Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Another DR follow-up: Younger Expats

When I started working in SMA, I jokingly referred to the project as "The Old Gringos." That was before I hit the field for the first time and realize that the expat community consisted of a variety of age groups, and not necessarily all were retired.

Earlier today I received this comment about the show:

It was only mentioned in passing on the show but I was wondering if you would have any information on how many young individuals (couples) (20-40)are moving to Mexico. Is there a community in SMA, and are many people coming with young children? Do you know of any other cities (except for Gdl and D.F) which are seeing the immigration on younger peoples from the North? Are there jobs available for academics in smaller cities?
My fiance is Mexican ( I met him in Mexico 6 years ago) and we have been living in Canada for the past two years. I hold a MSc from Mcgill University in Montreal and did my research in Latin America.
I have lots of friends abroad and in Mexico but am curious to know if many couples from Canada and the US have made the move and how there children manage with such things schooling in the public school system?
(It is hard to leave family isn't it?)


This is a good question. I have not done research in other Mexican cities yet, but I know of a few places where expat immigration is common, even younger expats. The first is the city of Puebla and the nearby village of Cholula are another place (and both are among my favorite places in Mexico). Cholula is the home of the Universidad de las Americas (UDLA), a bilingual university that has a substantial number of expat faculty. If you are an academic, UDLA would be a good place to start looking for a position.

If you are thinking about making the move south, I would strongly suggest that you take an extended vacation to the place(s) you are considering first. If you and your kids speak Spanish, there are many good options available to you, especially larger cities that have more educational and job opportunities. SMA does have a good elementary school system, but parents were pretty honest about the fact that they know there are trade-offs raising kids in Mexico. They are bilingual and grow up in a supportive, friendly environment. But they will not get the same types of educational opportunities (i.e., fewer computer classes), but that is not to say that the educational opportunities are inferior. They will be different, but I have yet to meet an expat family that regrets their move to SMA.

One thing that really bothered me is the fact that you really have very little time to make a point on a program like this. I guess this is why the "sound-bite" is so essential. One thing I would have liked to discuss is how easy it is to develop friends and social networks among expats. True, it would be difficult to leave one's family and friends in the U.S., but as I've mentioned here before, many expats in SMA see their friends as pseudo-family. I cannot tell you how many times older expats have talked about the care and support they receive from others in the community. So in a way, the network can mitigate the difficulty of being away from one's extended family.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

The Diane Rehm Show follow-up

It was an interesting experience being on the Diane Rehm show this morning. I enjoyed talking with Diane, who is always an engaging and intelligent host. I was also pleased with the response to the topic--during the show there were a large volume of calls and emails about expatriate experiences. This is not surprising, considering the traffic I see with my blog.

There were a few frustrations about the level of conversation that is possible on a radio show like this, however. First, it felt like we were moving too quickly from topic to topic, so many of the issues discussed were inadequately addressed. This is not a surprise, as we only have about 40 minutes to discuss a complex topic. However, the time constraints between breaks, announcements, and introductions really limited what we could cover. Second, I came away from the program concerned that some listeners might have an incorrect picture of expatriate life and experience.

One example of this is the issue of friends. Diane was correct to inquire about leaving friends and family behind to live in another country. Caren mentioned that she was able to maintain connections to her friends in the U.S., but neither of us were able to talk about the close-knit nature of expatriate life, and how easy it often is to make friends in abroad.

Another is the nature of expat-Mexican relationships in SMA. Caren mentioned that Mexican families rarely look to the expat community for friendships, as most of their social lives are based on family and long-term friendships. I would have like to add that native San Miguel residents often consciously separate their social lives from the expat community as a means to limit U.S. cultural influence. Mexicans who move into SMA from other parts of Mexico, however, are much more likely to initiate friendships with expats in SMA. The reason for this is that both groups are newcomers to SMA, and in many cases, they are looking for the same things: to build a new life, form a community, new friends, etc.

Because I am an academic, I (obviously) prefer to communicate my research through means that allow time to develop an idea or argument. Nevertheless, it is always good to get one's ideas "out there," and the Diane Rehm show is probably one of the best venues in journalism to do this. If you were able to listen to the show and have comments, I would be interested to hear them. If you were not able to hear the show live, you can download it as a podcast at the link above.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

The Gringa Wireless

The Gringa will be appearing on the Diane Rehm show on Tuesday November 6 from 11-12 noon. I'll be talking about my research in San Miguel de Allende. For my readers in Mexico, you can listen to the show on-line if you follow the link above.

Digital Immigration Debate

For the past few weeks I've been tuning into 9500 Liberty, an "interactive" documentary filmed and produced by Annabel Park and Eric Byler about the immigration controversy in Prince William County Virginia. The film is an independent documentary, but instead of editing, cutting and otherwise shaping the film (as most filmmakers do), Park and Byler decided to post raw footage on Youtube immediately, with the hope of encouraging open debate on the issue. Linked here is one of the most frequently watched clips. I encourage you to visit the 9500 Liberty site to see more. Park and Byler have attempted to engage the complexities of the controversy, and so far, have succeeded.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Lost and Found in Mexico: U.S. screenings

Caren Cross's documentary film about expatriate life in San Miguel will be screening in several festivals this fall. I'm extremely pleased to announce that she'll be at George Mason University in Fairfax on Monday, Sept. 24, at 7:30 at the Johnson Center Cinema (admission is free). If you are in the D.C. are and have an interest in life in San Miguel, I strongly encourage you to attend.

Here is the complete film schedule for this fall:

Boston: The Boston Film Festival Sunday, September 16 at 12:00


Washington D.C/Fairfax, VA: Fall for the Book festival at George Mason
University

Monday, Sept. 24 7:30 at the Johnson Center Cinema

Philadelphia: Mexican Society of Philadelphia Friday, September 28 5:30 For reservations email tedburkett@aol.com

Atlanta: DocuFest Atlanta
Saturday, Sept 29 8:45

Birmingham, AL: Sidewalk Moving Picture Film Festival Sunday, Sept 30 1:00

New York/New Jersey area:Hope and Dreams Film Festival, Hope NJ (one hour from Manhattan: I-80, Exit 12).
Oct 6 (tentative, check schedule)

Fort Lauderdale: Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival Oct. 20 3:00


Toronto:
October 27, 28. Details TBA


Wilmington, North Carolina: Cucalorus Film Festival
November 7-10 Details TBA


Concord, N.H.
: S.N.O.B. Film Festival (Somewhere North of Boston)
November 9-11 Details TBA

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

FEMA: A visit to New Orleans




This is my first visit to New Orleans. I've long been a huge fan of Tennessee Williams, so I had often wanted to visit here, but it was never one of my first vacation priorities. Katrina changed that, along with just about everything else about New Orleans. My husband and I will celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary in a few days, so we decided that New Orleans would be a great place to get away for a few days.

In the aftermath of the hurricane, thousands of immigrants came to the city to find work in the clean-up effort. When locals decried using immigrants, many of whom were undocumented and thus being paid lower wages, the Federal Government decided to pay the recovery crews union wages. This, it was believed, would discourage employers from hiring undocumented workers.

But it did not work. As with so many instances in the debate on undocumented immigration, things are often more complicated that they first appear, or that we believe they should be. It turns out that the employers preferred the undocumented, the majority were Mexicans, and continued to hire them and then pay them higher wages.

The first night here in town Ken and I passed a t-shirt shop with a number of post-Katrina themed shirts, emblazoned with sayings like:

"FEMA Evacuation Plan: Run Bitch, Run"

and my personal favorite:

"FEMA (Find Every Mexican Available)"

I am happy to report that New Orleans is still a lovely place, and exceedingly interesting. I'm in the French Quarter and I have not seen too many Mexicans or Latinos here, but there is still plenty of charm.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Raising Kids in Mexico

One of the more frequent requests I receive is advice about raising children in Mexico. I have two children, and I have lived with them, alone and with my husband, when they were three and nine (I have twins). However, I have only lived in Mexico on a short-term basis, so what I will report here is based on interviews I have had with expats and Mexicans who have lived and raised their children in both the U.S. and Mexico.

Before I go too far into this discussion, I want to emphasize that too often Americans will compare their options in the U.S. and Mexico as if there were only two variables at work (i.e., saying something simplistic like, "Schools are better in the U.S. than in Mexico"). The truth is, in the U.S. parents and others make choices every day about the type of lives they want to lead, and each choice made means that there were other options that were not selected. For instance, I'm not thrilled about living in American suburbia: it's an isolated existence, we're car dependent in many respects, and things are too sterile and consistent for my taste. The schools are great, however, and my husband and I have made this "deal with the devil": we live in the burbs because it works well for one set of priorities (the kids). We realize we could live a much different life in my home state (West Virginia) or my husband's (Pennsylvania), particularly in a college town. To make that move, we would have to give up living close to the city and the benefits we enjoy here: museums, world-class performing arts, great restaurants and bi-lingual schools. The schools in WV are not bad, but they just cannot offer the same programs and experiences we enjoy here.

