Where's home, anyway?

After eleven years here, Mexico should
be home to us. But it’s not that simple. 

In a recent post, fellow blogger Steve Cotton wondered if his house on Mexico’s Pacific Coast was a “home” or merely a “house.”

For expats that’s not a fatuous question. Stew and I vote in Chicago, our last foothold in the U.S.; have a private mailbox in Laredo, Texas, where get our mail and which functions as our official address in the U.S. We visit the U.S. regularly, mostly San Antonio, to attend to medical matters, shop and watch movies not likely to make it to San Miguel.

A uniquely Mexican moment: A fully
attired ten-year-old mariachi singer
belts out a song at memorial service
for the sister of a good friend. 

But our house, which we planned meticulously and built eight years ago, and which we’ve referred to on occasion as our “forever house,” is in Mexico.  It’s a space in which I feel totally comfortable, all the more because I share it with my husband, five dogs and two cats.

The surrounding seven-and-a-half acres are equally beautiful: A walk outside with the dogs early in the morning, at sunset, or on a starry night will readily flush any bad moods out of my head.
And yet it feels like a walled-in resort. The minute I step outside the gate, I find myself in Mexico, a country I’m not emotionally attached to or whose flag I salute. Fascinating and beautiful as it is, it’s not home. 

Some expat friends vehemently claim to live immersed in Mexico and its culture. Except in the case of a few long-termers who have a Mexican spouses and children, I don’t believe such conversion stories.

Fact is the vast majority of expats here live in an airtight bubble inside of which they find all the elements needed to survive while remaining American, including restaurants, churches, clubs and volunteer organizations where they can socialize with other expats—all in English.

I’d bet that at least sixty percent of the expats in San Miguel don’t know enough Spanish to order take-out pizza—except from Pizza Pig, whose owner is from Iowa.

When they first arrive, expats get caught in the frisson of Mexico’s foreignness, and excitedly attend and photograph every one of San Miguel’s parades, processions and fiestas.

But by the second or third of year of noise, traffic jams and incessant fireworks, the thrill wanes and it all becomes, truth be told, annoying as hell. During these events, some expats may leave town until the racket is over.

It’s crossed my mind to write a Mexican version of the delightful “A Year in Provence,” by Peter Mayle. Stew and I certainly have more than enough anecdotes and adventures, humorous and otherwise, to take me through the first one hundred pages.

Problem is that unlike Mayle I have haven’t met enough Mexicans who have invited me into their homes and vice-versa, to populate the rest of the book.

Despite clichés of happy-go-lucky Mexicans chanting “mi casa es su casa” on their front step to every passerby, I have found Mexicans to be unfailingly polite and formal, but also reticent and leery of strangers.

As much as I’ve walked through the towns near our ranch, I still can expect silent, perhaps curious glances, but no spontaneous “buenos días” or even a shy smile.

There’s an obvious economic divide: Just about about every Mexican within shouting distance of our place is very poor. Maybe it’s that poverty, and widespread illiteracy, that forms an impenetrable moat around our ranch which, from the neighbors’ perspective, must look like a Newport mansion.

The one exception, of course, is Félix, our gardener, dog-minder, security guard and community affairs advisor. We’ve been invited to all of his family’s events, including weddings, baptisms, first communions and most movingly, the funeral of his grandmother whom he mourned deeply.

I have spoken to or read blogs from some Americans whose attachment to Mexico seems to be based on a deep resentment toward the U.S. and everything American. Quite often these self-avowed political exiles swear Mexico is their last stand yet can’t stop talking or writing about all things American, particularly politics.

Others I know migrated to Mexico largely for economic reasons.

Neither Stew nor I share such views or issues. We’re proud to be Americans even in this time of partisan warfare back home.

We inhale American culture—movies, news, commentary, books and art—largely through the internet, yet know hardly anything about similar subjects in Mexico.

We retired in Mexico because we were tired of northern winters, the very high cost of living in Chicago, and the monotony of America’s consumer culture, which can make the country look like one continuous strip mall, from Chicago to San Antonio to Ft. Lauderdale.

Mexico was, and is still is, a different and exciting place to live, that can still offer moments of heart-stopping magic, such as the full-lung serenade by a ten-year-old fully dressed in a mariachi outfit during the memorial for a sister of a good friend. You don’t get moments like that back home.

Yet after all these years Mexico remains fascinating but foreign.


27 thoughts on “Where's home, anyway?

