed them and dropped them off. But when they picked them up, the daycare woman laughed at them.

“They were telling us,” Miguel says, his belly moving up and down with laughter, “why didn’t you put pants on your kids?” Triny finishes where Miguel leaves off, “We didn’t know how to use the snow pants. To put them over clothes. So they spent all day inside like that.”

A moment later, Triny’s mood darkens. “It was hard, you know. Really hard for a long time. But everybody comes to this country to look for a better life for their kids and their families. This is what it’s all about,” she says, tapping the table with a fingernail. “And my kids, they were my reason to fight in life.”

***

Back home in Mexico, Triny’s mom, Josefina Lopez Vasquez, lives in a house that Triny built with the money she made in Jackson. It’s on the side of the highway that runs through San Simeon, next to a shack that sells tires. A long concrete wall spray-painted with a politician’s name (“Wiliolfo Macia”) hides the low, flat house from the road. Behind her house, perched on a hill, a neighboring town clusters around an ancient domed church, glinting white in the rising sun.

Josefina opens the wooden gate and ushers me into her dirt yard, which is swept clean. Chickens strut freely around two huge roosters arguing in a wire cage. Josefina wears a white skirt suit, nylon stockings and loafers. She looks as if she’s dressed for church. She hugs me and kisses me on the cheek, firing questions at me. Her fingers are thick and knotted from a lifetime of work, her eyes clouded by cataracts—no one wears sunglasses here. But her steps down the path are sure, and her energy makes her seem far younger than her 72 years.

My eyes take a while to adjust to the darkness inside the house, and goosebumps rise on my arms. Though it gets cold here—the elevation is actually higher than Jackson’s—no one has heat. “We use lots of blankets,” Josefina says. The main room is huge, with two dining room tables. It’s painted bright lilac—the same color Triny painted her first trailer in Jackson—with pink concrete trim. Shelves of solemn family photos—smiling for the camera is not the custom here—and shiny knickknacks line the front of the room. A photo of Triny standing in front of the gondola at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort has been recently dusted.

Josefina sits me down at the dining table in the center of the room and pours rich hot chocolate out of a china carafe. There’s a basket full of sugary breads and a plate of fresh blue-corn tostadas on the plastic-covered table. I ask her what she thinks about people from her town moving to Jackson. She sits back for a minute. “They suffer,” she says in a forceful voice. “Some people walk three days through the desert to get to el otro lado,” the other side. “And all they gain over there, they bring it here and still work in the fields.” She gestures to the acres of land out back, where she grows corn and wheat.

In the corner is a blue duffel bag that Triny gave to me to bring to her family. It’s full of department store dresses, high-heeled shoes, jeans, loafers, belts and Gore-Tex jackets. “You can’t get jackets like that here,” explains Josefina’s granddaughter, Jennifer, as we watch her unpack the bag. The front door is partway open, and a few brave young chickens sneak inside. Josefina clomps over in her new shoes to shoo them out. “My daughters love me so much,” she says, holding up a new dress. “What more could I ask for?”

I drive Josefina into town (normally a 15-minute walk for her) so she can show me around, and we walk the streets. We see a donkey carting soil, a young boy herding goats and a small black dog making its way with its front paws, its back legs most likely mangled by a car on the busy highway. The town’s buildings are mostly one-story mud and concrete bunkers that hunch into the ground, walls spiked with broken bottles to ward off banditos. But here and there, particularly at the edge of town, new houses are sprouting up. They are huge by local standards, two and even three stories high, with soaring chimneys, large windows and steep roofs. They are modeled, Josefina says, pointing at one with a concrete chimney molded into faux stonework, to resemble houses in Jackson Hole.

From behind a barred carport that houses a minivan with Idaho plates, a woman gestures to me, proudly inviting me inside her new home, one of the largest and nicest in town. Her husband has been working in Jackson for more than a decade—and is there now. The three-story house is chilly, like a cave, and smells of damp concrete and wood varnish. The rooms are oddly sized and haphazardly positioned—there are no architects here. Furniture is sparse. In the living room hangs a poster of a plasma TV.

***

Back in Jackson, it’s Saturday, and Pedro is at home in his small trailer, which perches on a butte above town. It’s the only day he has to spend with his daughter, Jasmine. Most days, he leaves for work before she wakes and returns after she has gone to bed. Today, he’s dressed in neat brown corduroys, a white button-down shirt and shined shoes, and his combed hair is still wet from the shower. He sits at the small kitchen table with Jasmine, who’s tracing his hand on a piece of paper. Mexican rock music (“It’s hard to find CDs here,” he says) plays on the boombox on the immaculate kitchen counter. On the wall behind him hangs a picture of Jesus in a plastic frame, and a bureau neatly displays hundreds of tiny porcelain dogs and dolls. The windows don’t close completely, and the heating vent on the floor is duct-taped.

“It’s not real easy at home,” Pedro says, holding his hand still for Jasmine. A good job in Mexico pays less than $500 per month, and that’s if it’s consistent. Here in Jackson, working 70 hours a week, he can make 10 times that amount, plus his wife’s salary. They use part of that to pay for groceries, gas and half of their monthly $1,300 rent, which they split with his wife’s sister and husband. (“It’s real small,” he says of his trailer. “A lot of persons have really nice houses in Mexico, and they live here in a house that’s real small. Some apartments house like, eight or 11 persons,” he says.) The rest of the money gets wired (mail from the States is often intercepted) to his parents, who use it to send his younger siblings to school, plant corn, feed chickens and cows and build Pedro’s house.

