Thursday, August 31, 2006

September 7 Immigration Demonstrations

National immigration advocates are planning a series of organized national rallies for September 7, according to this morning's Washington Post. The goal is to get immigration reform back on the congressional agenda. The risk, of course, is that by drawing attention to the immigrant presence in the U.S., there will be a backlash by conservatives and others who want to limit immigration.

The L.A. Times print edition published this article that reports plans for Labor Day rallies in L.A. and Wilmington which are intended to focus national attention on worker rights and immigrant rights.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Migration and "Documentary" Film

Although it's been a hot topic for nearly three decades, immigration is rarely taken as the subject of feature films and documentaries. The 1980s classic El Norte and last year's A Day without a Mexican, are notable exceptions. The Washington Post today reports that conservative David N. Bossie, best known for releasing recordings of Hillary Clinton’s phone conversations with Webster Hubble (of Whitewater infamy). Bossie was fired from his position as an investigator for the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee when it came to light that the tapes were edited so that it appeared that Clinton participated in billing irregularities at the Arkansas law firm where she once worked with Mr. Hubbell.

Now Mr. Bossie has turned to "documentary" filmmaking with the release of "Border War." As the title suggests, the film focusess on the seedy side of immigration: the coyotes who abandon immigrants in the desert, the men who sexually harass and assault young women as they travel north, and criminal activity on the U.S.-Mexico Border. He also examines immigration advocates who question (or disregard) the legitimacy of the border and border enforcement, because much the territory of the U.S. southwest was once part of Mexico.

Based on what I have read here, it appears the Bossie's film, although clearly framed to show a very limited view of the border and immigration, does address some of the real and extremely troubling issues that the nation should be debating as we consider an immigration reform law. By limiting his presentation to those issues that are most likely to enrage the public, however, the film will not further the national debate on immigration, but will likely increase polarization of public opinion.

Monday, August 28, 2006

The Harsh Realities of Migrating Children

This morning's Washington Post features a front-page article on children who migrate without their parents to the U.S., and the special risks that they encounter in the journey north. The article features Central American youth. A few months back, the post published another article about the dangers of migrating through Mexico, considered by many Central American migrants to be the most perilous aspect of their journey north. To see my comments and a link to this article, follow this link: Crossing the Border

Today's article fails to mention a few well-known aspects about undocumented migration from Mexico and Central America. The first is that it is often very common for men to make their first Journey to el Norte in their teens. In the village in Mexico where I have been doing research for the last seven years, boys typically start to think about going north by the time they are 14 years old. The second is that it is not atypical for groups of boys to go together without parental supervision. Unlike here in the U.S., where parents are still hovering over their collage-age children and monitoring their every move, children in Latin America are expected to make important life decisions from a much earlier age and also take on adult responsibilities much younger. If they are old enough to hold a full-time job (from about 14 years on), most parents reason, then it follows that they are certainly old enough to decide that they want to go north.

The author also implies that parents who let their children head north care less about their children's welfare as they should. This could not be further from the truth. Most parents know that even if they forbid their children from heading to the U.S., if the teen believes s/he is ready to go north, particularly if friends are planning a trip, s/he also will most likely go as well. This is not a simple matter of disobedience, as we would conceptualize it here in the U.S. It follows from the ways that many Latin American children are raised: to be self sufficient and to take on adult responsibilities during their teen-age years.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Immigration Reform back on the table

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff will tour the U.S.-Mexico Border this morning with Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) and Michael Pence (R-Indiana) in an effort to give their immigration compromise package a boost. Although the proposed bill is far from perfect, it does offer a path toward legalization and a work visa program *IF* the border can be secured. That's a big if, but nevertheless, for the 11 million undocumented workers in the country, it's a small move in the right direction.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

U.S. Citizen Wrongly Deported

This article in today's Washington Post chronicles the story of Durnis Perez, a naturalized American citizen who was wrongly deported, then served three years in prison for "violating" U.S. immigration laws. Clearly, this is not a common occurance, but it does highlight the need for our national immigration priorities to be refocused. Citizens should not have to worry that their government might mistake them for undocumented residents.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The Cost of Immigration Reform

The Washington Post reports today that the estimated cost of enacting the Senate's version of the immigration reform bill will reach $126 billion. A great deal could be saved, however, if the bill would focus on providing a legal means for immigrants to seek employment (i.e., work visas, employment verifications systems) and cut the superfluous border policing strategies, which are by far the most expensive measures in the bill and historically have proved to be the least effective measures to decrease unauthorized immigration.

Although not mentioned in the article, the U.S. could actually recover some of the costs of immigration reform *IF* workers were charged for their work visas. At the moment, undocumented immigrants pay between $2500-3000 (or more) to coyotes (illegal border escorts); it seems reasonable that the U.S. could charge immigrants directly for their visas and use those funds to offset other costs associated with reform.

Better "dead" than Latino?

If you've never been to the former mining towns in Pennsylvania's coal country, it might be hard to imagine how dead many of these communities became once mining became automated (starting in the 1960s and 70s) and thousands of people lost their jobs.

Hazleton Pennsylvania was once a dying mining town--young people left for better opportunities elsewhere, businesses dried up and houses were left in disrepair. Then about 10 years ago, Latinos from neighboring urban areas rediscovered this (then) inexpensive Pennsylvania town and started settling in.

Now, it seems, Hazleton's mayor, Lou Barletta, would like to turn back the clock, eject the Latino "illegals" and return to the depopulation and economic stagnation of his youth. According to today's Washington Post, Barletta announced yesterday that Hazleton was the "toughest place on illegal immigrants in America," after passing Hazleton's "Illegal Immigration Relief Act. " The act imposes a $1,000-per-day fine on any landlord who rents to an illegal immigrant, and it revokes for five years the business license of any employer who hires one. To emphasize his tough-guy bravado, Barletta wore a bulletproof vest to his press conference yesterday because, he says, "Hazleton is menaced by a surge in crime committed by illegal immigrants."

Barletta's ordinance has more to do with the shift in the local population, and the Angl0-European majority's discomfort with those changes, as it is a referendum on undocumented immigration. Barletta and his citizens need to take a long hard look at what their ordinance (which is most likely going to be revoked at the first legal challenge) will do to Hazleton's community. Is it enforceable? Will is stop undocumented immigration? Probably not, but it will widen the divide in between Latinos and others, and will serve only to damage long-term ethnic relations in this small community.

It's well past time that Barletta and his cohort recognized a simple fact about American life: immigrants are our future as well as our past. You can alienate Latinos in your town, but they're not going away. Immigration to Hazleton is sign of economic health. Perhaps the Anglo residents of Hazleton would prefer their once dying town to a thriving economy with a vibrant, growing Latino population, but I cannot imagine why.

