Gringolandia — The U.S. Migrant Boom Hits Mexico

April 2, 2007

By Kent Paterson

Elizabeth Rogers and Alex Kelly embarked on the trip of their lives. Selling their Chicago condominium, the couple flew to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, this past winter for a needed break from the old work routine. Based in beautiful but expensive Banderas Bay, the young travelers visited beaches, endured roving street vendors and explored the wonders of the tropical Pacific coast, a place where the waters hop with migratory humpback whales, dolphins and sea turtles. Rogers was struck by the gay-friendly atmosphere. “A lot of rainbow-colored flags and that kind of thing, which is nice,” said the young woman. “That’s accepted down here, I think.”

Lodged in a Puerto Vallarta condo, the Rogers-Kelly team quickly stumbled across the pricey real estate market that defines Puerto Vallarta and surrounding areas. Timeshare vendors hustled the couple, and ads for expensive properties leaped into their eyes from the pages of slick magazines and newspapers. “There is undeveloped land, developed land, high rise condos, gated communities,” Kelly observed.

Finding Puerto Vallarta a pleasant stay, the midwestern couple nevertheless departed for the next leg of their world journey. Other US visitors, however, are purchasing homes and remaining in Puerto Vallarta for the long haul.

Mark Anthony Venegas should know. A native of Carlsbad, New Mexico, Venegas lived in San Francisco before moving to Mexico in 2003. Now heading a “full-service” real estate company in Puerto Vallarta, Venegas brokers properties, helps potential customers get financing and arranges for new homes to be built on empty lots. One division of Venegas’ business caters to gay homebuyers.

Seated in the air-conditioned comfort of his office in Puerto Vallarta’s Olas Alas neighborhood, Venegas pointed to the push of the “rat race” and the pull of community, typified by a traditional family-centered culture, as attractions that convince gringos to move south. And as in his case, the prevailing state of politics north of the Rio Grande is a growing part of the picture, Venegas said.

“I love the US. It’s the greatest country in the world. However, it’s going through some difficult times right now with the Bush administration and the war and everything else,” he said. “And so yes, I do believe there are a lot of expatriates that are down here dissatisfied with what’s happening in the US.”

Ken Grover, a longtime US-born resident of Puerto Vallarta who works in the marketing business, observed that an earlier gringo migrant wave tended to be polarized between affluent migrants and poor ones. “There were two extremes,” Grover said. Nowadays, a lot of the newer migrants are better-off baby boomers who are still forced to stretch their dollars, according to Grover. Still, a respectable number of the new Mexican residents must work for a living — just like their darker-skinned neighbors. For some, trying to survive on pesos is a bitter jolt of reality.

Almost entirely ignored by a press more interested in undocumented Mexicans in the United States is the phenomenon of US-born workers who labor away in the service and professional sectors without the proper papers. A company that runs a Puerto Vallarta call center promises Canadians and Americans “help in attaining the proper work documentation necessary.”

The New Migrant Wave

A recent, path-breaking article published in Dissent magazine described a group that doesn’t learn the new language, displays its native flag, maintains its traditional customs, and even celebrates its old holidays in the new country. “Some live and work without proper documentation and have even been involved in the illegal transport of drugs across borders,” stated the piece. Sound familiar?

Written by Sheila Croucher, a professor of political science at Ohio’s Miami University who is studying US migration to Mexico, the article delved into the complex aspects of the new Gringolandia south of the border. Professor Croucher found that many of the same issues that surround the Mexican immigrant community in the US ring true with the US immigrant community in Mexico as well. As Croucher summarized it in an interview with Frontera Norte Sur, “The precise things that politicians and pundits are railing against in the US.”

Nobody knows for sure how many people of US origin reside in Puerto Vallarta and other regions of Mexico, but Croucher said that one US State Department estimate made several years ago pegged the number at about 600,000 souls. Since 9-11, the US government has become reticent about disclosing information concerning US citizens living abroad, Croucher added.

In addition to the older haunts of San Miguel de Allende and Lake Chapala in central Mexico, newer gringo “clusters” are emerging along the Baja California peninsula, at Rocky Point (Puerto Peñasco) in Sonora, around Banderas Bay in Jalisco and Nayarit, in Zihuatanejo-Ixtapa and Troncones in Guerrero, and along the Mayan Riviera on the Caribbean Coast.