I know all of this seems obvious, but the fact that our options are limited even in the U.S. it is something that is often overlooked in these types of discussions.

What is it like to raise children in Mexico, and specifically San Miguel? It depends on the age of your children. Most everyone I know in SMA (myself included) believe that small children (younger than 12) really benefit from the Mexican family lifestyle. Children are cherished in a way that is (I believe) almost incomprehensible in the U.S. For the most part, young children are not expected to act like little adults in public, so you don't have to worry if your baby cries during a solemn church service or wedding (yes! you can bring children to weddings in Mexico) and you can take small children nearly everywhere. It is common for couples with babies and young children to take them to dances during fiesta season, for example. The children play together while the adults socialize. It is really quite charming.

Specific to the SMA Expat community: if you're a young mother, for instance, you'll find a "mommy" group, but you'll also find a large number of people of different ages who will also support your parenting endeavors. You can also expect childcare to be less expensive than in the U.S., but to be honest, it depends on where you live to make this comparison soundly. I live in suburban D.C., and the summer camps for school-age children are not less expensive in SMA than here in Fairfax. If I were in West Virginia or some areas of Pennsylvania, I expect most childcare would be significantly less expensive than SMA.

My children LOVE going to Mexico. They have more freedom there than in the U.S., and opportunities to do things that we might not be able to afford in the U.S. For instance, my daughter took private tennis lessons last summer (we have to settle for group lessons here) and I have friends in SMA who are big equestrians and their children compete in events that are largely the hobbies of the rich and famous in the U.S. Art and music classes in Mexico are generally very affordable as well.

While some activities are more accessible, others are less so. There are fewer organized sports (especially for girls), beyond soccer, so children who want to play organized baseball or basketball will not have that opportunity in SMA. The availability of sports will vary with the community in Mexico, however. Where I did my first fieldwork project in another community in Guanajuato there were baseball leagues for kids. Also, sturdy girls who really want to play can join boys. I have a good American friend in Quito, Ecuador, and his daughter plays soccer in the boys league, and she is the only girl in the city doing this (we fully expect her to receive a Division I scholarship when she returns for college). Alternatively, there are pick-up games in Parque Juarez in SMA, and there are summer sports camps available for children as well.

The big issue that concerns the parents of younger children in SMA is the educational system. As is the case in the U.S., educational options are variable from family to family. I have met parents who have been adamant that the trade off of living in a loving supportive community outweighs the lack of great schools, and that the Mexican schools are just fine and their children will study in Mexico schools through high school. Most parents agree that the primary school offerings are adequate but high school is not, and many reported concern that their children are not getting the same exposure to science education and computer literacy that is common in the U.S.

Some parents of high school age children opt to send their children to the U.S. to live with relatives during high school, to leave SMA so their children can study in the U.S. or another country, and I met one family that will be sending a child to a private boarding school in the U.S. I also interviewed one woman who explicitly stated that her now grown children did not have the same educational opportunities that they would have had if they had grown up in the U.S., and that was her one regret about raising her children in Mexico. Despite the lack of educational options, I met only one family that home-schooled their children. I was surprised by this, and still wonder why this is not a more common option for parents who are concerned about the educational system in Mexico.

The larger issue (from my perspective) is the socialization of children who are raised in the Expat community and how that experience shapes them and their future relationships. While every parent I spoke to this year and last is convinced that the experience of growing up in Mexico is a good thing for their kids, my interviews with the grown children of expats have not demonstrated that the experiences were unequivocally positive. Keep in mind that I have only interviewed grown children who still live in SMA--I have not had access to adults who were raised in SMA but now live in the U.S. Of the group that remains in SMA (and it is small), it is significant that these children of expats have decided to remain in SMA and report being happy there. A few also had regrets: living far from extended families was not a big problem growing up, but later in life (after parents passed away) it made life much more isolated than it might have been. Some grown expat children also reported feeling alienated or out of place in the U.S. and in San Miguel. For the most part, adult children of expats seemed to feel most at home in San Miguel when their own parents were more integrated into the community.

What is not clear is how "bi-cultural" expat children are or will be. By this I mean it is not clear if children raised in San Miguel are truly able to easily work and adapt to life in both the U.S. and Mexico. Clearly, the adult expat children raised in SMA were functioning well in SMA, but as I have noted previously on this blog, SMA is certainly not typical of life in Mexico. The young parents who are currently raising their children in Mexico believe that there is an inherent benefit to being completely bilingual (and I concur), but it is not clear that children or their adult parents are (regardless of their language abilities) are bi-cultural. I mention this only because many people in the U.S. write to me indicating that they want to move to SMA for a Mexican cultural experience. While SMA is part of Mexico, the local culture is not so much Mexican as a Mexican-Expat hybrid. It's not Mexican, it's not U.S. (or Canadian, or foreign), but a combination of the several cultural traditions that is in itself a distinct culture. That is (from my academic perspective) fascinating, but living in SMA does not mean that a foreigner who enjoys SMA could expect to live comfortably or successfully in other parts of Mexico or Latin America.

There are other concerns about raising children in Mexico that were not raised by my informants, but I have observed watching Mexican immigrant families in the U.S. One is freedom: kids in Mexico have a lot of it. This works well because families tend to be well connected and even if your mother is not watching your every move, you can bet that one of her friends (or a friend of your grandmother, aunts, uncles or cousins) will be watching and report straight back to your folks if you do something you should not. Mexican families in the U.S. are often shocked at the behavior of their teen-age children who do what they want shamelessly (sin vergüenzados). It takes a while for Mexican parents in the U.S. to figure out that without the vigilance of friends and family, their child rearing techniques do not work very well in the U.S. It seems unlikely that expat families have the same connections and "village" experience raising their children, as most Americans are not deeply connected to native San Miguelenses. The expat community is very close, however, so it could be that people watch out for neighborhood children in a similar way that Mexican families do. I simply cannot say definitely that they do.

My advice for anyone considering moving their family to SMA: you have to consider why you want to move and what you expect to gain for your life there. Like any community in the U.S., there will be benefits and limitations to living in Mexico. There are other locations in Mexico that I would choose over San Miguel to raise my own children, but that is related to the fact that the children and I already speak Spanish and living among Mexicans would be a top priority for our family. That is not a criticism of SMA; its a personal preference. What you have to remember is that what SMA has to offer is a strong, supportive community which is worth a great deal, especially in today's world.

Monday, July 09, 2007

The return of the Gringa

It's been a while, I know. After my return from SMA in June, I realized I was complete fried and needed a break from just about everything. My family and I went to the beach, then we started moving into a recently acquired cabin situated in a remote location in the West Virginia mountains.

We were there over the July 4th weekend, cleaning things out and setting up furniture, and we finally had the telephone installed (the only technology I'll allow in the cabin--there will be no Internet or satellite TV). On Saturday evening the phone rang, and I was startled to hear Lucille (a fascinating woman I recently met in San Miguel) on the other end. It turns out Lucille is visiting her son who lives in a similarly remote location in Pennsylvania, and she decided to look me up. How she found me (recall we just moved in) is another story, but her call made me realize that I could remain in a persistent mental vegetative state for many weeks before I actually start to feel ready to work again, so why not start now?

To be honest, the only reason I can think of is that I still feel like being lazy, but that sounds pretty lame. I think part of the problem has been having too much material to process, but that will not happen unless I get started.

So looks like I'm back in business. More soon...

Monday, June 25, 2007

Blog Burnout

I just realized that I've been home from Mexico for over two weeks, and I've been loathe to even turn on my computer, let along blog about all of the interesting people I met in San Miguel, and my impressions on the emerging expat community there. There's also been a flurry of discussion about immigration reform during the last three weeks, which I would normally be eager to discuss.

Unfortunately, I think I'm going to have to take a blog vacation for another week or two. I did the equivalent of three months of work in SMA in May and June, which began immediately after my spring semester ended. So I need a break. I'll be back before long, and look forward to hearing from you, too.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Luto for Louise McGann

I am very sad to report that Louise McGann, a good friend and long-term resident of SMA, passed away on June 10, 2007. She and I had lunch together about 10 days before she passed, and she was, as always, vibrant and talkative, and as she did last year, expressed her contentment with her life in San Miguel.

I will miss her wisdom and insights into her beloved community. My deepest condolences to her friends and family.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Making a Living in San Miguel

I'm back in the States now, having had an extremely productive research trip. My research assistant, Jalal, served as a type of "pace car" and kept me moving throughout the three and a half weeks. Together we completed 127 oral history interviews, which is truly amazing.

Every research trip (for me, at least) tends to focus on a particular topic. Last year I interviewed mainly longer term expats. Those interviewees were able to give me a longer-term vision of the SMA expat community, but also revealed aspects of the population that I would not have expected: younger working expats, some married and raising kids, others who were making a go at living in Mexico.

For the next few days, I'm going to be blogging about expat work in SMA. Most of the people I interviewed had businesses, and therefore are willing to be identified (or their businesses identified) on this blog.