Monday, August 21, 2006

The Changing Face of American Cities

Immigration is changing the complexion of American cities, a trend that is particularly noticible in U.S. cities in the West. The Washington Post reports on a recent analysis of census data by the Brookings Institution that revealed that immigrant settlement in Pheonix, Tucson and Denver has shifted the populations so that whites are now less than 50% of the overall population. These demographic shifts are not related to "white-flight," the the influx of immigrants from other places in the U.S.

GOP takes hard-line on immigration

Today's Washington Post runs a front-page article on the GOP strategy for the upcoming mid-term elections: border security. This is nothing new; scapegoating immigrants is the old reliable of GOP politicking. Unfortunately, there has been no political will from party leaders to deal with this issue since 2000. Although George W. Bush introduced his immigration reform proposal as his first order of business when he took office, his own party has consistently stymied his efforts to pass an immigration reform bill.

One of the unfortunate outcomes of the scapegoating strategy is that it obscures the larger disucssion of immigration in the U.S. This editorial notes that the overall immigration picture is much more positive that the current political debate would lead one to believe.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Movie Studio in San Miguel?

It looks like it. Filmmaker Francesca Fisher is planning a 45 acre development project just one mile outside of SMA. The site will host television and movie soundstages, and a studio village. It will also be coupled with a film institute, which will provide technical and management skills that are necessary for feature film production.

SMA, you're one step closer to Aspen status (deep, depressing sigh).

Friday, August 18, 2006

Number of Undocumented U.S. Residents now 10.5 million

The Washington Post and NY Times reported today that the estimated number of undocumented residents in the U.S. has now reached 10.5 million (up from an estimated 8.5 million in 2000). The story does not mention that one of the reason those numbers are one the rise is the increased border security. As the border becomes more difficult to cross, those who successfully enter the U.S. without authorization are more likely to stay, which interrupts the normal cyclical nature of immigration by undocumented workers.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

San Miguel, where the living is easy, but not inexpensive

A few months ago, I blogged on the many articles that I've read in magazines and trade publications on "la vida cheapo." In fact, my articles on this subject are among the most popular on the blog, and you can read it by following this link: Not so cheapo

I knew when I went to SMA that I was not going to find any bargains this time around. I had to work through a real estate agent, which is the most expensive way to find a rental or purchase property. Nevertheless, not everything was outragiously expensive. Despite the rumors, this is not Santa Fe or Aspen. Here are some important economic considerations if you're planning to live in this community.

The first is that this is a great town with lots of upscale entertainment. You can amuse yourself with American movies at the Hotel Jacaranda, eat out a a variety of very nice restaurants, go to any number of art gallery openings, have or be invited to wonderful house parties, enjoy music at the three annual music festivals or every evening in the jardí­n, see great community theatre, and spend hours socializing (I mean real quality time) with the friends you'll make here. This is a very social expat community, and if you have even modest social skills, you'll never be lonely.

The second is that this is Mexico. This should be self-evident, but it bears repeating. On the surface, SMA looks like a tourist destination that is geared to meeting the comfort needs of the foreign visitor (or resident), but you will most likely run into problems with your water and electricity supply from time to time, and there will be times when you can't "buy" your way out of your inconvenience. Most of the expats I spoke with found this aspect of life in Mexico charming. One woman told me, "In the time you've been here talking to me, we're heard fireworks go off four times, heard the bells of the ice cream man, the shouts of the guy selling water, and the music from the [propane] gas truck. It can be noisy here [in her neighborhood], but I love it." obviously, the lifestyle is slow-paced and tranquil, but in SMA you're not in Kansas, and most expats are thankful for that.

The third is that it can be expensive, depending on your perspective. This is something that most expats lament, because according to those who have lived here the longest, it was once possible to live quite well on very little income. The link on the title of this post will take you to a NY Times articles on the various neighborhoods in SMA and their price ranges. I found the article interesting the first time I read it. Having lived in SMA myself, however, I find it even more informative (although not 100% accurate).

The bottom line is this: SMA is not an inexpensive place to live. This should not be a surprise, as what place that offers so much would also be inexpensive? When I spoke to Col. Philip Maher (the former U.S. Consular official), he told me that, at a minimum, one would need an income of about $1500 per person per month. When I floated this figure with some retired gringos who currently live in SMA, they said yes, $1500 per month would work, but only if you were cooking at home and not participating in any of the paid activities in town. For a Washingtonian like me, the housing prices seemed high, but affordable (you can still buy a nice house for $300,000, mas or menos). But as the NYT article indicates, people are moving out to less expensive neighborhoods to offset their costs. I will also note that if you do some web searching, you'll still find people who are trying to sell the idea that you can live in SMA on your social security check alone. NO ONE that I met in SMA thinks that would be possible, unless you have a big nest egg to pay cash for your house and you don't plan to spend much on entertainment or illness (Medicare is not accepted in Mexico).

On the other hand, I met several people who told me (jokingly) that they could probably live on the insurance premiums they no longer have to pay. You do not need liability insurance or those bothersome "umbrella" policies, and auto insurance runs about $300 per year. If you have a decent savings account and you are healthy, you could probably live without health insurance and pay out of pocket (even private physicians costs are relatively inexpensive). If you want private health insurance for Mexican hospitals, however, it will run about $6000 per year (depending on your age), which really is a bargain for full coverage.

Despite the costs, I found that most expats find in SMA something that is both priceless and (according to them) not available in the U.S.: quality of life. The fact that they can walk to the jardín most mornings and chat with friends or meet someone new is worth the costs and possible inconveniences associated with living in SMA.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

America's Emigrants (MPI)

A few months back, I mentioned a recent study by the Migration Policy Institiute on Americans who retire abroad. Many of the people that I met in San Miguel participated in the focus groups conducted by MPI, and felt that, although they were getting at some important aspects of retirement migration, the group of researchers were only looking at superficial information about retirement and settlement in SMA and Panama (the other site studied)

Nevertheless, the full study, which is available at the link here, is an important contribution to the study of international retirement migration. The basic overview is this:

  • Americans retire abroad to reduce health care costs and to stretch their retirement incomes
  • Enclave communities are a strong source of social support, but the degree to which Americans integrate with native born populations vary (i.e., fewer Americans in SMA spoke Spanish or integrated with the Mexican population)
  • Americans tend to pick a location for retirement based on research (esp. internet) and several factors: weather, location, local beauty, etc.)
  • Between 1990 and 2000, both Panama and Mexico saw substantial increases in their foreign-born populations (Mexico was up by 17%; Panama by 136)

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Washington D.C.'s Immigrants

This article in the Washington Post makes it official: the D.C. area is a gateway for arriving immigrants. It joins eight other metro areas with immigrant populations of a million or more. They include: New York, Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago, San Francisco, Houston, and Dallas.

IRM and the Boomer generation

I have come to the point in this first phase of my research to consider the economics of retirement for the Boomer generation. This is important because Boomers have the potential to significantly influence international retirement migration (IRM) trends, dramatically shift the demographics in communities like San Miguel de Allende (SMA).