  1. Anonymous

    Just my opinion: Mexican society is very class oriented. They say they aren't, but they are. If you do not belong somewhere, they will find ways to tell you so. Dress like un pelado and they will treat you like un pelado.Social circles are formed early in life. Friends are those they have known since school. This will last for a life time. Family is everything.If you marry into the family, they will treat you with courtesy, but you will never be privy to the innermost secrets of the family. They will be nice to you, but they will still count the silverware after you leave.Get used to it; it will never change.


  2. Anonymous

    Fabulous post! I've read “A Year in Provence,” by Peter Mayle and believe you too could write about your building experiences. If I recall, Mayle mostly speculates on what his rural French neighbors do in their homes but the bulk of the book is about his experience as the natives work on his house and the interactions that take place in that process. Of course, maybe I'm thinking of a different book? I married into a Mexican family and have not been welcomed much in the inner sanctum. You would think that after 10 years living here, I'd be used to it, but it still bothers me at times. I was hostess for the novena of my mother-in-law, so I guess I've made some progress. Of course that could have been more financially motivated than anything (the hostess pays for the grub). Oh well. Life goes on.


  3. You could make Mexico your home by getting your medical care here, shopping here, reading Mexican media, getting all mail which absolutely doesn't require a U.S. address in Mexico, and not making those regular runs to the border. You could stop referring to yourself as an expat and become an immigrant. And you could become a naturalized Mexican citizen. That IFE card can work wonders.And while you're at it, forget about being invited into your neighbors' homes. There is a social divide that even native-born Mexicans of your social class aren't interested and won't step over. The only thing you have in common with your poor neighbors is proximity. Start by hanging with Mexican nationals who would be your social equivalent back in the Old Country.


  4. You're right about the class system. We've always treated our gardener Felix and his family with respect. A lot of Mexican patrones still treat the help as peons. Felix once said that his mother had declared us to be “nice people” (“buena gente”) because of how respectfully we treated them and the fact we showed up for family celebrations.Al


  5. I read Provence quite a while ago, but as I remember it he had a hell of lot more interaction with the townfolk (maybe I'm wrong). I haven't abandoned the idea of a book yet, but it sounds like such a daunting project!Thanks for your comment.Al


  6. Your recipe for assimilation is what most immigrants (including me when I came over from Cuba in 1962) go through. But the difference is that I came over, like a lot of immigrants to the U.S) with a one-way ticket, so there wasn't any choice. You're right about trying to socialize with middle-class Mexicans. We even looked at houses in a subdivision in Queretaro, where housing was (at the time) actually less expensive than in San Miguel. I wonder how differently things might have turned out, and also how the Mexicans next door would have reacted to a gay couple moving into the neighborhood. Thanks for your comment.al


  7. It's taken me 7 house moves to find my home in Mexico, but yes, I am invited into the homes of at least a couple of my Mexican neighbors now. I had to learn to speak Spanish (functional, not literary and accordingly I am not invited into those circles…yet..maybe never). I have worked hard to get to know varying types of Mexicans and now feel considerably more comfortable with them than I do with the Americans here, who I find, bluntly, strange, isolated, and somewhat ignorant, even when they believe they are sophisticated. I don't feel the way you feel.


  8. I think your situation is quite common but not just for Americans living in Mexico but for anybody who move from a culture to another one. I was born in San Luis Potosi but when I moved to Mexico City I experienced the feeling you are describing. Later, when I moved to the US I got into the same situation again. But I have realized that it’s not just I, it’s anybody who jumps into a different culture. The funny thing is that if you go back to one of your previous “homes” you’ll feel as an outsider again. I wrote a novel, in Spanish (El Gringo Latino), where I deal with some of these feeling.


  9. Hi. I enjoyed reading your piece. I have been living in SMA for 31 years now. I came here with my late husband. We both fell in love with this place and during all of these years we both said that this was the place we would spend the rest of our lives. My husband passed away in 2005. He died quickly but I believe that he died knowing that he had a very fulfilled life, and ending it here in San Miguel was exactly the way he would have wanted it. The US has changed a lot, in my eyes, since I left it, but so has San Miguel. In some ways for the better, and in some ways not. Too many people is my main issue, and with that, more crime. I never dreamed I would have to live here, although I did in the States, with so much protection. Security system, electric fence. But, being a woman living alone, I feel this is necessary for my piece of mind. My late husband and I were living in a small town on the Gulf in Florida when we found SMA. We didn't hesitate and gave up everything there to start a new life here. We never regretted it. One of the things that attracted us were the Mexican people. They, in general, are kind, good people who have always made us feel welcome. I have very good Mexican friends for close to 30 yrs now. These particular friends share a similar life style with me. I know many other Mexicans who I like and care about, some I even try to help, but I do not go to there homes or socialize with them. I wouldn't feel comfortable, nor would they. Our lives are too different. With recent crimes here in SMA I have given thought to returning to the States to live. I do live part time in Houston now and have for the past several years. I hate big cities but this happens to be a beautiful, quiet neighborhood. I hope it doesn't come to that. My heart is here, I have wonderful memories of my life here and I have been feeling and calling this my home for many years. When I am in the Jardin at night, I still smile and feel that I am blessed to be able to live in such an enchanted place. Judy