I"m still decompressing from my return trip: I was overjoyed to to see my family, but I was not happy to have to take the wheel of my minivan again (alas, this is the suburbs). I will be processing much of the materials Jalal and I collected, and reporting some of those findings here. I was amazed and impressed with what I discovered this summer. I think you will be as well.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Roll on, Immigration Reform

Only in Washington. It appears that the backers of the most recent Senate immigration reform bill are optimistic that they'll see passage this week, but not because the bill is a stellar piece of legislation, according to today's Washington Post. No, the bill, all admit, is deeply flawed. "The bill's authors, as well as advocates of comprehensive immigration legislation, have been arguing that flawed as it is, the measure must go forward legislatively and eventually it will be fixed." Let's hope so.

More provocatively, a parallel article by Shankar Vedantam explores the nature of human behavior with unenforceable laws. His examples include a variety of laws: those prohibiting recreational drug use (mainly by middle-class Americans), draft dodgers from the Vietnam era, and highway speed limits. Included here are our very own immigration laws, which are written more to salve our need to believe we're doing something to regulate immigration, when in fact the U.S. has very little will to limit access undocumented labor.

In the midst of unachievable legislation, Vedantam reports that "amnesties are born,"

For ...Douglas Husak and Lawrence Solum, the elephant in the room is that the existing immigration law that underlies the debate has no connection with reality.

Husak and Solum, legal theorists and philosophers, argue that laws on immigration are part of a broad pattern. In recent decades, they say, Congress has passed innumerable laws that no one seriously expects will be enforced. Such laws largely seem to serve symbolic purposes and are often designed to placate some powerful constituency -- conservatives in the case of immigration, or the entertainment industry in the case of laws that seek to deter people from swapping copyrighted music and movies.

So, there you have it. Even if the immigration reform proposal eventually becomes law, no one should expect it will make a significant decrease in immigration, undocumented or not.

The reform will make a difference, make no mistake, but if the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA) is any indication, the unintended consequences are the differences that should be of concern for most residents of the U.S.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Drivin' your life away?

It appears that the Washington Post has decided to do a series of features on the suburban lifestyle. This article from the Post Magazine features two families with long, long commutes. It is a common trade-off that many make: pick the place you want to live, but it is rarely the place you'll find a job. As a result, the article notes that more and more Americans are drive 60 minutes to work each way. The families featured here average 2-3 hours one way.

Obviously, people make choices about where they live and work. I live in the 'burbs, not my first or second choice, but I am also less than a mile from my campus and my husband is less than 2 miles away from the commuter train. Neither of us enjoys driving, so we traded a hip location over family dinners and coaching our kids' sports teams. Life isn't always pretty, but at least we have a life.

What the article also points out is that some of the long-distance commuters are choosing to commute so they can have larger homes and property, or live outside the metro area. Both are worthy goals, but what point is it to have a house if you never live in it?

Here in San Miguel, about 90% of the expats I've interviewed have told me one of their criteria in picking an ideal place to live is that they did not want to drive at all. Many here have sold their cars and walk and bus everywhere. If this article is any indication of what the driving life is like, it's easy to see how driving itself can become the bane of modern existence.

Immigration Reform and Employer Accountability

Now that the new Immigration Reform Bill has been on the table for a few weeks, the press is starting to report about the official positions of many special interest groups. This article from today's Washington Post is quite telling, and begs for an analysis.

Regular readers know that I am not a fan of increased border "security." Why? Over the last 30 years the U.S.-Mexico border has become increasingly guarded, and you can see what effects it has had on curtailing undocumented immigration. I think people who advocate for walls or a hermetically sealed frontera are hopelessly naive or delusional. It is physically impossible to effectively fence a 2000 mile border. Border enforcement is expensive and ineffective. Border security (especially calls for a wall) also highlight the U.S.'s xenophobic tendencies, which is not good.

However, I am an advocate of policing employer hiring practices because that is a border we can effectively police. Once employers learn that they will finally be accountable for breaking immigration laws, I believe the border issue will become irrelevant. As I've stated before, undocumented workers do not come to the U.S. to lounge around. They come to work. If they know that their chances of being hired after the get here are exceedingly unlikely, they will be more likely to either 1) stay home or 2) seek a legal means of working in the U.S. Thus, that long walk through the Arizona desert will not seem worth the risk if there is little or no chance of employment on the other end.

What of our fellow citizens in the business world? Certainly they want to work toward a solution here. Apparently not.

It seems that employers are already howling because
Among employers' top concerns is a provision imposing criminal liability for employers if their subcontractors hire illegal workers. The legislation would also increase civil penalties for employers caught hiring illegal workers.

The maximum criminal penalty for a pattern of hiring illegal workers would increase to $75,000 per illegal worker from $3,000.

Under the bill, a business might have to vet the employment files of its subcontractors, which lawyers said would be an onerous task.


Why would honest employers be worried increase criminal penalties and looking into the files of their subcontractors? That would be because the dirty secret of undocumented immigration is that subcontracting has been the preferred loophole of employers who really want to hire the undocumented but do not want to be implicated in the process. There are many problems with this immigration bill, but increasing employer sanctions is not among them. Unfortunately, business owners are a powerful lobby, and as in the past, it is likely that these increased sanctions will be whittled away until the amount to no more than a wrist slap.

I despise the anti-immigration folks who go after immigrants like they were the pariah of the U.S. Of course, the undocumented are, and always have been, easy targets. My hope is that those who oppose the undocumented will wake up and go after the real perpetrators here: the employers who thrive on undocumented labor. Despite my hopes, I doubt it will happen, however, because I suspect that employers themselves feed the fires of xenophobia, or at least allow them to smolder, that ultimately blame immigrants for a problem that they (employers) have perpetuated for decades.

It is very convenient to have people looking the other way when you benefit from breaking the law.

Non-expats Breaking Free of the Suburban Lifestyle

"It's the decision you make every day: How do you actually spend your time?"

The Sunday Washington Post ran this article about suburbanites who, like many of the younger expats I've met here in SMA, seen a need to change their lives and the pressure to continue the quest for the perfect house, job, body and family. And according to the article, many of them are actually successfully changing their lives in the suburbs.

On Friday I had two great interviews with exceptional women. In on conversation we discussed what expatriate emigration might mean for the U.S. Expats are, and probably always will be, a relatively small percentage of the overall population, but they represent a perspective for change. What if the expats decided to stay in the U.S. and change their communities? What type of influence might they have there?

Realistically, I know that when you're coming up against the forces of capitalism, you're always going to be swimming upstream. Nevertheless, this article seems to suggest that dissatisfaction with U.S. consumer culture is not just an expat issue, it's an national issue. American life does not have to be an endless treadmill of errands and activies.

Friday, June 01, 2007

It's your life; It's your choice


Over the last few days I've been talking with many expats about their lives here. Many (both young and older) of those whom I talked to were deeply dissatisfied with their lives in the U.S. Life in the U.S. is problematic, they told me, because there is too much pressure to do too much. Much of what they told mere were what I consider to be cliches of American life: we work too hard, we play too little, we don't spend enough time on relationships, we're engrossed in consumer culture. In short, we exist to do more, earn more, and buy more, but in the end we forget to do one simple thing: live and enjoy life, and perhaps the fruits of our labor.

I have to admit, I come away from some of these interviews skeptical of what I've been told. After all, if one does not like their life in the U.S., can they not change? Is capitalism so all-powerful that once you enter the U.S. your personality is sucked away by the desire to look like the magazine model, buy the right clothes, and earn more than your neighbor? I know that my own life is not like this. I am an academic, and as a group college professors are not known for selecting their profession so they can be wealthy. Many of us are happy just to pay the rent and drive a functioning car. At the same time, I know that I am vain. I care about what clothes I wear, I always do my hair and wear make-up. I even shave my legs.

But I do not shop. I can't even remember the last time I went into a mall. I guess it must have been at Christmas, but I can't remember which one, or even if I bought something when I went there.

This is a strange combination (vanity and not shopping), I know. The fact is this: my mother loves to shop; it's her only hobby. She buys most of my clothes, and over the years she has gotten pretty good at picking things that are both stylish and fit well. What she doesn't find, my sister (who also loves to shop) usually buys. My husband used to work in an office over a Lord and Taylor in Philadelphia, and he also used to buy many of my clothes, although he doesn't shop much himself any more.

Now that we have that on the table, I'd like to go back to my original point: the fact that one can be successful and fulfilled without being sucked up into American consumer culture. I'll admit it's not easy. You have to believe that there are more important things in life than your stuff. You also have to be able to set aside your pride and be content to know that many others, and in D.C. this is just about anyone you meet, is going to have a better yard, a more up-to-date kitchen, hipper clothes, (and in my case) a much better, and cleaner, car.

