Note: This is part of a two-part series. The second part is my blog entitled the Pros and Cons of Living in Merida, Mexico
“These paintings say Mexico is an ancient thing that will still go on forever telling its own story in slabs of color leaves and fruits and proud naked Indians in a history without shame. Their great city of Tenochtitlan is still here beneath our shoes and history was always just like today full of markets and wanting.”
Why I Chose to Live in Mexico
True love in Mexico isn’t between lovers. It’s between a parent and a child. Mexico is an intensive culture of sons adoring their mothers, and this is why I claim Mexico is matriarchial, because the one constant faithful, inviolable holy love of love- the love of your life- is not your wife or your lover, it’s your mother.
I Have Loved Mexico Since My Childhood
My love affair with Mexico began in my youth. On one of our frequent family trips to Tijuana, I found a booklet entitled something like ¨How to Retire in Mexico on $100 a Month¨. (I grew up in Orange County, California, about two hours north of the US border). I devoured this booklet and then declared to my parents that I want to retire in Mexico. My parents replied, ¨Don’t you think that you need first to finish school and work before you retire¨? My reply a sheepish ¨Well, I guess so¨.
When I was in high school, my parents told me that they had some money that I could use to go to Europe, if I wanted. I calculated that the money was enough so that I could spend about two weeks in Europe. Then I realized that I could spend several months on the same cash traveling around Mexico instead, and travel in more comfort. My parents agreed.
During the four months that I spent traveling in Mexico in High School and College, I went all over the country and fell in love with Mexico. I have also never found any other country that attracted me as much. I love a lot about France, Italy, and Spain. The historical sites, food, and culture are incredibly rich. However, whenever I have spent several months in these countries, I crave the gaudy colors, spicy food, and playful, naïve arts and crafts of Mexico.
Mexico Is Safe If You Are Careful
Despite all the bad news, we hear from Mexico, I usually feel safe in Mexico. That said it does pay to be careful. In my case, all of my problems have involved taking the wrong taxi including:
- I took a taxi in Oaxaca, and the driver told me that I needed to pay him because he had injured his finger, helping me carry my luggage into a hotel. He got quite vociferous and demanded that I give him the equivalent of $75 to pay for his doctor’s bill. I suspect that this was a con but decided to pay him to avoid a confrontation.
- I was a victim of an express kidnapping in Puebla, Mexico in January 2020. It was the worst thing that has happened to me after spending nearly seven years traveling around the world. It could have been avoided if I ordered an Uber, took a taxi from a stand, or asked the hotel to call a cab for me. I wrote a blog post about the kidnapping.
Interestingly, when I taught a course about living and traveling in Mexico between 2005 and 2008, I noticed a sizable downturn in student enrollment as the news started to focus on crime in Mexico. (My average attendance went from fifteen to twenty students per class in 2005 to five to eight in 2008). To ensure that my business was still viable, I decided to work on the development of a similar course about Costa Rica. In researching these courses, I interviewed approximately 100 expats throughout Mexico and at least 60 in Costa Rica. I never met any expats in Mexico who had a significant problem. In Costa Rica, I met five people who were victims of crime, including a rape victim and a couple robbed at gunpoint.
My Mexican Adventure
Over time, I have:
- Spent over two and a half year traveling around Mexico;
- Visited 27 of the 31 Mexican states. (I have not visited the Northeast part of Mexico; Nuevo Leon, Tampico, Coahuila, and Durango);
- Lived with nine Mexican families;
- Volunteered to work at a turtle reserve in Michoacan;
- Taken, in addition to Spanish courses, classes in Traditional Mexican medicine, sociology and history of the city of Tepoztlan, Mexican sociology, and Mexican politics;
- Read about 100 books about Mexico history, politics, and sociology and Meso-American history and culture; and
- Lived in Merida for two years
Despite this wealth of experiences, Mexico’s life is so rich that I am always learning new things about the country’s history, culture, and food. I do not think I will ever uncover all of the country’s mysteries.
Along the way, I have grown to feel comfortable in Mexico. In some ways, I would even go so far as to say; I feel more comfortable here than in the US. Why?
The Mexican People
The Mexican people are charming. I admire the ease that they can talk about a lot of topics comfortably. I appreciate their willingness to smile and help out if possible. They seldom make me feel uncomfortable because of my weight, tendency to be too much of a professor or bad habits. I do not like confrontation and am glad that it is not part of Mexican culture.
That said, not every day, living here is not always a bed of roses. There are times if I am honest when living in Mexico can be frustrating and hard, and some aspects of living here that drive me a bit crazy. However, something keeps alluring me back.
Mexican Cultural Identity
What is it about Mexico that allures me (and many thousands of other Americans) to make it my home? For me, at least, I like being somewhere with a sense of deep cultural roots and a real sense of identity. While I treasure the multicultural and globalized culture in the US, at times, I feel like the US is missing a sense of cultural identity. Mexico has this sense of cultural identity in spades.
Mexicans have the spirit of artists and craftsmen. They can craft unique and unexpected pieces of art out of seemingly mundane, everyday items. In the US, so much seems cookie-cutter, made by a machine, to look like something you would find all over the place. In Mexico, it is easy to find things that are creative and reflect an artistic vision. It is this sense of creativity and cultural identity that I love most of Mexico.
How do I explain this to people who do not know Mexico? It is hard to do to put my finger on it. However, when I tried to figure it out, a slideshow of different Mexican images pop into my mind, including:
My Mexican Slideshow
One of the most notable traits of the Mexican’s character is his willingness to contemplate horror: he is even familiar and complacent in his dealings with it.
The images that pop into my mind when I try to explain what I love about Mexico feature the country’s colonial cities, Day of the Dead, music, cuisine, and folk art.
