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Run for the Border

28 May 2012

I was somewhat disappointed  this exchange in Salon.com between interviewer Katie Ryder and Steven Bender, the author of Run for the Border: Vice and Virtue in U.S.-Mexico Border Crossings (New York University Press, 2012).

Many U.S. citizens go to Mexico to retire, which, as you discuss, has a complicated effect on the Mexican economy. There are benefits to an influx of relatively wealthy people, but there are also very specific ways that it harms the Mexican economy.  

Yes. Like the maquiladora experience in Mexico, the influx of U.S. residents as retirees, or even as buyers of second homes and vacation homes, really leaves a conflicted economic record. Certainly there’s a boost to the local economy, with the initial building of these retirement and other homes, but that tends to be a fleeting economic presence, and if anything it drives up prices and really excludes Mexican residents from the prime real estate. You have this dichotomy then between the sort of walled-in southern-California-type oasis that’s inhabited by the retirees and the working-class housing of the laborers on the other side of the walled-in community. And that’s a dichotomy that we find in the United States as well, but it’s a particularly stark contrast in these Mexican retirement havens.

My disappointment isn’t that Bender appears to cover areas we don’t usually think about when it comes to discussions of U.S.-Mexican economic and social relationship I presume Bender goes into more detail that just making the superficial observation that low-wage service workers generally don’t live as well as those they serve and that can cause resentment, and that rich people drive up the cost of housing.

I’d be much more interested in knowing what effects those retirees are having on things like the social fabric of their communities.

The “gringo enclaves” mentioned by Bender are only a part of the foreign retiree story.    Steven M. Fry (Surviving Yucatan) posted on a gruesome incident in his part of the country (where the retirees are thick on the ground) of what appears to be the result of cultural “interactions” gone horribly wrong. The victim of what appears to have been a murder was a foreigner not well likes, nor known, to his neighbors.  An acquaintance of mine… an octogenarian retiree… died at home, and the body wasn’t discovered for several days, which might not happen in one of those enclaves that Bender mentions, but is part of the retiree story here… U.S. and Canadian retirees — for whom ignoring the neighbors is considered part and parcel of “independence” are perhaps setting themselves up for this kind of incident (not that it would matter to them if they’re dead), but it raises an issue that I don’t see much addressed.  As these foreign retirees become debilitated, how will society deal with them?  Care for the aged is largely a family matter in Mexico, but it is good business to cater to  “independent” living for the aging.  Since these retirees are not voters, nor really part of Mexican culture, I’m not sure whether they would be in a position to “demand” facilities be made available for the dependent, nor will they be in a position to expect much in the way of social support.

In less life-changing matters, the social implications are also in need of discussion.  While I make fun of the foreigners who spend their waking hours in search of Canadian coffee brands, or some exotic appliance like a toaster (though I’ve seen them sold here in Mazatlán, I’ve never seen one in a Mexican kitchen),  the gringo ghettos seem to have been the wedge for the entry of U.S. chains into Mexico.  Stores like “Costco” don’t often find their way into places like Itzapalapa, but you will find them in Puerto Vallarta or Morelia… and in places that have always had consumers oriented towards the U.S., like Hermosillo or Monterrey.  Whether this is a retiree effect or something else, I’d like to know.

And, while I’m technically an “assimilated immigrant” and on the pathway to citizenship, I’m obviously a foreigner, and getting to that age where I’m often mistaken for just another gringo retiree (what’s retirement?  I doubt I could afford it on a Mexican income).   Whether there are enough of us to have any sort of macroeconomic impact I can’t say.  Certainly, I wouldn’t have the impact of, say, Reuben Creel, the Lincoln Administration’s  consul in Chihuahua whose marriage to Angela Terrazas launched a political and economic dynasty that has dominated Chihuahua for over a century.  Individual foreigners, or adopted Mexicans, like silversmith William Spratling or artist and novelist Leonora Carrington… or even temporary residents like William S. Burroughs… made their mark, and in some ways changed the culture (or the Mexican perception of their own culture).  Spratling did have some micro-economic impact, and I know a few people who turn a few pesos out of Burroughs aficionados but do we — and should we — expect to have a “macrosocial” impact?

And do the retirees?