As boomers move toward retirement, financial analysts have begun to predict what influence they will have on the U.S. economy. A recent article in Market Watch (linked on the title above) summarized the Boomer retirement scenario like this:

The top 5% of all boomers hold 52% of the financial assets held by their generation. As a group, few Boomers have assets to rely upon for their retirement. The major exception here is housing (many in the Boomer generation made significant financial gains on their homes) If they want to maintain the lifestyle they’ve become accustomed to during their working years, however, they will have to become more financially savvy, save more money, and plan to work longer than retirees did in the 1980s and 90s.

What does this mean in terms of international retirement migration (IRM)? When you couple the fact that very large population of retirees is basically not financially ready to retire, with potential inflation (i.e., oil prices) and the rising cost of health care, the incentive to move to a location where they can live more comfortably on the assets they have will likely increase.

In this context, communities in Mexico like SMA, Lake Chapala, Ajijic, Marfil, Los Pozos and others might start to look more attractive to Boomers than they have to the retirees who preceeded them. In the aforementioned locations, SMA, Lake Chapala and Ajijic have long standing American populations who have changed the local market for goods and services, making the adjustment to living in Mexico much easier now that it was twenty years ago. The combination of econmic factors (that is, Boomers who do not have enough money to retire comfortably in the U.S.) with the established American and other expatriate populations could compel more retirees to consider Mexico (or other Central American countries) to move south in even greater numbers than we see today.

What would increaseing numbers of emigrating Boomers mean for Mexico? Well, for one, it will pose a huge strain on local resources. Americans in particular are big consumers of resources, most notably water, and ever-increasing development could strain regional water supplies (the City of Guanajuato is currently experiencing water shortages).

It would also be advisable for the Mexican government to rethink its national healthcare policies vis-a-vis foreign residents. At the moment, any foreign resident can purchase national health insurance in Mexico for about $300 per year. This gives one access to all of the public hospitals and doctors in the Republic. The major downside here is the doctors working in the public system as a rule do not speak English. Nevertheless, the spiraling cost of healthcare in the U.S. may make this obstacle seem superfluous given the alternative of unaffordable healthcare in the U.S.

As the U.S. retirement-age population grows, our government's inability to address the healthcare issues of our nation will no doubt compell retiring Boomers to seek novel alternatives to retirement in the U.S. Couple this with the Boomers' limited retirement savings and few assets, and it could mean that the next international immigration crisis might take place in Mexico.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Reverse culture shock

We allowed ourselves the weekend to get re-adjusted to the U.S. That didn't take long, as we were only in Mexico for a month. In the past, we (as a family) would have to adjust to living in Mexico, and then re-adjust to living in the U.S. when we returned. We're well past those adjustments on both ends now, although I suspect when my work takes us to Mexico for an extended period, re-adapting to U.S. live will be a challenge when we return.

This morning I've been thinking a good bit about why people decided to uproot themselves and move to San Miguel (SMA). As I've noted elsewhere in the blog, about 95% of all of the expatriates I met last month decided to move to SMA on a whim--they were there for a brief visit, and before they left they had purchased a house. Almost of those who had purchased their houses had never been to Mexico before, did not speak Spanish, and had never before lived in a foreign country.

Of all of the aspects of the SMA story, I found this commonality the most difficult to comprehend. What would compel an American (or Canadian) who had otherwise lived a fairly "safe" provincial life in the U.S. do something that, on the surface, is a rash decision?

When I posed this question to retired expats, their responses were also pretty similar: they liked what they saw in the expat community in SMA, they felt "at home" or extremely comfortable with the place and the people they met there. They also were drawn in by the slower pace of life (although I will say SMA is much more fast-paced that similar communities in western Mexico). They also felt that they had little to lose. As one couple told me, "We just assumed that, if we got here and didn't like it, we could always go back."

The overwhelming fact is, though, that they were all pretty sure they were going to like it. There have been exceptions, certainly. There are stories of people who came and went, but these folks are rare. What draws expats into SMA and what keeps them there is a strong sense of community, something that they all say is severely lacking in the U.S. Of course, it’s pretty common for people who find themselves in a completely foreign environment to cling to others who share a similar background. In fact, the common factor of being “foreigners” together seems to create a bond that allows these retirees to form a community that I believe would be impossible in their homeland.

I say this based on my early experiences of being a fieldworker in Mexico. I remember feeling very alone during my first weeks in the field, and that the relationships that I was able to form (with Mexicans in this case) were much more intense and long lasting than they might have been had I not been alone and feeling vulnerable. My friend, Felipe Ortega, was a relatively new acquaintance when I lived in Textitlán, for example. When Ken went back to the state and I was alone with the kids, he traveled down from Jalisco to help me take the children (who were then three year-olds) to the zoo in Morelia. It was a small kindness, but that weekend cemented our friendship; Felipe is my casi hermano (nearly my brother)

The kindness of strangers in a foreign land counts much more than the kindness of a stranger at home. When I first got to SMA, I thought often about the state of “community” in the U.S., and had to agree, it’s abysmal here. Americans are too busy working and commuting to have time for the “luxury” of having relationships outside of their immediate families. Even within immediate families, it’s rare to have strong long-lasting relationships (think about those empty-nesters who rarely see their adult children). The point is, once a person stops working, it’s easy to get into a situation where you’re completely isolated. Bob, a single and quite young retiree from Dallas told me that after he retired early, he hung around Dallas for a while thinking he would eventually go back to work. Then as his peers started to retire, many of them moved back “home” to their natal communities. Eventually, he was in Dallas alone and faced a choice. “I couldn’t go back to my hometown (in Louisiana) because I didn’t know anyone there,” he recalled. “I was by myself in Dallas and I figured, well, I’ll give this a try.”

In this case, moving to SMA makes perfect sense, especially because there are so many people there in a similar position. One woman told me that she really believe that anyone who was particularly close to their adult children or extended families would not be able to make it in SMA. She said, “the people who have come here [over the last 20 years] by and large are pretty independent. Many have children, but they are also self-sufficient and don’t really need their parents to be there day to day. Another couple I interviewed told me that their adult daughters “went ballistic” when they told them that during their one-week vacation to SMA they had bought a house and would be moving permanently within four months. Their response to their daughters’ protests? “I told them,” the gentleman recalled, “did you consult your mother and me when you decided to move to Hawaii? I had to remind them that they had been living their lives independent of us for a long time, and we weren’t going to be that far away anyway” (his daughters live in Texas).

The combination of older adult isolation, retirement (unemployment, lack of meaningful work) and individualism work together to make post-retirement options in the U.S. less than appealing for those expats who end up living in SMA, and SMA offers all of the things that life in the U.S. cannot, given our current social structure. In this regard, there is little "culture shock" moving to SMA. It's a relatively smooth transition, simply because the town provides the one thing retiring expatriates are looking for: a sense of community.

