What you see here is a mixture of "old" and "new" gringos, and our Mexican friends, celebrating the good fortune of one among us. Our community is as diverse as any other you might find in foreign climes, and we like it that way. [Photo by Diana Ricci]
(This is my first essay, written not long after I arrived in Oaxaca in 1994. Later, I added the next-to-last paragraph to reflect my deeper understanding of, and my "upward" movement in, the gringo establishment.)
One Sunday morning, long decades ago in faraway Oregon, a bunch of us were hanging out in the living-room of our commune, when someone asked "who are all those people sleeping in the barn and in the hallway? Do they live here, or what?" Faced with a need to define our terms, hours of discussion followed, in which we decided on the only possible politically correct definition of "resident" in an anarchist commune: ask 'em if they live here. If they say they do, they do.
For the expatriate community in my Mexican town, such a definition is thought to be hopelessly naive. The resident reacts to the newcomer's declaration of "I live here" with a patronizing smile, a raised eyebrow, and "how nice for you". After that, it's wait and see.
Basicly, there are two kinds of long term expatriates here: those who have married Mexicans, and those who haven't. The ones who have are mostly women, and tend to be English teachers. The ones who haven't are mostly men, and tend to be English teachers. Most of the balance consists of retired people, of both sexes. Of these, some stay year-round, but most "go back" for some part of the year. Add to this mix the "old hands" who have been coming down for years, but "live" elsewhere, and "belonging" becomes a problem in quantum physics. How long have you been coming here? For how much of the year? And your (Mexican immigration) residency status?
Dream sequence: The applicant is called, in turn, and ushered into the Inner Sanctum. There, on a dais, five white people: white hair, gleaming white teeth, starched and ironed white shirts and dresses embroidered in Guatemala. Tanned, fit, confident elders.
The applicant shuffles in, twisting his cap in his nervous fingers. The chair speaks: "We have considered your application carefully. It has been analyzed for all the longevity and status factors. As you know, a score of 50 is needed. I regret to inform you that your score was only 47.5. Therefore, we cannot consider you for membership in the Old Extranjero's (Foreigner's) Club this year. Better luck next year. Next!" The applicant is led away, silent tears streaming down his cheeks, crushed by the knowledge that he still does not belong...
I must confess that when I first arrived I felt a certain amount of resentment toward the resident community here, who appeared to me to be at best standoffish and at worst hostile. Now that I've been here a while, I begin to see what they mean. Foreign places are often the destination of the weird, the distracted and the disturbed. There are a lot of flaky people coming here, and a lot of them - us? - believe that they either do, or soon will, live here. Most of these folks share one characteristic: that something - or someone - EXTRA has to happen, in order for them to make it. For instance:
Bob came to Puerto Escondido from Chicago. At age 40, he received an early retirement package when his company was bought out. He wants to start a moped-rental agency. He doesn't know the mayor, or the guy who gives out licenses, but he has a "family friend" who lives in Ensenada (a three-day boat ride away in Baja California) who knows everyone and has promised to help him "get around all the stupid red tape". All he needs to make it happen is a couple of partners, with about $20,000 U.S. apiece...
Barefoot, and about to deliver her first child any minute, Anna and her equally barefoot spouse were about to make the deal of the century. A local real-estate agent had found them a sunset beach just outside of town, at an incredibly low price. "I thought Mexican law forbade foreigners from owning land within 50 kilometers of the ocean?" said the skeptic. "Well, yes," replied the intrepid Anna "except this particular piece of tropical paradise is tribal property, and therefore exempt. The chief, who by custom owns all the tribe's property, is willing to sell."
Fortunately, a local fellow took pity on them. She was radiant with her pregnancy, a sure appeal to the child-happy Mexicans. In this particular tribe, he informed her, chiefs only serve six-year terms, and the first thing a new chief does upon taking office is to declare all the old chief's contracts null and void. Oops.
Now, don't misunderstand me. I have good reason to know that anyone who contemplates yanking their roots out and transplanting themselves to a new and different land is bound to have a large dose of dreamer in their makeup (I do). It's just that I have grown more tolerant of the old extranjeros' reluctance to throw open their arms to each and every new arrival. They've got enough problems, what with the flood of tourists, the falling peso, and the rampant inflation, without also getting emotionally involved with a lot of newcomers, most of whom will soon be newleavers.
Let's see: if we give .4 weight to longevity, and .3 to employment, do we deduct for time spent "back home"? And what of the folks who have to spend time away in order to keep their National Health (Canadian), or their substantial tax rebate (Alaskan)? Pass the aspirin, please. This is going to be a long, long night...
[Read a selection of "Letters From Oaxaca, Mexico"]
[Read a sample "Oaxaca / Mexico Newsletter"]