Books bridge Jackson, Tlaxcala communities

Pablo Arellana shakes hands with Silvia Davila across their table at the gala. Leaders who threw the party aimed to fill each table with a balance of immigrant and American guests. (By Rebecca Noble, Jackson Hole News&Guide)

By Allie Gross
Jackson Hole News & Guide
Via Wyoming News Exchange

JACKSON — On an August trip to visit her mother in Tlaxcala, Mexico, Miriam Morillon marched into the mayor’s office with a proposal. She walked out with an ordinance.

The legal document declared that a modest building next to the town’s senior center would be reserved for a children’s library, the first of its kind in the small town of San Simeon. The promise, signed and stamped, now sits securely tucked away in Morillon’s office at the Children’s Learning Center in Jackson.

For a group of Jackson immigrants who left family in Mexico when they came to Wyoming to work, creating this library is a way to build a brighter future for those back home.

“In Mexico we don’t have this culture of reading,” Roney de la Cruz Gonzalez, Morillon’s husband, said in Spanish. “The value of reading is, you’re learning every time you read.”

Angela Rosales, director of Abra Palabra libraries, or “Open Word,” has been building children’s libraries in Mexico for nine years. This Jackson project marks the first time she has seen a library spring up in partnership with an immigrant community in the United States.

“It’s an opportunity to have a first-world library in their hometown, something that they never had before or they never grew up with,” Rosales said. “A lot of families that have been deported or kids that are being taken back to San Simeon will have a place that is nice, that is beautiful, that is pretty, that is worth it to go, and they will find some of what they have in Jackson.”

When Morillon and her peers from a local Latino leadership program heard about Abra Palabra “it was like a light in our brains,” Morillon said.

Morillon is one of 16 graduates from Jackson Hole’s first leadership academy for Latino adults, funded originally by the Jackson Hole Institute. The leadership program aims to give participants the tools and confidence to engage in projects that better the community. Morillon graduated from the program in October 2017.

Now she is a driving force behind this grassroots effort to raise $60,000 to build a library in Tlaxcala along with other graduates of the leadership program.

Tlaxcala is the country’s smallest state, but it has an outsized presence in Jackson. An estimated 75 or 80 percent of Teton County’s Spanish-speaking community has roots in Tlaxcala, or, more specifically, a small town called San Simeon.

Many Tlaxcalans who have immigrated to the Tetons over several decades have family there: parents, siblings, nieces, nephews. Some parents even leave their children with grandmothers when they travel north for work.

“Most of them are successful in the U.S. and feel like this is a way to give back to their community,” Rosales said. “Because when these people come to the States they see how many opportunities kids have in the world. There’s a lot of resources, there’s a lot of opportunities to learn, to improve your skills. Education, it’s offered in so many ways — that’s not the case in Mexico.”

Of the immigrant leaders working on the library project, some grew up in Tlaxcala, others did not. But pretty much all of them say they didn’t grow up reading.

All of them say that raising their own children in Jackson and accessing the Teton County Library has taught them the power of reading and books — and they want to share that with the children of San Simeon.

“A reading and writing person has a better mind,” said Mauro Lira, who has lived in Jackson for 15 years. “That’s what we want to offer: a new world for them.”

Cristina Briones has four daughters she often takes to the library.

“Kids there, they really don’t know what the library means or is,” Briones said. “And we remember our childhood, and how there was no libraries there. Now we see our kids, and we see how important and how different it is to have a library, to read.”

Likewise, Ivan Sosa, who is from San Simeon, said, “we can start a different culture in our town to make the kids and adults to start reading.”

Rosales has worked for nine years to promote children’s libraries in Mexico. It started when she moved from Spain to La Paz, Mexico, where she found the children’s library was a mess. It was dusty. It was old. It was ugly, she said. She and a friend decided to open a new one.

What began as a small project with friends and their kids quickly grew into a community resource. A grant from the International Community Foundation led to two more libraries. Then two more, as the libraries expanded to other parts of Mexico.

The new libraries are bright and colorful, with art on the walls and shelves and shelves of books. But the libraries don’t offer just books, because, Rosales said, “bringing a box of books to a place without any programs or a librarian is like bringing a box of paper.” There are science programs with Legos and robots, puppet shows, games, and arts and crafts.