Mexican Colonial Cities
Mexico has dozens of beautiful colonial cities like Guanajuato, Queretaro, Puebla, Merida, Oaxaca, Mexico City, San Miguel de Allende, Zacatecas, Campeche, and Morelia. Each city has
- Rows of multi-colored houses painted in colors that would shock the Home-Owners Association in most American suburbs and yet somehow work well together.
- Plazas and parks with topiaries, gazebos, and iron benches. (Merida has his and her chairs designed so that a couple can look at each other),
- Churches with exuberant churrigueresque altars and carved exteriors featuring a playful mix of Christian symbols and indigenous iconography
- Government buildings with colorful murals detailing significant events in Mexican history and culture
- Fantastic museums. Mexico City has more museums than any other city on Earth. Nearly every Mexican city has new, modern museums like the Baroque museum in Puebla or the National Music Center in Merida.
- Musicians everywhere. Whenever I walk around any Mexican downtown at night, many restaurants and bars have live music featuring many different genres.
- A lot of cultural events. Many colonial cities have theaters built in the 19th and early 20th century, which feel like small versions of the great European theaters.
Most of the images that Americans think about with Mexico revolve around beaches. Yet, only about 10% of the population of Mexico lives near the coast. Until the 1950s the only large coastal cities in Mexico were ports. (Supposedly computers helped determine the location of most of the Mexican beach resorts cities in the 1950s. Until that time, most of the resorts were just small fishing villages).
Only two of these ports, Acapulco and Veracruz, had any importance until the 20th century. (Galleon ships used in the Spanish trade between Europe and Asia used to be unloaded in either of these cities. The goods then were transported across Mexico to be reloaded onto another ship would come and reload the products -including things from Mexico, most importantly gold and silver – for transport to Spain or the Philippines).
Mexico has a lot more scenery than just beaches. It is one of the most mountainous countries on Earth. The Northern half of the country has deserts with some of the unique plants anywhere. (The Baja Peninsula has over 100 endemic flora species including the iconic boojum tree). Lush tropical and semi-tropical landscapes predominate in the southern half of the country. (I love the flowering trees). Many places in Mexico even have snow regularly. Mexico also has an incredible animal life. I can stare at the flamingos in the Yucatan and the butterflies in Michoacan for hours.
Day of the Dead
Perhaps my favorite festival anywhere is the Mexican Day of the Dead. I love the:
- Altars decided to the dead. People decorate these altars to reflect the real person, complete with warts and all. (Many altars include cigarettes and tequila).
- Smell and the look of the paths of marigold petals that are used to direct the spirit of the dead person from the front door to the altar.
- The idea of inviting the dead into your home and talking to them on the Day of the Dead.
- The candles, flowers, and incense that decorate the loved ones´ tombs.
The Day of the Dead feels so much more meaningful and human than Halloween.
I love traditional Mexican music, dance, and costumes. Mariachi look so stylish in their charro suits with its waist-length jacket with silver or gold buttons, bow tie, fitted pants, short boots, and a broad embroidered sombreros. Dancers somehow look even more elegant in their traditional embroidered long dress and the white linen costumes. As I have learned the words to many songs, I admire the passion and heartfelt sentiments expressed by the music.
I enjoy Mexican cuisine’s variety of spices, sauces, and the innovative use of ingredients. My mouth waters when I think of my favorite dishes, including:
- Sweet Tamales. Served with raisins and cinnamon;
- Avocado Ice Cream;
- Tequila and Fig Nieves (a nieve is like an Italian gelato);
- Chile Relleno. A pepper stuffed with traditional Mexican cheese or with a picadillo meat made of diced pork, raisins and nuts, seasoned with cinnamon. The pepper is often fried in an egg white batter and served in a tomato sauce;
- Pozole. A soup made from hominy and meat usually garnished with shredded lettuce or cabbage, chile peppers, onion, garlic, radishes, avocado, salsa or limes;
- Chiles en Nogada. Poblano chiles stuffed with picadillo (apples, pears, and peaches) topped with a walnut-based cream sauce and pomegranate seeds, served at room temperature;
- Mole. Like Indian curry, every Mexican cook has a different mole sauce recipe. Generally, a mole sauce contains a fruit, chilis, nuts and seeds, and spices (cinnamon and cumin) and often even chocolate. I have even tried and liked mole chocolate souffle for dessert; and
- Quesadillas with Huitlacoche. A corn fungus that tastes vaguely like truffles.
Over time, after eating so much Mexican food, I have even grown to prefer my cuisine a bit spicy.
Mexican Popular Art
Perhaps more than anything else, I adore Mexican popular art. It is so naïve, joyful, and full of soul. To me, Mexican popular art is the most energetic expression of the country’s creativity and passion. So much decorative arts in the US feels like a knock off made in a factory in China. I have decorated my house with small handmade arts and crafts from a variety of artistic mediums and Mexican regions. My favorite piece of art is a retablo (small, colorful oil paintings, generally made on tin) dated from 1953 from a Yucatan church thanking God from delivering the painter from the vice of alcohol and partying. I am also very fond of three pieces of art that I have from Michoacan, which showcase the regions’ lacquer work, wooden religious statues, and copper crafts.
Want to Find Out More About Living and Traveling in Mexico?
- I have had the pleasure of meeting Mexico Cassie and enjoy reading her posts about living and traveling in Mexico both at her website and on Facebook.
- The best guidebook to ANY country is the People’s Guide to Mexico. It details everything from the uses and preparation for all the ingredients you find in a Mexican market to how to drive in Mexico. Unfortunately, the guide has not been updated since 2011 but it is still a must-have part of any Mexicophile’s library.