By Sarah Gianelli EBS Senior Editor
BIG SKY – Jessie Campos wrapped up his third season as the Town Center ice rink manager when it closed March 9. His path to Big Sky, and caring for the community ice sheet, was anything but a typical one.
The 28 year old was born outside of Los Angeles to Mexico-born parents. When he was 8, his father lost his green card and the family moved back to their home state of Michoacan, to a hot, dry region known as Tierra Caliente about five hours south of Mexico City.
While living in the U.S., Campos’ father worked seasonally at a golf course in Minnesota in order to help support family in Mexico. It was there, in 2000, that the elder Campos met Ryan Blechta, now golf course superintendent at Spanish Peaks Mountain Club, and president of the Big Sky Skating and Hockey Association.
That connection, reinforced by a trip Blechta took to Mexico in 2003, would lead Campos to Big Sky many years later.
When the family relocated to Mexico, Campos’ father could no longer work seasonally in the U.S., so at the age of 16 Jessie took his place, joining an uncle who also worked on the golf course.
He said it was difficult returning to the U.S. at that age, having lost most of the English he had learned as a young boy, but that it was also very difficult to find work in Mexico.
“I have two brothers and one sister who were still in school and I was trying to help them stay in school,” said Campos, who would send his family about $300 from every paycheck. “In my town that’s pretty normal.”
Not only is pay in Mexico insufficient, safety is also a big concern. His father took a job as a policeman but had to quit because of the danger.
After working with Campos’ father for a number of years, Blechta moved to Big Sky for a golf course job at the Yellowstone Club in 2005.
In 2008, Blechta lured Campos to Big Sky with a job offer.
“I was 18 years old and the only person I knew was Ryan,” said Campos, who accepted and joined the private club’s golf course maintenance crew. He worked seven summers there, before following Blechta to Spanish Peaks in 2013.
“He’s more than a friend,” Campos said. “He’s family to me now. He’s been a support for me in this town for a long time … he’s like a brother.”
Campos solely worked the summer season in Big Sky, returning to Mexico for the winter, until Blechta asked if he would manage the Town Center ice rink in 2015. The job entails setting up for ice hockey, shoveling snow from the rink, clearing benches, picking up trash and heating up water for his favorite part of the job—riding the Zamboni. Like a tractor for ice, it uses hot water and what Campos likens to a big mop to make the rink’s surface “really shiny and perfect.”
His first day on the job, Campos was given his first pair of ice skates. Today, he’s playing ice hockey.
He’s still sending some money back home, but less now that he is starting his own family here in Big Sky. Last August, he married Karen Benitez, a woman from his hometown that he’s known since he was 12 years old.
They haven’t had a reception yet because they’ve been saving money for the legal costs of obtaining Benitez’s green card, though Campos said they’re in the final stages of that process.
They will hold a big, traditional Mexican wedding celebration as soon as they can get back home. After a church ceremony, the whole community will be invited to a party where revelers will enjoy live mariachi music and the region’s signature dish of birria—a spicy beef stew served taco style.
“I really miss my family,” Campos said. “Time just keeps going by … I have two new nephews and I can’t be with them. They know they have an uncle in the U.S. but that’s about it.”
Still, Campos wants to continue to build a life in Big Sky, for the better opportunities and the friendliness of the people. His dreams are humble.
“I wish I could bring my family to live here,” he said. “I think a house one day is all I really want—just a good life, a family and a job that can support my family.”