Mirroring Mexican immigrant communities north of the border, US migrant communities in Mexico boast their own social and civic organizations, participate in the political life of the old country and enjoy access to native-language newspapers, radio programs and cablevision.

The 2004 US presidential campaign signaled the new importance of the US migrant population in Mexico. Speaking by telephone from Mexico City, Croucher recounted how the Democratic Party dispatched former Clinton Administration official Ana Maria Salazar to round up the expatriate vote, while the Republican Party sent President Bush’s nephew, George P. Bush, to rally his party’s faithful. In the town of San Miguel de Allende alone, the Democrats raised US$10,000 for Kerry’s bid, Croucher added.

“After 2000 it became clear to people how close the elections could be and the importance of the vote abroad,” Croucher affirmed.

A good percentage of the US migrants complain about the drift of politics as well as the propensity for over regulation back in the states. A young woman from the United States, who preferred to identify herself only as Denise, has tasted the world from Pakistan to Puerto Vallarta. The world traveler contended that the strict security measures on US borders symbolize the end of liberty as we once knew it, and represent a closing window on the rest of the global community.

“It’s a freedom thing, nobody likes to be controlled,” she said. “In the states, it’s black and white. Here there is a gray area. If you get stopped in the states, you always get a ticket.”

For Croucher, economics, specifically health care costs, are far more influential in driving US citizens to Mexico than either George W. Bush or the local street cop. Many Mexican dental clinics and doctor’s offices in the border region and points south thrive on a growing US clientele. Fees are reasonable, prescription medicines are affordable, appointments are given in minutes or hours instead of weeks or months, and the quality of service is good, “Americans I talk to have nothing but positive things to say about health care in Mexico.” Croucher said.

Considering that the looming mass retirement of the baby boomers coincides with the growing meltdown of the US health care system, Croucher noted a certain irony in the snappy remarks of commentators who accuse Mexico of exporting its problems to the US. “We’re exporting our problems abroad,” Croucher contended.

Canadians are also moving to Mexico, but many are more apt to complain about Washington than Ottawa.

Mexico For Sale

“The entire country of Mexico is booming with Americans investing,” realtor Venegas concluded. He was quick to add that foreigners interested in buying property in Mexico have it easier than anytime in the past. Even though the nation’s Constitution prohibits foreign land ownership near coasts or borders, foreign buyers can now obtain renewable, 50-year trust deeds that grant all the rights of buying and selling. Mexican banks, most of which are now owned by foreigners, administer the properties for annual fees that average about US$500 for individual homes.

Low property taxes coupled with the availability of Mexican home mortgages in the United States are two incentives for foreign buyers. In contrast to the United States, however, prospective homeowners must plop down a bigger cash down payment — something in the neighborhood of 20 percent. With prices for condos and homes quoted in five or six figures, buying a property in Puerto Vallarta and many other markets is not for the budget-minded.

A local trade publication, the Vallarta Real Estate Guide, recently estimated that real estate sales in the Puerto Vallarta-Banderas Bay region jumped from US$400 million in 2004 to US$550 million in 2005. “Gold Rush Days are Here Again,” ballyhooed the publication. Familiar US real estate companies including Century 21, Prudential and Coldwell Banker have representatives throughout the country, and friendly, English-speaking salesmen and women regularly emerge from their strategically placed offices in front of the tourist pedestrian traffic.

Locals report that some Mexican landowners and homeowners are cashing in on the real estate market, selling off their properties in trendy places like Puerto Vallarta’s old downtown, or “Gringo Gulch,” as it is called. Locally home prices are beyond reach for the average Mexican citizen, according to Marina Perez, a Puerto Vallarta environmentalist and longtime resident. Consequently, many Mexicans fall into the old Third World practice of purchasing cheap land or squatting on empty lots located on urban outskirts.

“Puerto Vallarta has always been expensive, but with all this going on home prices are going through the roof. The average citizen can’t obtain a decent house, unless it is through low-income government programs,” Perez said. “So what happens to the people who come without money and don’t have access to the government housing programs? They go up on the mountain and get a lot. It doesn’t matter to them whether or not they have electricity, water or sewage.”

