Friday, June 30, 2006

Not so cheapo

When I read "la vida cheapo" the first time it came out, I nearly cried. I had planned my second project in San Miguel in early 2000, so the fact that San Miguel was wonderful AND cheap, well that was too good to believe.

My first fieldwork project took place in a small town in southern Guauajuato. It's a nice place, but not a tourist destination. In fact, when I lived here I was probably the biggest tourist attraction going (Come see the gringa and her two guero children!). We were the first American family to live in that town, and although more than half of the adult population had ventured to the U.S. at one time or another, it was still a curiosity that I wanted to live there.

I love that town, it's people, everything about it. But it was not an easy place to live, in fact, it was more akin to camping than anything else. The house often ran out of water, it was freezing at night (the windows were not energy efficient) and we occasionally ran out of propane. When that happened, everything in the house ceased to function. It was cheap to live there, but you certainly didn't feel like this was a big bargain (you get what you pay for).

Living in Mexico can be less expensive than living in the U.S., but the reality is, when lots of Americans come to town, things change. If the apartment I've rented is as good as the web photos, then we'll be in heaven, but we've paid well for it. Monthly rents in San Miguel average $1200/month for a 1 bedroom and $1200-1500 for a two or three bedroom.

Yes, I've read about retirees who've found great places for $400/month, but that's only if you're planning to sign a 12 month lease, and even then I'd really like to see the place first. You can't make the same assumptions about Mexican houses that you can in the U.S. When we found our apartment in San Miguel, I must have e-mailed her 6 times with ever more specific questions abou the apartment: "You mention it's furnished, does it have beds?" "Do we need to bring our own linens?" "How many tinacos (water tanks) does the apartment have?" Does it ever run out of water?"

The restaurants in San Miguel are also great, and it's one of the few places in Guanajuato where I've found variety of great cuisines: Cajun, French, Italian, Asian. But again, these restaurants are not inexpensive, and in some cases are just a pricey as those in major U.S. cities.

This is one paradox I want to explore: how is it that retired Americans can afford this? Or is this just a playground for wealthy retirees, and all the books and writings on the "vida cheapo" just hype?

We'll see.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

La Vida Cheapo

This article that was published in AARP the magazine a while back. It gives an overview of retirement in Mexico, and a nice write-up on San Miguel de Allende.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Take your kids to work day (in the field)

In January (2006) I let me son go crazy with my digital camera. We were traveling along the mountains from Guanajuato to San Miguel de Allende, and he was quite taken with the scenery. This is one of his shots:
Many years ago, I was reading an account about Margaret Mead's childhood. Her father, also an anthropologist, taught her to write fieldnotes when she was 8 years old. At the time I thought it was a bit odd, after all, how well can I child write? And what would they observe?

Then I had my own kids. When I did fieldwork in Mexico before, they were 3 years old and not very observant. I had a great time observing them, particularly the ways Mexicans responded to their appearance (they were both beautiful blondes with blue and light brown eyes). They got lots of free candy and I got some interesting insights into Mexican parenting.

The idea here is to get the kids involved with my work and to see what I actually do. There was a several yaer hiatus when I went into the field alone, mainly to save money. When I would get back from Mexico they would ask what I did there, and (being a folklorist) I told them fantastic tales about working in Mexico. These stories usually involved whips, horses, and chases through the Mexican countryside á la Indiana Jones. I NEVER stole Mexican artifacts in my stories, however.

It's not that my work isn't exciting, because it is. The reality is that putting yourself out there is exhausting and often pretty mundane. So much of fieldwork is getting out in the community so you will be a recognizable person on the street. It also involves talking to people for hours each day and spending countless hours in library archives. I love the work, but it doesn't always make a great story.

My kids are nearly 10 years old, and I think they could offer insights into San Miguel that I might not see. My daughter is an especially careful cultural observer. She can watch a social situation unfold and recount it with amazingly accurate detail (her interpretations aren't bad either). My son is not nearly as observant or detailed, but he's very intellectual for a young boy. When he comes up with an interpretation, it's usually very insightful.

