FEATURE STORY: The Journey to Jackson

By on April 7, 2015

One man’s odyssey across the border.


Jackson Hole, Wyoming – Beneath a mesquite tree somewhere in the Texas desert, Luis huddled next to six other Hispanic immigrants who had just crossed the border from Mexico. Their journey was brutal — hot during the day with temperatures ranging from 90 to 100 degrees, yet 50 degrees at night. With little belongings, Luis only had the body heat of six other strangers to keep him warm. While he had successfully crept across the border, his journey was far from over. The hardest of his struggles in the United States was yet to come.

His story is not uncommon in Jackson. The Hispanic population has grown steadily over the past 20 years but the growth is difficult to measure since many of these immigrants are undocumented and slip under the radar during the U.S. Census. The United States recognizes any child born in the country as a U.S. citizen, however, so the students in Jackson schools offer a good snapshot of the valley’s population growth. In a U.S. News and World Report study from 2012, Jackson Hole High School’s graduating class was 18 percent Hispanic. This percentage increased steadily with every subsequent grade — the freshmen student body came in at 28 percent Latino.

Seeking greener grass

Why did Luis and so many other Mexicans decide to abandon their homeland and make the treacherous journey to Jackson Hole?

“Life is way better here,” Luis said. “You can earn a lot more money than in Mexico. Also, there is a lot of crime and corruption in Mexico. It’s not safe there anymore. Lots of people are getting kidnapped or killed and nobody is doing anything to help protect us. I feel much safer here.”

Recognizing the risks involved with returning to Mexico as legitimate and potentially life threatening, President Barack Obama released a controversial immigration program in November that set Washington ablaze with debate. Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA) allows illegal immigrants with children born in the United States to remain in the country for up to three years.

DAPA presents an opportunity to examine the trials and tribulations that much of Jackson’s Latino population endured to get here and what it would mean for them to return to Mexico. The DAPA program, however, won’t help save people who have no children, like Luis, from deportation.

Two days prior to sleeping under the mesquite tree in Texas, Luis’ strenuous trek began with a bus ride to Mexico City. His cousin Carlos arranged the border crossing by contacting a coyotaje, or coyote, to sneak them across the border safely. Coyotes are essentially smugglers whose job it is to cross the U.S. border with people and drugs. Most towns in Mexico have their own coyote, but their reputations vary incredibly and it’s important to find a trustworthy one — sometimes they’ve been known to rape and murder the people they’re transporting.

Having found a reliable coyote, Carlos and Luis hopped a bus to Mexico City where they got a ride to the border town of Reynosa in the state of Tamaulipas. They were dropped off at a decrepit house on the outskirts of town. This seemingly abandoned house was to be their safe house in Reynosa, where they waited with dozens of Hondurans, Salvadorians, Guatemalans and Mexicans for their chance to cross the border. Some waited in this house for weeks, some for months, sleeping on the floor and cooking cheap, communal meals. The house had no furniture or carpeting, just some blankets laid out on the floors as makeshift beds.

When it was their turn to leave, Carlos and Luis awoke in the middle of the night and crammed into an old Dodge Durango, where they drove for 45 minutes with no headlights in complete darkness. The passengers nervously tried to see out the murky windows, wondering how the driver was able to stay on the road without any light to guide him. They then reached the Rio Bravo, or Rio Grande, as it’s known in the United States. The driver pulled an inflatable raft from under the seat and pumped it up quickly, instructing everyone to load up as he waded into the fast current while holding the raft. Once everyone was aboard, the coyote didn’t climb into the boat, but instead swam across the river, pulling the boat behind him. If the driver was caught with oars in his car, Luis said, he would have been implicated in human trafficking and sent to jail.

“It was really scary because I don’t know how to swim and the river was running so fast,” Luis remembered. “The coyote looked like a frog swimming us across, but I still thought he was going to drown.”

After crossing the river, everyone walked for six hours through the desert until they reached a freeway on the outskirts of McAllen, Texas. They darted across the freeway hoping not to be seen. On the other side, a short, portly woman named Marta collapsed. She hit the ground hard, passing out from exhaustion. Luis and Carlos carried her the rest of the way to their next safe house in McAllen.