  10. Robert, Not sure I quite understand your question. If you're talking about the divide between rich and poor, yes, it was pretty similar to Mexico, though my family was not all that rich at all. Lower middle-class if I remember correctly. As far as going back there to live you're right. Even though the buildings in my town and my former house in Cuba look pretty much the same, I couldn't go back there to live. It would be another culture shock.If I misunderstood your comment, please writer again and I will try to answer.Thanks.al


  11. Thank you for your comment. I can see how moving from SLP to DF would be a major shock, though as a Mexican I would think it would not be so severe. As I told Robert in the previous comment, if I went to Cuba now, after a fifty-year absence, I would definitely feel like an outsider, despite being more familiar with the customs, etc. I'll look up your book in Amazon. Thanks for your comment.al


  12. What a lovely, lovely story, beautifully told. I can't imagine what San Miguel looked like thirty one years ago. We've been here just eleven years, and in that time the place has exploded. Every time you turn around we see a new subdivision going up, and the traffic getting worse. Crime is worse too such as the kidnapping of the American woman, though I hear they found her safe and sound. I know very little about Houston, though I've heard that amid the huge urban spread there are still some lovely neighborhoods. Have you thought of writng a book about your time here?Thanks for your comment.Alfred


  13. Anonymous

    [This comment was posted on the Civil List, where I made a note about this blog}Hi Al,My husband and I share our time between San Miguel and San Diego and other travel, and we often say, “wherever we go, our hearts live in San Miguel.” We love so many things about San Miguel, from its beauty to its sense of community. We love seeing dogs and horses and burros. We love the sound of church bells and mariachis. Here in San Miguel, we have a home, but no car. That means we're hoofing it around on cobblestone streets all day. As we run errands and live life, we constantly run into friends, gringoes and locals, on cobblestone streets and in the Jardin. Strangers greet us; taxi drivers stop and wave us across streets. Once, on a rainy day, a local bus driver stopped his already-crowded bus in the middle of a block, offering a ride. It helps that we speak Spanish. Also helps that we learned Spanish through years of summers spent living with families in Mexico, Spain and Guatemala — which gave us insights into and contacts with Hispanic family life.Mexico is noisy! But we've grown accustomed to most of the noises of our 'hood — roosters, dogs, church bells. Most of the time, we can even ignore fireworks and music. Surely our aging ears help.San Diego is great too, but less authentic. More efficient — we ride around in cars all the time — but we don't run into people and we seldom chat in the street. I think it's all about connection here…Juanita Maiz


  14. Anonymous

    I don't feel the way the author feels. I've been here 5 years as a single, older woman, had to learn Spanish (functional, not great, but functional) to find my home (moved 7 times, had some bad luck with Mexican landlords, locations), now with hard work, outreach, I have some Mexican friends, both educated and rancho, have had Mexicans come to my home and been to theirs. I live in a “rancho” a little ways out of town. I take the dogs out in the campo and on the roads in the community and talk to EVERYONE…I introduce myself if I don't know them. I want to know who's around me. The dogs are my intro.The luck of having a great Mexican neighbor in La Lejona who didn't speak English but would walk his dogs with mine in the campo was fabulous. He was my Spanish teacher and informant. He taught me much. Walking is my intro. It probably helped that I had lived in another culture for 4 years before coming here and was somewhat prepared for some differences. It probably helped that I felt I was an outsider in the US because of the disillusioning changes over the years…or I should say the changes in my perception of the society that I thought I lived in. It probably helps that the Mexicans do not perceive me as having money. I'm not an American to feed off of. I'm an American who cleans her own house. I've been lucky, finally, in meeting some unusual Mexicans. My best Mexican friend is an educated woman who has had a tv show, business, 3 husbands and cleans her own house too. In fact, I grew up in the country and they can see that I am of the country. It may help that I am single. I have a girlfriend, much traveled in Africa, who refuses to travel with other people because it limits her chance to make friends when she's abroad. I know this is true from my single travels as well. I am much more comfortable with the Mexicans I know than the Americans in the Centro. When I meet someone who has been here 16 years and asks me for help to order a coffee to go in Spanish, I wonder how she was able to back out of her driveway in the US to get here. Oh man. That old blog The Gangs of San Miguel served up some seriously funny reality about expats you don't want to meet.