Like everyone who comes to Jackson from Mexico, Pedro didn’t speak any English when he arrived. He relied on his uncle to get him a job, driver’s license and license plates. His car—an old blue Dodge Neon parked out front—is, like those of most Mexicans, two-wheel-drive with Idaho plates. Registration, he explains, is cheaper over Teton Pass. His license and registration have the same friend-of-a-friend’s Idaho address that many workers from San Simeon use.

At his first job, his uncle had to translate his boss’s instructions to him. “It was so scary,” Pedro says, laughing at the thought of it. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, I’m sorry. I don’t understand.’” He’s still learning every day, he says, from the guys he works with.

During most of his daily life, however, he has no need to speak English—he’s always surrounded by people from his town. In the summer, he plays on the same soccer league with the same teammates as he did at home in Mexico, give or take a few who didn’t get visas that year. On Fridays, he and his wife go to Latino dance night at Cutty’s Bar, where a Mexican DJ shouts advertisements into the microphone and women step and twirl in strappy heels. Every Sunday at 7 p.m., he goes to Spanish church service, which is packed with children and families, everyone’s black hair shining under the bright lights. There’s also an annual banquet at Snow King to celebrate the Semana de Santos (Week of the Saints) holidays in San Simeon. “Everyone knows everyone,” says Pedro.

Still, it’s not the same, he says. He misses his family back in Mexico. He misses the food. “The flavor here is not the same, and the meat is not fresh,” he says. He misses the parties, the bullfights, horse races, music and dancing. He misses hunting with his dad and brothers. In Jackson, he says, you can’t catch a fish without a license. But at home, “You can go wherever you want and nobody says nothing.” He misses fitting in.

Jasmine says something to him in Spanish, and he puts his other hand on the paper for her to trace. He reaches out and tickles her, and she shrieks with laughter. “Everybody wants to go back. But they can’t because of the money,” he says, his face falling. “Maybe we go back in two years. Maybe three.”

***

Pedro is following in the footsteps of his father, Delfino Pérez Carrillo, who was possibly the first person from the San Simeon area—and perhaps even the first Mexican worker ever—to come to Jackson. He arrived 17 years ago.

In Mexico, I meet Delfino, a sturdy man with a sun-creased face in a plaid flannel shirt, boots and cowboy hat. He stands in the dirt outside his crouching concrete house. Its windows burst with geraniums. Chickens cluck and scratch in the fine, red dust, their low garble punctuated every now and again by a rooster caw. Delfino first got a job, he tells me, turning dirt on a potato farm in Driggs, Idaho, just over the pass from Jackson, with a friend from Chihuahua. Then he caught wind of a better paying construction job in the resort town and took it. Word spread, and now coming to Jackson is a way of life for all of his eight children.

Delfino and his wife, Benita, walk me down the dirt road to Pedro’s house, which Pedro’s father and brothers are building. It takes a long time to build a house in Mexico, Pedro had explained to me, because everything must be done by hand. (Before he went to Jackson, he’d never even seen power drills, saws or nail guns.) Delfino, however, has two new tools—a laser level and a disc saw that cuts concrete. Pedro brought them home during a visit a couple of years ago. With these tools, Delfino says he can build two or three times faster than was previously possible. “They don’t even sell these in Mexico,” he says, holding up the level.

Pedro’s house is a grand concrete manor (room for lots of bambinos, says Benita with a hopeful smile), with pitched roofs, two floors, huge tinted windows and concrete columns in the front. It’s not done yet—the concrete living room is full of drying corn from the field out back—but it’s coming along fast. Pedro modeled it after a home he likes in Jackson, right by St. John’s Hospital. “Sometimes people get magazines from Jackson,” Delfino explains, “and they try to do the houses the same. But not with wood—with concrete.”

We stand silent for a moment, admiring the workmanship. “My husband is very proud of our children,” Benita says, her voice thick with emotion. “But I feel really sad. I miss them and want them here.” She confesses that she hasn’t seen one of her daughters in seven years. She has no visa, and she’s afraid to come home to visit, because she might not be able to go back to Jackson. “We talk on the phone every three days,” Benita says. She has grandchildren she’s never met. “When my first three sons left...” Her voice trails off and she tries to blink back tears. “They’re over there working, and our house is empty.”

***

Triny’s kitchen table is full of empty plates, save one that boasts a mountain of flan, which is also soon to be empty. Her sons, Freddie and Fernando, are back from snowboarding—“We built a kicker,” Freddie says—and they’re leaving to catch a movie in town with friends. Snow has started to fall outside—“We’re supposed to get five inches,” Fernando says excitedly—and Triny’s nervous about them driving into town. The boys wear trendy T-shirts and jeans. They treat their mother’s protectiveness with requisite yet polite teen eye rolls. Triny finally dismisses them after they promise to drive carefully and be home by midnight.

“They love this town,” Triny says, standing in the open doorway, despite her flip-flops and light shirt. She shakes her head and watches them get into their car. It’s getting late, and the spitting snow has turned into huge, wet flakes that, illuminated by the porch light on the steps of her trailer, look like a halo of white. “You know, we wasted so much time working that I feel like we didn’t grow up with them,” she says. Miguel, still sitting at the table, nods and runs his hand across his face. “But now,” she says, “we have everything we need. I don’t need money. The most wonderful thing I have in my life is my kids.”

The car pulls out and she watches its taillights go up the steep entrance to the trailer park. “This is their home. They belong here.” And with one last look to make sure they made it up the drive, she closes the door.

- SKI MAGAZINE, MARCH/APRIL 2009
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