‘La casa de todos’: Immigrant resource center opens in Jackson

Hanna Merzbach, KHOL

In April, Mexican officials opened an immigrant resource center in Jackson — specifically to help people from Tlaxcala. About 30% of Teton County’s population is estimated to be Latino, and many of them come from this small Mexican state. 

Paula Zabalza from the Mexican immigrant assistance department led the opening ceremony for the office, called “Casa Tlaxcala.”

Speaking to a small crowd at the co-working space where it’s located, she said, “Casa Tlaxcala es la casa de todos,” or it’s everyone’s house.

But it’s specifically aimed at supporting the about 1,000 Jackson families with roots in Tlaxcala, by offering immigration help and reuniting families.

“The governor of Tlaxcala [Lorena Cuéllar Cisneros] wants them to feel like they have the government of Tlaxcala near to them,” Zabalza said. “That is the main reason that we are here, to feel supportive.”

The opening of Jackson’s Casa Tlaxcala in late April. From left to right: Carmen Arias, who’s moving to Jackson to lead the office; Paula Zabalza, with the immigrant assistance office in Tlaxcala; Marcela Badillo, a founder of Voices JH; Alicia Unger with Todo TV; Edith Vazquez with Habitat for Humanity; Jackson Mayor Hailey Morton Levinson; Hueyotlipan Mayor Luis Angel Roldan Carrillo. (Hanna Merzbach/KHOL)

The region is home to one of the largest Tlaxcaltecan populations in the country — second only to New York and California, where the two other offices of this kind are located. 

Over the last few decades, people moved to the resort community in the Tetons after word spread in small Mexican towns that there’s lots of job opportunities here and it’s a good place to raise a family. Plus, Jackson and Tlaxcala both boast high peaks, a cowboy culture and a small population.

“I think that they feel at home,” Zabalza said. “Yes, I think they do.”

It’s home, but life could be easier. Many people work two to three jobs to afford the high cost of living. And it’s often too expensive for many to visit family members back home. Or, depending on their immigration status, there’s often a risk of not being let back into the U.S.

A lot of people with roots in Tlaxcala come to Jackson on work visas, sponsored by local businesses, but others live in the country without legal permission.

Until now, the closest place to get documents needed for the immigration process was in Salt Lake City.

“It’s so hard to go and drive to another state to get whatever documents you need,” said Marcela Badillo, who was at the office opening.  “Especially because it’s four hours away from here. Winter season is kind of hard because of the drive in the snow.”

Badillo moved from Tlaxcala over twenty years ago. In honor of the office opening, she was dressed in a pink flowered Mexican blouse and a beaded necklace and earrings she said she bought in Tlaxcala. 

Marcela Badillo at the opening of Casa Tlaxcala. Originally hailing from the small Mexican state, she’s a co-founder of immigrant advocacy group Voices JH and has sat on Jackson’s equity task force. (Hanna Merzbach/KHOL)

She said she just recently became a citizen which required countless hours of driving down to Utah to get documents like birth certificates. Once she became a citizen, she was finally able to travel back to Mexico.

“[When you] become a citizen or become legal here, gives you the opportunity to show to your family, to your kids, ‘Oh, I come from this’ and show them your old house and show them the town you grow in,” Badillo said. “It’s amazing.”

The Casa Tlaxcala office is located in Silicon Couloir’s co-working space off Broadway in downtown Jackson. Paula Zabalza said she chose this spot since it’s centrally located. (Hanna Merzbach/KHOL)

The Casa Tlaxcala office is located in Silicon Couloir’s co-working space off Broadway in downtown Jackson. Paula Zabalza said she chose this spot since it’s centrally located. (Hanna Merzbach/KHOL)

Now, Badillo said she hopes having the office in Jackson will speed up the immigration process for others and help them stay connected to their homeland. 

Setting up the office was no easy task. The government officials looked for an office space for a year and a half and said it was harder to find a space in Jackson than in Manhattan. 

“The effort that the people put in to make this happen, it’s huge. I feel so proud to be from Tlaxcala, but also I am feeling so proud to be a Jackson citizen,” she said.

For families who can’t go to Mexico, the immigrant assistance office has created a program called “Uniendo Historias,” or Uniting Stories. It helps bring seniors from Tlaxcala to see their relatives in Jackson and other parts of the country.

The same week the office opened, 10 seniors reunited with their families at a catholic church in town

Families clustered together, hugging and crying. One of them, Fran Perez, picked up a bag holding about a pound of soil and handed it to her young great grandson, who she was meeting for the first time. 

“To my grandson,” Perez said in Spanish.

“Yes, these are his roots, the roots of his land,” her daughter, Susana Saldana, added in Spanish.

The visiting seniors gathered the soil from the highest peak in the Central Mexican state. 

It had been 19 years since the family had been together, and Perez — who’s nearing 80 — said she wasn’t sure she’d live to see the day. 

Her daughter, Saldana, moved to the area over two decades ago for job opportunities and to give her sons a better life.

“I have too much emotion and excited,” Saldana said after reuniting with her mom. “So [much] happiness. I don’t know, I don’t know how [to express] my feelings.”

Thanks to the program from the Mexican government, their family has a month together. And soon, more families could have that opportunity — like Marcelino Vazquez. 

Marcelino Vazquez and Bety Carrillo at the family reunion event on April 24 at Our Lady of the Mountains Catholic Church in Jackson. (Hanna Merzbach/KHOL)

“I haven’t had a chance to meet my mom for the last 20 years,” said Vazquez, who’s wearing a flat bill cap and has a thick, black mustache.

He said he didn’t know about this program until recently. 

“We want to meet our family, you know, but sometimes it’s impossible,” he said. “But, they are making [it easier] to meet our families.”

Vazquez said he plans to talk to the office to figure out if he can also bring his mom to Jackson. 

Cover Photo: Susana Saldana holds her 4-year-old grandson, Diego, at a family reunion event at Our Lady of the Mountains Catholic Church in Jackson on April 24. Saldana is from Tlaxcala, Mexico, where much of Jackson’s immigrant community is from, but has lived in town for over 20 years. Her mom was one of 10 seniors visiting as part of a program from Casa Tlaxcala, the new immigrant resource center. (Hanna Merzbach/KHOL)

Publisher’s Notes: ‘La casa de todos’: Immigrant resource center opens in Jackson was first published in KHOL and was republished with permission.

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