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Wrong foot forward

19 April 2019

An interesting thread on a facebook page for foreigners in Mexico City asked people what their biggest mistake was when they move to Mexico.  The original poster appears to be someone for whom English and Spanish are both acquired languages, and many of the responses dealt with personal problems (one woman posted that she should have checked out Mexican tax law before moving here, several people — whose names suggested they came from countries with a alphabet other than Roman lettering said they should have had documents translated and apostilled before coming here (though, for things like birth certificates, professional licenses and maybe diplomas, that’s not a bad idea, no matter what language other than Spanish they were originally in).  And, the #1 “mistake” mentioned was, unsurprisingly, not learning Spanish.

I agree, people SHOULD learn the language of the country to which they immigrate (ok… for most of them… “espatriate” themselves), but accept that it’s not always possible, especially for people from the US, where so many of us suffer from an otherwise excellent educational system, but are fortunate to have taken 2 years of French in high school.  And, while the query was in a Mexico City focused site (and Mexico City’s foreigners are less likely to be the stereotyped retiree looking for a cheap and sunny place) it’s understandable that older emigres are going to be less linguistically flexible.  And, of course, in every society people complain about immigrants not learning the majority language.

But even not being able to speak Spanish (let alone Nahuatl, or Otomí or one of the 30 Mayan languages, or any of the 60-odd national languages in Mexico), there are some common mistakes newcomers make… though I can’t speak for all foreigners, not even for all global northerners, people from the US, or even people raised in New York, long-time resident of Texas, and mid-life immigrant to Mexico,  I’m going to offer some “what we do wrong” observations anyway.

Lift up the brown man’s burden…

Yes, of course people WANT to move here, for all kinds of reasons.  Financial ones are nuts, in my opinion, and I can’t fault anyone for wanting to come here before they retire, but I see an assumption among some people that their particular job skill (or what they think is a job skill) will qualify them to work here, and that,,, being a “first worlder” …. Mexican employers are anxious to employ them. Sure, there are still those “Business English” schools that pay anyone live and breathing with an undergraduate degree to teach English… sort of (I did this for a few years, and whether I did more damage than good is something I wonder about).  Not that there aren’t openings for qualified ESL teachers or agronmists who speak Spanish, or geologists, but it’s not like Mexico doesn’t have nurses, and massage therapists and computer programmers and tax accounts and chefs and marketing placement specialists (whatever they are) and…

You get the idea.  Intentionally or otherwise, wannabe migrants too often suggest they deserve to be hired, because, well… they’re from the “advanced” world.  A little secret:  Mexican managers often have advanced degrees themselves (I had one student, looking just to polish her English, with both a law and accounting degree, and a masters’ in foreign policy to boot; another with a doctorate in psychology, who spoke German, Hebrew, Catalan, and Finnish… no idea why he learned Finnish):  people unlikely to be impressed with a bachelor of arts degree from East Texas Baptist Women’s College, or any prestigious university no one has ever heard of outside the English speaking world.

And, on the other hand, managers almost expect their foreign job seekers to try to pull the “white privilege card”, and are going to consider how well a prospect fits into the Mexican corporate structure.  Not to mention, outside of a few, mostly foreign owned and with a foreign clientele, companies, are employers likely to hire people without working papers.

Don’t, don’t you love me?

Yes, one generally does receive permission to stay in Mexico for 180 days, but not always.  And, that is no guarantee that a person will be able to stay after that time, or … if they’re a “border jumper”… that they’ll be able to return.  the immigration authorities are pretty relaxed about those “FMM” (Forma Migratoria Multiplé) and don’t normally care even if it has expired, but … given the uncertainty of the person’s status, is it at all strange that landlords are reluctant to sign a lease, or employers are willing to risk hiring people not legally permitted to work, or that banks don’t always accept them as customers?  Being a nice person is not enough, I’m afraid.  Having been an “illegal alien” for a time here myself (back before the FMM even existed), I can’t fault people for coming in without definite plans and just staying, or … not knowing that the FMM is not a visa or residency permit, just a generic entry card for everyone from tourists to asylum seekers to journalists covering a specific event, scientists meeting with colleagues, and business visitors, do try to establish themselves.  But, the experience can be frustrating, and the temptation to decide the Mexicans are anti-gringo, or just creating bureaucratic hurdles (unlike, say, those Mexicans moving to the United States face?) or assuming landladies just won’t rent to foreigners because they are bigots, is an easy first mistake to make.

My Mexican friend… 

Even those who come “the right way”… or more realistically, either have the bucks to get a residency permit based on their foreign income, or had arranged a job ahead of time, and went through the process of obtaining a working residency vista, or come as the spouse or dependent of a Mexican national… there’s the common mistake of assuming the one or two Mexicans you know are Mexico as a whole.  I saw this more when I lived in a beach town with a large “gringo ghetto” of retirees.  Perfectly nice people, but … their “Mexican friend” being either the neighbor who could also afford a condo in the same resort community, or the waiter who speaks  English (having been deported after 15 years in Los Angeles) or their cleaning woman.  One, or two, or three Mexicans does not a people make.  It’s not a crime, but it is something of a shame, when intelligent, interested people make their assumptions about a country based on limited information.

Just as it is when a foreigner moves to one location, and doesn’t at least venture out of their comfort (or slightly discomfortable, but tolerable) zone.  Oh, I know… I still see Mexico through the lens of “progressive” middle-class Mexico City… but I’ve been around, I watch the news, read the local media, talk to people.  I didn’t make the mistake (mostly by sheer luck) of not ending up in Condesa or Roma, unaware of anything outside my neighborhood, and my perception of the country that of a few square blocks of the metropolis.  I admit, I am bemused when I read queries looking for something like ingredients for Chinese cuisine … in Roma or nearby (Barrio Chino is only a short Metrobus ride away) or people excited to find some Canadian brand of coffee in a shop, or… complaints that U.S. Netflix programs aren’t available on their cable service here, and there’s nothing BAD about wanting Chinese herbs, or Canadian coffee or having a favorite TV show… just the mistake of missing out on what it’s like to live in a wildly multicultural and mixed-culture country.

And, of course, there two basic errors I hope no one here every makes:  not reading Mexican history, and not reading MexFiles!



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