And none of this relates back to the BIG reason so many people look to Mexico and other countries in Latin America to retire: limited retirement income. I’ll discuss that topic tomorrow.

Sunday, August 13, 2006


We made it back on Saturday after 14 hours in transit. Today was a crash day. I was happy to have our dog back, as were the kids.

I'll be back to work (and blogging) on Monday.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Final Photos--San Miguel

Behind any wall in Mexico you might find a garden like this.
This particular garden is the Bellas Artes in San Miguel

Mojigangas. These giant puppets were dancing away tonight in the jardín.

My son with his new friend from camp.

The view from Calle Jesús.

The last day of camp. This week the children studied Mexico's
indigenous ethnic groups (thus the altar in the background.)

Gringo Happy Hour, August 9, 2006

Dogs in the window, Calle Jesús.

Hasta luego, San Miguel

Today was my last day in the field. I spent it with two artists, one who has lived here 47 years, the other, five. Both see San Miguel as a source of inspiration for their work, both love the community of expatriates who support the artistic life of the community and the strong social support artists find here. The artistic community is certainly one of the aspects of day-to-day life in SMA that distinguishes from other expatriate communities in Mexico.

My family and I have enjoyed our time here, although Ken and the kids have understandably had more fun that I (I was working nearly every day, Ken was working half-time). But I have been very pleased with what I have accomplished. I formally interviewed 24 people, and informally spoke with forty others. I made an important connection with Sue Beere, who is currently the head of the San Miguel de Allende Oral History Project. Sue and I decided that we should collaborate rather than repeat work on many of the same subjects, and over the next few months she and I will be working together (long distance) organizing oral history interviews from both projects, creating a catalogue of interviews and creating a prioritized list of others in SMA who need to be interviewed. My hope is that Sue and I and others here in SMA can eventually develop a bilingual on-line database of our combined oral histories that will be housed here in the Biblioteca Pública and accessible to anyone in the local community.

After I get back to Virginia and settle in, I plan to start processing my data (i.e., transcribing my tapes and coding the transcripts) and to do a few interviews via phone with those who I could not interview when I was here. I also plan to keep in touch via e-mail and vonage with a few people here about local news and developments. I'll continue to blog on the news in SMA, retirement, and U.S.-Mexico immigration, while continuing to emphasize the bi-directional nature of these immigration flows.

It is with some sadness that I say hasta luego to San Miguel. This is a wonderful place, it has a unique international community, and a great group of Mexican and expatriate residents. I'll miss living here, and I'll miss you all.

Con Cariño,


Educating SMA's future residents

In the jardín on Wednesday I bumped into a Rick Keep. His wife, Linda Lowery, is a well-know children's author here. The Keep-Lowerys have lived here for many years, and of late have become concerned with the types of settlement that have become increasing popular here in San Miguel de Allende (SMA): large gated communities that attract people who aren't necessarily interested in Mexico or being involved with the Mexican people or the established expatriate community.

Last week Linda Lowery and Camie Sands launched an interesting business that you may have heard about in your local media, Simply San Miguel. Simply San Miguel offers a type of lifestyle tour for people who are visiting SMA with the purpose of settling here. These tours are full service, and will give tours of SMA and the surrounding area, hook potential buyers up with honest real estate agents (which is incredibly important if you want to buy a house here) and most interestingly, will educate potential expats about the history of this community, particularly its history of communitarian spirit and involvement (through charity work) with the community.

From reading the website, Simply San Miguel is about providing reliable information, and I’m certain Linda and Camie will do that, but it also will work to discourage certain types of settlement that the large community of expats would like to see less of here. Linda and I will meet later today to discuss the goals of the business, but I find what they’re trying to do here fascinating, and look forward to seeing what type of impact Simply San Miguel will have on the future growth and development of SMA.

Immigration and American Jobs

The Pew Hispanic Center yesterday released a research report on the growth of the foreign-born population on employment of native-born workers, and concluded that immigrants do not adversely effect native-born job opportunities. The Washington Post printed a brief overview of the document, and notes that some economists note that the study does not adequately address issues of age, gender and education on the job prospects of American workers.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Rediscovering San Miguel

When I was a grad student at Penn, I did a lot of research on Appalachia. I grew up in Appalachia, so I was interested in the history and develop of the region, and one of the more fascinating points I uncovered is that Appalachia as a region is that it has been "rediscovered" about every twenty years since the 19th century. What happens is that some journalist will drive through the region, witness it’s stunning natural beauty, which contrasted with the region’s extreme poverty. It’s a poetic irony, abundant natural beauty amid human scarcity.

On Monday I mentioned that I interviewed Inés Roberts of The San Miguel Chronicles. Among the many things that she and I talked about was the recent “rediscovery of San Miguel” by some of the more recent expatriates, realtors, and others who seek to profit the ever-expanding foreign community here. Part of this rediscovery is an overt attempt to “sell” the idea of SMA to potential retirees. You can fall in love with San Miguel, but like any relationship, you need to fall in love with the real place, not the fantasy that someone has constructed (and which may not in any way resemble SMA).

The problem with rediscoveries is that that lack historical depth, and along with this, accuracy about the expatriate’s community, their work to develop SMA’s infrastructure so that today the town is much more livable from the typical American’s perspective. There is a good private community hospital in town, and a major medical center within 45 minutes drive. The cultural events are extensive, for instance, there are three major music festivals every year. There are also a large number of art galleries that have frequent openings, there are also cocktail and dinner parties, and literally hundreds of local charities to which one can belong.

In short, the older expat community here has worked very hard to build this community, and they like what they’ve created. They’re also not pleased about the current rediscovery of SMA. If there is one thing that the longer-term expatriate community dislikes, it is the way that outsiders (and some who live here) try to promote SMA as a means to enrich themselves. In June (before I came here) I wrote about the hype promotions about “living cheap in Mexico,” and it’s obvious that this and similar advertisements are fueling some of the discontent within the expat community. These promotions (i.e., “retire and live in Mexico only on your social security,” or “buy a house in SMA and make 17% profit in six months”) are not only misleading, they also attract a different type of expatriate, one that is more likely to be disappointed with living here, and less likely to fit in with the current community.

There are other splits in the community that are probably even more disruptive, such as the uber-rich who have been moving here over the last five years, building huge houses in gated communities, and basically not becoming involved with the expat community, except perhaps to show up at gallery openings or to host or attend lavish parties. These most recent arrivals are less likely to live here year-round and less likely to participate in charities and other important aspects of community life. The most wealthy people who come here are resented, not just because they have money, but because they are attempting to reshape SMA into something less than Mexican (yes, I did that on purpose). Nearly everyone from the longer-term expat group contends that the part-time McMansion set want to make SMA a bit more like “hometown U.S.A.,” or perhaps more accurately, “gated suburbia U.S.A.” --Just writing that makes me feel ill.

