Finding the American Dream In Mexico

For One Million Americans, Mexico is Home 

   MERIDA, Mex. – At some point last fall, the one-millionth American established residency here in Mexico. That makes Mexico the host nation for the largest American expatriate community in the world. There are now more Americans living in Mexico than there are in the U.K. or Canada.

This trend is accelerating as the U.S. recession deepens and job losses across the United States accelerate. “We’ve seen an increase of almost 40 percent in the number of American citizens making inquiries about the requirements for moving to Mexico,” said an official at the Mexican Consulate in New York. “There are definitely more Americans emigrating to Mexico than this time last year.”

This is confirmed by recruiters and global relocation firms. “Mexico is supposed to be gearing up for a great year right now,” Annie Levy Sandin, of Emerging Globe Group, a recruiting firm.

That Americans are moving to Mexico is nothing new, but the kinds of Americans who are establishing themselves have changed.

“For decades you’ve had three kinds of Americans coming here,” said Ramon Segura, an importer-exporter with decades of experience working with foreign nationals.

“Foremost is the retirees, who can have a higher standard of living in Mexico than they could in the U.S. Then there were the professionals who were sent here by their companies or were here on business. And of course, there were those trying to make a clean break from their pasts – usually men escaping alimony, child support, business failures or the country that sent them to Vietnam.”

But now there are two other kinds of Americans moving to Mexico: those who are starting or raising families and entrepreneurs seeking greater opportunities.

“Top of the list is that the economic benefits of being here allow us both to spend far more time with our son Johnny than we would be allowed if we lived the same style of life back in the New York,” said John Rogers, who moved from New York to Merida. “We would both have to work full time and our child would be raised with home help and daycare. To be able to personally care for him and watch his daily development is a luxury that we fully appreciate, and it seems a more natural and beneficial way to live.”

A generation ago, it would have raised eyebrows for a New York couple to decide to have their child be born in Mexico, but with state-of-the-art medical facilities, bilingual doctors, and communities that are structured to support and encourage families, more foreign couples are realizing that in Mexican cities, such as Merida, families with children are welcomed.

“The Mexican people around us here in Merida and the Yucatan peninsula are very family-oriented and absolutely love babies,” John Rogers added. It’s not unusual to enter a restaurant and have the waiter eagerly ask to hold the guests’ baby and take him for a tour of the kitchen. “The affection is genuine and heartwarming to watch. The same goes for shopkeepers, the ladies at the local market, casual acquaintances.”

The number of new English-speaking mothers is so great that Roberta Graham organized a breastfeeding support group for young mothers. Women from the United States, Canada, and Europe socialize as they share their experiences of being new mothers in a community that dotes over babies and children.

Those with young children are also making their way to Mexico. John and Nicole Larson drove from Minnesota to the Yucatan to start new lives with their daughter, a toddler. “We think that the combination of language, culture, people, customs, and traditions here would have an indelible and overwhelmingly positive effect on her,” John Larson said. Although they have not found work with a Mexican company, they are still in the process of settling down. “My wife and I are both self-employed, so while we don’t make as much money as some of our peers, one of our currencies is freedom and the ability to work anywhere,” John Larson explains. “We keep the focus on results with our clients, not where or how the work gets done. Two recurring themes from all the expatriates we meet here are opportunity and reinvention. There is a lot of business opportunity here and many people, on purpose and sometimes by accident, find themselves switching careers and working in a new industry.”

The Larsen’s are not alone among American’s pursuing business opportunities in a more receptive climate. “Merida has welcomed me with open arms, and I could not be happier,” said Vince Gricus, who relocated here after a career with TWA in St. Louis. “I arrived here and I did what I always wanted to do: open a bed and breakfast.”

Describing his experience as “wonderful,” Gricus explains how his neighbors have become like family to him, and how he has been able to transform Casa Santiago into one of the B&Bs that are consistently ranked among the favorites on the online travel referral service TripAdvisor.

The locals have been gracious and surprised by the influx of Americans settling down in their midst. Eugenia Montalvan, editor of the city’s premier cultural magazine, Unas Letras summed up the sentiment in one word: Welcome!

Mesoamerica, a foundation with strong roots in the community, has gone as far as to establish an English-language Literary Salon. Under the direction of Katalina McNulty, who describes herself as an “unrepentant” hippie from Berkeley, the salon assembles each Monday to discuss topics ranging from feminism in the 21st Century to George Orwell to how manners in the modern world have changed. “It’s wonderful to have weekly readings and the opportunity to engage in lively discussions,” she explained.

The number of Americans and Canadians relocating to Mexico is resulting is peculiar developments. In Merida, for instance, there are enough newcomers to justify an English-language lending library — The Merida English Language Library, is affectionately known as “MELL,” and is also a member of the American Library Association. “The biggest event is our annual chili cook-off,” explained Reginald Deneau, MELL’s administrator. “This is a wonderful place.”

Merida city government cooperates by granting permits to close off streets for this fundraising event. Gricus, of Casa Santiago, echoes that sentiment. “Civic involvement is open to anyone, and there are many opportunities to become involved.” For his part, he helped start the Merida Bed & Breakfast Association to help visitors find the perfect accommodations when visiting.

Rogers, a movie executive, has become the unofficial spokesman for the American expatriate community in Merida. Featured in the Los Angeles Times, he is quick to point out the distorted image the American media paints of the violence in Mexico.

“Although the mainstream media would have you believe that all of Mexico is on the verge of a violent drug-fueled meltdown, the areas affected by those unfortunate problems are far from where we live, and are mostly restricted to those in the drug trade, or those directly combating them,” he said. “To get swept up in any of the problems it seems you’d have to go out of your way to get involved or to travel into the cities that are afflicted – not likely if you have any common sense.”

Gricus expressed the new sentiment of the Americans making their home to Mexico this way: “I never would have thought that to live out the American Dream I’d have to move to Mexico, but there it is!”

NAM contributor Louis E.V. Nevaer. His book, “The Hispanic & Latino Employee,” will be published in December 2009

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