On an early December afternoon, grandkids, parents and grandparents huddled together in the waiting area near a Christmas tree in the Jackson Hole Airport. They were just outside of the security line taking the last minutes to spend time with each other before some of them boarded.
One woman, who had black hair and wore a pink shirt, was Rosa Preciado. She’s lived and worked in Jackson Hole for 18 years. She was saying goodbye to her parents who were going back to their home in Tlaxcala, Mexico.
“My parents could be with my children,” Preciado said in Spanish. “They could be with my nieces and nephews, with my sisters. We really enjoyed it.”
Like much of the area’s Latino population, Preciado emigrated from Tlaxcala, and she’s unable to return to her home country and see her family because of her documentation status.
However, her parents were able to come thanks to a new program through the Tlaxcaltecan government, which helps Mexican elders visit their families in Jackson.
“[The government] helped make it possible for them to come, made it easier for them to be here,” Preciado said.
The program is part of a larger initiative from the state of Tlaxcala and its immigrant assistance office. The goal is to provide resources to Mexican nationals living in the United States and bridge gaps between generations.
The agency does this in part by running reunification programs and paying half of all travel costs for visits up to 30 days. It brings elders from Tlaxcala to the U.S, along with teenagers who are second-generation immigrants from the U.S. to Tlaxcala.
The director of the immigrant assistance office, Paula Zabalza, said that it’s important for the government in Tlaxcala to be near their emmigrants in the U.S.
“We want them to feel close to their land, to their homeland and to have the support of the Tlaxcalan government,” Zabalza said.
The group opened its first U.S. office in New York earlier this year. Other Mexican states have programs like this, but the New York office was a first for Tlaxcala. Zabalza said the agency started in New York, because it has the largest population of Tlaxcaltecans, at about 2,500 people.
The small mountain town of Jackson has 1,500 people from Tlaxcala — just 1,000 less than New York. That’s the second largest Tlaxcaltecan population in the US. Zabalza said that’s why — as early as February — Jackson will be home to the next immigrant resource center, which will also offer Tlaxcaltecans help with documents such as passports and visas.
Alex Perez also sent his parents off at the Jackson airport, alongside his teenage daughter. He said the new office will give immigrants like him more resources compared to when he came to Jackson 16 years ago.
“You have to do a lot of things to get a legal document from Mexico, and sometimes it’s impossible,” Perez said. “So, if they opened that office with those kinds of programs, it’s going to be more easy for us to live here, eventually.”
Many immigrants can’t travel back to Mexico to get documents such as birth certificates, since they won’t be let back into the U.S. The Jackson office will help them get birth certificates and other documents critical for immigration.
People such as Perez have been coming to Jackson from Tlaxcala since at least the 1990s, when word spread in small Tlaxcaltecan towns of the job opportunities in Wyoming. The two places have a lot in common: They both boast snow-covered peaks, a cowboy culture and a small population.
“People know each other in those little towns where I live, where I came from,” Perez said. “So, people who usually live here first, they go back and they tell people there’s opportunities here, and they end up bringing a lot of people to this side.”
Latinos, as a whole, make up to thirty percent of the town’s population, local estimates say, and they’re the backbone of the town’s labor force. Perez works as a carpenter and now has a family of his own.
“Once we get here, it is a big opportunity for Mexicans, so we’re trying to stay here as long as possible,” Perez said. “But sometimes — probably as my case, like many — we end up living here for many years. That wasn’t my main plan, but I’m here now for 16 years.”
For 10 of those years, Perez was unable to see his family in Mexico because of travel costs. This visit was only his teenage daughter’s third time meeting her grandparents.
Cristina Sanchez was also at the airport helping her dad prepare to board. She left Tlaxcala 27 years ago, and while her dad has been able to come see her, she said others aren’t as lucky. She’s happy that future generations may be able to have closer connections with their family in Tlaxcala.
“It is a very beautiful experience, and it is something that the families enjoy,” Sanchez said in Spanish. “Hopefully other families will have this opportunity.”
These five elders made up the first group to come to Jackson from Tlaxcala through this program, but more are awaiting visas for trips next year. With the opening of the new immigrant resource center as early as February, more reunification programs are on the horizon for Mexican elders, along with opportunities for Jackson teenagers to visit Tlaxcala.
At the airport, as the families prepared to board, Preciado’s mom picked up her baby grandson and kissed him on the cheek. She embraced her granddaughter and told her to take care. Then, as tears filled their grandkids’ eyes, the elders got in the security line. It was the first step in a long journey back to Tlaxcala.
Emily Cohen contributed additional reporting to this story.