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.