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.


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.


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.

Monday, May 14, 2007

She's Back

Yes, I'm back in San Miguel. It's only been a few hours, and it has already been extremely interesting, but I'm exhausted. Tomorrow the adventure begins (again).

Sunday, May 13, 2007

When your neighbors overcrowd their house

Reading this article about overcrowding in suburban neighborhoods, it reminded me of my own street when I moved here 6 years ago.

One of my neighbors lives in a house much like my own: a 4 bedrooms 2.5 bath colonial. The houses are big by historic standards (~3000 square feet on three levels), but small compared to the typical suburban monstrosities that are populating the newer Northern Virgina suburbs.

Those first few years were interesting. My family and I had lived in a working class neighborhood in Philadelphia. The houses were "twins" or duplexes on a narrow one-way street. There were frequent squabbles about parking and crowding. In comparison, my newer home is on a wide suburban cul-de-sac. We back up to a wooded area that (at the moment) cannot be developed, so we were looking forward to having extra room.

We were surprised by the number of cars parked in the cul-de-sac by two of our neighbors. The house right next to us had no fewer than 4-5 cars on an average day. People were always coming and going. But the house at the far end of the cul-de-sac was as busy as Union Station at rush hour. Most days there were between 10-12 cars and a large truck parked in front the of the house. People were driving into the cul-de-sac at high speeds and parking in the most unusual places. What I once saw as a wide cul-de-sac looked pretty narrow when things settled down in the evenings.

Can you guess what my neighbors looked like?

They were white middle and working-class families who had between 3-5 kids. Those kids had become that menace to American society known as the driving teenager. And friends--did they have friends. They must have been among the most popular teenagers at the local high school (if traffic flow is any indication). In both homes the said teenagers often had overnight guests: their buds, love interests, visiting relatives.

It was quite an experience. Do you know what I did about it? Nothing.

Do you know why? Because I truly believe, as much of a pain in the bazooka it was, the house belonged to the neighbors, not me.

Did I like it? Not at all. It was really annoying sharing a driveway with a family that basically lined the entire place with cars. It was annoying to wake up on a Sunday morning to find a car almost blocking my drive (it turns out one of the young men in question was quite a romeo, and his paramour had rushed into the house and parked on my side of the cul-de-sac rather than that of Mr. Stud).

My point is this: many older suburban neighborhoods were not designed for D.C. in 2007. Who would have dreamed in 1970 that families would be so foolish as to by each of their teenagers their own cars? Who would have guessed that parents would have been so lax (or liberal, depending on your position) to have their son's and daughter's one night stands take place in their own home?

Life has changed a great deal in the intervening years since my subdivision was built.

Fast forward to 2006. One of the long-term rental properties on my street went up for sale. It was a slow time for the real estate market, but when it did sell, two young men bought it: an Asian and Latino. They're business partners, and they're very young, so they have (just for the two of them) 5 cars and 3 large construction vans. We have no prohibition in our neighborhood about trucks, etc., so on the weekends and late in the evenings, the street and driveway is crowded with lots of cars, but it is just the two of them.

I may not like everything that goes on in my little corner of suburbia, but I'm not willing to move out to Loudoun County on a large property and commute my life away. This is not ideal, but it works. And when I get really annoyed, I go onto my deck (which faces away from the street and into the trees) and thank God for flood plains.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Arson at Gaithersburg's Day-labor Center

Like many day-labor centers in the Washington suburbs, the Gaithersburg, MD dsy-labor center opened on April 16 after several years of debate. Yesterday (May 4) at about 6 AM, someone attempted to burn the double-wide trailer that serves as the day-labor center.

There was minimal damage (about $2000 total) although it is clear that the controversy is still alive and well. The Center was open and operating without disruption after the fire.

ICE "cracks down" on immigrant absconders

This is not the Avon Lady calling. ICE Agents approach a house in Fairfax in the pre-dawn hours to apprehend an immigrant absconder.

What is an immigrant absconder? --An immigrant who refuses to appear for their immigration hearing after they receive their deportation notice. According to today's Washington Post, the number of immigrant absconders has risen steadily since Sept. 11, 2001. The article also points out a few of the major flaws with our immigration system, the most prominent among them that our enforcement resources are vastly outnumbered by the total number of undocumented immigrants. The article notes that ICE will be adding additional fugitive apprehension teams to a total of 75 this year. With that number, they hope to increase apprehensions to 1000 per year. The current (and ever growing) number of absconders is currently estimated to be 636,000. so, if they apprehend 1000 per year, they should be able to clear up this problem in a mere 600 years, plus or minus half a century.

Does anyone else think it time to consider a more feasible solution to this problem?

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

About credit cards and the undocumented

Recently I've been getting a curious number of comments on a post make months ago (The Bank of America offers credit cards to the Undocumented). It's curious because it's such old news. Then, I realized that many of the posters are actually linked back to credit card sites, typically those who advertise "easy credit."

So while they try to use my site to blast the undocumented, typically with statements like, "it's really wrong to offer credit to the undocumented," they are simultaneously trying to attract customers for MORE EASY CREDIT.

You dogs.

So let it be known that this is an advertising-free space. While I welcome varied and thoughtful opinions about immigration and emigration, I will not allow anyone to pimp their businesses here, especially those who attempt to do so on the backs on the undocumented.