Nevertheless, the expats here have tapped into something real about U.S. life and experience, which is highlighted in today's Washington Post. Introducing the "Certified Family Manager Coach," that wonderful person whom you can pay some $200 to help you better manage your life. Time is precious, and these folks can get you back on track with family organisation so you can get organized and really do it all. Really. What is the point of having a family manager?
The point here is that the job of family manager is a valuable executive-level position, and we need to get over any preconceived Stepford-wife notion about what it means to oversee the goings-on of a home and family," Peel said. "The makeover service helps people figure out what needs to be done first" in seven areas: home and property, food and meals, family and friends, money and finances, time and scheduling, self-management, and special events.

Yes, these certified professionals make mommyhood an executive level position. Good buy to Donna Reed, hello CEO Mom.

That sounds like a major improvementt. It's almost enough to send me packing my bags and moving to the developing world. Don't get me wrong, I've lived enough of my life in Mexico, and not only cushy spots like San Miguel, but real Mexico, that I do see the virtues of the simple life. Having a smaller house, for instance, and less junk to clutter it, are both aspects of life that I've grown to appreciate in Textitlán. I also love smaller scale living, walking to school and work, and talking to your neighbors. Again, all things that are much more common here than in the U.S.

It's safe to assume that, based on this article at least, folks in the U.S. do not need life coaching so much as they need a kick in the pants. For instance, the article informs us that a suburban Virginia homemaker "sought help because her life was "spinning out of control." With two young children, two dogs, a 4,500-square-foot house and a working husband, she said, 'I was just struggling to get a nutritious meal on the table, make sure the house was not a pigsty, spend more time with the kids, wash my face, take a shower.'"

It seems obvious here that U.S. families should reconsider a houses that are much too big to take care of, and ridiculously huge for a family of four. You could also streamline the other things in the house (maybe one dog is enough for most young families, or none at all). A good rule of thumb is don't take on more responsibilities than you can manage yourself, and if you think you need to hire a family management coach, it's time to cut back (and I just saved you $200).

What about the simple life here in Mexico? Personally, I've never felt overly romantic about life here. I love Mexicans and how they find everyday ways to remember and celebrate that life is indeed a gift. Yet when I lived with my host families in Textitlán, life was far from simple. It was based in the home around the family, but these people worked from the time the woke up until they went to bed at night. Yes, there were down times during each day, but Don Benjamin, the patriarch of the family that I spent most of my time with, often told me, "Debra, here if you want to eat every day, you work every day." Life is simpler in that most Mexicans have fewer choices. Buying something extravagant, like a new television, is a rare occurrence. Money is spent wisely and cautiously. When the family needs something expensive, such as to buy or repair their house, there is always el Norte. Trust me, there is nothing simple about immigrating to the U.S. without documentation and leaving your family and friends behind to take on a dangerous and precarious future.

Some expats, on the other hand, do live very simple lives here. It is possible to live on social security, although I think one would need to have a modest savings to live in current-day San Miguel. I have seen some lovely expat apartments and casitas that embrace a life well lived, but on a much smaller scale. More typical, however, are the larger homes owned by U.S. and other foreign expats. I've seen some absolutely amazing residences here, and most are on par with U.S. house sizes. Some people have (apparently) few possessions, others have many. In most instances, expat living is not so much scaling back as it is expanding. Life is simpler here because instead of family management coaches, most everyone can afford a full or part-time maid and gardener, and sometimes a cook and a nanny. Honestly, most everyone I know would have to agree that U.S. life would be much simpler and laid back if we could count on hired help to do these everyday chores.

Or maybe not. It's probably just as likely that folks in the U.S. would work harder, try to do more and fail to relax and enjoy life even if they didn't have to do it all.

Life in the U.S., for some people at least, is completely nuts, and I do not think that family management coaches, or any time management specialist for that matter, can really squeeze more time out of an overburdened schedule. Who wants to be that efficient at home, for heavens sake? But expat life here in Mexico is not necessarily inherently less complex. It is better supported, certainly, and I assure you, that does make a world of difference.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Expat Family Values

I've been thinking a lot about families, well, really only my own family. When I was about 10 days into this project, I started to get really homesick. Like cry myself to sleep at night homesick. Somehow when I planned this field trip, I failed to calculate how long I would be away versus how long I had been away during past research trips to Mexico. When I sat down and thought about it, it has been years since I was away for longer than 2 weeks by myself. Last year, I came with my husband and kids, and it was great. I was more stressed and tired than they were, but after all, I was working the entire time we were here.

The funny thing about working here in SMA is that most of the expats here have left their extended families behind. The couples who have grown children often tell me that they felt free to come here because their kids were grown and on their own. The young marrieds have told me that they never saw their extended families more than two to three times a year anyway, so Mexico hasn't changed much in that regard. When I asked one gentleman who has been here for over 50 years what it was like raising his daughter in Mexico and far away from his parents and siblings simply said, "you know, it was wonderful."

Last year one of my first informants, a woman I identified as "Julia," told me that in general, expats of her generation either had no extended families or were not on good terms with their extended families. This morning as I was eating breakfast in the Bagel Cafe, the local expat haunt, one gentleman explained, "Normally, as you get older, your friends become less important and your family more so. But for expats, it's the opposite. Our friends become like our family, and family relationships often become more distant."

The irony (for me) is that many of the expats that I interview say that they really admire Mexican family values, and the ways that multi-generation households stay together and maintain close ties, sometimes knowing third or fourth cousins, great uncles and aunts, and so on. I find this ironic in that expats admire what they themselves do not have (or perhaps do not want). At the same time, what anthropologists would call "fictive kinship," strong relationships and obligations between non-blood relatives which are often formalized through ritual practice, seem to take on greater significance in the expat community.

My first response to this is "to each his/her own." Family dynamics can be tricky at best, and downright destructive at worst. And there is a certain joy that I experience when I know I have a really good, reliable friend. I can only imagine that having an entire community of such friends would be extremely satisfying. Still, I cannot imagine living so far from my mother, sister, or someday, my kids. I know the globalizing world seems to dictate that people move farther and farther from their hometowns or homelands. Maybe tonight I'm exceptionally sentimental because, alas, I would like nothing better than to kiss my kids goodnight and sleep next to my husband, or maybe I'm feeling some of the emotion that accompanies living abroad.

If there is any aspect of the expat life that I think should (and could) be emulated in the U.S., it would be the ways that this group has mastered the art of friendship, and made a lifework of making friends and supporting one another. You should not have to leave your homeland to find this, but it seems being an expat and being a good friend go hand in hand.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Maybe I get it, maybe I don't

The problem with doing any type of fieldwork is "getting it." The idea of ethnography is to get inside the heads of one's field consultants, to try to see the world as they see it and then communicate that to a broader (usually academic) audience.

My fieldwork here in San Miguel is unique in several instances. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries when folklorists and anthropologists where heading out into the fields to do ethnographic work, they were more likely to live longer periods with their subject populations, although not necessarily alongside them, and those populations were more likely to be less complex societies. Small villages of less than 1000, but very often communities of 200-300. In those cases, ethnographers were able to know just about everyone in the community, perhaps interview them several times. In contrast, when I did my work in Textitlán, it was then a small town of 48,000, so I decided to settle into one neighborhood and do my work there. Still, there were 1400 houses in that colonia when I first started, about 6000-8000 people total. In that instance, I did a random sample survey for general questions of immigration, and oral histories with a "snowball" sample that followed social networks for more detailed and nuanced opinions.

As times have changed so has fieldwork. People move around a lot today, even in (or perhaps especially in) rural communities, and funding for year-long or longer fieldwork abroad is not as available as it once was. I'm also not a grad student any more, and I have teaching and administrative responsibilities at my university. So this study is not a conventional ethnography--yes, I'm living here as many expats do, but my experience is somewhat disjointed because I am here for short periods (more on that in a moment) and I am focusing on oral history as a primary source of data collection. This is a perfectly acceptable way to do this type of work, but it will, of course yield very different results. In some ways, I think this method will gather a much more diverse set of opinions and record different experiences. I am talking to people of all ages, income levels, sexual preferences, political persuasions. On the other hand, it may be possible that my interpretations, which will not be tempered by watching the same small group of people over a many year period, may be incorrect.

How to deal with this? As I wrote last year, sometimes during an oral history interview, you get encounter people who are completely nuts. Most of the time they're harmless; most often they just waste your time. The decision on whether or not to include the ravings of an extremely angry or agitated person rests with the researcher. Typically, I listen to the stories people tell me. I ask around with others in the community to confirm what I've been told, and I look at available public records to confirm sequences and timing of particularly salient events that are live on (or sometimes take on a life of their own) in the oral tradition.

One of the issues I've been struggling with since I began this project was one common expat narrative which I have, for now, called the "narrative of the authentic self." I blogged about this last week. I had a few emails and one insightful comment from Jennifer, but to be honest, none of what I received really explained what people here have been telling me. I agree with Jennifer, that moving from one place to another can be a way to "get one's groove back," but I have never really bought that reasoning. Sure, you get shaken up when you go to a new place, but I've moved quite a bit as an adult, and I've never found that to be the case. This was certainly not my experience living in Mexico--ever. If anything, I felt constricted by that traditional role of mujer decente (decent woman). I've always believed that the self is the self, no matter where it goes. Sure, and change of scenery can open you to new perspectives and regenerate you, but find your "real" self? I'm sorry, but that's the girl sitting wearing my clothes and sitting in my chair.

