Immigration---- the flip side
As more Americans flock to enclaves in Mexico, some see commercial boon while others fear culture dilution
By Linda Lutton
Copyright © 2006, Chicago Tribune
Published August 23, 2006
AJIJIC, Mexico -- Diane Steimle figures her life has been a slow journey south and west.
After growing up outside Rockford and spending years in Palatine, she worked in Albuquerque and Santa Fe before crossing the border and moving to Mexico.
"Moving 1,300 miles south is not that far of a stretch," said Steimle, 55.
Now she's the owner of a two-bedroom Mexican home on a romantic, shady, cobblestone street in Ajijic, in western Mexico. Her kitchen is painted bright green, and her second-floor balcony looks out onto tile rooftops and Lake Chapala -- a 50-mile-wide lake considered one of Mexico's natural treasures.
While the immigration debate has become heated in the U.S., Steimle and the thousands of other Americans living in this small town are a reminder that immigration can be a two-way street.
Just as Mexicans are the largest immigrant group in the United States, Americans are the largest immigrant group in Mexico. And of the 4 million to 6 million American citizens who live outside the United States, the U.S. Bureau of Consular Affairs says, more are in Mexico than in any other nation.
In this former fishing town on the shores of Lake Chapala, Americans have created a community that bears a striking similarity to immigrant communities in the United States. A critical mass of Americans here has made this place feel a lot like -- well, like America.
Think waffles for breakfast, imported Wisconsin cheddar cheese, WGN-TV. Think Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, Catholic mass and a 30,000-book library -- all in English.
"There's nothing you can't get," says Steimle, who moved here almost four years ago for the climate and the affordability, and because after years in the Southwest she was comfortable in a Hispanic culture. Steimle says that some days she hears less Spanish spoken in Ajijic than she did in Sante Fe.
"We have Wal-Mart here. We have Home Depot. We have Applebee's. `The Da Vinci Code' opened the same day here as it did in the U.S. ... I could probably go a complete day here without a reminder that I'm in another country."
In Ajijic, local businesses have sprung up to offer help with immigration issues and real estate transactions. Signs on a community bulletin board urge American citizens to register to vote. (The Democratic and Republican parties have chapters here.) There are multiple American Legion posts. If you die here, you can still be buried with U.S. military honors.
No one keeps an exact count of how many Americans and Canadians live here permanently -- estimates run between 5,000 and 10,000. Ajijic and nearby Chapala are said to form the largest retirement community outside the United States, but many here are much younger.
Because of the foreigners' presence, questions of language, culture and assimilation that the United States is wrestling with are issues here as well. There are even spats over Americans working illegally in Mexico.
"I think there's a lot of people working illegally -- they're very quiet about it because they could be deported at any time," said Judy King, a 16-year Ajijic resident and editor of an online magazine about life in the Chapala region. "Anytime we hear a rumor that they're coming out from the immigration offices to check papers, a bunch of folks make fast trips to the States."
Turning in competitors
In San Miguel de Allende, the largest colony of Americans in Mexico, a Mexican realty group threatened in May to turn over foreign Realtors' names to the Mexican immigration service. They charged that the American Realtors were operating without work permits and cutting Mexicans out of one of the best-paying jobs -- selling houses to Americans.
Other Americans work illegally as home health-care attendants, handymen or house sitters.
American officials do not consider Americans working illegally in Mexico to be a widespread problem. And some Mexican officials don't seem worried either.
Hermenegildo Castro Ojeda, spokesman for Mexico's national immigration service, says there are 493,000 foreigners with non-tourist visas in Mexico -- 30 percent of them Americans. Thousands of others may live undocumented, having overstayed tourist visas.
"You've got to look at the proportions," he says. "Out of 100 million people, we have a foreign population of less than 1 percent."
Like a lot of other Americans in Ajijic, Steimle doesn't necessarily think of herself as an immigrant. "I think about it less as `living in a different country' and more about living somewhere better on the planet," she says. Other Americans think of themselves as "guests," still others as expatriates.
King thinks of herself as a future Mexican citizen. She says she now thinks "with a Mexican head. When I go back to Iowa and Missouri and Minnesota to visit, I don't fit in there anymore."
Americans have been settling in this region since the early 1900s, when Ajijic and Chapala were tourist destinations for foreign travelers and home to American and European artists and writers. Until recently, most who ventured here were interested in a certain degree of assimilation. They were attracted by Mexico's culture and people.
But a new type of immigrant has arrived here, one interested in "importing lifestyle," according to David Truly, associate professor of geography at Central Connecticut State University, who researches retirement migration to the area.
"I found that a lot of people [in the Ajijic area] really weren't into the Mexican culture -- they were down there for the climate and the lower cost of living. They ... kind of hung around with Americans in Mexico. They bought a lot of their food and items from Wal-Mart and Sam's. They preferred doing business with Americans."
Americans can now set up a lifestyle nearly identical to the one they had in the United States, said Truly, thanks to advances in communications and a weakening of trade restrictions in the 1990s.
Many of these new migrants live in gated communities built into the hills above Ajijic and the other lakefront villages. They can use one of the two Mailboxes, Etc. offices in the area instead of the Mexican postal service.
Steimle thinks often about how much Americans here are benefiting the local community -- the same equation people like to work in the U.S., calculating whether immigrants contribute more to society than they take away.
But for some, it's a fast answer: Americans pump money into Mexico's economy, and that's what counts.
Ajijic's American and Canadian residents hire maids and gardeners who earn inflated wages of around $3 per hour. Construction workers are busy all year. Foreigners' money also supports other businesses -- from restaurants and espresso bars to nail salons and art supply stores. A slew of charitable groups work on everything from lake cleanup efforts to getting computers into schools and helping disabled kids obtain wheelchairs.
But not all the news is good for locals. Property values have soared here, making it nearly impossible for Ajijic natives to buy land in their own town. Other negatives of the boom in foreigners: traffic jams, overstressed infrastructure -- with raw sewage from new subdivisions pouring into the already polluted lake -- and a sometimes awkward coexistence of economic extremes.
Norberto Nunez, 47, has been coming to Ajijic to sell the family's hand-woven rugs since he was a teen. "At first, things were good," recalls Nunez. But business is flagging.
"They want everything cheap," he complains in Spanish.
A boom in rents
The booming real estate market has pushed the cost of the single room he rents to 2,000 pesos per month, nearly $200 -- about $80 more than a minimum-wage earner would make in a month. Many in Ajijic -- both foreigners and Mexicans -- charge rent in dollars. A two-bedroom house is going for between $600 and $800, locals say.
The irony is that an inflated market in Mexico could actually push locals to migrate to the United States. Ajijic, Chapala and other lake communities have migrants in el norte.
Some Americans who moved to Mexico for the culture are now eyeing less developed towns than Ajijic. In nearby Jocotepec, foreigners looking for a more authentic (and less expensive) Mexican experience are building homes near the edge of that town -- sometimes on as many as five lots.
That's good for Jocotepec, says local shopkeeper Juan Manuel Solis, who runs a tiny store that looks like hundreds of others in Mexico. From behind the counter he dispenses cold soda, beer, snacks and a small selection of pirated DVDs.
"They're peaceful people, and they give jobs to Mexicans -- construction, cleaning, gardening jobs -- and they pay well," Solis says.
So what if Jocotepec becomes like Ajijic -- with lots of Americans?
"No!" Solis says quickly. "Not that many! The Americans don't buy anything from stores like mine," he says. "They go to Sam's."