  15. I think the secret is language. If you speak and read Spanish, you will find Mexican friends. Try watching Mexican TV instead of American. Mexican TV is much more relevant to your life in Mexico. Get involved in the Mexican culture, and the Mexican people will come too.


  16. survivingmexico…..love your honesty. I moved to MX in 1992 with my late husband. Our 2d move was to a small village 12 miles west of Ajijic. We were the only gringos there. The villagers called us Barbie and Ken. We were immediately invited to the rundown 'clubhouse' which was part of the deal when you bought a home there. The pool was cracked & empty, the tennis court was unuseable, the clubhouse needed windows, and the list went on. We were invited to EVERYTHING, always fed first, clapping continued until we got up first on the dance floor, this went on for 10 yrs (we lived in the home 18 yrs)till I declined being la madrina to one of the grandchildren. A friend who had lived in MX for 40 yrs said 'Oh, honey, you don´t know what you´re getting into…'. We were asked to buy windows for the clubhouse, that was the FIRST party, the wants of this family continued throughout the years. I was also asked to be Madre del Pastel for a Cinceanueras, and to buy a stroller……we had dirt roads! I began to feel used. I was asked by one of the inlaws to find her a job. I asked her to clean for me during my hip replacement surgery. She brought along her delightful 14 yr old daughter for the 'interview'. We had a small Mexican home, nothing fancy at all. They never returned. She would walk in the milpa to avoid walking in front of my house. This was the beginning of the end. When I put my home up for sale and left for San Miguel, having a huge garage sale and literally giving my neighbors everything, my home was vacant and ransacked. I cried, felt used and abused. They told me they would always watch over us. They didn´t. I was very involved in that small community, attending public meetings for the use of water etc. My Mexican neighbor told me 'you will never be accepted', she was right. They were friendly, but couldn't keep their word.Although I do consider Mexico my home, I have become dismayed, especially since my 6 mo absence last year when I returned to Oaxaca, where we first lived in 1992. I came back to a different San Miguel. I don´t know where to go now.


  17. Hello and thank you for your writings. I particularly enjoyed this week's entry. It resonated truthfully and I'm speaking as someone who hasn't even crossed the border yet, I arrive in July. I had been feeling some shame around my lack of wanting to completely bury myself in Mexican culture and by extension turn away from what is wondrous and good about America, my home. At the same time it's true I am looking for a different lifestyle now, more like you describe yours to be. I have lived most of my adult life in either New York or Los Angeles and it's time to slow down. I long for expanse, quiet contemplation, yard work, maybe horses, definitely dogs. I am a single gay man in my late 50's and while I would prefer to be embarking on this new adventure with a partner, I'm not going to sit around and wait while I'm still healthy, active and curious. I have been looking at land in the areas surrounding SMA. I follow your local news and real estate listings and I'm wondering whether, thinking ahead, a property in between Queretaro and SMA would be wise because of proximity to the airport, or north towards Atotonilco, perhaps. How did you come to your decision? 7 acres sounds extraordinary, I'd even settle for 3. I could build new as that is my profession, or not. I will likely keep my place in California for the time being. There is plenty of bad news lately on both sides of the border so I don't expect it to be easy and like they say, wherever you go, there you are. Now you keep making the effort to sit out back and enjoy that morning coffee with the pooches! I'll be doing the same soon with my two.Sincerely,Mark Nichols


  18. JenniferRose, that´s exactly what I do! and know I will never be accepted. When I present my MX passport at the airport, I get smiles all around, that´s as far as it will go and I understand that.


