November 7, 2003

‘Generation Gringo’: Younger Americans Moving to Mexico

By Louis Nevaer

MEXICO CITY—In the last decade, an estimated half million Americans moved permanently to Mexico, making the United States’ southern neighbor the country with the most U.S. expatriates in the world.

Not since the conclusion of the American Civil War — when thousand of Southerners emigrated to Mexico — have so many Americans moved to Mexico.

“A generation ago, older Americans would move to San Miguel, or Lake Chapala, or Mexico City,” says Joann Andrews, who has lived in Merida, a large city on the Yucatan peninsula, since the 1950s. “But now, there are Americans setting down roots throughout the entire country. Americans have finally discovered the beauty of their most populous neighbor.”

Officials at the American embassy estimate that there are “officially” more than 600,000 American citizens living permanently in Mexico, but concede the actual number is closer to 800,000. Treasury Department officials in Washington estimate that the number of Treasury checks — Social Security, Veteran Administrations, tax refunds — sent to Mexico is “in the ballpark of 750,000.”

In Baja California, an estimated 100,000 Americans have created the first North American land rush of the 21st century. In the Yucatan peninsula, there are more Americans retirees than in some cities in southern Florida.

“When I first moved to Mexico, my family and friends thought I was nuts,” says Skip Connors, a Vietnam veteran who has lived in Mexico since the 1990s. “But the quality of life I enjoy here, the friendships I have made and the peace of mind that I have living where people treat each other with respect and decency has saved me.”

For decades, most Americans living in Mexico were retirees. But something of greater consequence than American-style retirement communities is taking shape. Mexico is confronting the cultural and socioeconomic impact of “Generation Gringo”: young, working-age American migrants who are starting families.

Hundreds of thousands of American youth have been descending on Cancun since the mid-1990s. Many have strong bonds with Mexico, remembering their “discovery” of a safe, friendly and fun country on vacations during their school years. “The best time my sorority sisters and I ever had was a trip to Cancun,” says Shelby Reed, who is in her mid-twenties and says she wants to live in Mexico. “My father was horrified, saying, ‘You won’t be able to drink the water.’”

Reed laughs. “We’ve been back so many times, my parents are now thinking of buying a winter home in Cozumel.”

“It dawns upon me that, arriving as tourist, I’ve blundered into a civilization,” writes Tony Cohan, a Los Angeles writer who purchased a home in San Miguel with his Japanese-American wife, in his book “On Mexican Time,” the unofficial Bible for the new American resident of Mexico. “How could I have lived so close by all my life and neglected to realize? Had I been oblivious to the great territories to the south, my own hemisphere?”

This sense of discovery and wonder is fast spilling into the American cultural scene as an “American-Mexican” sensibility becomes “hip.”

“Graphic artists, fashion designers and filmmakers have been inspired to shrug off Tijuana’s reputation as a cultural void and address the contrary realities of a place that’s neither First World nor Third World; a culture that is neither Mexican nor American,” Josh Tyrangiel reported in Time magazine in June 2001. “The goal, simply, is to transform the strangeness of Tijuana into art.”

Thus “Nortec” art, which is being hailed as the first significant art movement in America since 1960s Popism. Its influence can be found in the pages of hipster magazines from Southern California like Flaunt and Detour. “Tijuana is the first Warholian city of the 21st century,” Tyrangiel says.

Many Mexicans are ambivalent about the new invasion. “The last time Mexico experienced anything like this, it was a prelude to war,” Jorge Canto, a businessman who works with Americans said. “Is history repeating itself?” Mexican officials worry that older American immigrants will strain Mexico’s health system. Because of the influx, Medicaid and Medicare have expanded their payment programs in Mexico, and some U.S. HMOs cover members living in Mexico.

American entrepreneurship in Mexico is making its presence felt. In a study conducted by the Inter-American Development Bank, the amount of remittances sent to Mexico from the U.S. soared to $14.5 billion, up from $9 billion two years ago. But closer examination reveals that $3.5 billion of those remittances is money sent by Americans to themselves in Mexico, to purchase homes, finance the opening of businesses and for living expenses.

History may indeed be repeating itself. In 1598, Juan de Onate claimed what is now the American Southwest for Spain, and for two centuries, trade between the areas that are now New Mexico and Arizona came via Mexico City. It was not until 1821, when Mexico declared its independence from Spain, that the north-south route was redirected. The east-west Santa Fe Trail joined the outpost of New Mexico to the United States by linking Santa Fe to St. Louis, Missouri.

That link predominated until the North American Free Trade Agreement. NAFTA seems to be restoring historic north-south economic and cultural trade routes. In time, the old east-west corridor may be viewed as a relic associated with America’s 19th century nation-building.

Louis Nevaer ( is an author and economist His latest book, “NAFTA’s Second Decade” (South-Western Press) will be released in December.

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