The basic idea here is that most of the expatriates came here to get something that they believe is not available in the U.S.: a true sense of community. I know that there have been efforts (largely unsuccessful) to do this in the U.S., such as the “community centered” subdivisions (i.e., Celebration, Florida) and revitalization in small towns (see Kennett Square, Pennsylvania), but the reality is, U.S. life moves fast, we work too much to be concerned with anything other than our immediate families, homes, jobs, and so on. And most importantly, we won’t get out of our cars. We don’t work were we live, and there is no true indication that we want to do this. We also don’t want grocery stores, restaurants and pharmacies in our neighborhoods, something I must admit, completely baffles me. We have created a bedroom community America, and the people who are moving here and building out of town behind their gates are re-creating it here. So in short, we cannot have “community” in the U.S. in the sense that it is possible in Mexico, and from the looks of the recent developments in SMA, people coming here don’t want it here, either.

The risk of this most recent “rediscovery” of SMA is that, for many who have lived here for two decades or more, the expatriate community is drastically reshaping into something that looks like another subdivision in Anywhere U.S.A. It’s less than Mexican, and it leads me to wonder why so many people come here to try to recreate something that is easily possible in the U.S.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Mixed nuts

When I think back about the hundreds of people I've met and interviewed, it's rare that I encounter someone who is obviously fabricating their stories. I sometimes encounter people who seem to be exaggerating, but in the last few days I've met a few people who are either actively creating their life stories, or they're simply not all there.

On Sunday evening my sister and I were walking home together from dinner (the rest of the family took a cab). Susie wanted to photograph doors. When we left our restaurant, I was struggling to put on my jacket (it's actually quite cool here right now) and an older woman stopped on the street to give me a hand. She introduced herself (I'll refer to her here as Marta) and told us she had lived in SMA for over 15 years. Her father, she said, had been Italy's ambassador to Mexico, so she spent most of her life in Mexico. As it turns out, she lives just a few doors down from the restaurant, and she invited us in to see her house, which she described as "just adorable." I saw this chance interaction as an opportunity for a potential interview, so I cued Susie and we said yes. For the record, most of the houses owned by Americans in SMA are quite lovely, and one of the biggest tourist attractions here each Sunday afternoon is a house and garden tour, so we thought seeing the house would be a bonus. We were wrong.

We knew something was wrong the minute we walked in the door and smelled doggy doo, but by then it was too late. Marta took us in her "adorable" little house, which looked like many of the poorer migrant houses I had visited in other towns in western Mexico. Her dogs, one that looked sweet, the other a bit frightening, were dancing around the cement stairs in front of us. Marta explained how this house had actually been the garden of her father's much larger house next door. She sold it and hired an architect to build this. This revelation was the first red flag of the evening, as there was no way this house had been designed.

Susie was eyeing the menacing looking dog cautiously, which I thought looked a lot like a Dingo. It was nervous and wiry, and kept jumping up and down the steps. When I asked, Marta explained that the dog was actually an African jungle dog, and that it was a gift from the African government (hmmm, isn't that a continent?). She had been visiting Africa on a tour a year ago, she said, and asked for one of the dogs. About six months later a "huge African man" (that's a direct quote) came to her house with this adorable puppy.

As she ushered us upstairs to see what she described as a "magnificent" garden, Marta told me she was retired, but still lectured at UNAM (a university in Mexico City) once a week. "Yes, they send a driver to pick me up at 2:30 in the morning and I lecture, then they bring me home." When I asked her what her subject area was, she told me she lectured on religion and philosophy.

We walked through the rest of the dingy house, she ushered us onto a small balcony that was filled with a variety of pots filled with bonsai trees and flowers. She then insisted that we climb the narrow spiral staircase onto he roof to see her magnificent view. By now it was raining, and I eyed the staircase warily. I had been up and down similar staircases before, but this one was particularly narrow. The stairs were further narrowed by small potted plants that she had one each step. "Go, go, you must see the view," Marta insisted. I cautiously started up the first step, and nudged a pot with my foot. "Don’t knock over the plants!" Marta urged as Susie and I climbed the steps. When we got to the top of the stairs, the view was indeed very good. The rain was coming steadily enough that now we were getting soaked through, but Marta didn’t seem to mind. I finally told her we should get inside soon, and Susie started down the steps. When she got to the bottom she saw my face contort as I looked down, and she encouraged me to come down very slowly because the rain had made the steps treacherously slick.

We made our way all the way down to the first floor, and I started our prelude to goodbye. Before we could get out the door, Marta told us about her incredibly successful son (he is a professor at Oxford) and that nearly everyday someone offers her no less than $300,000 for her adorable home. After we finally got outside, Susie turned to me with a smile and said mockingly, “Wait, you forgot to schedule an interview.”

Interactions like this one are not usually something I make note of, simply because they are anomalies and won’t be part of my research. Then today I had yet another odd interview with a woman who told me she had lived in SMA for fifteen years, but had been part of the community since 1965. When I asked her about the community here, however, she instead told me remarkable stories about her career. These included working for Merv Griffin and Johnny Carson, then moved to Mexico where had her own television show for 15 years. She was also appointed by the Mexican government to teach indigenous women about nutrition, and to accomplish this she was sent into the jungle of Guerrero for over a year. She also made fantastic salaries for a woman of her generation, with as much as $65,000 a year in 1975, and she wrote a best-selling cookbook. At the end of the interview, she did sell me a copy of the cookbook. The author’s name on the book was different from the one she had given me, so I asked her about her birth name, because I would obviously need to check the facts she had provided for me. She told me that she had several names over the years, but didn’t have time to tell me that story.

I mentioned in an earlier post that many people come here to “reinvent” themselves, I now have to consider whether this is done intentionally or because of memory loss. I began to wonder today how far these reinventions might go, and to consider ways of verifying the information that I collect in oral history interviews. For any information that might have taken place in SMA, I can confirm information from within the local community, and in fact, I am in the process of doing that now (using archival sources and confirming stories from more than one source). For events that take place before arriving in SMA, I will confirm past histories before including the information in a formal article.

In both of the cases here, I will not be using the information that I came across. In the first case, I wasn’t engaging in an interview, so I would not use it in any event. In the second case, the interview didn’t say much about SMA, so it won’t figure prominently in the study either.

Thankfully, this doesn't happen very often.

San Miguel Chronicles

I had the pleasure of meeting Inés Roberts yesterday. Inés is the editor of the San Miguel Chronicles, a monthly news digest of Mexican national news. She has a long history in SMA, and had some great insights into the expatriate community here, and an amazing ability to synthesize the demographic, political and social changes in the U.S. and Mexico that have supported the expatriate population's growth here.

