Mexican Labor Filling Jackson Hole’s Service-Industry Needs


The towns of Jackson and San Simeon appear to have little in common: One is a ski town where the average home is $1.25 million; the other is a village in central Mexico where indoor plumbing is a luxury.

But their economies have been linked, some say inextricably, since residents of San Simeon and neighboring Hueyotlipan began coming to Jackson about 10 years ago to fill the surfeit of hotel and restaurant jobs.

With only several paved roads and little telephone service, San Simeon is not on any maps. Even the Mexican Embassy had difficulty tracking down information about the rural high-plains community in Tlaxcala, Mexico’s smallest state.

But over time, through word of mouth and family ties, the immigration wave coming from the area has changed Jackson from being a place known for its Rockefellers and Cheneys to a community where fiestas and Spanish radio also are part of the scenery.


The connection is also felt in San Simeon, where Jackson Hole T-shirts, key chains and snowboarding posters are common sights.

“You see a lot of representations of this area that are very funny and very obvious,” said Vida Day, a Latino advocate who traveled to Jackson’s unofficial sister city.

San Simeon and Hueyotlipan, with more than 5,000 residents each, have become dependent on Jackson because they have little to sustain their economies, according to Day and others who have visited the area.

The villages are about seven miles apart in a valley rimmed by mountains. Each town has a Roman Catholic church, but they share a priest. Many homes are adobe huts with open doors, where people invite visitors in for coffee and tamales.

Like in rural Wyoming, cowboy hats and farmers with weathered faces are common sights. Otherwise, horse-drawn plows are still in use. Partly built homes are scattered about, and infrastructure projects such as water supply are booming. Much of the construction is funded by relatives in Jackson.

The dependency runs both ways. Jackson’s ski and summer resorts need an estimated 4,300 workers to make the beds, vacuum the rooms and wash the dishes for the tourists who ski and hike here. Other mostly migrant jobs include bricklaying and landscaping.

There aren’t many locals who want the jobs, so Mexican labor has become essential for the resorts to function. Although the Jackson tourists seldom see it, those workers form a community of their own behind the glitzy scene.

Many live 10 to 12 people per home, often with children doubled up in bunk beds, mostly in apartments and mobile homes. There are several clusters of apartment complexes and trailer parks where the immigrants live. Many reside in Driggs, Idaho, and commute over winding Teton Pass, a 45-minute drive that is dangerous during winter, especially in the inexpensive, poorly equipped cars they buy.


In Jackson, while there are still no Spanish-language signs on stores and restaurants, the infrastructure is growing, with St. John’s Hospital training its workers to recognize cultural differences and apartment managers posting their rules in Spanish.

A coalition of volunteers and public service groups publishes a monthly newsletter in Spanish and English. Spanish-language children’s books are in stock at the local library. Forums are held in Spanish on how to establish credit and avoid eviction.

In the mid-1990s, the Immigration and Naturalization Service raided Jackson and rounded up 150 illegal workers. Some speculate that the INS has not conducted any raids in Jackson since then because the tourism industry is so dependent on migrant workers.

Gerene Gilliam, supervisory special agent for the INS in Cheyenne, said the INS simply lacks the staff to do the job. There are no INS agents in Jackson.


“We’ve only got three investigators in the whole state of Wyoming right now, and we concentrate on criminal aliens,” she said.

How many people have immigrated from San Simeon and Hueyotlipan to the Jackson area is unclear. Some Latino groups estimate up to 2,000 immigrants from the towns are in Teton County. In the latest census, only 1,185 Hispanics are reported.

Martha Lira, 38, came to Jackson from San Simeon with her husband on Cinco de Mayo 1991. The couple works in hotel housekeeping and construction. Every month, they send home to relatives a quarter of their income, about $200 to $300. Like many immigrants, the couple return home yearly as a requirement for renewing their U.S. work visas.

In the cramped home they share with their five children, ages 5 to 19, Lira said she has a better life in Jackson, despite a housing crunch and high cost of living.


“In Mexico, I have nothing. I’d have this chair,” Lira said, gesturing around her living room. “I’d have this TV. I’d have nothing. I’d have my bed. . . . For me, it’s everything. Bathroom, everything inside. My kids have everything, like shoes. In Mexico, you would have just one pair of shoes and dresses, two or three.”

Administrators of government services such as public health, child care and school language programs say they are changing to adapt to the immigration wave, with little strain.

At Jackson Elementary School and Kindercampus, Spanish-speaking students have grown to about a quarter of the student population. The growth required three new Spanish-speaking teachers, Principal Gary Elliott said.

Any strain is minimal, however, he said. Classes are slightly larger but the education all students receive is still sound, he said.


“It takes a teacher a little longer to explain a concept in science a couple of different ways,” he said. “We can’t move as fast. Our test scores are not as high.”