Wednesday, March 19, 2014
CRISS-CROSSING MEXICO ONE WORD AT A TIME
CRISS-CROSSING MEXICO ONE WORD AT A TIME
The expat experience has always interested me, being one myself for the past seven years. I wrote a book about it in 2009, talking to more than thirty Americans and Canadians who had settled in San Miguel de Allende, my adopted town. I called it San Miguel de Allende: A Place in the Heart. People liked the book and bought it in droves, but they often told me it wasn't enough. When was the sequel coming?
I was willing to look at the subject again, but not inside an expat colony like San Miguel or Lake Chapala. That story had been told. What if I examined the lifestyles of people who had settled in places with no special support community of other English speakers? Wasn't that a different kind of Mexican experience? In fact, wasn't it an entirely different kind of expat?
I launched this interview project on a Sunday afternoon late in 2012 in a near ghost town about an hour away called Pozos. Here I found two dozen expats living in crumbly comfort among a population of 4,000 Mexicans. When the town was at its peak in 1900, the population was 75,000. After the mines gave out, the remaining folks in 1950 numbered only 200. Did it take a special kind of expat to engage with this off-road rebirth, and appreciate living there more than for example, in Dallas? Bet on it.
I next pointed my voice recorder north, to a small city called San Luis de la Paz, nor far away. It's an agricultural town of 55,000. It offers no chic bed and breakfasts, no tourist hotels. It is the site of no great historical events, aside from a distant treaty that gave the town the second part of its name. It is all about mainstream life in central Mexico and nothing more. Find a hook, I told myself, because I knew it held a story to tell, just as it held a total of five expats who didn't mix much beyond nodding to each other on the street. If I could tell the story of San Luis convincingly and well, I knew I could make the entire book sing.
Feeling confident, I moved on to Morelia after that. This is a town pushing a million that I had always avoided. For one thing, it's the capital of Michoacan, the target of many State Department curses. What I discovered instead of fear was a vibrant, if small, expat community, one that had not quite found a focus beyond their enjoyment of the music and cuisine of this hopping, cafe-society town that to me resembles a small European capital city --and one well worth a visit.
But conducting a set of interviews in far off places with people I had only connected with on the internet can bring its own problems. In Morelia I had a last minute cancellation and was forced to bring in another person I didn't know. In total, I was able to prequalify in person fewer than half the people I talked with for this book. This raised an interesting dilemma. In launching a projected one-hour conversation, I had less that a minute to get people to relax and open up. These were people who had never met me. One described me afterwards as intimidating. I was shocked. I said I would settle for imposing. This dilemma was solved by asking a question that could not be answered with any one-word reply, "What was it that brought you to this place (naming the town)?"
As I worked through this book, place and location always formed one of the major characters, holding equal status with the people who were kind enough to share some of their life experiences with me.
I went through Patzcuaro and the lake communities, and then Puebla. There I spoke with two American women married to Poblanos, men from Puebla. They were similar in situation, but far different in point of view. During this process I never felt I was taking any chances by being where I was; the chances I was taking were all from doing what I was doing, and I often felt slightly out of control and off balance. That's a good place to be operating from. It's like working without a net.
I had always thought to end the book in Chiapas. I liked the idea of expats living up against the background of civil unrest of the last two decades, the Zapatistas and their semi-autonomous enclaves. People in masks holding guns, echoes of Che Guevara. I was ready, but at first no one in Chiapas would talk to me. Then a few came forward who would, but they were missionaries. I shook my head.
"The people who are emerging in this book," I responded, "are those who don't wish to leave a footprint on the culture. They want an experience of Mexico untrammeled by the presence of crowds of other expats. If you came here to tell people they ought to abandon their religion and take up yours, you are hardly a good fit."
"But isn't that exactly what the Spanish did when they arrived here?" one offered in response.
"Yes, and I don't agree with that either."
So I ended the book in Oaxaca, that splendid caldron of more than a dozen different indigenous cultures and languages. I found a somewhat larger expat community there, but the three people I spoke with had little connection with it. Fifteen months after I started, the book appeared.
It's called Into the Heart of Mexico: Expatriates Find Themselves Off the Beaten Path.
Here's a link to my website where you can find a sample: