The Migration South

Image:Luz Montero

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

Community and change

As the English speaking enclaves grow larger, divergent lifestyles and strains on infrastructure complicate the social dynamics.

"They should just put some kind of cap on development," says an affable bespectacled Texan waiting for a friend to join him for breakfast at Salvador's. He bought a house in a gated community in Ajijic four years ago. "They keep building, but the infrastructure just can't support it. There's not enough electricity, there's not enough water. There's just going to be gridlock."

Bob Carpenter has enjoyed his time in Chapala but laments the changes. "There's so much more traffic here than there was before. I don't know how they're going to handle it."

"There is a whole big group of people in San Miguel who don't feel changed, and they pretty much stick together in a cocktail circuit," says Caren Cross. "They see San Miguel more as a retirement community." Cross says she doesn't want to sound judgmental, but feels many come to San Miguel "because they can have a maid and a gardener and a big house and not spend a fortune...they kind of see it as a playground."

Oaxaca's George Colman echoes the sentiment. "The character of the community has changed. It's been exploded and changed in character. In the late '80s we knew most everyone. We have no idea now."

With some predicting as many as 10 million North Americans to be moving to Mexico over the next 30 years, it's unclear how the country will deal with such a large and resource-hungry influx of new residents.

The Baja Peninsula is the epicenter of the Mexican real estate boom. Now that foreigners can buy coastal properties through trusts called fideicomisos, and with finance companies like GMAC and GE Capital providing mortgage loans on Mexican properties at U.S. rates, Baja is being developed at a dizzying pace. Los Cabos, a decade ago a fishing village of 10,000, is now a boom town with 160,000 residents.

The Yucatan Peninsula is another hotspot. Sandra Thomson, 54, has lived on Holbox Island, a relatively undeveloped sandbar located 40 miles northwest of Cancun, for two years. She owns Artesanía Las Chicas, a store that sells yucateco clothing and handcrafts, and she's also a real estate agent. She says, "I have 15 clients now looking to buy here, all of them American." Environmental damage and resource consumption are two big issues Mexico faces in accommodating retiring North Americans. Redefining Progress, an Oakland California-based think tank publishes a survey of a country's resource use measured in terms of consumption of hectares of land per capita (a hectare is 2.47 acres, about two- and-a-half football fields). In 2005, the average American consumed 108.95 hectares; the average Canadian, 83.03. The average Mexican consumed just 23.14 hectares, but this number is certain to increase rapidly if North Americans import their consumption habits to their new home.

Healthcare is another issue. According to a 2006 study published by the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), 35.5% of Americans seniors living in Mexico are enrolled in IMSS, (Instituto Mexicano del Seguro Social) the Mexican social security system. This eases the burden on the creaky American Social Security system, but increases the demand on a Mexican health care system already in financial crisis.

A long term relationship

Still, with every challenge comes opportunity.

In an interview with Inside México (see related stories), Jorge Castañeda, Mexico's Foreign Minister from 2000 through 2003 and currently Professor of Politics and Latin American and Caribbean Studies at New York University, says that Mexico should "do what it can" to encourage Baby Boomers to retire here. Mexico, he says, is uniquely positioned to capture value from the incoming retirees.

He adds, "There will be a cultural impact, certainly, as there has been in the US with all the Mexicans living there. However, I think this will be in the best interests of both countries."

Though the relationship between Mexico and its English-speaking residents is complicated, it is also clearly symbiotic, and long-term. Our journey to Mexico is the southern counterpart to the Mexican migration north-a border-blurring, identity- shifting explosion, less heralded to this point, but perhaps just as powerful. Along the way it just might change, in the most inclusive New World fashion, what it means to be "American".

Barbara Kastelein says living in Mexico is "like living in 20 countries." She loves the artesanías and the people, but says there's there is "also something menacing, something unknown, something challenging...the Pandora's Box...I'm attracted by something dangerous and edgy."

"People who have lived here enough years, they feel a commitment to Mexico," says John Gardner. "It's in the way they talk about politics, about poverty gaps." Indeed, during Mexico's recent long and complicated election process, foreigners were as likely to engage in lively (often heated) debate about the Presidential candidates' characters and chances as native Mexicans.

Born in New York, Jimm Budd came down to Mexico City in 1958 to work for the English-language daily The News. He never thought he'd be here for life.

"If you happened to go to San Francisco or Los Angeles or Omaha and things worked out, why should you leave?" he says. He thinks there are two groups of people here: those "who are going to be here for a brief time" and those "who just came to stay."

Perhaps the ultimate test of an emigrant's commitment to his or her new country is whether they are willing to be buried there.

"Yes, indeed, I do plan to die in Mexico, and I have told my daughter I want my ashes thrown from the highest mountain top she can find with a view of [the city of Oaxaca]," says Jane Poindexter. On her scouting trip in 1999, Poindexter fell in love with Mexico's esqueletos, calaveras and Catrinas, and the culture's ease with and humor regarding death. "After this visit, when I got back to Philadelphia, I wrote about the trip and the last sentence was "I want to die in Mexico because the dead there seem to have so much fun."