Kakiko and his two siblings grew up in Autlán, a small Mexican town in an agricultural valley. As a child, he regularly played with his cousins, but then they migrated north. When he was a teen, his mom and dad divorced, and his dad, like his cousins, migrated north too. Their migrations had a significant effect on Kakiko’s happiness. He found that physical activities like biking and mountain climbing could distract him from life’s worries.
At birth, Kakiko was named Jose Ricardo. As a child, he struggled at having people understand his name, and when he told them “Ricardito”, for some reason, they heard “Kakiko” – so that name stuck. In Alaska, people know him as Kakiko and think it’s his birth name.
Kakiko’s mother was a school teacher and she also ran a shoe store. When he left his hometown for college, his mother’s best friend gave Kakiko this photo [above], and he takes it with him every time he moves somewhere new.
“I have a really strong connection with my mom. I was a big support for her, and she came to me with any problem she had. When I moved, it was a big deal for her – although she was happy that I was doing what I wanted to do, she was also sad that she was going to be so far from me.”
“I remember being a kid and going to climb a mountain with cousins. I wanted to go to the peak, but they said it was too dangerous. That’s when I was like, ‘Why can’t I climb mountains?’ That started my ‘climbing-mountain bug.’”
In high school, Kakiko made friends with other people who like the outdoors and got really into mountain biking. Kakiko’s first trip to the United States was in 2003 to visit a biking friend who had moved to the East Coast.
Kakiko moved from his town to Guadalajara to study electronic engineering at university. While there, Kakiko joined the Alpine Club: Club Alpino De Instituto De Ciencias, which was started by a priest who loved to climb mountains. Older experienced mountain climbers in the club impart knowledge and skills to the younger generation, and together they climbed challenging mountains.
Kakiko always dreamed of going to Alaska to climb Denali, and in 2005 he fulfilled this dream – an experience that left him longing to return. Kakiko loved the mountains and the snow, and he was very impressed with how the United States manages its resources through its national parks.
After graduating in 2006, the Alpine Club did a massive road trip from Guadalajara, through Canada and into Alaska. They drove during the night and went sightseeing during the day.
“It was a wakeup call. I really wanted to be up north. The more north we drove, the friendlier people were.”
Kakiko tried working in electronic manufacturing for five years in Mexico. The whole five years he dreamed of moving to Alaska and climbing. Friends he used to climb always asked him when he was leaving. Girlfriends he had at that time, knew that moving to Alaska was always on his mind. He became sick of his stressful job and asked his boss to fire him, hoping to get some severance. He didn’t, so Kakiko kept working.
Moving to Alaska
Finally, in 2010, at age 27, a Mexican consulate opened in Alaska and was looking for someone good with computers, so Kakiko applied. They were surprised that he wanted to move to Alaska and hired him.
“I really like the snow. I don’t know why I like to climb mountains? It’s like a suffer-fest but it’s really appealing. I feel safe and more stable there.” (audio below)
Kakiko chose to get a tattoo of the snow – a symbol of both his inspiration and his passion. He shared his idea of snowflakes combined with a person snowboarding through snowy trees with an artist in Guadalajara who did the tattoo.
“It’s funny because a lot of people ask me, ‘Where did you get the snowflakes?’, and I’m like, ‘a guy in Mexico did it.” (audio below)
Kakiko found the formal work environment at the Mexican consulate in Alaska challenging. It was strange to be working for a government he wasn’t in favor of while growing up.
“It required a big change of mentality. I’m an idealistic person, and I try to follow my ideals. If I don’t like something, I try to change it.”
He found the process of adapting to this new culture to be an adventure, but hard lacking friends and English skills. Before arriving in Alaska, Kakiko thought he was proficient in English, but when he tried to speak with people after arriving, that wasn’t the case. Working at the Mexican consulate and speaking Spanish all day didn’t help Kakiko in learning English.
“It wasn’t until I started skiing, snowboarding, dating people, and socializing more with native speakers, that I became more comfortable with speaking English. I still don’t feel entirely comfortable, but I’m getting there.”
A lot of people don’t understand what life in Alaska is like.