Today will be a whirlwind day for me: I have three interviews with people who have lived here no less than 15 years (one has lived here for 40 years), so I'm going to be out all day. I'll be back tonight with some interesting commentary about the expatriate community's transition, which I realized yesterday is part of a larger social divide here in SMA.

Monday, August 07, 2006

The Trouble with Tinacos

If you've been reading this blog for any period of time, you know that I have lived in Mexico before. Throughout my many experiences here, I have learned a number of valuable lessons about getting by and getting along, and the events of the last few days remind me that even here in San Miguel (SMA), you are likely to face some of the common household challenges that you would in any other place in Mexico.

The most important thing you'll ever encounter in a Mexican house is a tinaco. A tinaco is a large (~450 gallon) water tank is on the roof of every Mexican home; every evening the local municipal water is pumped to the tinacos of houses. The tinaco provides the household water supply for an entire day, and its contents can make the difference between loving and hating life in Mexico.

As I wrote last Thursday, we ran out of water in the morning. This is not terribly uncommon, as Mexican water supplies are not overly reliable and pumping capacities are not always consistent. I am renting a small house here, and I carefully selected it from several others, I paid more to rent this house than I had paid for other places in the past. Then I was working in migrant communities and I paid about $30 per month. When we ran out of water I was annoyed, but with a rent that low you can expect problems.

Bathrooms and plumbing are typically the least functional part of Mexican houses. Based on my previous experiences, when I arrived I asked my realtor about our water supply and where I could find a ladder to check the tinaco each morning. My realtor assured me that I would never have to climb onto my roof to check my tinaco. Well, she was wrong.

There are several telltale signs that a tinaco is running dry. When someone in the house flushes the toilet, for instance, the sound of the water running into the tank after the flush will be different. This isn't something that one normally notices (we hear it every day, after all), but when the water is low, it will slowly drip, drip, drip into the tank. If you ever hear this sound, you should check one of your taps. Typically, you'll get a few sputters and a slow drizzle of water. This is when you know you can kiss your morning shower goodbye.

There are several reasons why a tinaco will run dry. The most common is a lack of water from the common water source. At the moment, however, SMA's common water supply is low, but not yet being rationed. Another is a broken toilet. If the flapper goes bad and the shut-off valve does not close after a flush it can drain a tinaco within an hour. In our case, there the was a leak somewhere between the city water pipes and the tinaco.

I went to talk to the man who takes care of maintenance in the building, who I'll identify as Sr. Lopez. When I told him on Thursday we had no water, he assured me he would take care of the problem. After about a half hour, the water supply seemed fine and we all were able to shower, pack, and then take off for a visit to Textitlán. Before we left I asked Sr. Lopez if the water problem was fixed, and he assured me that it was.

When we got back to the house on Saturday, however, it was clear that we still had a problem, but this time there was no water at all. I spoke to Mr. Lopez again, who cheerfully explained that he found a small leak in the water pipe that runs to my house, and he had turned off the water while we were gone, and once again assured me that he would take care of the problem. He did open the water valve a bit so that we had enough water to wash the dishes and flush the toilets, but Sunday we still had no water.

At this point, I faced a dilemma. When I'm working in the field I don't like to raise a fuss about things that are inconvenient. Americans in Mexico are often described as demanding and impatient, and getting a reputation for being either can only delay or derail a project. At the same time, I'm in a town that caters to tourists and I paid a fairly high rent. After two days without water, I decided that I needed to insist that problem be corrected. Living in a house without water is not inconvenient, it's unacceptable.

If the problem had been from a water shortage or municipal problem, my response would have been different. We made it through with some improvisations: I found an outside faucet with a hose and used it to fill my washing machine so I could launder the mountain of dirty clothes that was piling up around the house. Ken and my sister carried buckets of water inside from the same faucet and heated it on the stove bathing. When we did have even a little water, we conserved as much as possible.

Although the situation was annoying, I had been through this before and knew how to respond. I'm relieved that the pipe outside was replaced today, but the episode reminded me that there will always be ups and downs living in Mexico, even in a high rent district.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

The week in pictures (July 31-August 7)

We've had a busy week, traveling around more than usual for interviews (in Guanajuato, Delores Hidalgo, and Textitlán). While I was working, my family took an opportunity to see the sights.

As we arrived in Guanajuato.
Photo by Ken Shutika

Guanajuato sits in a very narrow valley and climbs straight up very steep hills. This is an alley near the jardín.

In front of one of SMA's world famous doors.
Photo by Ken Shutika

The guys nap on a fountain in Textitlán's jardín.
The park's benches were wet after a hard rain.

Nopal fruit just before a storm. Taking this photo was my sister, Susuan's idea. The nopal bear fruit this time of year. I plan to sample one before this field trip ends.

With my husband, Ken, in Delores Hidalgo.
Photo by Susan Lattanzi.

One of Guanajuato's world renouned mummies.

Mirador (overloook). The city of Guanajuato (photo by Ken Shutika).

The Guanajuato hillside.

With my mother in the Templo to el Señor de Esquipulitas (the Black Christ).
Photo by Ken Shutika.

Remember Bebe and her mother Jo? Here she poses with her "husband"
Pepe and my daughter. Bebe and Pepe had a "real" wedding, complete
with a reception with over one hundred guests (no kidding).

At SMA's Tuesday Market, there are a wide variety of vendors selling just about everything, including puppies and baby chicks. Here is a puppy and his ducky companion. The vendor explained that the duck and pup keep each other company.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Ethnographic commitments

Below is a photograph of the jardín in Textitlán, Guanajuato.

When you begin an ethnographic project, you go in with the understanding that you're asking people, usually complete strangers, to allow you to observe and document their lives. If you're suceessfull, you will eventually become part of their lives. When your project spans a decade, as my first book project did, you cannot simply "end" the relationships you have relied upon during the project. The relationships will change, but walking away is simply not an option. So it is with my informants in the town I've identified as Textitlán, Guanajuato, a small textile producing community some 2 hours southeast of San Miguel de Allende (SMA). When I come to Mexico, I have to visit Textitlán.

When I first arrived here in SMA, I have to admit, I was still in love with Textitlán. Although Textitlán is not a lovely place, it is a real Mexican town where people have migrated to the U.S. and then returned to invest their capital in the local garment industry. People who live here (and do not migrate) are not wealthy, but they are able to make a life on their own terms. Textitlán in itself is a hard place to love, but the people are amazing. This is a real Mexican town with all of the difficulties and joys that one might find anywhere in Mexico, except a tourist destination. The tourism industry is particularly skilled at producing images of places that often have little resemblence to everyday life of those places. These images meet the expectations and needs of the (typically American) tourists, but these image are rarely problematized by lifes inconvenient realities, like poverty and inequality. Textitlán has no venear to obscure day-to-day life of average Mexican men and women. I feel privileged to have been part of the life of Textitlán's community, even as an ethnographic observer.