Last weekend I had a three outstanding interviews. They are the types of interactions that help to answer questions, sometimes questions I did not even know I was asking. The first was about the nature of the authentic self. I interviewed a woman who, like many of the 50-ish women I've met here, felt that she was more free to be herself in San Miguel. She was very intelligent, extremely self-assured. In short, what I would refer to as a strong woman. "How can it be," I asked her, "that a strong competent woman cannot be her true self in the U.S.?"

It was during that conversation that the woman I'll refer to as "Clark" (because she prefers to be addressed by her surname) commented, "The way I explain it is when I'm in the U.S., I feel like my life is compressed." As we continued to talk about this, I asked her, "would it be correct to say that in the U.S. we've created a world where we have thousands of choices, or at least we believe that we have thousands of choices, but we all somehow restrict ourselves to very narrow paths, so that we all end up on the same road, more or less, and we may not be very happy with our choices, but we're afraid to make other choices?" Clark told me that was brilliantly stated, and yes, that was what she was referring to when she talked about compression.

Bingo.

I think, at last, that I'm beginning to see what people mean here when they talk about the authentic self. The self is still the self, but in the midst of expat culture, the "mainstream" road, or perhaps the treadmill, that so many U.S. residents are on, does not exist here. It cannot. The society is different, the choices are different, and that makes a new context for the self. My guess (and I may be horrendously wrong here) is that there is another path in place for the expats, but because it is different and non-"American" (U.S.) it feels more like freedom. It could take years before i figure that out--if I ever do.

I really love San Miguel. This is not my magical place (in the U.S. that would be a tie between my home state of West Virginia, particularly Morgan and Monongalia Counties, and the city of Philadelphia; in Mexico that will always be Textitlán). I do not think that I'm more authentic when I'm in either place, but I connect with my surroundings there in a way that I do not most everywhere else. San Miguel, however, is incredibly pleasant, and a wonderful place to work.

It is not an easy place to figure out, but that is why these projects take years.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Borderline Insanity

Earlier this year, Luis Urrea published an outstanding book, The Devils Highway. It is a non-fiction account of immigrants who cross into the Arizona desert, deserted by their "coyotes" or paid border crossing escorts, and left to die in a tragic landscape en route to what they had hoped would be a better life. It's a moving narrative, one of many of the non-fiction migrant narratives that has become popular enough to warrant it's own genre.

Urrea employs his talents in today's Washington Post Op-Ed section. He examines the folly of immigration reform for a nation that really does not have the will to address this problem.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Life in the Bubble

Last week I did, I don't know, nearly 20 interviews. I talked to expats, I talked to children of expats who grew up here in SMA. I talked to Mexicans from SMA and from afuera-=usually Mexico City or other parts of the republic. One thing came through from most everyone I talked to: many expats live in a self-imposed bubble. Yes, they're living in Mexico, but it's Mexico as a concept, not as a reality.

What do I mean?

Well, if you've lived anywhere in Mexico, particularly here in Western Mexico, you know that life runs a particular way. This is the most conservative region in the nation, sometimes referred to as the "Mexican Bible Belt." It is populated by the PAN, the former Church party, and devout Catholics are common. I could go on and on about expectations for women and their behavior, but I'll spare you that (I'm sure you could figure that out for yourself). Economically, most Mexicans have to live cautiously. They know that water is in short supply, so they use it sparingly. Electricity and phone service is expensive, so they are also conserved or used with caution. Their houses are often comfortable, but not luxurious. They are constructed of poured concrete and rebar, iron doors and gates, and bars on their windows. They have dirt, cement, or if they can afford it, tiled floors. Washing machines are luxuries that few Mexicans will ever know. Most Mexican women wash their clothes by hand, or if they have washers they will be the old fashioned ringer washers, because they use much less water. Probably most importantly, Mexicans speak Spanish.

I could go on, and I do go into great detail in my forthcoming book, Beyond the Borderlands about the ways typical Mexican in Guanajuato live. For the purpose of this conversation, however, I'll stop here, because I know that you know that this is not how most expats live here in SMA. Many Mexicans, including some of the children of former expats who are now Mexican residents of SMA, have told me "the gringos here live in a bubble," and this is what they mean. Expats, particularly recently arrived U.S. expats, are not "living in Mexico," but is a micro environment where they have imported their lifestyles to Mexico. They have the same amenities here that they would have in the U.S., including gating communities, pools, large bathtubs, and so on, and live within Mexico the concept, not the reality. This, of course, is not true of all expats, even the newly arrived. It seems that the younger expats, those in their 30s and 40s, are learning Spanish as a rule, not an exception.

Nevertheless, the "bubble" trend is a concern for many in the Mexican community here. While they understand, for instance, living in Mexico so that you can teach your kids about another culture, they think that is best accomplished by actually living in that culture, as the "natives" would do.

I met a man in an art gallery yesterday. He had been here for decades, and when I explained my research project, he gave me a strange, but knowing smile. I asked him what he was thinking, and he said, "You know, the older expats came here and purposefully tried to have no impact on this community. They wanted to blend in. It's only recently that you could even consider how expats influence local culture here."

That, of course, is a bit of an overstatement. Expats, whether they intend to or not, have always changed this community, even if those changes were minor. They did try to blend in, however, and live as the San Miguelenses did. Apparently, it is a recent, and some say growing, phenomenon to have expats transport their American lives and conveniences with them to SMA, and many here wonder what the long-term effects of this will bring.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Immigration and Cultural Change

Cultural change is something we folklorists think about a great deal. My colleague Kristina Downs wrote a thoughtful post on "Community Folklore in Changing Communities" that considers the issue: What traditions do you celebrate when your community members have left, only to be replaced with newer residents who do not have any links to those traditions?

If the op-ed writers of the nation's major newspapers are any indication, white America is experiencing significant angst about immigration and cultural change. They fear that the white Protestant way of life will be usurped by the "hoards" of Latinos who (gasp, shudder) may be amnestied if the new immigration reform bill becomes law. The irony here, as I see it, is that white America rarely sees the tragedy when they are the usurpers. What about all of those ethnic or African American neighborhoods that disappear was communities gentrify? Where is the moral outrage when historically black neighborhoods become the latest hip locales?

Here in San Miguel, I've uncovered something unusual: Mexicans do not seem to be overly concerned with the cultural changes that are part of the expat immigration here. My assistant and I have completed nearly 60 oral history interviews, and while foreign expats are concerned that their presence may make SMA less Mexican in the long run, Mexicans to not see this as a problem? Why? That part is not as easy to tease out. Sifting through the data, and this is very preliminary, there are few instances of Mexican-expat friendship and fellowship. In fact, when expats here have Mexican friends, they are more likely to be internal migrants from Mexico City or other parts of Mexico, but not San Miguel.

What I believe is going on here (and I will work to try to confirm over the course of the project) is that SMA natives are much more like their cohort in greater Western Mexico: they are family oriented, Catholic, and personally and politically conservative. They do not have much interest in the liberal lifestyles and politics of their new neighborhoods, so they live their lives, try to benefit from the booming economy, and in general, resist the cultural encroachments that come with immigration.

The Mexican Republic helps with this cultural maintenance, no doubt. There are federal laws which prohibit foreign residents from becoming involved in local politics. That means it is illegal for a foreign resident to participate in a protest, to express opinions against the government, and so on. I know that many of my gringo readers, recalling the mass protests in the U.S. a year ago, might call "Foul!" at this. Go ahead, but remember that Mexico historically has had significant problems with foreign interference. They do not mind expats living in their country, but this is a not so subtle reminder that it is, indeed, their country.

The article I've linked from today's Washington Post discusses the American fear of Latinos as a pathology--"they're not that different from us," the author implores, and he's right, to a point. The problem that is not address here, and rarely discussed in the U.S. is that our society is and has been fairly fluid. We're a trendy nation, and because we do not have 500+ years of tradition to burden and maintain our way of life, we are more likely to succumb to different cultural influences. It's they way we live in the U.S. Rarely have we seen many of those changes as negative. Yes, we lament that our lives are too busy, but then continue to schedule our six year-olds in four different activities. We pine nostalgically for "home town America," yet never make time to talk to our neighbors in suburbia. We make these choices, folks. We can make others.

At the same time, I think we need to find a constructive way to talk about cultural loss in the U.S. Somehow we've allowed the polarized voices on the right and the left hijack civil discourse about issues that are important to us. Why would it be wrong to feel sad that the little community you grew up in is now gone, and populated with a new group of people who have no connection to that part of your life? If you value something, you should miss it when it disappears or changes.

The discussion I would love to have would ask, "if it was really important to you, that neighborhood or community, why did you let it go?" Native-born Mexicans in San Miguel have decided to hold on to what is important to them. That's something to think about.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Want the truth? Ask a pedicurist.