“There are people who think I live in an igloo or ride polar bears to work. Everything is extreme up here – the weather changes a lot, people change a lot, accidents can be really extreme too. Everybody thinks I moved up here and I’m living the dream. No. I still have personal problems, life situation problems – I am just living in a colder place. It’s still tough; I still have to work a lot, get sick, worry about bills and taxes.”
Since 2015, when he got his first green card and left his job at the consulate, Kakiko has been doing seasonal work so he can have the summers off to explore the Alaskan Range. He is working three jobs: bartending at one restaurant, bussing tables at another, and working in the office at the Alaska Avalanche School which provides certification in avalanche safety.
Knowing little about avalanches before moving to Alaska – Kakiko has seen them while driving, skiing, and climbing the Alaskan Range.
“It’s not just playing in the snow, so I need to be aware. I try to be as safe as possible.”
Kakiko and his friend Daniel started climbing together at Club Alpino De Instituto De Ciencias, and together in 2006, they climbed Wyoming’s Grand Teton. Daniel’s skills progressed rapidly. According to Kakiko, he became “the best complete climber in Mexico in the last 20 years. He was a great alpinist, strong rock climber and a great human being, who was following his passions”. In 2012 Daniel and another friend came to Alaska to climb Denali. Kakiko hosted them and got a celebratory beer with them when they finished. “They gave me this photo [above] of them getting to the summit. I always keep it with me.”
In the summer of 2018, Daniel came to climb the Cassian Ridge in Denali. Kakiko saw him in the 14th camp, and when he got sick, Kakiko gave him some medicine. That was the last time he saw Daniel.
“I got the news that he died in a rappel in Artisan Ratu Mountain in Peru. They were rappelling, and a serac fell from the mountain and hit him. He was a really good friend of mine.” (audio below)
“It’s a tradition in climbing that you mark your gear with something so when you climb with other people, and the gear mixes, you know what gear is yours. I put three tapes on my gear – the colors of the Mexican flag [photo above].”
Kakiko misses Mexico’s food, his close circle of friends, and his mom. She came once to visit in 2011, but “she never came back because it’s too cold for her.” Kakiko has seen her a few times since then in warm California.
“I always try to uphold the stereotype that people have over here. I have really dry humor. The wrestling culture is fun in Mexico. Everybody thinks that all wrestling in México is like ‘Nacho Libre.’ I try to exaggerate sometimes, so I keep a wrestling mask around. I find it funny.” (audio below)
Kakiko keeps this necklace [above] he bought from an indigenous community in Mexico with him in Alaska, a place where he feels like the indigenous people have a stronger voice.
“I feel like some of the art and the native cultures in Mexico are being isolated. When I moved up here, the native communities are stronger, and they fight for their rights and culture. It would be a highlight for Mexico to keep those cultures alive.” (audio below)
Kakiko wishes more people understood how complicated the process is to immigrate to the US, in particular, Alaska.
“It takes a lot of time and effort if you want to do things correctly. When you try to get jobs, it’s really hard. In a place like Alaska, the priority is the locals, and if you are a minority, it’s harder to find jobs.”
Since the 2016 election, Kakiko has noticed when it comes to the bureaucracy around immigration, “everything is taking longer, and they are making it harder.”
“I started my renewal process for my green card two years ago, and it’s taking a lot of time and effort to get it. I’m still getting letters and extensions and more requests for more evidence and all of that.”
Kakiko’s first green card came through his previous marriage. The immigration officials now want him to prove that the marriage was legitimate – and since they didn’t have any kids or a house, that is proving complicated.
“If you want to do things ‘the right way’, you can spend a lot of time doing that. I have been here for eight years, and I don’t feel a lot of stability in my life. It’s unstable, and you have to plan your life accordingly. Try to move forward, but you don’t know what’s going to happen.” (audio below)
In the future, Kakiko wants to become an American citizen, join the park service to train others, do search-and-rescues, and help preserve Alaska’s natural beauty. When he isn’t working, Kakiko would like to be outdoors in the mountains, guiding others.
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© Photos and text by Colin Boyd Shafer | Edited by Janice May & Kate Kamo McHugh. Quotes edited for clarity and brevity.