Carniceros. One of the aspects of Textitlán that I love to watch is day-to-day life.
This photo was taken on August 3 as we walked through the pueblo's market.
The men bring the meat from the local slaughterhouse in trucks. They wear the
towels on their shoulders as the carry the meat directly into the market.

Starting a new ethnographic project so soon after the first is probably not the best idea. It takes time to decompress as a big project comes to an end, and taking a year or more off between projects is not uncommon. To be honest, in an ideal world I probably would not have started my project in SMA so soon after the first, but the grants came this year, so I pushed forward.

So it was not surprise that when I arrived in SMA, I wasn't "in love" with this project. I started meeting some very kind, generous expatriates, but I also met more than few who were borish and quite proud of the fact that they could live quite well as a retired person in Mexico. I wondered if I would ever be able to invest myself in this place, and the people. Then this week, after my mother and sister arrived, I took them around SMA as I did my work. The core group of informants, a really great group of friendly, welcoming people, were extremely kind to them (as they had been with me, Ken and the kids). It was during the last Gringo Happy Hour that I started to feel connected here.

Then we decided to take a few days off and visit Textitlán. Obviously, we could have done this any time since I came to Mexico, but I thought it would be a good experience to take my mom and sister along with us. For many years my informants had asked about my parents and extended family. They prayed for my father when he suddenly fell seriously ill when I was doing fieldwork in January, 2003; they wept with me when he died later that year, and they always asked how my mother was adjusting after he passed away.

So on Thurday morning we took off for Textitlán by way of Celaya. The road south is in pretty good shape and we started off making good time. When we reached Celaya we found that the city was completely torn up for major road construction. The normal route through the city is complicated because it takes you through neigbhorhoods and side roads. Now the route is nearly impossible because of detours. This is typically not such a big deal, but in Celaya there were only 2 detour signs: one that said that the detour started and then another that said the detour had ended. The expectation here is that one would be familiar with the multiple turns and roads one must take as s/he weaves their way through the city. We tried to follow traffic, but we found that about half of the people in front of us took turns in one direction or another. We also found that because the right or left turn only signs only appeared at the point where one has to turn, we were unable to change lanes to make proper turns when they were finally marked.

We were lost in Celaya for a long, long time.

When we finally got out of the city, we drove southward toward the village of Salvatierra. It's a tiny place, but there is always a rather large artisan market along the road and a fairly large crowd coming and going. Just as we were arriving in Salvatierra, there was a huge cloud burst and it rained in torrents. When we reached artisan market, the streets of Salvatierra were under water (about 18 inches deep) and for the first time we were happy that the car rental agency had forced an SUV upon us earlier in the week; all of the drivers in smaller cars were in water up to the doors and several had stalled out.

Slowly made our way through the pueblo, and then on to Textitlán. The only other obstacle was another detour. The road workers south of Salvatierra were repairing a bridge over what is typically a dry stream (now a small river). They had carved an earthen bridge to the right of the main road which dipped perilously close to the water. It was a mud path that we crossed very slowly, trying to navigate between the edge of the road and the double semi truck passing on the left.

When we finally arrived at our destination, we were exhausted and relieved. We did have a lovely quick visit in Textitlán, and did manage to meet with all of my major informants in a 36 hour period. Below are a few photos of our get-together:

My daughter with our friends' children. Can you tell which one is mine?

Out to dinner at Acuarioburger, the best burger place in North America (we fed 14 people on 300 pesos, about $28USD)

Teresa with her niece

Driving in Mexico

We learned a valuable lesson on our trip to Ciudad Guanajuato this week: don't drive. Don't even think about driving. This is a lovely city, but it was built over 400 years ago and was never intended to accomodate car travel. The city is much more accessable and enjoyable on foot.

When we returned from Guanajuato, we went straight out to Gringo Happy Hour (again). It was a profitable evening. We had a great time and I arranged interviews for the following week. I think I should be able to work in just about everyone that I want this week, and then start pulling it all together as we plan to return to the U.S. mid-August.

My son has used his time at the happy h0ur profitably, and has become quite a good billiard player. The gentleman on the right (in red) is Jim and has officially become my son's billards partner. We may have to find a pool hall when we return to the U.S.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

The Gringa in Gringolandia

Yesterday I took one of several day trips I plan to take to places that are near San Miguel de Allende (SMA) and also have American expatriate populations. We took the car an drove to Guanajuato, the capital city of the state of Guanajuato, about an hour west of SMA. I've been to Guanjuato several times. It is the home of the state's flagship university and it's an amazingly beautiful place. While I was there I met with an American couple, Doug and Cindy Bower, whom I met via an internet chatroom for Americans who live in Mexico. I'm using their real names here at their request and because they've written a travel book for Americans who want to live in Mexico. It's called The Plain Truth about Living in Mexcio, and outlines Doug and Cindy's advice for a realistic expectations for any gringo who wants to settle in Mexico.

Our interview focused on their experiences as writers/researchers in Mexico, and why they decided to settle here permanently. Their from Kansas, and decided nearly 5 years ago that they wanted something different from their lives from what the U.S. could offer. They are both young, but their past health issues lead them to believe that eventually they would need to live in a place where they could walk easily to get to the market and entertainment; they also worried that they would not be able to afford health care in the U.S.

In searching for a a place to settle, they visited the normal places Americans settle: SMA, Lake Chapala, and Ajijic. The chose Ciudad Guanajuato because there were few Americans living there and they knew it would be a place where they could get the full experience of living in Mexico. They also felt that the aforementioned communities had problems that they did not want to become embroiled in: problematic Gringo-Mexican relations and too much Gringo influence being top among them. They had visited here several times, and some of the Gringo-Mexican interactions indicated that, at least among some Americans, there is a group, perhaps a very small group, that lacks adequate respect for their Mexican neighbors. Some of the things they observed I have also heard from Mexicans in SMA myself: a Gringa woman slapped a taxi driver, another shouted down her driver because he refused to accept American dollars for his fare (a note to those of you who have never been to Mexico: the peso is the official currency and you HAVE to change your money to do business here). I wil also add here that, to date, I've never seen anything like this transpire in SMA, although I've heard enough stories from a number of Gringos and Mexicans to concur that these things do take place here.

Doug and Cindy have a different approach to living here. They believe that Americans should come here understanding that they are moving to Mexico, and they should be ready to accept life as they find it here. For instance, the growing development in Guanajuato, coupled by climate change and steadily decreasing rainfall means that water shortages are becoming more common in this part of Mexico. (Just this morning we woke up to find our househould water supply non-existent.) They are also big advocates of learning to speak Spanish, and as you can see from Doug's comments on my previous posts, there is able evidence that anyone who wants to learn Spanish can, and should. They also think it best that Americans should proper respect and deference to their Mexican hosts, regardless of their social status (this, I believe, is just common courtsey, something that demonstrates that you are a civilized person). These issues are all part of living in the developing world. If you want to living in Mexico, these are things you should be able to live with and accept.

