Opinion

Illegal gringos

Illegal ImmigrantsImmigrationRestaurant and Catering IndustryMexicoPoliticsMigrationLifestyle and Leisure

I have long been an avid consumer of that scrappiest, most off-center species of newspaper—the English-language expatriate rag. From the two predecessors of the International Herald-Tribune, to the Gringo Gazette, to the two papers I worked for in Central Europe, there is something almost universally charming in their combination of high ambition, less-high execution, and unintentionally revealing preoccupations, usually centered around where best to get a good drink.

Still, in nearly two decades of collecting the things, I have never seen such a rich-looking weekly, so crammed with handsome full-page color advertisements, as Atencion San Miguel, the 116-page expat newspaper I came across this weekend in that famous international capital of, um, San Miguel de Allende.

Never heard of the place? Neither had I, until the drive out to the airport for a friend's wedding. It's a pretty colonial hillside town of about 60,000-70,000 in Mexico's central highland state of Guanajuato, 170 miles from Mexico City, and famous for its golden sunlight, thriving art school, and galleries galore.

It has also been, since the 1950s or so, a top destination for expatriated Bohemian gringos, from Beat muse Neal Cassady (who died on some train tracks nearby) to writer/drummer Tony Cohan.

But the more recent generation of expats, credited with (and blamed for) transforming the essence of the town, has been less long-hair, more gray-hair (though sometimes both). "Los Boomers," as our driver to the airport called them, are everywhere you look—sipping Chiapas-harvested, certified-organic double espressos, puttering between ceramics boutiques and day spas, or attending "Global Justice" lectures on whether there is "any other kind of globalization besides the corporate variety we see today?"

It turns out that the answer to that latter hypothetical is a resounding "yes"; evidence for which you can find all around town. Because what could be less corporate, and more recognizably human, than the urge to pick up your things and seek a better life elsewhere? It's what has driven hundreds of thousands of Mexicans from the arid highlands of Guanajuato to the comparative wealth of El Norte, and it's what's behind many a respectable U.S. citizen's playing an ironic new role: Illegal immigrant.

"Undocumented Americans occasionally are caught working in restaurants, bars and clothing shops in San Miguel and can be kicked out of the country," Knight Ridder reported last year, in an article that tried hard not to burst out laughing. "Foreign architects, musicians, engineers, accountants and others work in the town without permits." The piece paraphrased a city official as estimating that the off-the-books businesses cost the local government "4 million pesos—more than $360,000 a year—in lost taxes and fees."

Yet the city and country would be crazy to expel them, gray ponytails and endless writers workshops notwithstanding. Los Boomers have helped renovate hundreds of crumbling architectural gems, launched several influential non-profits assisting the local population, and (as all immigrant communities inevitably do) unleashed an explosion of entrepreneurship.

Sure this has driven up local prices (especially in real estate and high-end restaurants), and triggered the perennial expat complaint of the town having been "ruined" by all the dang foreigners, but it's also created opportunity and even wealth in a region not exactly famous for either. Our airport driver, for example, has four siblings who all fled the area for Dallas, where they live illegally, operate a restaurant and dream of being able to cross back and forth between countries without fearing for their livelihoods. He, on the other hand, holds two four-year college degrees, runs what looks to be a thriving property management/tourism service/language school business, and can visit his relatives up north without problem.

Is there a point of equilibrium, whereby enough American retiree-immigrants spend enough of their 401(k)s on Mexican health care and facials that the locals choose domestic service/professional industries over picking strawberries 1,000 miles to the north? Find out for yourself: Atencion San Miguel "seeks bilingual reporter for news, community and feature articles"...

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