Based on this, I decided that for this project I would train them to be my ethnographic assistants. My expectations are modest. I'm going to let them have a digital camera, note pads, and archival quality pens and paper (to create a final project) and then set them loose to see what they can come up with. My neighbor has lent me a portable photo printer (thanks, Chris) and suggested that I let the kids "scrapbook" their photos and writings. Both the kids have an eye for what makes a good phot0, so we'll see. Maybe there will be an article in this.

Monday, June 26, 2006

The view from San Miguel

I've been thinking about San Miguel often this week. I'm extremely busy trying to finish another draft of my book, but we're now three weeks away from departure and I have loads to do.

This is a street photo I took in San Miguel in January. Notice the child standing in the doorway. Ken, the children and I walked for hours that day looking for the Mexican neighborhood, and finally found it just a few blocks off the main square (jardín). I had imagined the Mexican population would be pushed further away from the jardín, but as it turns out, they are not. San Miguel sits on an impressive hill and has a lovely view from the highest points. Those neighborhoods are apparently where many American and other foreign residents live. The Mexican neighborhood has no vista, but is nevertheless lovely.

As we walked around the city that day, we stopped in several shops to buy water. In the shops surrounding the jardín, a bottle of water costs about 20 pesos, or around $2 US dollars. In the Mexican neighborhood, it runs around 9 pesos, or 90 cents. We plan to do most of our shopping and eating in the Mexican part of town.

Ken and I have big work deadlines this week, and then we plan to take the weekend off and escape to West Virginia to visit my mother. We'll start to pack when we get back, and I'll dig out my fieldwork equipment and start testing it. It should be interesting, I've decided to go digital with fieldwork collection this time.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Picking San Miguel

My first contact with San Miguel de Allende took place in the small airport that services Textitlán: León, Guanajuato. One time I happened to be flying alone, and I was seated next to a retired woman who was returning from a visit with her daughter in the U.S. She was enthusiastic about living in Mexico, and she had lived there for nearly a decade. As we talked, she told me about San Miguel's natural beauty (it sits on a large hillside), the colonial architecture, and the ambiance of the pleasant mix of friendly, hospitable Mexican nationals and the growing American community. Her only regret? That San Miguel was changing too quickly. "It's becoming Americanized," she said sadly.

I've flown in and out of the León airport dozens of times, and each time I've met at least one or two retirees coming from or going to San Miguel. I've heard so many stories about the town, the local scandals among the American community (there are many), the occasional conflicts with the local government, and day-to-day life, that for a while I considered carrying my tape recorder and extra tapes onto the plane and simply recording interviews in-flight. In fact, I wish now I had done that.

When I started looking for academic material on San Miguel and its retirees, however, I found very little had been written on the subject. In the field of immigration studies, the topic of retirement migration was at a peak in the 1970s and early 1980s. Most of the articles and books written at that time addressed the issues faced by retirees moving into the U.S. sunbelt: Arizona, Florida, and the Southeast. Not surprisingly, as international immigration picked up in the 1980s and then seemingly exploded in the 1990s, most of the scholarship followed the migrant flows, and little attention was paid to retirement migration. The few articles and dissertations that I found did not deal with San Miguel directly, but gave me some insights to the complexities of retirement enclaves abroad. Lorena Otero wrote a very interesting article on retirees in Jalisco (Otero, Lorena Melton Young. 1997. U.S. Retired Persons in Mexico. American Behavioral Scientist. 40: 914-922) and David Truly's doctoral dissertation (Truly, David. 2001. International Retirement Migration: A case study of the Lake Chapala Riviera in Jalisco, Mexico. Ph.D. diss. University of South Carolina) also focused on retirees in Jalisco, but his approach was less about immigration and more about the way the tourism industry in Mexico attracts retirees to live there.

