Extranjeros in Mexico: How We Got Here, Why We Stay

By Carole Reedy

While it’s difficult to pinpoint the precise number of immigrants living in Mexico, the 2010 census reveals that less than 1 percent of the population is comprised of foreigners, most of them from other Hispanic countries and the US. That’s about a million extranjeros. The reason it’s challenging to determine the exact number is that some residents stay “under the radar,” living and working on tourist visas or owning homes but not actually living in Mexico.

For centuries, people all over the world have felt compelled to leave their country of birth for human rights and freedom issues or for work opportunities….and even conquest. At the end of the 20 century, employers began sending professionals overseas to their foreign subsidiaries. In a country such as Dubai, for example, just 20 percent of the population are citizens, the rest foreign workers.

Necessity isn’t the only reason for relocation. In Mexico, we’re seeing the Baby Boomer generation ready for retirement and seeking a different, more relaxed way of life and an escape from consumerism. Younger adventurers find satisfaction in Mexico doing their own thing and often finding a life partner. Warm weather and beaches are naturally a draw, but Mexico brings something more: the warmth of the sun extends beyond temperature.

Tourists fall in love with the people of Mexico, the relaxed lifestyle, the respect for the ancient culture, the artesanias, the juxtaposition of life and death, the contradictions (and, yes, even the inconveniences), and the opportunities for adventure that Mexico presents. They return year after year, many of them taking the plunge to realize the dream of permanent residence to begin a new life. Many look at it as a renewal.

Mexico City, known as DF (Distrito Federal) and the largest city in the country, is home to the majority of expats. The smallest state of Tlaxcala (just to the east of DF) has the least. San Miguel de Allende has a large population of Americans and is home to several language schools, as are the cities of Cuernavaca, Guadalajara, and Oaxaca City. After the financial crisis of 2004, many Argentines relocated to Mexico.

The sentiments for Mexico are best understood in the following testimonies of expats who have lived in Mexico from 4 to 40 years. Here’s a sampling of the reasons they came…and why they stay:

Barbara, 40 years in Mexico (from Glasgow to Mexico City)

I arrived in Mexico City 40 years ago with an Appalachian zither and a guitar (neither of which I could play), one small suitcase, a pink trouser suit, and high heels. Visiting Mexico was rather fortuitous, the sum of apparently unconnected circumstances, a need for change brought on by death, a bad relationship, and so on. Originally I was going only to New York but I bumped into a friend, recently married to a Mexican and soon due to leave for Mexico City, who invited me to stay with her. I accepted. The rest is the same old story: marriage, children, etc. I’ve never actually committed myself to the idea of staying forever, but most would say I have done so de facto.

Erik, 17 years in Mexico (From Toronto to Tlaxcala)

In my life-changing affair, Canada is the nice, stable-butrather boring wife with periodic icy cold spells who I could not imagine leaving until I fell head over heels with the exciting, warm, passionate Mexicana (not the airline). That infatuation grew and matured to where it remade and renewed my attitude, personality, and lifestyle, not to mention allowing me to build the Mayan castle where we live, attend many bullfights, and drive from high forests to the Veracruz beach in a couple of hours. Every day brings stimulation, pleasure, challenges, and decent vodka at US $5 a liter.

Harper, 4 years in Mexico (from Missouri, USA to San Miguel de Allende)

Sitting in my Victorian house in the Midwest (US). Listening to the ice-bundled branches of the trees in my yard snap, pop, and hit the roof. Unable to get my car out of the garage due to frozen hinges on garage door. Another month of winter to go. Music, that’s what I need. DVD into the player and Lila Downs singing Oaxaca to my soul. Less than three months later I land in Mexico, never to return north or look back. I love my adopted country, the people, traditions, the weather.

Four years later: Last week my husband and I returned to San Miguel from a trip to the US, and while our housekeeper was cleaning our home in San Miguel, we went out to breakfast. A few hours after we returned, Bob said “Harper why did you unpack my suitcase?” I hadn’t. Turns out the housekeeper had unpacked and put away everything in his suitcase. An hour later he said “Where are my reading glasses?” I said “Phone the housekeeper.” She had cleaned the glasses, put them into their case, and put the case beside his book on the bedside table. You ask this expat why she lives in Mexico!

