Gringolandia's joys and laments

Almost ten years after Stew and I retired in Mexico most of our expectations have been fulfilled. We built a beautiful all-solar house to satisfy both our needs and whims and for much less than the project would have cost in the U.S.

With some exceptions our living expenses are lower and the nearly perfect climate of San Miguel certainly beats Chicago and Boston winters as well as Houston and Tallahassee summers. Or Minnesota year-round.

The biggest rewards are visual: From most windows and the terrace of our house we see mountains, valleys and herds of sheep and goats meandering about. Cue in Beethoven’s “Pastoral Symphony.”

San Miguel’s gorgeous colonial center never seems to get old. By comparison the assault of constant retailing that scars so many American cities deadens our senses: Home Depot/Walmart/Bed Bath & Beyond, Target, Petsmart. . . each strip mall with its own twenty-screen cineplex playing the same five or six movies.

View of the valley and the mountains from our back terrace
a few minutes ago, with rain moving in. 

Still. San Miguel and Mexico remain foreign, places that Stew and I call home largely by default: we’d have no other retreat if we had to move out in a hurry, say, just ahead of a volcanic eruption or a peasant revolution.
Mexico has not assimilated us or vice-versa.

We live in a largely closed, self-referential Gringolandia that exists side-by-side with the rest of Mexico, as two circles overlapping only slightly and only occasionally. Americans and Canadians, and a much smaller contingent of Australians and New Zealanders, dine, pray, socialize, shop, do volunteer work and celebrate among themselves.

One curious exception I discovered recently is the Shalom Jewish Community Center of San Miguel, whose small, no-frills synagogue has about thirty Mexican members.

Yes, expats consume lots of tacos and enchiladas—though seldom more venturesome Mexican fare for fear of illness—and mostly at restaurants where we expect to, and regularly run into, a roomful of familiar English-speaking gray heads. Hug-hug. Kiss-kiss. Hi-hi.

I’m not complaining about our social lot. We’ve developed a far wider circle of friends, particularly gay couples, than we had in Chicago and also have met and befriended quite a few Canadians, many of whom indeed say “eh?” after every third sentence, and come from a huge and beautiful country.

This is also a sophisticated expat community, with far more scientists of all sorts (including an astronomer from Chicago’s Adler Planetarium), lawyers, doctors, writers, artists, college professors, photographers and assorted eggheads one would expect to find in a such a demographic sliver: the number of foreign permanent residents in San Miguel is estimated at only ten thousand or so.

Just heard this morning that the husband of a good friend we met at church is a former Rhodes Scholar. As a Canadian would say, impressive, eh?

Yet meeting and socializing with Mexicans remains a challenge as dense as a brick wall.

In fact, after all these years and some effort we have yet to meet any Mexicans with whom we would regularly exchange dinner invitations, let alone add to the list of close friends. When we lived in a condo development with owners of both nationalities there was no social interaction between the two groups, aside from mumbled pleasantries while walking the dog. We know a half-dozen gay Mexicans too, but only two have ever been to our house and we have yet to be invited to theirs.

Language is the most obvious and impenetrable barrier that keeps gringos jabbering to themselves. English is a natural security blanket for monolingual expats a bit intimidated by the raucous and sometimes chaotic Mexican world outside their homes.

The most critical endorsement a dentist or doctor can get is that he or she “speaks perfect English,” although, as Stew and I can verify, language and professional proficiency are not synonymous. We’ve met a number of incompetent providers who speak flawless English and sport eyes as blue as Paul Newman’s.

Learning Spanish at the half-dozen or so language schools in San Miguel is a wistful rite of passage newcomers undertake but quickly abandon; after a few weeks the language tapes and books go to the back of the closet next to the winter coats.

Listening to Americans wrestle with Spanish, mano-a-mano, can be cringe-inducing but I admire the effort anyway. Many more gringos just point to things or fire away mindlessly as if Mexicans are expected to speak English.

