Column: The new generation of smug American expats in Mexico must face the truth

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The dusty truck bounced through the narrow streets of Jomulquillo, the village in the Mexican state of Zacatecas where my father was born. It shot in front of empty houses, slowed down past the church and finally stopped in front of the ? ranchos only corner shop.

There I stood next to my father and a group of older men—what was left of the population of Jomulquillo since nearly everyone had left for East Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley decades earlier.

We watched the man slowly emerge from the pickup – middle-aged, white, wearing sunglasses, a polo shirt, jeans, and a smile. In broken Spanish, he asked no one in particular if there were any houses for sale. Everyone was so stunned to see a gabacho in a small hamlet in the mountains of central Mexico where we were quiet for a while.

Then came a chorus of polite but firm ‘No’.

I asked in English what he was doing so far from the United States.

“I want to move here,” said the man, who never gave his name. “It’s too expensive at home.”

Unsolicited, he continued to complain about liberalism, how the US was a failed country and how he wanted to spend his retirement in peace. He asked if we knew of any houses for sale in Jerez, the city to which Jomulquillo belongs.

No.

The man got back into his truck and ran away. Didn’t even say gracias.

Even though the meeting happened 22 years ago, I can remember that Ugly American like it happened yesterday in my front yard.

Every time even my own friends talk about moving to a foreign country because the US is just too much, the image of that man’s smug face and his expectation that a dying city would welcome him always comes to mind.

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I tell my friends not to succumb to this most American religion, a religion that is seemingly more popular than ever, its figurative pews full of disciples, both conservative and liberal, young and old – but all with the money to move.

In Portugal, my colleague Jaweed Kaleem found former residents of the Golden State soaking up the Mediterranean nation’s temperate climate and taking advantage of the country’s economic situation, one of the poorest in Europe. This week my colleague Kate Linthicum submitted a similar message from Mexico City.

Natives in both places have loudly complained that these New Americans are praising them out of their homes and not bothering to learn local mores and traditions. Jaweed and Kate documented protests against the newcomers through internet shaming campaigns and pleas for local governments to intervene. According to the long-timers, Americans should at least understand that their presence doesn’t automatically improve life wherever they are.

The reaction of many of the Americans who interviewed Jaweed and Kate? Not just indifference, but resistance.

“At home it just got too much, but I didn’t want to leave everything about LA behind,” a transplant told Jaweed about Portugal, adding, “we could keep the parts we liked and leave the rest” — as if we were navigating society is as simple as changing shoes.

“It reminds me of a friendlier, sometimes neater Brooklyn,” another told Kate of Mexico City—as if one of the world’s largest megalopolises isn’t better than a borough of New York.

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The Ugly American trope is of course nothing new. Long ago, so-called snowbirds turned San Miguel de Allende into Guanajuato and Zihuatanejo into Guerrero in the suburbs of Leisure World south of the border. New York hipsters have long been haunted in Mexico City as much as in Los Angeles. Half of middle-class San Diego seems to have retired to an apartment in Rosarito or Ensenada.

I have no problem with people leaving their home country for a better life elsewhere – vaya con Dios, and all that. But that is not what is happening with this new generation of expats. They are emblematic of the kind of people I call California quitters: privileged people who want all of the easy and none of the hard, turning away from what they think is the better life at the slightest hint of discomfort.

That they end up abroad and live big while their new neighbors are struggling is horrendous yet so fitting for the type.

And they are completely different from immigrants, which some of these expats claim to be. But the differences between the two seemingly similar groups are as varied as those of a refugee and a tourist.

Expats have the financial capital to pursue the good life. Immigrants can never do that. Expats know that if they fail, kissing their homeland will break the trap; immigrants know there is no going back, so they have to move forward.

Expats can move wherever and whenever they want. Immigrants cannot. Expats connect with the countries where they live in the most superficial ways and add little to it; immigrants become part of their new homeland and fundamentally change course.

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Expat extract; improve immigrants.

The move of Americans to Mexico in particular reminds me of what happened at the beginning of the 20th century, when American industry moved en masse and appropriated billions of dollars in wealth while adding nothing to the country except exploitation. So after reading Kate’s piece, I called Adrián Félix, a professor of ethnic studies at UC Riverside and colleague jerezano who specializes in studying Mexican migration, particularly from Zacatecas.

He laughed when I told him about my Jomulquillo anecdote from the past and said he’d heard similar stories from other people over the years. ranchos around Jerez. And he admitted that he hated the term “expat,” which to him is “radically different from people who have been forcibly displaced,” whether through economics or war.

Félix pointed out that Americans who come in with their money are fundamentally changing the local economy, making them more dependent on dollars that can easily flee into what he calls an “extractive industry.” But what’s even more deaf, Félix argues, is that these new residents hop through Mexico in a mobile cocoon that largely protects them from the real world around them.

“The surrounding areas and permanent residents are being hit hard by violence and poverty,” he said. In general, “expats are immune to that.”

It plays the game of life on someone else’s server with cheat codes.

It’s a privilege for American expats, and allowed, but they should at least be honest about their huge benefit.