I would hope Run for the Border: Vice and Virtue in U.S.-Mexico Border Crossings would consider these issues, but from the interview, it appears the usual “drugs, oil and Mexican workers in the U.S.” dominate the conversation.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. 28 May 2012 7:44 am

    This is a complicated topic. We are the only full-time USAers in our Colonia which sits about a km and a half from San Marcos and the Xico-Coatepec road in the midst of coffee fincas. Our seasonal USA neighbors are practically invisible so much so that we are not even sure it is they are a brother-in-law who is currently there. Costco in Xalapa I do go to. It is rare to see a USAer in Costco. In the “Greater Xico Metroplex” as another USAer who lives as the only USAer in his neck of Coatepec calls it there are maybe (and it is a wild guess) 60 or 70 USAers including members of the Orquesta and the faculty at UV. Some USAers are here because they married Mexicans. I’m sure there are other regions like ours. We moved here because we had visited this area enough to really, really like it and did NOT really, really like the life of retirees in the US. My husband and I had never gotten over our Peace Corps experience and found there were similarities here in the more jumbled and communal (?) lifestyle. Most of us are somewhere along the learning curve to getting reasonably good in Spanish. We also like that there aren’t a whole lot of us around.

  2. 29 May 2012 12:30 am

    In writing immediately after the news broke of the awful murder of the man in Merida, Fry may have made a mistake on relying upon one early account. As usual, even well-run newspapers often have multiple change in the story as time goes on.

    The very first reports were that 1) the police came upon the criminals moving things out of the house; 2) unfortunate Mr. Wickard was not liked or known by his neighbors; 3) the murder was actually committed by his recently acquired younger partner from Campeche who tried to move 4 other friends into the house.

    Lately, there are many varying tales, but these differences now also appear: 1) the police were called by the neighbors themselves who heard a disturbance at Mr Wickard’s house and were concerned; 2) The police were originally going to only arrest the three criminals for stealing a TV set, but the neighbors stopped them, saying pretty much “a foreigner lives there and we haven’t seen him for many days” so the police entered the house and quickly realized there was body; 3) one account has it that Mr. Wickard raped a drunken young woman, causing a fight during which the woman and a man killed Mr. Wickard.

    Fact is, we don’t know what happened exactly other than the fact that Mr. Wickard was murdered, four people are in custody and a fifth is being sought. Once the attorney general files for arraignment, then we will know what the attorney general’s office believes happened.

    It should be clear that at least several of the latest accounts have the neighbors actually looking out for Mr. Wickard, if a little too late. So, as an example of “ugly American” perhaps this is not an exact fit.

    I find the business about norteamericanos living in gated communities with their poor servants in humble homes on the other sides of the walls a bit rich. Sure, it could be applied to several locations. But in Merida, the vast majority of expats live side-by-side with Mexican neighbors and interact with their block on a daily basis.

    Inflation of home values is certainly a concern. But swaths Merida’s Centro area have been declining for years as families sought more modern accommodations and garages, or at least parking, for their family car, outside of Centro. Expats have restored many fine old buildings in Centro. Yes, the prices have gone up, but many / most homes were sitting vacant due to families gradually moving out anyway.

    I enjoy occasional wild forays into Merida’s CostCo, but there has never been a trip when I have not been outnumbered 200 or more to 1 by the many Yucatecos who fill their tiendas and restaurants of ‘bought-in-quantity’ items, plus the wealthy families who fill the fridge on a daily basis shopping there. Merida’s CostCo existed years before the more recent surge in expat retirees. What I like most about CostCo is their chocolate yogurt and pizza. ;-)

    I’m surprised, too, at the minimalization of the economic impact of expats in Mexico. Maybe it is not an enormous impact on the national economy that they hire a housekeeper, perhaps a gardener, or other help, but it is help for that person, just like the starfish story. Expats consume – at higher rates than most Mexicans – and at all levels from CostCo to the corner taqueria to the local mercado and craftsmen. Expats also travel and host tourists/friends who spend yet more.

    If that blue type is from the book, it doesn’t seem like Bender has spent much time actually living in Mexico (I could be wrong – if he did, perhaps he was not paying attention). Or perhaps his comments are applicable only to a few luxury developments on Cabo or Coastal Mexico without regard for how many other areas of the country exist.

    It sounds to me that I won’t be buying the book because he already seems to have disqualified himself from being credible in relationship to my own experiences.

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