August 9, 2008

Mexican town feeling impact of "immigrants"


Sun, Aug. 10, 2008


SAN MIGUEL de ALLENDE, Mexico — They drive on four-wheelers through this picturesque town in the highlands of the central state of Guanajuato.

Some of them are seen many times wobbling along the cobblestone-lined streets, balancing the margarita in their plastic cups as much as themselves.

Many of them refuse to speak the local language, even if they have called this place home for years. Some of them may even be here illegally.

I’m not talking about the poor Indians from the southern states of Oaxaca or Chiapas who come here to peddle their wares, although there are many of them here, too.

No, I’m talking about the North Americans — Canadians and U.S. citizens — who make up about 10 percent, and growing, of the town’s 140,000 population.

I’ve written numerous times about the efforts in many U.S. cities that want to stop the proliferation of "illegal" immigrants in their communities because of what they call the ills that they bring to society: overcrowding the schools and hospitals on U.S. taxpayers’ dime; the social problems because they refuse to learn English; the cultural issues because they will never assimilate.

In this town, there has been little, if any, of that backlash because of the American influx. I predict, however, that that will change as more and more of those baby boomers looking to stretch their retirement dollars in expatriate colonies in San Miguel, Lake Chapala in the state of Jalisco, and in the state of Sonora along the Sea of Cortéz.

As for San Miguel, Americans have been coming here for decades, the process not unlike those going to the United States from Mexico. A few came here, liked the town and found that they could prosper. They then called a few friends, who joined them.

And that’s understandable. San Miguel can be intoxicating for those whose only references to Mexico are the border towns, large metropolitan centers or all-inclusive resorts along the coasts.

There is a great arid climate; it’s clean and relatively safe — there’s even a Starbucks in town. The people are friendly and welcoming.

Like most Mexican towns, the life in San Miguel centers on the activity in the main town square, or plaza, that is home to a Catholic cathedral on one side, the city government on the other side, and restaurants and shops on the other two. There is a gazebo in the center and vendors all around.

People-watching can be done from the cafes or wrought-iron benches placed strategically under numerous shade trees.

I was not disappointed in my latest visit. There were kids trying to bounce small rubber balls as high as they could while others were trying to navigate through rows of kernels on their chile-spiced corn on the cob. Others — young and old — were licking away at ice cream before the heat got to it.

In the evening, hundreds of people sat and watched outdoor movies as part of a monthlong film festival, which culminated with a fireworks display over downtown that silhouetted the church and evoked memories of the day-ending parade at Disneyland.

As I soaked it all in, I saw the mix of people: Mexicans residents from San Miguel and elsewhere speaking Spanish; and North Americans, blond, blue-eyed tourists visiting, perhaps, for the first time, or those who may have homes here and who were more comfortable speaking English.

And it didn’t matter if those norte americanos were here legally or illegally — those non-Mexicans who have misplaced their temporary Mexican tourist visas or have not renewed other residency paperwork documents in years.

To most San Miguel residents, many of the expatriates have provided an economic lifeline to a town and a region — "the cradle of Mexican independence" as it is called — that has seen many of its own young men cross the Rio Grande.

But if you listen to workers in restaurants, hotels and shops, you understand that it is a double-edged sword.

With the economic stimulus brought by Americans, there is also a gradual sense of loss, not only of the language and the culture, but also of the infrastructure that many Americans criticize Mexico for not doing a better job with in order to keep its people home: the economy.

Although Americans are not crowding schools or hospitals, they are driving up prices not only for real estate, but also for other goods and services. It’s basic economics that center on supply and demand.

"For example," says Adolfo Tovar, who has been driving a taxi for 13 years, "a piece of land that used to cost $5,000 you can’t touch for $50,000."

I’m talking dollars here, not pesos.

Many families here certainly are appreciative of the U.S. tourists and entrepreneurs and what they have brought to the community. They are concerned, however, that their own children will be hard-pressed to call San Miguel home in the next generation or so.

To do so they will have to do one thing that they will be criticized for. For survival, they will have to borrow money, lots of it, and go north — border wall or not — to find ways to feed families who are living in a town that has gotten more expensive because of the influx of Americans.

"Pretty soon," Tovar says, "all of us Mexicans are the ones who are going to need a passport or a visa to even live here."

Does that rhetoric sound familiar?

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