Thursday, June 20, 2024

After 20 years in Mexico, I love my life more than ever before

I first came to Mexico almost exactly 20 years ago, and I’ve been here, off and on (mostly on), ever since.

Leigh Thelmadatter’s piece on those of us who would count ourselves long-time immigrants (intentional or not) — as well as Mexico News Daily’s recent survey asking people why they’ve moved their families to Mexico — has got me thinking about these past 20 years of my life that I’ve been a permanent immigrant in this country.

With this 20-year milestone upon me, I’d like to take this week’s column space as an opportunity to reflect on my time here so far, which now (officially) accounts for half of my life.

That summer of 2002, before I left for Mexico in my junior year of college through a program called Brethren Colleges Abroad, my mom was worried: “You’ll fall in love and not want to come back!” she said.

“Oh, come on,” I responded, sure that I would return to the United States for good after my year in Mexico.

Alas, she was right: I fell in love with Mexico, and I fell hard.

The first couple of months were tough: our small group of study-abroad students spent the first month at an intensive language school in Cuernavaca, which involved a homestay with several children who thought it was hilarious to speak to me as rapidly as possible and then ask if I’d understood what they said. My Spanish was barely recognizable as Spanish in those days, and it would take me about 10 seconds to get out a four-word sentence — even so, it was usually incorrect.

I did a lot of crying that first month — it’s a humiliating experience as an adult to not be able to speak any better than a two-year-old — but by the end of the month, I was finally getting by. The immersive experience without the benefit of cell phones or easily-accessible internet (trips to the internet cafe happened maybe once a week) meant that I had no choice but to use Spanish constantly, and I got good at it quickly.

By the end of the academic year, I didn’t want to leave. Though I had assured my mother it absolutely would not happen, I had a serious boyfriend by then that I didn’t want to break up with. I returned to finish my degree in the U.S. and then went straight back to Mexico, where I started working as an ESL teacher at an English institute.

As most people my age know, life as a student and life as an adult worker are very different. That first year was quite lonely for me: even though I lived with my boyfriend, we had trouble getting our schedules to match.

Most English institutes (this was before they were online and “computers” were a major feature) were split-schedule in those days, so I typically worked from 7 a.m. to 12 p.m. and then again from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m., meaning much of my free time was spent alone while everyone else was at work. But in those days, there wasn’t much of a way to earn a living in Mexico as a foreigner unless you were a teacher, so that’s what I did.

Eventually, I got another job at a high school that I enjoyed much more, and that had a more normal schedule. An international school in Querétaro, it meant that I got to know people from all over the world.

Suddenly, Mexico had a more international feel: I had a cell phone and internet at my house and access to other foreigners.

In 2011, I married my longtime boyfriend, and we moved to Xalapa, where I got my first online job with Open English. Since then, I’ve only worked online and imagine I will keep doing so for the foreseeable future. We had our daughter in 2013, and a couple of years ago made the difficult decision to separate.

Even after that painful period (which happened to coincide with the beginning of the pandemic – oh, boy!), I’ve never thought of returning to the United States to live permanently. The obvious reason is that I would not ever want to separate my daughter from her dad. But even if we hadn’t had a child, I might have stayed.

Mexico is my home now. This is where I’ve “grown up” into a grown-up, and I often say that at this point, I have no idea even how to be a grown-up in the U.S.

I’m also very aware that the kind of lifestyle I have is one that would likely not be possible in the United States, which now seems to me from down here a somewhat strange and scary place. I appreciate the (remote) job opportunities made possible by U.S. citizenship; I very much don’t appreciate having to continue paying taxes to the U.S. as if I lived there, but what are you going to do?

Tomorrow, I board a plane to visit my country for the first time in two and a half years. It will be good to see my family and to speak English with a few more people than usual. But I won’t be staying.

We do a lot for love, and I’m more in love now — with my partner, with my daughter, with my adopted home, with my life — than I ever was before.

Sarah DeVries is a writer and translator based in Xalapa, Veracruz. She can be reached through her website, and her Patreon page.

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