Today I had a much needed pedicure. Normally I'm prepared for this--I always bring my foot saving equipment with me to Mexico, as the streets, dust and walking 5-8 miles a day leaves your feet looking less than desirable. In fact, they look awful--the dirt sifts through your sandals and grinds into your heels so that they simply don't come clean. This morning my feet looked like I had walked through a coal field. I forgot my pedicure tools too boot, so I had to find someone to do this for me.

My friend Caren referred me to her pedicurist, a lovely young woman I'll call Isabel, who distinguishes herself by coming to your house for manicures and pedicures. She also charges $140 pesos, about $14 USD. Isabel has a new baby and is married to a man from the state of Mexico. She grew up here, and her parents still own their home in Centro, and she tells me, have no plans to sell.

While she worked, I asked her about her life here. She said that it's not easy being a Mexican making a living in San Miguel. Yes, she conceded, that there is more employment here, but most gringos insist that their maids and pedicurists speak English (she doesn't). She said that she also gets lots of complaints that she charges "U.S. prices" for her work--which is completely absurd--unless you're willing to risk getting nail services as a cheap nail salon. You typically get more than a pedicure at these places--like fungal infections--but I've never known of a nail salon from New York to West Virginia or D.C. to charge less than $25 (the nail fungus is free).

In addition, Isabel said that she and her husband have a hard time making ends meet, although they both work long hours. Her work, admittedly, is more inconsistent, and on a good day she'll have three appointments. There are weeks, however, where she has only one appointment. Her husband works here in construction and makes $1500 pesos a week, about $150 USD. To earn this sum he works 10-12 hours per day.

The problem with the expat immigration, according to Isabel, is that salaries for Mexicans in service positions have not kept pace with the cost of living in other aspects of day-to-day life. She said that, by and large, the gringo community is polite to Mexican workers, and they co-exist peacefully. That doesn't make the economic reality of her life any easier, however. She pays the same prices for food, utilities and transportation as the expats, which is a bargain for us, but not for her. She said, "My husband was en el Norte for two years, saving money so we could buy our house. Sometimes he talks about going back, so we can have more here, but I don't want him to go. Before we weren't married, now we have a baby. It's not good for family life when fathers work in the North."

For her sake, I hope he doesn't have to go.

Mexicats


Just a brief note: if I were to live here, I would never own a cat. It's not that I don't like cats: I am owned by the world's best cat: Black Bart. I love him; he lives in my house, and is pictured here with his dog, Jackie Brown.

This morning, however, I found an enormous lizard in my kitchen. It was no less than eight inches long, and completely dead with it's guts torn out and back legs torn off. It looked like a baby alligator. I put it out in the garden, hoping a bird of prey would find it for breakfast. No such luck. As soon as I returned to the house this afternoon, Sushi the cat found it and brought it to my temporary office. I know she meant well, but yuk.

Making a living in SMA



As I mentioned over the weekend, most of this week I will be interviewing younger expats in SMA. Most of these folks are 28-50 year olds who have been here for five or more years and are attempting to make their lives work and live full time in Mexico. What does that mean? From what I can gather, betting your financial future on a niche economy that can support a clever expat and allow him or her to live quite well, and in a manner that will secure one's future.



There are many ways to do this. I've met young families where the father works full- time in the U.S. while mom and kids live full-time in Mexico and get regular (every 6-8 weeks) visits from dad (and from what I can tell, the marriages in these cases appear to be functioning). I've met young entrepreneurs who moved their seasonal businesses to Mexico to take advantage of the tourist industry and cache of San Miguel's international reputation. I've also met children of expats who grew up here and either are literally Mexican citizens or their hearts are Mexican.



In each of these chases, these young expats believe that SMA is the best place they can live their lives and raise their families. They want to give their kids a meaningful life that is based on relationships and a community rather than materialism and competition. They also are walking away from a U.S. culture that they believe has become too focused on doing (commuting, working, and living a life based on being status-conscious) rather than finding your purpose in life and then simply enjoying it.

Although I have not been investigating expat incomes, it's obvious who is struggling and who is doing well.

For the record, it is possible to make a living, and probably a pretty good one, living in SMA. For instance, Carly Cross runs Mex*Art, a summer institute for teens to study art, dance and Spanish in a highly supervised summer camp. Carly owns a great property not too far from the jardín. Her house sits in the midst of a large walled property surrounded by seven charming casitas that house campers in June and July. During the off season, she rents the casitas as efficiency apartments to SMA visitors. In this case, Ms. Cross took her U.S.-based job as a coordinator of a fine arts camp in the U.S. directly to Mexico and added the value of learning a foreign language in the process. It's a combination that has obviously worked well. As an aside, I'm not a big fan of sleep-over camps, but I was sufficiently impressed with Carly and her program that I would consider sending my own children to her camp.

Others are not necessarily doing so well. Those who seem to struggle financially are those who do not run businesses here. Freelancers, writers, and occasional workers are more likley to have financial troubles, although no one is starving. They are living more hand to mouth, but all admit that this is preferable to their lives in the U.S. which may have been a bit more stable financially, but not nearly as enjoyable.

Only one aspect of the young families' lives gave me pause. I've met several young adults who grew up here with their expat parents, away from extended family and friends in the U.S. If these kids decided to spend their entire lives here, things seem to go well. They are well connected in their SMA community and grow up with expectations of making their lives here. For the kids who grew up here, but then for whatever reason went back to the U.S. (for high school, college, etc.), they are more likely to feel alienated from the U.S. and Mexico. In other words, they feel more connected in SMA than in the U.S., but they do not have the benefit of extended family support, especially when their parents die and they're here alone.

This is probably no different than when families live apart in the U.S.--how different can it be if your family lives in Maine and you grow up in New Mexico? Distance is distance, but international travel does complicate this distance a bit. I've met many people who tell me that their families are not particularly interested to visit San Miguel, and there are jokes from recent arrivals that they simply refuse to tell their families about certain aspects of life in Mexico (like the fact that there isn't enough water to flush toilet paper down the toilet and you have to dispose of your toilet tissue in small waste baskets next to the toilet) because they're afraid that will deter them from coming to visit.

Expats as a group, however, seem more likely to go it alone successfully than many people I've met in the U.S. The fact that they are making sacrifices for what I would consider a fairly noble purpose--to have a more meaningful life--is admirable. These young expats add another layer of complexity to this community, and will no double re-shape what the SMA expat community looks like in the future.

Asking the right questions about Immigration Reform

This op-ed from today's Washington Post is balanced and thoughtful. Jacoby's opinions, much like my own, acknowledge that this immigration compromise is probably not what the country needs, but it does move us in the right direction.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

San Miguel de Allende video

What is your authentic self? And why is it easier to find in San Miguel?

Yesterday I had several interviews in different parts of SMA. It was a good day, exhausing, but still very good. In the late afternoon I headed to the Bibloteca Publica to see Lost and Found in Mexico on the big screen. It was interesting to watch it in a group, even more so to see the response of the people who are represented in the film.

Overall, most of the comments after the film were very positive, and the long-term expats in attendance felt like Caren had accurately represented their experiences. One of the major themes in the film is what I would characterize as finding your authentic self in that most everyone that Caren interviewed for the documentary stated that they were not able to be their "real" selves in the U.S. They stayed in jobs that they really did not like for years because they felt that was what it meant to be successful, they lived up to other's expectations in regard to how to dress, what it was important to know, and what was a productive way to spend one's time. They also found freedom in their gender role (as women) that they believed impossible in the U.S., and they found it easier to grieve the loss of a loved one in Mexico because here there is no expectation to say, "I'm great!"' when someone asks, "how are you?"

It would be a mistake, I think, to read these narratives as simply commentaries on life in SMA, although obviously that is what the film is about. But even more important, the film is about what, at least for many of the expats here, is not possible in the U.S. My question here is, why? Why is it that so many people who come here feel like this is the place where they can be their authentic selves? In a couple of interviews I've done here with gay couples, they tell me that the expat community is so accepting that there is no GLBT support here--they simply do no need that type group here. That is exceptional, but at the same time, most of the folks here are not members of a group that is often stigmatized in the U.S. They are white, middle or upper middle-class, and highly educated.

The film and this group represent a distinct period in SMA expat immigration. The older generation of expats came here for very different reasons, and I expect that the next generation of expat will come for different reasons as well.

Yesterday during the film Q & A , a woman raised her hand and said, "I've been in SMA for less than a week, and I already feel like I'm back to being the woman I was at 19." In other words, there was a real self she left behind, someone who re-emerged when she got to Mexico.

I find this interesting, mainly because I have no desire to be the young, inexperienced and not self confident 19, 20 or even 28 year old I once was. I was recently tenured at my university, and frankly, I look forward to being post-tenure Deb. When I have an opinion, I can express it with no worry of losing my job. If I have an educational cause to persue, I can go for it. Obviously, I have no intention of being rude or boorish just because I don't have to worry about job security. I still want to conduct myself as a civilized person. But there is no way I'd ever want to go back, or recapture my old self. She was a good friend, but I've outgrown her.