Still, my reasonably fluent Spanish hasn’t opened any social doors. Vernacular Mexican Spanish is its own kettle of posole and it doesn’t sound at all like my Caribbean Spanish.

At an old-age home for the indigent where Stew and I volunteered, a disoriented resident, I suspect with more than a touch of dementia, inquired politely the first time I met her: “¿Cubano?” 

Colloquial expressions can be tricky. We met an ancient guy named Tacho, whose body had been crushed probably by a stroke that somehow had left his mind untouched. He couldn’t talk or move much but his eyes—they could turn wily, smiling or withdrawn—made up for any words. He was a mean domino player who’d been nicknamed “el tiburón” or “the shark.”

One day we noticed Tacho was missing and an attendant told me he’d gone “upstairs,” which puzzled me because the nursing home was a one-story facility. It turned out “upstairs” was a polite equivalent for “dead,” as in Tacho had “bought the farm” or “kicked the bucket.”

But in my observations over nearly ten years I’ve also concluded that Mexicans tend towards the taciturn, shy, inward-looking and solitary, as Octavio Paz noted in his aptly titled “The Labyrinth of Solitude.” They can be difficult to befriend, particularly if you don’t speak the right kind of Spanish or look too foreign. Neither Stew nor I are good at blending in: Stew is a blond Norwegian and I’m six-foot-three-inches tall, always sticking out in a crowd of Mexicans like a cornstalk in a pumpkin patch.

¿Mi casa es tu casa? About to open on the outskirts of San Miguel,
this famous eating establishment could become a meeting point for the
Mexican and ex-pat community. Hmm. Probably not.

Note that “inward-looking” and “taciturn” are not equivalent to rude. Quite the opposite. Mexicans in my experience tend to be extremely polite, respectful, almost formal. I’m constantly addressed as “usted,” a formal version of “you,” and sometimes—ouch!—as “Don Alfredo” a formal designation I thought was reserved for old men. I guess I qualify.

Among Cubans and Puerto Ricans social niceties are looser, voices louder. (T-shirt spotted in Miami: “I’m not yelling, I’m Cuban!”) When Stew and I visited Cuba three years ago folks on the streets often approached us to start a conversation, ask questions, tell stories—language barriers be damned.

Once, we curiously approached a group of men working on an antique Cadillac on a street in the town of Cienfuegos and shortly were offered a sip of rum and a detailed description of the Frankenstein mechanics needed to keep a car running in Cuba: a diesel engine from a Russian truck; a transmission from an East German sedan and a monster air conditioner that formerly cooled a bus.

At no point did anyone stop to think that my blond hubby Stew couldn’t understand a goddamned thing they were saying. The chatter went on.

Actively approaching Mexicans who live in the dirt poor villages around us is even more daunting. You are viewed almost suspiciously: What are you doing here?

With our gardener Félix as a guide and host, we’ve attended his wedding, invited his family to celebrate the kids’ birthday at the local broiled chicken restaurant, visited his parents and grandparents, even taken family members to the hospital when they got sick.

The biggest compliment for my efforts came from Félix a couple of years ago when he blurted out that his parents thought we were “buena gente,” or “nice people.”

Flattered and curious I asked why.

“Porque ustedes conviven con nosotros,” he said, which roughly means “because you socialize with us.” He considered that an admirable if quirky character trait on the part of a gringo patrón.

Indeed, we have attended fiestas, pilgrimages, village meetings to discuss repairs of our cranky community well or a project to fix the tiny, one-hundred-year-old chapel. We have given countless rides to people when the buses don’t come, and made many other friendly gestures.

By now the folks know Stew and me and recognize our red car and green pickup; that much is established. For the most part they no longer look at us suspiciously.

But I don’t think we’ll ever get past that distant, formal cordiality.