  19. Linda: Ouch. I've heard sad stories like yours but was afraid to mention them in my blog for fear of turning it into a real downer, or worse, of being bigoted toward Mexicans. Big-hearted Americans have a tendency sometimes to “adopt” Mexican families only to be disappointed later on. I've heard stories of maids stealing from their employers, or people borrowing money and never repaying it. A woman built a house on fifty acres near here and it was ransacked just like yours. They even ripped off the ceramic tiles off the bathroom walls, almost like a hate crime rather than a crime against property. I have thought of that with regard to Felix, who's worked for us for eight years and to whom we've given all sorts of stuff, from food to cash, furniture, you name it. Fortunately he has never shown any trace of dishonesty whatsoever but the thought has crossed my mind. Some Americans who've lived here for decades have advised us to keep relationships purely on a business basis, pay-for-work kind of thing. Sometimes I think there is some bad blood between Mexicans and Americans that can never be resolved. But others who have lived here for a while swear that's not the case. I hope you find a place in San Miguel, though I agree that the place has changed considerably in just the time we've been here. The American presence has diminished notably, and we're flooded with wealthy Mexicans from DF, Queretaro and Monterrey who are buying property all over the place.Best to you. I hope you find a place you can call home. Al


  20. What your comment shows is that experiences of assimilation are pretty much unique, depending on the person, their expectations and most of all, where they settle. I think that mixed (Mexican/American and also economically mixed, like La Lejona) offer better chances of mingling and getting to know your neighbors. I also agree that it takes works. I too know people who've lived here forever and can't order a cup of coffee, a habit that is enabled by Mexicans who live off the tourist trade and learn English to survive. I'd like to meet your friend who had a TV show and three husbands… she sounds like fun.Thank you so much for your comment.al


  21. Ah, if that were true. I migrated from Cuba to the U.S. many years ago and still speak Spanish. It helps immeasurably in dealing with service providers, vendors etc. but it hasn't won me many friends. I think the problem is that Cuban Spanish is different from Mexican Spanish, which tags me as a foreigner the minute I open my mouth. Your suggestion to get involved in Mexican culture is well taken though. Sometimes we retreat into the gringo bubble too easily. We have met many Canadians though, from Vancouver, Edmonton, Toronto and Montreal and count them as friends. We've often wished we could move to Canada, but eh, those winters remind us too much of Chicago where we came from.Thanks for your comment.al


  22. Mark: As I said in my email reply, your story resembles ours. We retired at age 57 and moved down here. We moved around four times during our first four years in San Miguel before building our house, which coincidentally is in one of the areas you mention, between San Miguel and Queretaro. It's lovely out here, though during the winter the dryness and dust can get to you. That said, I would suggest that you rent for six or eight months and scope out the place to see if this is what you like. San Miguel is extremely gay-friendly; we have more gay, and straight, friends than we had in Chicago, though the gay people we know, alas, are mostly couples. We'll be glad to answer any questions and have you come out to your place when you get here.al


  23. Anonymous

    I read with focused interest your “Where is home Anyway” thoughts.Over the past 21 years we have discussed the so well said points many times over…wondering where we really fit.Yes, we live here. We do not intend to return. Yes we have one foot in the US. Interesting. This came up again just 3 weeks ago when we sold our home in California that had been rented-out for 21 years. We knew we would never return to that environment where it appears people have not changed nor moved while we have grown beyond any expectation…and continue to do so. That said…without ever discussing it, we knew the house was there if for any reason we wanted or needed to be there. Apparently it served as a back-stop of sorts. Now it isn't there. Are we mentally shifting to be more like those we all know that REALLY live here. We think so. It takes me back to a comment from a dear friend 12 years ago when we bought our house here after renting for the prior years. He said “Your life here will now change. You have sent a signal to others, and hopefully yourselves that you live here. Be observant…you will be rewarded.” He was right and that foot in the US has changed to a toe. Such an interesting observation. Your observation is very helpful as we struggle to learn where we fit.


  24. This is one of my favourite posts of yours. As usual, it is thoughtful and thought-provoking. I identify as a native Californian before identifying as a US citizen. In my mid-20's I traveled extensively in Japan, returning to university in between trips to learn to speak, read and write the language. Although I could speak to my Japanese friend's grandmother on the telephone, and order massage services in the public bath, I knew that I would never fit in (at 5'10″ with blond-ish hair and green eyes). I think that makes it easier for my husband and I as we plan a six-month road trip through Mexico to look for a possible new home. We left the States for Canada to escape the gathering storm clouds and to care for my aged in-laws. After four years of hospitals and death, we are ready for sunshine, Spanish language, fresh fruits and vegetables. I have no illusions that we will “fit in,” but I believe that we carry “home” in our hearts, not where our feet rest. More will be revealed…


  25. We're waiting for you down here. Quite frankly I'd move to Canada in a heartbeat except for the Chicago-like weather and the high cost of living. The generally lower cost of living in Mexico will be a pleasant surprise. al


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