At the same time, however, the numbers of magazine and news articles on Americans retiring to Mexico (and later Central America) were many. AARP the Magazine, for instance, runs a story about Mexico or border retirements once or twice each year; NPR has also done several features on Americans who are buying up land in Mexico, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Belize to build grand retirement homes. If you do an Amazon search on books on retirement you'll find dozens dedicated to how to plan to retire abroad. From the trade publications alone it is obvious that retiring abroad is not a straightforward process, but the people who have done it are content as retired expatriates. It was also obvious that there the popular interest in the subject is quite large, making the idea of a formal scholarly study here all the more appealing. That is, there seems to be a built in audience for this work, and it is clearly under theorized and not adequately studied.

So, I decided to try my hand at a research grant. For those of you who long to do ethnographic work abroad, be forewarned: it is difficult to find support for this type of work, and you may end up financing a good bit of it yourself. I knew, however, that I was not willing to finance this myself. My children are no longer babies, and I have to send them to college in the next decade. I am no longer at a point in my life where I want to use my vacation time and money on fieldwork. If there is no outside support, I planned to pick a domestic project.

For those of you who have not sought external support for your research, you should also be prepared for a wait. Grants sources are not what they once were, and it can take several years to get an award even if your project is worthwhile. I started applying for the NEH summer stipend in 2004 and also my university's internal summer support (see 1st entry below) the same year. My first few rounds were not successful, but I we diligent about writing to the NEH and my institution to get the reviewers' feedback. It was a very wise decision. In every grant cycle, I had some reviewers who were not very detailed about their criticisms, and thus their feedback was not very helpful. But for the most part, I had one or two outstanding reviewers who were able to ask questions about my proposal, questions that helped me see where the project needed revision and rethinking. I also asked the NEH for copies of successful proposals in my field, and again, this was extremely helpful. You can't really know how to write a great proposal until you've read a few for yourself.

In the end, it was also the reviewers' comments that convinced me to move forward with this project. Comments like "this proposal is highly original" or "a very interesting research idea" indicated that my peers thought I was on to something. When I finally got the notification that I got the awards, the time, energy and prior disappointments certainly seemed worth it.

Beyond the more straightforward and very academic reasons for picking San Miguel (and perhaps other retirement destinations in Mexico) for my second book project, I also wanted a place where my family would be comfortable hanging out with me while I worked. Ken was with me for about a month, and the kids were with me for the entire time I was in Textitlán for the extended visit, but it was not an easy time for them. I loved Textitlán because I had been working with the people from there who had migrated to Pennsylvania, but Ken didn't speak Spanish (and most there didn't speak English) and found life there difficult. If you decide to read my first book (and I sincerely hope you will), you'll see that I dedicate a chapter to everyday life in a Mexican village. I did this to highlight the beauties and complications of life in Mexico. It's funny now to re-read those experiences and to think back about how we managed, but I also know that Ken would not be excited about roughing it for months at a time for my next project. My kids were also small the first time we did this, so some of the inconveniences (like the fact that they had to sleep in a toy tent for three months because my landlady refused to let me use the entire rental house) seemed like a game to them. They're not babies any more, and although they are flexible, good-natured travelers, I don't want them to hate going to Mexico with their mother. I want them to learn to love Mexico as I do, to love speaking Spanish and playing with Mexican children. I also want them to learn the craft of ethnography, but that is a musing for another day.

The bottom line is this: San Miguel is a popular retirement spot because it offers a lot of amenities for Americans. When I go to Mexico, I enjoy getting away from American life and living a more quiet neighborly existence, and I don't mind running out of water every now and then or flushing my toilet with a bucket. But I cannot deny that having some of the conveniences of home, like a high-speed internet connection and a phone in my apartment, is something I prefer. In the end, my great idea about the American community within Mexico made sense for all of us as a family as well as for me as a scholar. I certainly would not pick a field site solely on the basis of looking for a pleasant place to live, but this is my second book, after all. I've worked long and hard to get to this point, and it's nice to know I can have both this time around.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Introductions: Why a research blog?