So the question I would like to pose today is this: what is your (the reader's) authentic self? And is it possible to be that self in the U.S.? If not, why is that?

I look forward to hearing your opinions.

Monday, May 21, 2007

A home of their own

This article from last week's American Chronicle details one of SMA's newest charity organizations: Casita Linda, a group that builds sturdy, basic houses for families in SMA for about $1200-1700 USD.

Senate Debate on the Immigration Bill

The Senate will debate the new immigration bill today, and before the discussion is even started most advocates are saying no-go to the bill that offers a series of compromises that no one seems to favor.

The question that senators should consider to day is whether a compromise really is the best way to address the immigration issue. Keep in mind that the wrong move on immigration is likely to have repercussions well beyond this political year, and will shape the future of the nation's population. For that reason alone, our representatives should proceed cautiously, and should attempt to do more than simply score a short-term political victory.

One issue that this compromise package will address is the status of undocumented college students. As reported in today's edition of Inside Higher Ed, the compromise package includes a DREAM Act provision, providing a path to permanent residency for college students and military personnel under 30 who came to the country illegally as children. Advocates for undocumented students say they have good reason to be hopeful.

So stay tuned. As I said last week, I do not believe that much will come of this, as I do not have confidence that Congress has the will to make a move on immigration with the upcoming election looming.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

The Young and the Restless

When I started this project, I thought it would lead to new and interesting fields of research: geriatrics, creative aging, and retirement studies, to name a few. As a registered nurse turned academic folklorist, it seemed like a perfect fit. After all, I understand better than most the challeges of aging, and my second career asks people to share their stories. SMA should be my dream fieldsite.

It is, but what I did not plan on encountering here three years ago when I wrote my first grant was that this city is also home to a number of young professionals, people who come here not expecting to retire in their 40s, but to work through their peak earning years. Yes, they want to make a living in Mexico.

My first response to this was, "gee, haven't you seen that line of creative go-getters heading north--they, at least think the opporunities are there, not here." But the reality is that there are many ways to make a living here, and sometimes people make life decisions based on issues other than their income potentials. The coming week promises to give me some insights to the ways that 30 and 40 somethings actually go about it here.

Here is a sample of what I hope to explore:

Couples with young families who do not want to raise their kids in the U.S.

Young singles who are looking for adventure

Young singles who see a remarkable professional opportunity here

People who are developing real estate properties

People who are telecommuters

Of course, I'll also interview the standard retired expats, but I am looking forward to insights from this new, and quite unexpected group of San Miguel expats.

More about immigration Reform

This morning I found a link to this post from Staring at Strangers blog to my post of last night, En la Frontera. The link above will take you to Jennifer's site:

Why I'm Happy About the Immigration Bill

The proposed immigration legislation doesn’t satisfy all interests. It even leaves nearly every special interest group a little bit unhappy, and that’s a mark of a settlement that’s beneficial to the good of the whole. Any bill which lets some of those immigrations remain in the U.S. is good enough for me, because it’s good for Pablo.

But first let me tell you a bit about Pablo, whom I’ve known for the past twenty or so years. He struggled to finish secundaria, and even with that, he had next to no job skills. There wasn’t much opportunity or incentive for him here in Morelia, the capital of Michoacán. He didn’t work out in his first job here, which amounted to tending a vacant lod, preferring to nod off in a hammock. His attempt at barber school lasted a full week. He announced that he was going off to California to pick lettuce, never mind that he’d never picked any kind of produce in his life. He got all the way to Tijuana, got scared, and his dad sent him airfare back home. The next year, he made it to Austin, Texas, where he worked in a Mexican restaurant. Finally, on his third try, paying a coyote the going rate of about $3,000 USD, he made it to Georgia, where his cousins lived. And he learned to hang sheetrock, becoming rather good at the job. He flew home for Christmas that year, taking the ever-expensive Aeromar from the Mexico City airport instead of the bus. During his three-month sojourn back in the ‘hood, he found himself a wife, who remained in Mexico long enough to give birth to their first child. The wife and child both joined him, all as illegals, in Georgia, where he’s now a foreman, added two more to their family, owns a house with wall¬-to-wall carpeting, and drives a used Lincoln Continental. It’s been more than decade since he was last in Mexico.

In the early years of Pablo’s time in the U.S., his parents would ask me to mail him care packages containing what they thought were essential items. Those packages, filled with medicine, videotapes of Morelia, family photos and letters are no longer as frequent as they once were. He’s on his own now. He pays taxes, and he’s saving us his money for whatever he’ll have to pay to get legal.

I’m darned proud of Pablo. He wouldn’t have amounted to a tinker’s damn had he stayed in these parts. Getting out on his own was the best thing that ever happened to him, because he had to struggle to survive. And he made it. And when he gets the vote, I’ll lay good money that he’ll vote Republican.


I have to say, I'm happy for Pablo and that he's done well. I also think that those undocumented men and women in the U.S. will certainly be happy if the current form of the immigration bill passes (although I've lived in Washington, DC long enough to know that this bill, like the ones before it, is doomed in this election year). Nevertheless, I think that this bill is essentially flawed and is a reflection of the times that produced it.

An eight-year temporary work permit is not going to solve Pablo's, or any undocumented person's, problems. It's a stopgap, plain and simple. One could argue that a stopgap is better than nothing, but I would disagree. Pablo and his cohort are not going to want to go home in 8 years just because time's up. They are also not going to be less likely to want to bring their spouses and children to the U.S. if their lack of points means that they are not skilled enough to do so legally, which is what is going on in my post about Marisol.

Most academics that write about immigration will tell you that our current immigration problems today can be traced back to the passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA), that Reagan-era legislation that was supposed to end undocumented immigration. We know today how well that worked.

The problem with these compromise packages is that they do not look at the heart of the problem, nor do they consider the unintended consequences of their legislation. Until we are ready to really deal with this issue and to accept, nay embrace the fact that we are a nation of perpetual immigration and that our only recourse is to regulate (not stop) immigration, then we can move forward. In the meantime, I have to admit, I won't be complaining if someone in Washington decides it's time for a temporary work visa program. That, at least, will end the carnage and suffering at the border and in the desert. But I can't say I'll be happy is the Senate's version of immigration reform passes this year, because I know it will create more problems that it intends to solve.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

En la frontera

Well, after the drama of what to do about my upcoming visitors, it turns out that Juan has decided to wait a week or two before coming to visit SMA. His older sister is in the process of trying to cross the border without documentation, and he wants to wait to confirm that she is safely in el Norte before he leaves home himself. So perhaps next weekend.

I know from experience that I'm likely to get all kinds of howls from readers who oppose Mexican immigration. Before the howling starts however, I'd like to write a bit about Juan and his family and why his sister has decided to undertake a perilous journey with her husband.

Juan is 27 years old, works in a public library, and has no intention of coming north. His is not a migrating family, and although they are not wealthy, the do manage to scrape together a relatively comfortable existence in Textitlán. His wife works as a seamstress at home so she can watch their two small children, and his work, while it does not pay overly well, does keep him in touch will his intellectual interests.

His sister, whom I will refer to as Marisol (a pseudonym) married in January. Her husband has been working in the U.S. as an undocumented laborer for several years. He returned to get married and being that they are both in their late 20s, to start a family. Marisol recently found out she was pregnant. She did not originally plan to travel to the U.S. with her husband, but the baby changed that. She wants to be with her husband when her baby is born, and she knows that if he successfully crosses the border now, it could be years before he can return home again. So in this case, the difficulty in crossing the border actually influenced her decision to cross illegally herself. If she knew he could come back, say, when the baby is born, she probably would have elected to remain in Mexico.

Over the next few days, or perhaps weeks, Juan and his family will wait anxiously to hear news of his sister's journey north. She has decided not to risk a walk through the Arizona desert, as she (and the family) does not fancy the mortality rate. She has worked as a paramedic for many years, so she's saved enough money to pay the exorbitant fee to cross with illegal documents. The journey is still risky, however. She knows from talking to her neighbors in Textitlán that crossing is not as easy at it once was. I wish she wasn't taking this risk, and like Juan, I will worry about her until I know she is safe, either in the U.S. or back home in Mexico.

But Marisol is going north, regardless of the risks or costs involved. Her story is one that demonstrates how difficult it is to shape legislation to influence personal decisions when it comes to migration. She wants to be with her husband, pure and simple, and U.S. border policy can do little to change that.

Cross-cultural communication

This research project in SMA is my second book project. The first was a decade-long study of Mexican migration to the U.S. in a little village not far from SMA that I have referred to as Textitlán. During that ten year period, I made a lot of friends in Textitlán, and I still keep in touch with four families there regularly. When I can, I try to go to Textitlán to visit when I'm here. In fact, I've never come to Mexico without going to Textitlán.

That is not a small accomplishment. When I am here with my family, we generally rent a car (at outrageous prices) and drive from SMA the 2-3 hours to Textitlán. Getting there means traveling through Celaya, which as far as I can tell, is in a perpetual state of road construction. We've never once traveled through Celeya without 2 or more of its major through roads torn up with construction. Its an adventure that we cherish, but not one that I make without trepidation.

