“They Love Us Here”: American Migrants in Mexico

“They Love Us Here”: American Migrants in Mexico

The town I was destined for is full of immigrants, and over the past decade they have arrived in increasing numbers. Most do not learn the local language and reside and socialize within an isolated cultural enclave. These immigrants practice their own cultural traditions and celebrate their national holidays. Grocery stores are stocked with locally unfamiliar products that hail from their homeland. Few choose to pursue citizenship in their adopted land, and most follow closely and participate in the political and economic life of their homeland. Some live and work in the new country without proper documentation and have even been involved in the illegal transport of drugs across state borders. Their presence is so pervasive that local governments have been forced to adapt by providing services to address the needs of this growing foreign population. They are U.S. citizens living in Mexico.

I was on my way to San Miguel Allende, nestled in the mountains of central Mexico in the state of Guanajuato, to begin a research project on the town’s large, and predominantly American, immigrant community. During the weeks prior to my departure, in June 2006, anti-immigrant hysteria swept the United States. Republicans in the House called for making undocumented residence in the United States a felony. The Senate declared English the official language. Immigrants and their supporters took to the streets. So did the Minutemen Militia. The day I flew south across the infamous 2,000-mile border, in the comfort of an air-conditioned plane, George W. Bush ordered National Guard troops to deploy along that border, in an effort to stop the desperate thousands arriving from the other direction.

Meanwhile, San Miguel prepared for its second major tourist influx of the year. January through March, the town is packed with snowbirds escaping the frigid winters of the northern United States and Canada. In July and August, Texans arrive seeking reprieve from the sweltering heat of the U.S. Southwest. In addition to climate, people flock to San Miguel to enjoy the scenery, colonial architecture, art galleries, and cultural festivities. For decades, artists and writers have marveled at the way the light reflects off the Gothic-style, rose-colored Parroquia, or parish church, next to the town’s main square. Some local residents, namely Mexicans, welcome the capital infusion that accompanies the tourist seasons. Others, namely Americans, bemoan the growing commercialization of their authentic Mexican town. This latter group, who may have once been tourists themselves, now form a resident population of anywhere from 8,000 to 12,000 U.S. citizens who proudly call San Miguel home. City officials and Mexico’s National Migration Institute estimate that foreigners (mostly Americans) make up close to 15 percent of the town’s 80,000 inhabitants.

The history of foreigners living in San Miguel dates back to the 1940s, when Chicago resident Stir...

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