This summer my family and I will embark on a month-long stay in San Miguel de Allende. I'm a professor of folklore, I study international migration, and this will be the initial fieldwork project for my second book. This visit will be the first of many field visits to San Miguel and perhaps a few other sites in Mexico. My primary interest in retirement migration, and my research will focus on the many American, Canadian, and European retirees who have settled permanently in San Miguel and the cultural, economic and social influence they have in the community.

This is the second long-term ethnographic project that I've undertaken. The first was in a small village in western Mexico that sends a substantial percentage of its population to the U.S. My book, Beyond the Borderlands (University of California Press, forthcoming) is the product of that study. During my first field visit to the town I have given the pseudonym Texitlán, I brought my children (who were then three year-old twins) to live with me while my husband Ken, who accompanied us for a few weeks to help set up, returned to the U.S. to work.

At the time, I did not think of this as an unusual arrangement. I knew being in the field would be difficult, and I wanted to have my children with me, particularly if my husband could not stay with me in Mexico during the field study. It was only after I submitted my book manuscript for review that I realized how unusual my fieldwork experience had been. One reviewer in particular peppered his/her responses to the manuscript with a number of questions about being a mother and an ethnographer: "How did becoming a mother effect your research?"; “What was your daily life in the field like with your children?" and “How did people in Textitlán respond to you as a working mother?” The questions were important, but at the same time, I didn't feel than many of the reviewer’s questions were essential to the larger book project, so to a large degree, these questions are left unanswered in my manuscript.

My husband and I decided many years ago that my research, doing fieldwork in Mexico, was something that we would do as a family. Being in the field is stressful, and having the support of my family lessens this. As I started the preparation for my trip in April, I decided it might be time to talk more broadly about my experiences in the field. In the past I have received weekly e-mail missives from several of my colleagues who were doing fieldwork before or after I had done mine. I enjoyed reading those posts and knowing what my colleagues were doing in the field. It was comforting to know that many of the things I had experienced, like extreme loneliness or the occasional cultural blunders, were common to most ethnographers’ experiences.

At the same time, the mass-email format was stilted. I never felt like I could speak back to them. The ethnographers seemed so busy and stressed, I didn't want to add to the list of one more thing they felt obligated to do (i.e., responding to my e-mails), and I didn’t want to ask questions that might inadvertently ruffle feathers.

Those were the pre-blog days, of course. Today this format seems especially well suited for the type of dialogue that I longed for back then. It also provides an opportunity to engage the people I might encounter in the field in a non-research setting. What do people in San Miguel think about my project and my observations? My fieldwork ethos has always dictated a radical openness with anyone who agrees to be part of my project. I talk extensively with my informants about my impressions, and I share drafts of my work with them because I see ethnography as a collaborative process. Unlike my past fieldwork projects, however, in San Miguel I expect that many if not most of the expatriates who live there will access to the internet and the ability to add to or respond to the impressions that I post here.

I also see this blog as an opportunity to highlight the kinds of work that folklorists do. I've been teaching at a research university for five years now, and I am constantly surprised at the misconceptions that people have about the field of folklore: what we study, the types of research that we do, and the very meaning of the word.

So it was not without some hesitation that I have decided to start this blog. I know that this is a public forum, and there are inherent risks putting one's work in progress out there. At the same time, I want to emphasize that this is not a place where I will be highlighting information about the people I interview, which I will keep private and confidential. Instead, the site will serve as a place to discuss the process and problematics of ethnographic research in Mexico, the adjustments that I and my family will have to make in the field, as well as thoughtful discussion about ethnography as a research method.

Earlier this year I received two research grants to fund the San Miguel Project, one from my university, The George Mason Summer Research Fund, and the other from the National Endowment for the Humanities. I will use these funds for two research trips (this summer and the following summer). I want to take this opportunity to thank the NEH and George Mason University for making this project possible.