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Then and now… selling Mexico

11 May 2009

If you consider moving to Mexico, hoping that a new country will improve your financial situation, it might be worth remembering what happened to the “first family” of gringo Mexpats — the Austins.

The sensitive real estate salesman

The sensitive real estate salesman

Everyone (or at least Texans… and they’re everyone, right?) remembers Stephen F.  — who moved to Mexico back when it was still Nuevo Espagna to sell “unique investment opportunities in MEXICO!” to the gringos… who promptly over-ran the place, led to less-scrupulous investors setting up as competitors and leaving him a broken (and broke) embittered man… and a Mexican turncoat.

Even those of us with slightly purer motives  — wanting a cheap way to maintain a lifestyle should take heed.  And, especially, those of us who have the idea that we can maintain that lifestyle by writing about…. oh…. how to live in Mexico and maintain a gringo lifestyle.

Perhaps it’s not Stephen F. Austin we need to think about, but his cousin, Mary Austin Holley.

Born in Connecticut in 1784, Mary was fortunate to enjoy the educational opportunities open to women in her native town of New Haven, becoming especially knowledeable in the fine arts (a genuine rarity in the early United States).  When she married the Reverend Horace Holley in 1801, she planned to settle into the conventional life of a New England minister’s wife, and school-ma’rm, although she dabbled in writing from time to time, and assisted Horace with his own intellectual labors.  From 1805 to 1808, the Holleys lived in Greenfield, Connecticut where they boarded Mary’s young cousin from the west, Stephen F. Austin.

Stephen, who was 12 when he came to live with the Holleys, spent his adolescence in under the Holley roof — where art, music, literature and Christian precepts were the order of the day.  Developing what would prove to be a life-long crush on his older cousin, the teenager dared hope for a career that would allow him the leisure to pursue intellectual and esthetic interests.

Stephen’s  father, Moses, had already started what was to become the family tradition of  cross-border wheeler-dealering.  Shortly after the American Revolution, Moses — having already failed in a retail business in Philadelphia, found his niche as one of the United States’ first defense contractors — and defense industry lobbyists.

Convincing investors to put up the money for a Virginia lead mine was easy.  Lead, of course, was essential to a lot of things at the time, among them, bullets.  Moses, looking to make a hefty return, convinced the Washington Administration to pass a bill protecting the American lead industry from foreign imports, and — more importantly — buy HIS lead.

Which wasn’t as much lead as Moses and his investors thought.  So… taking along four-year old Stephen, Moses packed up and moved across the Mississippi into what was at the time Spanish Luisiana to mine lead in what’s now Missouri.  There, Moses swore allegience to Carlos IV, and — no surprise — began lobbying the viceroy in Mexico City to buy Spanish-American lead for HIS defense forces.

Napoleon Bonaparte sort of put a kibosh on that move… annexing Luisiana back to France, then turning around and selling it to the United States.  The flexible Moses changed his citizenship back, but the Jefferson administration wasn’t nearly as business-friendly (or, at least not as Moses Austin friendly) as its predecesor, and.. besides… the new Northwest Territory was a bit off the beaten track.

Getting yourself ON the beaten track meant there had to be people beating a path to your door… and, as it was, Moses caught on that western real estate sales had a booming future.  So, while Stephen was packed off to the Holleys for an eduation, Moses neglected the mining business and focused on land sales.

The mother of all "My life in Mexico" bloggers

The mother of all "My life in Mexico" bloggers

By the time Stephen was in college, studying the law (which, with luck, would allow him to write, or paint, or enjoy musical performances in some civilized community) the mine’s investors had begun to lose patience with Moses.  The value of their stock was… er… plummeting.  Partly (maybe mostly) to  avoid the inevidible lawsuits, and to attempt to pay off the debts, Moses pulled Stephen out of college, “sold” him the mines, and concentrated on pushing real estate.

On the basis of his Spanish nationality, he headed for Texas — where he could obtain claims to huge tracts of land, provided he could find buyers… then promptly upped and died.

