Saturday, July 20, 2024

As expats, we straddle 2 economies, but our hosts don’t

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the significant increase in both visitors and immigrants, mostly from north-er North America to Mexico, and it’s got me thinking about what it means to be a gracious newcomer.

I don’t really count as a newcomer myself. I came to live in Mexico back when nobody thought it was a good or safe idea, and when the perception was that most of the gringos in the country were rough-looking men with questionable criminal histories.

If you wanted to work, a job at an in-person school was your best bet, and you received pay that reflected the local economy. (I made a monthly salary of 7,000 pesos a month at my first full-time teaching job in Mexico — worth about US $700 today — with no benefits.) Getting official permission to work was difficult, and you were mostly paid in cash under the table. It wasn’t a great plan for wealth-building in one’s prime working years, and most people my age stayed away from Mexico, save for a vacation or two.

Since then, Mexico has caught on in a major way, in part because people, especially from the U.S. seem to have become particularly disillusioned with their own country: at this point, gangs of narcotraffickers with specific targets don’t seem like such a big deal compared to the prospect of young men walking into schools, grocery stores and movie theaters to mow the places down with easily-accessible combat weapons they acquired under the guise of “self-defense.” Add in our looney tunes politics of late, and it’s no wonder people are looking for something different.

After the experience of the pandemic paired with rising prices and an ever-shrinking financial safety net, many have found a solution: be a rich, relaxed person in Mexico rather than an economically struggling, stressed person in their own country.

Like most other migrants around the world, many of us here are economic immigrants. Unlike most, however, we’re not moving here for the chance to “make it” but for the advantage of being able to buy the things we need and live the life we want at a much lower price with our foreign money from remote jobs.

It’s like a permanent working vacation, and is often promoted as such: Our hosts are friendly, and for the most part, welcome us. Aside from a fairly awful tax situation, if you’re still working and are being honest about where you reside, there’s very little to complain about.

So the reasons for making the move are understandable. Why not try to live as well as possible?

The optics, however, are something I worry about.

After all, there are some major gaps between the way poor immigrants to the U.S. are treated and expect to live and how we immigrants from rich countries are treated and how we expect to live here.

There are also major differences in how much remote-working foreigners can earn in Mexico compared to native Mexicans with similar education, skills and experience. This difference seems to have the most potential to cause major resentment: foreign migrants are essentially working with two different economies — getting paid in an expensive one and spending in a cheap one.

If you’re Mexican, it must hurt to watch people game a system that you yourself cannot. And now that there are so many of us doing it, it’s not all that easy to ignore… especially when their presence affects what you yourself can afford and enjoy in your own community.

Even if the numbers and the articles about this great migration south weren’t around, I’d still be able to say with some degree of certainty that a lot of people not from here are showing up in Mexico. As the only person whose articles popped up for a while under an “expats Xalapa” search, I receive lots of messages from people interested in exploring my city as a potential place to live.

I’ll admit, I’m wary. Don’t get me wrong, I like people; my default setting is “I like you” even before I’ve met you. But I fear my city becoming, like other places in Mexico, a place that people actually from here will be able to enjoy less and less if they’re priced out by rich(er) foreigners arriving with dollars in hand, ready to pay well above market price for the choicest areas of the city. Limits on AirBnB and the like may help, but, let’s face it: being willing to pay large amounts of money for what you want simply has no competition in this world.

Honest question, non-rhetorical: Is there enough room for all of us to enjoy the good life here? Does our presence in such great numbers make life worse for others? I fear that we’ve seen this movie before, in suddenly popular states and cities north of the border. Perhaps some of us are even running from its effects. Is there a way to avoid or counteract such effects down here?

Because if it’s five or 10 families doing this, like it was for quite a while, okay; not the hugest deal. If it’s hundreds or thousands of families, that can have a real impact. How do we balance our individual needs and wants with what’s best for our new communities? How do we reconcile being both a single drop in the ocean but also part of a wave whose impact will definitely be felt?

Our individual intentions are good, but our collective effect is… mixed.

Most of us are immigrants for the same reason that others are immigrants: we want a better life for ourselves and our children. Sometimes, it’s just because we want adventure and because we can.

But, for goodness sake, please stop crowing so loudly about how “cheap” Mexico is… it’s only cheap to those earning out-of-Mexico wages, which is not the majority of people here. Learn about the local economy where you land, and don’t vastly overpay for goods and services. You may think you’re being extra generous, but the effect of too many people doing that is to price out everyone else, unwittingly turning many goods and services that most locals could access before into hard-to-have luxuries.

So let’s remember our position of privilege and do our best to speak and walk humbly: we’re the ones coming here to live our best lives, not the ones suffering at Mexico’s southern border while waiting to be processed by immigration, or the ones doing the same jobs at Mexican companies for a fraction of the cost.

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

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