Abra Palabra libraries also offer children a safe place to go after school, keeping them off the streets, where they could be exposed to dangers like prostitution, drugs and gangs, Rosales said.

Lety Liera, who directs Head Start at Children’s Learning Center, has worked closely with the group of leaders to guide the fundraising strategy for a San Simeon library. The plan: Hold four fundraisers in a year to hit the goal of opening the library by 2020.

To start small, the first fundraiser, a Halloween party, targeted only the Latino community, with invitations via word of mouth and Facebook.

Lira, who is from Tlaxcala, brought his full DJ setup and pumped music through the fairgrounds building. For the raffle Morillon brought her daughter’s old dollhouse. Others donated clothes, a Crock-Pot, children’s toys, jewelry. A friend with expertise in cakes brought a giant sheet cake. A few women painted faces.

“We cannot ... make big donations, but at least we can donate food, we can donate our time,” Morillon said. That way, everyone in the Latino community can take ownership in the project.

Tortillas were cooked up fresh in the back, and the group served barbacoa, pozole and chicharron for a few bucks a serving.

“They are experts at cooking for masses,” Liera said. “Like any quinceanera person can tell you how many chickens you need for 500 tamales.”

With a successful trial run under their belts, the group was ready to throw a gala.

Mexico doesn’t have a culture of philanthropy, Liera said.

“I think sometimes, because of many factors, we have more of a culture of survival,” she said. “That tells you how acculturated is this group of leaders, is that they are looking into philanthropy and learning from it.”

The leaders meet regularly to plan the events, delegating tasks to committees like the decoration committee and food committee. During a January meeting in the Children’s Learning Center conference room, the organizers worked out the guest list, determining who to invite to the gala “fun raiser,” as Liera called it.

“You’re going to have to carry the conversation, talk about the library, when someone’s bored, take them to dance,” Liera told the leaders. “You have the role of the table host.”

At another meeting leading up to the gala Liera laid out cheese plates and snacks before getting down to serious business. The task at hand: Create a playlist that would invite all the guests to dance.

Morillon scribbled “canciones” on a notepad and kept track as the group played songs on smartphones to vet their party-worthiness. They sought to balance Latin hits for the Latino guests (think “Oye Mujer” — “the Tlaxcala people, they love this,” Morillon said) with wedding-dance-floor songs for the Americans (Earth Wind and Fire) and those recognized by both (Ricky Martin).

Toward a smart speaker Liera called out, “Alexa, play the mariachi loco,” to no avail — “Come on, she has to understand me; she is programmed for accents.”

“Do you like something slow, like Frank Sinatra?” Morillon asked.

“Nobody is going to dance to that,” Liera said, as de la Cruz Gonzalez started playing the Macarena on his phone.

Responding to another suggestion from de la Cruz Gonzalez, Isabel Zumel chimed in. “You don’t really dance to Pat Benatar,” she offered.

“Selena! De Selena, Selena!” Morillon shouted.

Preparation took “hours and hours and hours,” Lira said, but it’s worth it: “If we reach the goal in this project, the best thing is the personal satisfaction,” he said. “We are not receiving anything in exchange,” he said, but the satisfaction of helping to “fulfill another’s life,” and help the kids “to have fun, enjoy live, discover new things.”

Sure, preparing for major events may be a lot of work, but the group definitely enjoys it.

“What’s more fun than planning what are you going to do to fundraise for a children’s library?” Liera said.

For some guests, planning also meant planning what to wear. Briones, a leader who is from a town in Tlaxcala, went to the Idaho Falls malls looking for something black. Or just a solid color. But her 16-year-old daughter pushed her to go for something bold: a cobalt-blue top paired with a long, silky patterned skirt to match.

Briones didn’t go to prom (“In Mexico, they don’t do that”) but that’s what preparing for the gala felt like. Friend Maureen Lopez brought an arsenal of palettes and tools to her house that afternoon to do her makeup, while Briones’ three youngest daughters played “Just Dance” on a Wii down the hall.

“Accessories?” Lopez asked her in Spanish. Undecided, Briones replied, and her friend pushed for gold over silver.