It was up to Stephen — back in Missouri, still hoping to get out from under the mines, find a nice girl like his cousin Mary, and move somewhere civilized — to handle the Texas properties.   Despite his natural inclinations, he proved to be a pretty good real estate salesman… which created a whole new set of problems.

Stephen did his best to show loyalty to his new country, but it created some tensions. He served (with some distinction) as an officer in the War of Independence, and did his best to keep would-be buyers informed on the requirements of Mexican immigration (and tried to assure that his buyers fit the requirements).  The problems he had were mostly in communicating with the authorities — with Texas part of Coahuila, and no decent roads (let alone telegraph, which hadn’t been invented yet) and the closest thing to local administration being a small military command in Bexar (today’s San Antonio), and a few customs agents, it was next to impossible to keep within the contractual bounds set between his father and Mexico City.

Developers in our day, once word filtered back that there is cheap property somewhere in  Mexico, find everyone and their brother wants in on the deal.  And, in our day, those who move to Mexico to make a new life, and — to support themselves — create a business catering to gringos are stuck between a rock and a hard place.  Whatever it is they sell depends on more and more gringo customers — which changes the whole dynamic of the market, and means more competition.

Meanwhile, up in Connecticut.  Mary Holley was raising her kids, and helping the Reverend write his sermons and writing a little — “for herself”.  When Rev. Holley unexpectedly died of yellow fever, Mary needed to support herself somehow.  Editing his uncollected sermons (and writing a memorial book about her husband) proved she could write, and —  having inherited at least some of the same genes for self-promotion Stephen and Moses had — she looked for a project to sell a publisher, as well as a way to live cheaply.  She was the first to hit on the two-fer… move to Mexico to live cheaply… and write a book on how to move to Mexico and live cheaply.

And, for her, it would be … ahem… relatively easy.

Mary arrived in Galveston for the first time in 1831. Her 1833 “Texas: Observations, Historical, Geographic and Descriptive” set the standard template — what to pack (durable casual clothing… and pillows), when to go (October, so you could gradually adjust to the warmer climate), how to get there (boat from New Orleans), hotels in Mexico with English-speaking managers, finding “American” food, and dealing with the “foreigners.”  Along with the “Historical, Geographic and Descriptive” material — and colorful encounters with colorful natives — to keep things moving along.  The generic “Move to Mexico” book.

By the time Mary arrived, gringos outnumbered Mexicans (and even legal immigrants  like Stephen F.) in Texas.  Unable to adjust to Mexico, and — justifiably annoyed with the new centralized administrative structure that replaced the stil unsatisfactory federal system that kept Texas from administering its own affairs, the gringos rebelled.  And brought in more, and more, and more gringos with the promise of free land (often as not, Stephen F. Austin’s land).  Austin — very reluctantly — joined the Texas rebels, hoping to at least control the situation, but, in the end, left broke, embittered, and — although Secretary of State of the Texas Republic, dying in a drafty rented room.

Mary, who couldn’t afford to live in Texas — and every time she returned found it more and more expensive (thanks in large part to her glowing reports) became more Texan than the Texans, raising support for the rebellion (and the Texas Republic) while she eked out a living as a governess to a wealthy New Orleans family.

Promoters are in no danger today (one certainly hopes) of setting off a gringo rebellion (though many say gringos overwhelm at least a few communities in Mexico) to force Mexicans to do things the gringo way.  But, as in the 1830s, they still want to try.  Things would have been very different back then — and a lot of gringos today would save themselves a lot of grief — if they had paid attention to what she actually wrote:

Those persons… who are established in comfort and competency, with an ordinary portion of domestic happiness; who have never been far from home, and are excessively attached to personal ease; who shrink from hardship and danger, and those who, being accustomed to a regular routine of prescribed employment in a city, know not how to act on emergencies or adapt themselves to all sorts of circumstances, had better stay where they are.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 12 May 2009 8:36 am

    Are these posts somehow related to your week off? : – )

  2. 12 May 2009 11:21 am

    Texas has such a long history with land that it is no wonder that private ownership and property are such important issues to Texans. Home ownership is especially something important. Finding that home to leave to your children as a legacy takes careful research and savings.

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