The Migration South

Image:Luz Montero

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

A complex mix of identities

Mexico's North American residents express their mix of nationality, culture and ethnicity in ways that defy simple definition.

Michele Gibbs, 60, says, "I knew it was a mistake when I was born in Chicago; it was a very hostile environment...I was an individual in three diasporas: Jewish, black and communist. My orientation was always international." Oaxaca is home, she says.

Ron Lavender moved to Acapulco in June of 1954 and "never looked back." His company, Ron Lavender y Asociados, is the oldest real estate firm in the area. "I don't think I've ever really considered going back," he says, though he feels "considerable loyalty" to the United States.

Mexican-Americans are perhaps the fastest growing subset of Americans moving to Mexico. In some real estate agencies in Baja California, second- and third- generation Mexican-Americans account for 25% of new home sales, and an increasing number of the Social Security checks that are sent to Mexico each month are destined for Mexicans who have moved home after spending their working lives in the U.S. Some feel like outsiders in the U.S. and Canada, and find that they're still between cultures when they're in Mexico.

Elizabeth Villa is a 26-year old student at UCLA, majoring in Latin American studies and minoring in English. Her parents are from near Guadalajara and migrated to Los Angeles, where Elizabeth was born. She is now an exchange student at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) in Mexico City.

"We come here and we're looked at as kind of gringos," she says. "If our Spanish isn't great, we're totally criticized for it." However, she says she's energized by the level of political activism that she finds here in Mexico, something she feels is lacking in the U.S. She's considering staying on in Mexico City beyond her year of study, maybe to pursue a Master's degree, perhaps to live.

Adriana Slemko, 40, was born in Puerto Vallarta to a Canadian mother and a Mexican father. Since age 2, she has lived her life equally split between Canada and Mexico, and now works as a real estate agent in Puerto Vallarta.

"When I'm in Canada, I'm Canadian," she says. "When I'm in Mexico, I'm Mexican. I have a dual mentality."

"I think it's a gross simplification to talk about an expat community," says John Gardner, the head of Mexpat, a Mexico City-based social networking group. "There are expats who identify with specific neighborhoods, or by profession: business people, artists, parents, students, teachers, journalists."

Lance and Jane Bird have been coming to Mexico since 1976, and split their time between Pasadena and their house in Bajamar, a residential development 25 miles north of Ensenada, in Baja California.

"We are in a community that's largely American, but we spend most of our time with Mexicans," says Lance, 66. "Our Mexican friends speak very good English, and there's a very lively social scene here."

"For us, the most critical overlaps with the expat community have to do with work," says Michele Gibbs. "The center of our social life is not in the extranjero community."

Still, there is no question that most expats draw some support from their compatriots. Jane Poindexter, 69, toured Mexico in 1999 looking for a place to retire. She rejected San Miguel as having "too many Americans," but chose Oaxaca over other locations with fewer foreigners.

"Having a common language and common points of reference is a wonderful thing," says Poindexter. "You don't have to spend a lot of extra time explaining yourself. I've found that I have more in common with the gringo community than I expected."