15 thoughts on “Gringolandia's joys and laments

  1. Anonymous

    This is a fascinating post to me, as it almost 100% contradicts my own experience in Mexico meeting Mexicans. True, I haven't lived there, but my gosh, I seem to be able to make Mexican friends easily wherever I go. Now, yes, some of it is superficial niceness, but I met and chatted with people all over the country during my big road trip. And while some of those chats were simply an hour in the plaza, others became more involved friendships, and others stayed in an in-between territory. Though we met via blog, I'd count Tino of as one of my closer friends, and he was born and bred in Monterrey. And I'm still close to Edgar, though we aren't BFs any more. And when F, my Mexican, Defeño, BF, and I were together, I was just like another Mexican, in terms of being invited along to events, parties and dinners in peoples' houses, etc. But I do speak Spanish fluently, and even when I didn't, I made every effort including carrying an electronic bilingual dictionary with me at all times, something F used to make fun of from time to time.But I think what you are observing may well be somewhat SMA-specific. My observation is that in SMA, gringos are generally better-heeled, even by USA standards, and in contrast, the Mexicans seem to be a little more hardscrabble. There don't seem to be the kinds of career opportunities you see in the larger cities, or even mid-size places like Querétaro, San Luis Potosí, or Aguascaliente with their burgeoning factory sectors. Nor is there a major university in SMA. And the upper-class Defeños who spend weekends in SMA can be kind of snooty too, which probably adds to the natives' sense of needing to maintain distance with outsiders.So add to the language and cultural divide a big class divide. And then the sheer numbers of gringos also create a well-formed image of gringos in the local SMA mind: gringos are rich; they don't speak Spanish; they keep to themselves and are thus very much “the other.” This also probably helps to perpetuate the divide. The fact is that y'all pretty much live in Chinatown there in SMA, but it's you who are now the Chinese. It's not too surprising there's such a divide. I wonder how much of such a divide I'd experience somewhere else. Did you see my post on my Zacatecas real estate fantasy?Saludos,Kim GBoston, MAWhich can be a pretty stand-offish town itself.


  2. Nice essay, as always. As for the Burger King, I occasionally stop at the one in Manzanillo during my infrequent trips there — usually tied with a stop at the movie house. I have yet to see another northerner in there. The Home of the Whopper is filled with middle class Mexican children and the odd parent or two. But cultural mixing point? Hardly. When I walk in, I feel like Cleavon Little in Blazing Saddles.


  3. If you are tempted to try the new Burger King, assuming they have them on the menu, I recommend French Toast sticks and the hash brown taters, both ordered “extra crunchy.” In the US they are served up to 10:30. And senior coffee, 79 cents here.Speaking of money: do you pay for everything in pesos? Do you have a Mexican bank account in pesos? Do you keep a dollar account someplace? Do most Gringos have dollar accounts in Mexico? Any Mexican credit cards in pesos?Have you given any thought to what you will do when one of you “goes upstairs”? Are you ex-pats forever?


  4. You make some excellent points, the most important I think is that San Miguel is its own biosphere, with expats here a self-selecting group many of whom are quite wealthy. Some residential sections in town are almost all-gringo and the homes palatial. There's even an A-list phenomenon among some of the gringos, who belong to some charities, one of them having a “formal attire” event sometime next week. Piss on that. San Miguel too historically has been very poor, something that's changing now that Queretaro, an hour away, is turning into a latter-day Monterrey, and some of the economic boom and industrial parks are spilling over our way. Chilangos flood the town every weekend with their credit cards and BMWs and pretty much stay to themselves. Indeed. SMA has become a hot spot for elaborately choreographed weddings for wealthy Chilangos. I'm very embarrassed to say, very embarrassed, that I don't know about your blog and therefore haven't read about Zacatecas. What's the address? Taking off Veracruz-way next week and staying for two nights at Tacotetlán, which looks interesting. Regards from el Barrio Chino de San Miguel.