They also said that since they have moved to Guanajuato, they've seen Americans moving in to the city and other close areas of Mexico. Guanajuato is not a city that would be easy for a retiree to live in. It is wedged into a small valley and all of the living is up and down. In many places, there is no real road to drive up to, just a long winding stairway. Walking around Guanajuato is much like climbing a ladder on some streets. The city is attracting young American families with children, however. Doug and Cindy confirmed what I've been hearing here in SMA, that younger Americans are coming here because they're disenchanted with life in the U.S. and want to raise their children with values that they believe are hard to come by in the U.S.: the importance of human relationships over the pursuit of material objects, a slower pace of live, working to live as opposed to living to work.

In addition, health care is quite affordable here, so much so that (to me at least) it seems only logical that anyone who is worried about being able to pay for their health care in the U.S. would think about living here. To join the Mexican national health insurance program, the premium is $250 USD per year, and that's for comprehensive physical, dental, and optical care. You have to pay for medications, but they are about 60% cheaper here than in the U.S. The only caveat: you have to speak Spanish. The doctor's who work in the Mexican national system will not speaking English, as a general rule.

Overall, my time with Cindy and Doug was very profitable. They've given me a broader perspective about Americans who live here, as well as the names of Mexican communities that Americas seem to be flocking to when they choose to settle here. When we finished our interview, I felt like I might one day be the Gringa in Gringolandia (gringoland).

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Family folklore, Family fieldwork

Yesterday my mother and sister arrived in San Miguel (SMA) to visit us in the field and to get a look at the work I do first-hand. My mother has never been to Mexico before, my sister has only seen the beaches of Cancun. I was excited to introduce them to some of the "real" Mexico, although I'm not entirely certain you would call SMA "real" Mexico.

Tomorrow I'm off to Guanajuato (the capital city) to do some archival research and to meet with another expat couple who wanted to avoid SMA and the American community here.

Many of my informants in SMA wonder how my mom will respond to the community here. Many of them had arrived here similarly (first time for a quick visit) and ended up moving here a few weeks later. Will my mom do the same thing? Is it possible she, too, will be swept away with San Miguel fever? Here are a few pix of her first day in Mexico:

Making it through customs. They got the green light (pase).

My sister at comida today. She ordered a HUGE molcahete.

These men are not extras for the next Zorro film, but (indeed) the SMA police. I've been told the mayor decided it would be more colorful to have them in vintage uniforms on horseback.

Meeting the vendadors. As my mom and sister don't speak Spanish, I had to help them out with negotiations. There is a simple rule of etiquette here: don't enter into negotiations unless you're serious about buying something.

The ethnography of older folks

One of the things I like best about doing ethnographic research is that it does not have to make people fit into specific research categories, you create the categories based on what you find in the field. The downside, of course, is that ethnographic research is not "generalizable" to a larger population as statistical research is. Nevertheless, you discover things about people and communities during the ethnographic process that just aren't measurable in a statistical study.

Last week I mentioned that I interviewed a woman who is 100 years old. Although she has encouraged me to use her name ("I'm 100 and I have nothing to hide," she remarked), I am going to employ the pseudonym Keziah when I write of her here. Keziah has lived in San Miguel de Allende (SMA) for 30 years with her partner of 40 years, a woman I will identify as Mary, who is now 80 years old. Keziah is a musician who taught herself how to play piano at the age of 12. She took her first student at the age of 15 and taught piano until she lost the use of her right arm three years ago. Here in SMA she taught thousands of Mexican children how to play, and her proudest accomplishment was to teach several deaf children to play well enough that they were able to perform in a concert here.

Keziah and Mary were well connected with the foundational expatriates of SMA, people like the late Sterling Dickinson (the first American to settle here). Keziah, like her peers, believes that the basis of the community here has been the ability of the American and other expatriate population to give back to SMA's native community. In the process, expatriate retirees fashioned a type of utopian vision for SMA: a close-knit group of people who for any number of reasons, did not fit well into the fabric of post-WWII society who still had much to contribute. The foundational society of SMA (and by extension, Mexico) provided a framework to establish that utopian vision: a small face-t0-face community where personal relationships were more significant that economic gain.

Certainly, part of the reason why this type of community was able to develop was related to the types of people who decided to settle here: artists, musicians, journalists and other people who one could characterize as "above average" in terms of their talents and prior successes. They were also children of the depression, which each one has mentioned was a shaping influence of their lives.

In the evolving world that is SMA, there is a split between the first generation expatriates and the newer arrivals. I had a great discussion yesterday from a woman I'll call Ester. She refused to tell me how old she is (not uncommon, but I admit, a little frustrating). From what she told me of her life, I'd guess she's between 75 and 80 years old. She was a career girl in the early 1950s and visited Mexico as part of a Greyhound tour in 1952. A year later she moved here to study painting, a year after that she married a Mexican man and over the next 13 years had five children. Unlike many in her peer group, she speaks Spanish perfectly and has better insights into the Mexican community.

Ester also owns her own business, a posada (inn) that she has managed on her own since she and her first husband divorced. Ester said that, although she had Mexican friends via her children, she said that the Mexican community in SMA is somewhat closed and "they don't necessarily want to be friends with all of these Americans." Ester has worked full-time her entire time in SMA, and she admitted that this diminished her social life with both Americans and Mexicans. She also had a strong opinions about the more recent arrivals here. She said,
You know, when I got here in 1953, we only had electricity for 24 hour cycles (i.e., on 24 hours then off 24 hours). When I hear some of these Americans complaining about how hard it is to live here, I say, 'you know you're lucky, because there is a bus that leaves here every 30 minutes, you might want to get on the next one.'
More significantly, Ester was not pleased with the changes that many Americans are bringing to SMA, and remarked, "These Americans come here to get away from America, and what do they do? They try to bring in their own ideas and change things. They're trying to re-create smallt own U.S.A. her in San Miguel."

Although several of my informants have alluded to the "recreation of the U.S." here in SMA, Ester was the first to voice is clearly. Today I spoke with a man who grew up in SMA and then returned to the U.S. for his working career, only to return after he retired in 1995. His opinions, seasoned by a very different set of experiences, will be noted tomorrow.

When we get back to the U.S., I plan to discuss how one takes ethnographic data and culls it for repeating patterns to get a feel for what is taking place in the community. Stay tuned.

Al Otro lado (To the other side)

A new documentary will air tonight on PBS, Al Otro Lado. The primary focus is the development of the Mexican corrido (ballad) in the state of Sinaloa. I won't have access to this from here in Mexico, but I would encourage each of you to see it if you can. The review linked above outlines how the corrido has been deeply tied to undocumented immigration to the U.S. for the last 30 years, and the evolution of the narcocorrido (ballads of drug runners). It promises to present a complex and sophisticated examination of the corrido and U.S.-Mexico immigration.