Susan, 42 years in Mexico (from Walla Walla, Washington to Cuernavaca)

In 1968 I fell in love with my husband, Antonio, and Mexico too when I first came here as an exchange student. I feel very fortunate living in Cuernavaca, where I can swim outdoors year-round and enjoy a beautiful garden. I do my shopping in the little town just a few minutes away at tienditas and fruterias that look the same today as they did 40 years ago, with friendly people who have time to pass on tips for making salsa and where you can still find a shoe-repair shop, grilled corn on the cob, and freshly squeezed orange juice stands. Most importantly, we have great friends with whom we share common interests (some of them also expats with Mexican spouses) and we seem to simply have more fun here than we do north of the border!

Jane, 40 years in Mexico (from a small town in Eastern England to Mexico City)

I met my husband on a blind date when he was doing his doctorate at the Royal Veterinary College in London. On his return to Mexico my future husband invited me for a holiday, but not wanting to give me a false impression, he decided to show me the worst of his country (example: eating tacos in the Texcoco market with street dogs looking for scraps beneath the table, which was quite a jolt for “well-brought up” English girl). So we met up several months later in Canada where he was offered an internship. We were eventually married one freezing January morning which made us set our sights on returning as soon as we could to a warmer and more colorful Mexico. There are three main reasons I’ve stayed in México: the climate, the food, and the husband…in that order. But seriously, I’ve experienced the entire range of human emotions in this country except for one: I have never been bored– frustrated many times–but never bored. Perhaps this is the secret of my happy permanence in this unpredictable country.

Annabella, 30 years in Mexico (from Africa to Tepotzlan)

As a child growing up in Africa, the sound of Latin music on the radio was enough to send me off into a cloud and to a place more interesting that my own. Then, as a journalist in London, I met my first Mexicans. We drank tequila and laughed to the glorious romantic music of Mariachis. That did it! I arrived in Mexico over thirty years ago with a Mexican husband and a baby boy under each arm. I raised three children in Mexico City and the surrounding hills; the children grew up loving their country, one reason for me to stay. I can’t imagine a country with more potential, not just materialistic opportunities, but spiritual and emotional growth. Here, flexibility reigns over rigidity.

Gretchen, 11 years in Mexico (from Texas to Tlaxcala)

My husband and I are in Mexico because he’s an explorer. We lived on the border (Eagle Pass, Texas, and Piedras Negras, Coahuila) for about 12 years and launched road trips from there. We came to Tlaxcala because we had friends here and it felt safe. We stay because it is.

Melissa, 4 years in Mexico (from Ottawa, Canada to San Agustinillo, Oaxaca)

Why I came to Mexico is not the same reason I stay. I came to Mexico because I love the country and its people. My reasons for staying here long-term are more practical. I live in a paradise on the beach with my wonderful husband who I met here. I can live for a month on what I would spend on rent alone in Toronto. I miss my family and old friends in Canada, but as long as my children keep visiting, I am happy here. It would not have been possible for me to stay without the internet, which keeps us in contact daily. I realize it’s not the same as hugging and smelling them, but it keeps me in the loop. In today’s world, if you want to be close to your kids, get Facebook!

Betty, 17 years in Mexico (from San Francisco to San Miguel de Allende)

I spent many years traveling throughout Mexico. When I first came to San Miguel I somehow knew it would be my home. I returned several times before making that decision, which was fueled by work issues, the difficulty of living in SF, and a compelling feeling that I needed my oldest son to be more independent. I stay because this is now my home. I know how to get what I need here and I have lots of friends. I love knowing all of the taxi drivers, all the people in the small shops, and many Mexican people I see in the street frequently. Also, I love the culture of this town, all of the fiestas, the fireworks, the church bells. Knowing what it all means is such a gift.

Author Julian Barnes continues by saying: “Over the years however, you may discover that the alluring differences only half conceal grinding similarities. You may also start noticing aspects of the otherness that you dislike, or which seem aimed at destroying what initially drew you to the country.”

Most expats, especially those who have been here for many years, agree that the country has changed and (over)grown, local customs being replaced by cheap imitations–chain stores and restaurants, malls taking over small businesses. It’s also true that some expats love the ability to get fine wines and foreign gastronomic treats previously unavailable here.

There’s no question though that, for the money, expats can’t imagine finding anywhere else the fine quality of life and the fun they have in Mexico. As one interviewee said “This isn’t just a new chapter in my life–it’s a whole new book, with a happy ending.”

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