  5. Steve, you surprise me every time. Cleavon Little? Didn't know you were African-American… Have you read about the (former) head of the Spokane NAACP? Her 'fro looks more authentic than yours. LOLDespite all the protests by the politically correct gringos in SMA about cultural imperialism and multinationals, the local MacDonald's here is always mobbed by Mexicans (and some Americans who try to hang low).


  6. I'm going to let the new BK settle in and work out the bugs before I try their menu. If it's anything like the MacDonald's in town, it will be mobbed by young Mexicans in no time at all. As for money, yes only pesos circulate here, though US credit cards also are used. Whenever we can we use United Airlines Master Card because they don't charge “foreign transaction” fees and compute the exchange rate at the time of purchase. That's a better deal than changing dollars at the local banks which charge a fee of 3 to 4 percent for their services and often give you a louse exchange rate. However, a lot of small establishments and restaurants don't accept credit cards. Getting Mexican credit cards is somewhat of a hassle and the fees can be exorbitant—up to 30 and 40 percent APRs. We got one through a department store here, with an initial line of credit of only US$400, though they raised later to $800. We don't use it much unless there's a promotion at the department store that issued it. We've talked about “going upstairs”, because everyone goes there sooner or later, though for now we are healthy. But if there was some chronic health situation for one of us, we would have to return to the US if nothing else because of quality and cost of care (Medicare doesn't work here). Frankly, we haven't picked out a place in the U.S. Texas is closest but neither one of us likes the politics or the climate. Ditto for Florida. So who knows.Al


  7. Anonymous

    P.S. The blog post I mentioned is the most recent, though the one on Mexican beauty standards is one of my favorites. Do you mean Tlacotalpan? I've never been there, though F and I discussed it several times, and I've done a bit of research on it. As you already know, it's remote and not much decked out with the latest amenities either. Probably very hot this time of year. But it's a beautiful place, and the music is supposed to be unique. I hope you write about it. Saludos.


  8. It's always so interesting to hear about the experiences of other foreign residents in Mexico. One thing that I would add, is that much of Mexican social life (at least in Yucatan, where I live) centers around extended family. So, most people's social calendars are pretty full, leaving unrelated foreigners with invitations to ''big events'' (weddings, quinceneras, baptisms), but not really integrated into everyday social life. An exception I've noticed is people who move to the area from other parts of Mexico (this is currently happening more and more in Yucatan) — perhaps because they are far from family connections, these people are more interested in making social connections with others, and more likely to include foreigners. All that said, as a not-very-social person, I am very content with the somewhat formal, but friendly relations with my neighbors, and happy to avoid a too-busy (and sometimes competitive) social scene.


  9. You're right, I think, about the family connections. We have been invited to a few celebrations, such as our maid's daughter's quinceañera and the shindig afterward, and to the gardener's various celebrations, such as his wedding, and his kids' birthdays. Even with more socially or economically mobile Mexicans we've known, I'm still waiting for “hey we've got some posole cooking, want to come over?”, type of invitations. Stew and I are not social butterflies either, the type that have to go out every days, but it would be nice to get a call from some Mexican family, or even a Mexican gay couple, one of these days. Thank you for your comments.


  10. I have to agree with Gringosuelto's comment at the beginning of the discussion. Over the years I have had close friends in Mexico. I have had the privilege of being invited to and even staying at the homes of Mexican families, and being included in family events.I don't know if you have ever seen my blog, but you might find it interesting. It chronicles my travels, including many trips to Mexico.


  11. I've had mixed responses to my blogs, reporting different experiences. I think there's something, maybe a log, to Gringosuelto's observation about the uppity tone of the expat community in San Miguel, and how that affects relations between Mexicans and Americans. Recently, we've been getting a large influx on Chilangos, particularly on weekends, who tend to sneer at both the gringos and the locals. Lots of BMWs, aviator glasses and designer polo shirts.Thanks for your comment. Let me have the address of your blog.Al


  12. Click on my name on my comment above, and it will direct you to my blog.And yes, there is plenty of “esnobismo” among the D.F. elite… but then again, I supposed that can be found everywhere.


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