This time the safe house was a rickety trailer. Others who weren’t originally part of the group congregated at the safe house, waiting for instructions. After two nights, Luis got his assignment to leave the next day. Carlos, however, was to go with a different group. The cousins pleaded with the coyotes not to be separated, but the coyotes wouldn’t budge.

Before they left the next morning, they were each given their food rations for the next three days: one can of tuna, one apple and one sausage. They were to share a gallon of water between three people. Covered in heavy burlap, 12 people wedged together like sardines in the bed of an old Chevy Silverado.

Unbeknownst to Luis and the others in the bed of the pickup, this trip would last two hours.

“It was the most uncomfortable I’ve ever been,” Luis said. “I couldn’t breathe and my body ached under the weight of the others. At one point I tried to escape, but I couldn’t move because I was pinned to the truck.”

After two uncomfortable hours, the truck stopped ahead of a checkpoint. The coyote told the group to run through the desert to the other side of the checkpoint as fast as they could. Luis gladly hopped out of the truck, but collapsed on the ground when he tried to take off running, his limbs asleep. The coyote kicked his side until he got up and hobbled away, slowly and painfully regaining the feeling in his legs.

The next two days after the checkpoint were misery, Luis said. The group walked straight through the hot days and tried to sleep using each other’s body heat as their only way to stay warm in the cold desert nights. The first night they only stopped for two hours to rest because it was too cold to sleep. On their second day after the checkpoint, they ran out of water and would do anything to wet their lips. They hid on the outskirts of ranches and ran, one at a time, to filthy watering troughs just to swish the dirty water around in their mouths.

They crossed more than 10 fences during these days of walking after the checkpoint, each with a road beside it. U.S. Border Patrol drives these roads along the countless fences in the Texas desert in an attempt to catch illegal immigrants climbing over the fences. Each time the group heard any noise, they dropped to the ground and waited, their hearts about bursting out of their chests. This part of the journey is when most illegal immigrants get caught, the coyotes warned the group.

Passing out two more times, Marta had to be carried for short stints, until she finally hit her breaking point. Tears in her eyes, Marta sat down on the ground in defeat. “I can’t go on,” she sobbed. “Jessica, stay here with me.” She pleaded with her friend to stay, but Jessica couldn’t give up that easily. She’d come this far and spent her entire life’s savings to get to America. Jessica apologized before she left with the group.

Luis gave Marta his watch so she could keep track of when the Border Patrol would make its rounds. When border officials found her, they would deliver her back to Mexico.

“Jessica, don’t leave me here,” Marta pleaded as the group walked away.

Tears streamed down Jessica’s cheeks as she resolutely stared ahead, determined not to look back.

Another man named Pedro suffered the same fate as Marta a couple hours later. He was on his way to Denver to live with some family members there, but like Marta, he wasn’t in good enough shape to continue. The two hours after Pedro’s departure from the group were grueling. The last day of the walk was the hottest. Everyone was listless and weak. Nobody talked. They tried to save all of their energy for putting one foot in front of the other. Finally, the coyote gathered everyone outside a hole in the fence where they quickly snuck through and jumped in the back of a Ford pickup.

The Ford was stolen earlier that day, as most vehicles are for this leg of the journey. The coyotes steal the vehicles and ditch them in random places in Houston — the final stop of the trip. This next safe house in Houston, despite being as broken down and desolate as the other two, was like heaven, Luis said. Everyone in the group chugged water as if they’d never get another chance. There, Luis waited for Carlos for two days, fearing the worst. He found himself constantly looking out the window in anticipation of Carlos’ arrival.

When Carlos finally appeared, the two held each other in a teary embrace, thankful that they’d both made it to Houston alive. At the safe house, Luis and Carlos called their relatives in Mexico to wire them money to a bank account so the coyotes could be paid. All in all, the trip cost $4,000 each. Marta never got her money back despite not making it safely to the U.S., Luis said.

Illegal trajectories

Carlos’ journey begs the question: if coming to the U.S. illegally is so grueling, what does coming here legally entail?

The process for applying for work visas is complicated and the wait list is long. There are various kinds of green cards available to prospective immigrants, and the wait times differ depending on country of origin. For some Mexicans, the wait can be up to 20 years. For Luis and many others, the risks associated with crossing the border illegally far outweigh the risks associated with staying in a country rife with violence and poverty.

