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 verg├╝enzados). 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...