The Migration South

By Margot Lee Shetterly

Image:Luz Montero

Renee Harris, Tyler Harris, Mary-Lynn Gatschet de Leon, Sarah Bender, and Jimm Budd all live in Mexico.

"Where can a man go to get some real living out of a pension check--a place where it's a sunny 70° all year round, where a five-room house can be had for $40 a month and a live-in maid for $16, where the family food bill may be measured in pennies per day, with beer at 80¢ a bottle and gin at 98¢ a quart? The answer to this daydreaming question is not nowhere; it's Mexico."­

--From the article "Down Mexico Way", in the May 22, 1964 edition of Time Magazine, about North Americans in México's Lake Chapala area.

It's 10 a.m. on a balmy September Saturday, and every table at Salvador's, a big American-style diner on the main drag in Ajijic, is taken. Dogs of all sizes are playfully pawing each other and nosing under their masters' tables, eagerly hoping for a stray morsel of chorizo. The parking lot is jammed with cars with North American plates: Texas, California, Florida, Ontario. Almost every snippet of overheard conversation is in English: What time is the horse show today, I haven't seen you and your dog in obedience classes lately, Number ten comes with juice or fruit, No thanks, just the check.

This is ground zero: the villages around Lake Chapala are home to the largest population of North Americans living in Mexico. There's a temptation to run it down as being inauthentic, not nearly Mexican enough for one's adventurous gringo soul. But you're forced to admit: the place is beautiful, and yes, the famed climate is delightful. It's charming, with its narrow cobblestone streets and lush green gardens.

Today like most days, Bob Carpenter is in the Ajijic plaza, sitting on a bench and reading Mexican comic books to improve his Spanish. He's lived in Lake Chapala for 11 years, but his relationship with Mexico goes back much further.

"I made up my mind when I was in my 20s that I was going to retire in Mexico," says Carpenter, 74, a Toledo, Ohio native. Carpenter had traveled to Mexico while stationed with the U.S. Army in El Paso, Texas, in the 50s. "You know, Mexico had a lot of attractions for a young man."

According to the U.S. State Department's website, there are now "more than a half-million American citizens" living in Mexico, but an October 2005 study by Mexican cement giant Cemex puts the number at more than a million. By some estimates, as many as 500,000 Canadians are thought to be living in Mexico full-or part-time, plus thousands of Brits, Irish, Australians and New Zealanders, as well as Germans, Japanese and others speaking English as a second language.

Though many expatriates come to Mexico to work, particularly in urban centers like Mexico City and Monterrey, most choose smaller colonial cities and beach towns, for their beauty and traditions, their slower pace and simpler lifestyle. Caren Cross, 60, a painter and retired psychotherapist living in San Miguel, has just completed a documentary on the life of Americans living in the colonial city, called "Lost and Found in Mexico". She and her husband came to San Miguel on vacation and in 1998 decided to move here, for reasons, she says, that "weren't conscious." Only in retrospect did she realize that Mexico provided a freedom that she was missing back in the United States.

"I found that I could be more present, less harried, more attentive to whatever I'm doing rather than living in the past or the future," says Cross. "And I think Mexicans are really good at that."

Ellen Fields, 51, and her husband James, 50, decided to move abroad after being laid off at a software company in 2001. They settled in Mérida and now run YucatanLiving.com, a website for people living in or considering a move to the area.

"We're from California, and our knowledge of Mexico was really limited to the border. But when we got here, we realized we didn't know it at all. We drove here from California and were just blown away by the beauty of Mexico."

Barbara Kastelein, 40, born in Holland and raised in England, is a Mexico City based journalist, currently working on a book about the Acapulco cliff divers. She traveled extensively through Mexico as a college student in the 1980s, then moved to Mexico in July 1995 when she fell in love with her now-husband Luis.

"It wasn't just for him by any means," she says of the move. "I fell in love with Mexico first. I hold by that. I'm still in love with Mexico."