Maureen Lopez applies makeup to Cristina Briones’ eyelids in preparation for the Tlaxcala Children’s Library Gala. Briones bought a dress in Idaho Falls and commissioned Lopez to do her makeup for the occasion.

“How do you want the eye?”

“Maybe like, smokey?” Briones suggested.

For Briones, the goal of the gala was to spread the word about the project but also to show the diversity of the town of Jackson.

“We got the idea because I think there is not many events like this for Latino people,” Briones said.

As a professional DJ, Lira showed up early to the venue to set up his gear.

He was in charge of the music for the evening of March 9. As Lira looked at the black tablecloths, champagne glasses on the bar, the neatly arranged table settings, one thought pervaded his mind: “Oh my God, where’s my tie?”

How long has it been since Lira attended an event like this?

“Pfft,” he said, “Twenty years ago,” for his college graduation.

“It’s a really fancy event,” he said, “and it makes me feel nervous as DJ, because you never know what the people are expecting.”

His “orders” were to play every other song Mexican and American. But this DJ knows how to read the room: “If the people respond really well to Mexican music we’re going to continue with the Mexican music.”

That’s exactly what happened.

Over quinoa salad and lamb shanks, Spanish and English flowed freely across round tables. Commonalities were discovered: from “I went to Oaxaca once for two weeks!” to digging into the challenges everyone faces with finding housing in Teton County. With varying levels of success, English speakers tried Spanish. Spanish speakers tried English.

But there was one language everyone spoke: “Come on, shake your body, baby, do the conga.”

“This is the most integrated dance floor I’ve ever seen in Jackson,” one observer said, as the conga line dissolved seamlessly (thanks to Lira) into a Mexican line dance. “Payaso de Rodeo,” Rodeo Clown, was a cross-cultural hit.

“Side, side, back back,” Wendy Martinez instructed fellow dancer Jordan Rich.

In another dance Spanish speakers guided American counterparts through the motions — ¡Arriba! ¡Abajo! ¡Izquierda! ¡Derecha!

“When I come here to this country to discover a new world,” Lira said, “to discover a new culture, a new way to talk, a new way to behave and everything. At this point ... we want the American guests tonight, they get fun with Mexican music, they get fun with the Mexican traditions.”

As a Latino community, De la Cruz Gonzalez said, “We are always separating ourselves. We don’t want to live along with the Americans. And this is a good start to realize that, you can live with them, that it’s all good. We can talk and move forward all together, supporting the ideas of the two communities.”

Nancy Hoffman, who helped fund the leadership academy, was among the conga-ers.

“The fact that we are all sitting together, and having a social hour before, allows us to find comfort in doing that, and hopefully by meeting as many that I haven’t met before, that’s another group of friends that I will have in the future,” Hoffman said.

After the gala the project is halfway to its goal, just another $30,000 to go to open the library and fund it fully staffed for five years.

Right now the library space is little more than a storage closet. But it’s promising: The walls are a bright lime-green, and lots of windows let the light in.

Completing the library isn’t necessarily the finish line. For Liera the project is more broadly about developing a culture of philanthropy that will continue to benefit both the Tlaxcala and Jackson Hole community.

“I’m just so excited and tickled to see, where do they go with what they’ve learned?” Liera said. “Once you have a base of philanthropy, you are going to be doing more for the place where you are at. It makes you a better person: You step out of your own need and your own things you need or want.”

“I think it moves you into being more part of what this community is all about,” Liera said. “Because look at Jackson: I mean, how many nonprofits do we have? How many doors will now open for these Latino leaders that have a base of philanthropy, and what it takes to make it happen?”

With the Mexican line dance music still reverberating and high heels just put away, the library crew is already masterminding a new fun- and fundraiser — a summer event open to all families.

“We want to define it in a way that it involves everybody in the community,” Liera said. Expect traditional Mexican influence, but also something “new and exciting,” and “artistic and modern,” she said.

“We want people to support something that is wild, that we’re doing outside of Jackson to benefit the families that have some members here and some members in Tlaxcala, and honor that piece of who we are,” Liera said. “We have so much more in common than what is our perceived labels, and our perceived labels of Latino, American, whatever you have in your head that differentiate us is so little.”