The lure of the shantytown is not surprising. After all, wages in the service-oriented tourist industry are low. A young Wal-Mart worker, who holds what is regarded as one of the “better” jobs in Puerto Vallarta, reluctantly disclosed earning a few hundred dollars a month — a pitiful income in a city whose prices mimic those in the United States. Wal-Mart workers are instructed by the company not to reveal their salaries to strangers or reporters, she added. In San Miguel de Allende, Croucher found a similar economic dynamic. “Mexicans will say yes, there are more jobs in the service industry, but we shop in the same stores and pay the same prices.”

In the broader picture, a combination of high real estate prices but low property taxes could be depriving municipalities like Puerto Vallarta and San Miguel de Allende of much-needed sources of extra revenue. Many foreign owners reside in their properties only part of the year and attempt to rent them out to other foreigners at other times, frequently demanding dollars that are then deposited in US banks. In a reversal of J. Ross Perot’s NAFTA-induced “giant-sucking sound,” it’s a cash flow that trickles out of the local Mexican economy in ever-greater amounts.

In the Long Term

Of course, it’s way early to assess all the cultural, economic, social and even political impacts of the gringo population boom in Mexico. In places like Puerto Vallarta, the trappings of culture, music, language, cuisine, social behavior, and even spatial ambience are undergoing visible and audible transformations. In nightclubs, the music of Shakira easily mixes with the blues of Eric Clapton. On the streets, English words increasingly infiltrate signs and scream from billboards. Franchises of Hooter’s, Wal-Mart, Burger King, McDonald’s, and Dominos continue to sprout up everywhere.

Like Mexican immigrants who find familiar product brands and culturally-popular businesses like hairstyling salons in the barrios of El Norte, US immigrants in Nueva Gringolandia have ready access to services from home, whether through the Internet or on the ground. The ageless, rowdy boomers who tear down the roof every night at the tequila-soaked Andale! bar in Puerto Vallarta, can then soothe their hangover seared aching muscles with a California-style massage the next day.

Stirring deeper, morsels of low culture and high culture swirl in the expanding stew. Reminiscent of upscale Southern California or Bay Area eateries, Alaskan crab legs, fusion cuisine and Asian flavors are now regular menu items. A hip new restaurant in Puerto Vallarta offers spicy duck quesadillas concocted with Oaxaca cheese, mushrooms and chile-Hoisin sauce.

A tense, uncertain cosmopolitanism is emerging on Mexico’s West Coast. English, Spanish and Canadian French are frequently heard in the same social venue, while Mexican indigenous languages spoken by street vendors trying to hawk handicrafts or gum to the better-off foreigners are heard off to the side. Before too long, expect Chinese to be part of the regular linguistic fare. Unlike the hot button issue of Mexican flags in the US, displays of US, Canadian and Mexican flags wave together without raising major hackles in places like Zihuatanejo or Puerto Vallarta.

On the artistic and literary fronts, the newcomers are making their mark too. Puerto Vallarta’s spacious public library, which offers free Internet access, was built with the financial assistance of foreigners. English-language books are available for borrowers to take home. While it might be said that Mexico is suffering a “technical brain drain” because of the migration of many professional Mexicans to the United States, it might be stated too that the US is now beginning to suffer an “artistic brain drain” due to the flight of creative individuals. “I think there are a lot of wonderful writers, artists, intellectuals that are coming down,” Puerto Vallarta long-timer Ken Grover celebrated.

Some lament what they regard as the contamination of Mexican culture by rampant consumerism imported from the United States. Credit cards are back in fashion in Mexico, and status symbols prevail. According to world “citizen” Denise, a money game goes on between Mexican nationals and migrants. “You get a lot of Americans here who think they can overrun Mexicans with money,” she added, “but Mexicans aren’t stupid. They’ll charge them double for everything.”

In comparison to the immigration debate-polarized US, Miami University’s Sheila Croucher hasn’t detected a nationalistic resentment in Mexico boiling up against the gringo migrants — at least until now. According to Croucher, natives of San Miguel de Allende maintain that the gringo presence allows the town to economically survive. Intriguingly, Croucher has heard more put-downs against the newer arrivals voiced by longer-established gringos. “The idea,” she mused, “that these newcomers are messing up ‘our’ authentic Mexican towns.”

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