From Houston, Luis and Carlos got a ride to Jackson and began their new lives. Luis sends money back to his family when he can and noted that many of his friends send as much as 80 percent of their incomes back to Mexico, leaving little to live on in this high-rent resort town.

Marco, another man who made the trek from Mexico, sends all the money he can back across the border in order to provide for his two children and wife. To save on rent, he’s content sharing a bedroom with two other men and spends most of his time at one of his three jobs rather than at home anyway. For Marco, living and working in Jackson is a sacrifice he’s happy to make in order to provide a better life for his family. For Luis, Jackson is a greater opportunity for himself and his family in Mexico.

Once in Jackson, Luis got a job working in a restaurant, quickly becoming one of the strongest cooks where he works. He sends some of his income to Mexico to support his brother and mother. The trip would have been too difficult for her to make it to the United States, Luis said. His father passed away two years ago.

Luis also had a job working at the resort, which got him a free ski pass. He learned to snowboard and embraced Jackson’s snow culture. He even had a few steezy outfits for the slopes because he wanted to look the part (who doesn’t at JHMR?).

On Sundays, Luis plays soccer with many of the other Hispanic men in Jackson. They’ve formed a league consisting of 20 teams that play organized 11-man soccer once a week for the summer (and most play indoors at the rec center in the winter).

It takes a village…

Resources available to help Hispanics integrate into the Jackson community are growing along with the Hispanic population.

The Latino Resource Center is a key tool available to Hispanics who may be struggling in the community. The local nonprofit, which boasts almost 3,000 clients in its database, aids Latinos with everything from language courses to tax services to fundraising events. The center recognizes that life wasn’t easy for a lot of these folks in Mexico, and it’s also not easy to be an outsider here in the United States. Even in an accepting community like Jackson, Hispanics can feel marginalized or ignored, but LRC is working to help combat this.

Folks from the Latino Resource Center and community members wave the center's banner during the Jackson Hole Fourth of July parade. (Photo credit: Latino Resource Center)

Folks from the Latino Resource Center and community members wave the center’s banner during the Jackson Hole Fourth of July parade. (Photo: Latino Resource Center)

Jorge Moreno is a case manager for LRC. He said the center sees the highest amount of participation from local Hispanics when it hosts the Mexican Consulate twice a year. The consulate helps Hispanics with myriad legal services, from Spanish language Mexican high school diploma equivalency to legal representation and travel documentation. Moreno also noted the success of LRC’s “Cuenta Conmigo (Count on Me),” which offers support to first generation Hispanic students, perhaps struggling to embrace an identity that is both American and Mexican.

Participants of a cross-country ski clinic, care of Latino Resource Center, Skinny Skis and JHMR, glide across Grand Teton National Park. (Photo credit: Latino Resource Center)

Participants of a cross-country ski clinic, care of Latino Resource Center, Skinny Skis and JHMR, glide across Grand Teton National Park. (Photo: Latino Resource Center)

“We’ve created a great support system that we didn’t envision when we started the program,” Moreno said.

Myriad other organizations have also made strides in helping Hispanics assimilate. Just a few on this list include Teton County Library, which requires its staff to be able to conduct basic library transactions in Spanish. It also provides translation resources, classes and an extensive catalog of Spanish-language books. The library has many programs geared toward Hispanic children including storytime, crafts, the Summer Reading Program and family-oriented events celebrating Dia de los Ninos, Cinco de Mayo, Mexican Independence Day, Dia de los Muertos and Latino Heritage Month. Teton Literacy Center also offers programs to help Hispanics learn to speak English and get jobs in the community. The literacy center’s goal is 100 percent literacy for the community, offering language classes in Spanish and English. Its Spanish language classes are well attended by Jackson residents who want to learn to better communicate with their Latinos neighbors.

Though not geared exclusively for Latinos, the Doug Coombs Foundation provides children from struggling socio-economic families the opportunity to ski. In a town where skiing rules all during the long winter months, there’s no doubt Hispanic children from less fortunate families are envious of their classmates’ ski endeavors. This allows more kids to participate in a costly local pastime instead of feeling excluded when the snow begins to fall.

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