When I've made the trip to Textitlán by bus, it's less of an adventure and more of an endurance test. There are not direct routes to Textitlán, and even a "Primera Plus" service will take between 4-5 hours to get there from SMA, sometime more. This time round, I've decided that I'm not going to Textitlán. I am here only a short time, and I cannot afford to use 3-4 days of research time traveling and visiting to go there.

Instead, one of my friends, Juan, decided he would like to come here. No problem, I thought. He had never seen SMA, which would be a treat, and I would be spared the nightmare of Mexican bus travel to Textitlán.

The first day I arrived here, I called him to let him know that I arrived safely. That's when the trouble started. He was planning to come to SMA, which I knew, but he wanted to bring his entire family: his wife and two young children ages 2 and 4. In my world (in the U.S.) I enjoy having my friends with kids to my house. But here, in the house I'm housing-sitting, well, it's not a child-friendly environment. The woman who owns this house collects art,and lots of it. It covers nearly every surface of the house, every table top, and every available wall space. In addition, the owner had asked that I take special care to make sure that nothing is broken, and of course, that would mean no kids.

I tried to kindly explain this to Juan, but he could not imagine a home where I child might not fit in. It was extremely awkward. For a few days, I considered moving the various figurines, sculptures, etc in another room, but that would be impossible. There was just too much stuff.

I did not hear from Juan for a while, so I thought maybe he had changed his mind about coming here.

No such luck.

Juan wrote yesterday to tell me that he would be arriving today (Saturday). I called him, and indeed, he was planning to bring the entire clan. This is when things got painfully awkward. I tried my best to explain that this is not my house, neither is this my rule about kids. I did offer to put them up in a hotel near the jardín, however. This, he insisted, would not be necessary. Instead, he decided to come here by himself.

I'll be happy to see him, and very happy to show him San Miguel. I am relieved that he appears to understand why the kids cannot stay in this house, although I imagine that this may be less understood by his wife, who will not be making the trip. It also points to the inevitable problems with cross-cultural communication. Yes, we speak the same language (Spanish), but communication is so much more than that. It is an entire worldview that is shaped from birth, and creates people who (in the U.S.) conceive of and construct "child-friendly" environments when here, in Mexico, the understanding is that every home can welcome a child.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Is the perfect the enemy of the good?


This was Senator Diane Feinstein's statement yesterday as she implored stakeholders regarding the Senate's newly passed immigration bill. Here are the highlights:

Key components of the compromise immigration plan (from today's Washington Post):

All illegal immigrants who arrived before Jan. 1, 2007, could stay and work after paying a $1,500 fee, passing a criminal background check, and showing a strong work record.

They would also have to pay a fine of $5,000.

After eight years, they could apply for a green card.

A new visa category would be created for parents of U.S. citizens, allowing them to visit for up to 100 days per year.

A temporary-worker program would allow 400,000 immigrant workers to enter on two-year visas, after which they would have to return home for a year before reapplying. The visas could be renewed up to three times.

A new point system would add factors for green-card eligibility to lessen the "chain migration" of family members.

The Border Patrol and interior enforcement would be expanded, and a new security perimeter would be created. Such border enforcement provisions would have to be implemented before immigrant-rights measures take effect.

SOURCES: Office of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), Congressional Quarterly, as quoted in the Washington Post



So, is the perfect the enemy of the good?

It all depends on your position on a couple of key aspects to this plan. The first is ending family reunification. Is that something that, as a nation, we should value? Our current "non-immigration" system de facto ignores family reunification in that the quotas are so low, people decide not to wait their turn, and bring their family members here illegally. I'm not sure what the Senators are thinking--that this desire to live with one's spouse and children will evaporate, and people will stop bringing their loved ones here illegally?

Then there is the elephant (literally) in the plan: the enforcement-first stipulation before any of the termporary visas and amnesty takes place. How is it going to be determined that we ever have sufficient border security? Mr. Chertoff, of Homeland Security, thinks security measures could be implemented as quickly as 18 months, but like so many members of the current administration, it appears that Mr. Chertoff is living is the same fantasy bubble as his GOP colleagues.

Another problem is the temporary visa program, which gives laborers an 8 year visa with no opportunity to re-apply. What do the authors of this plan really think? That after eight years of working here, people will just go home?

It appears that the perfect is not the enemy of the good, but a lack of common sense and looking at past behavior as an indicator of what people are likely to do in the future.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

An amazing day

Sometimes you cannot plan for life's unexpected joys--today was one of those days.

Last night I spent most of the evening making phone calls and trying to set up appointments for oral history interviews. I called one house and left a message--not atypical. This is "summer" in Mexico--it's hot here and many gringos and extranjeros decided to head north, or elsewhere to escape the heat. About an hour later, I got a return phone call from a woman, Adriana, who is house sitting for a man whom I would like to interview. We started to chat. She seemed interesting--a native of Mexico City who had moved here six years ago to escape the urban nightmare that has become D.F. Before we hung she asked, "Do you like Mexican food?" --yea! "Would you like to come to dinner tomorrow night?" --sure.

I don't usually accept dinner invitations from people I don't know, least of all from people whom I have accidentally contacted in search of another person. But this is San Miguel, and life is different here.

I arrived at Adriana's abode at 7:30. I was one of three guests--a four year SMA resident and his son. The evening was beautiful. Adriana is house sitting on one of SMA's high points. We watched the sun set then ate an amazing meal (she is a great cook). I was also introduced to a new group of SMA expats--a former head of an opera company and his partner, a life coach. Their friends include some of SMA's most distinguished artists and authors.

I hit paydirt.

So, I did not come home with an interview, as I had hoped, but an amazing experience and a list of contacts for interviews another day.

Life is good here. Very good.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Long awaited Return


I arrived to SMA yesterday around 3:00 PM. I was met by my landlady, Judith, who was understandably concerned about my tardiness. My flight landed early (~11:30 AM), and I expected to be here by 1:30 at the latest. But time runs differently in Mexico, and although I had a taxi service pick me up and drive me directly to her door, we it took 2.5 hours to make what is typically a one and a half hour trip.

Judith was also concerned about her house. She had never left it before, and was understandably concerned about leaving it (and her three cats) in the hands of what amounts to a total stranger. I found this house-sitting opportunity via one of SMA's on-line communities, and we both had to trust the other (her that I would show up, methe house would be everything she promised). There was also one other little problem. Before I arrived, some men were at the house wiring things up for a washing machine (yippee!) and had to turn off the electricity. No problem, except they had went to lunch and had not returned after 3 hours. Judith was afraid that I'd be upset. My response, "is there water?" For those of you who have read the blog before, you know that the only think I fear from my Mexican houses is that I'll loose water, which I have done with every house I have rented so far (for the full scoop, see my post The Trouble with Tinacos). My calm was justified. The workers returned within an hour of my arrival and got things working again.

After my house orientation, Judith departed for her vacation, and I started to unpack. I was exhausted, but I also wanted to see San Miguel, particularly to see if I would run into any of the old gang--the group of friend that adopted Ken and me last year when we were here. I had been up since 3 A.M., so I decided to take a nap, and about an hour later I was walking toward the jardín. It was just the wrong time to be out. Most of those in the jardín were Mexicans (as was the custom last year at this time of the evening). I walked around for a while, realized my energy burst from the nap was very temporary, and headed home.

Judith's house is a no further away from the center of town than was the house we rented last year. It is on the opposite side of town, and very few expats live here. That is nice, as the feel here is much more "Mexicano" that the condo on Calle Sterling Dickenson. One major disappointment, however: no taco stands. Yes, that staple of Mexican cuisine seems to be nearly extinct here in SMA. I've talked to my neighbors and my new research assistant, Jalal. It is not that I cannot find one in my neighborhood. They simply do not exist in the same magnitude as they do in other Mexican towns. Alas, I was forced to dine on hamburgers my first night in Mexico.

When I got back to the house, I let the kitties (Judith has rescued 3) in, and went to bed. One of the cats is a wanderer, Misha, so I was surprised she made it in for the night. Not only did she make it in, she has decided that she loves me, and spent the night right beside me. That would be very nice, but because she's not fully tamed, she bears the marks of a cat who likes the explore the wild areas of this neighborhood. She (like her adopted sisters) is very small, about 4-5 pounds. Her face is beautiful and fluffy, but her tail is matted and encrusted with burrs that shed all over the bed when she rubs up against my face, which she did practically all night long. I spent the morning pulling burrs off my clothes, out of my hair, and from the bedding. The kitties my have to sleep in the guest room tonight, however.


This morning I spent several hours meeting and training Jalal, my research assistant. As I blogged earlier, Caren Cross most generously sought out and then interviewed many potential candidates before she found this young woman who is practically perfect in every way. Jalal will be setting up interviews and assisting with them during my stay here. I'm extremely happy that Caren found her. She's intelligent, energetic, and very well connected here, as she's lived here most of her life. I'm looking forward to working with her.

It's just good to be back.