Sunday, February 24, 2008

Immigration and American Politics

We recently participated in the first ever Democratic primary voting for Americans living abroad. As a voting group, we will have 22 delegates to the National Democratic Convention in Denver this August. The results were for Obama with 65% of the vote.

There was an article this weekend's Guadalajara Reporter about Obama and his plans for improving the US relation with Mexico, should he become the next US president. The Mexicans are clearly not happy with George W. Bush, and he has essentially ignored Mexico since it opted out of participation in his invasion and occupation of Iraq. Vicente Fox, seen as a lackey to Bush, has lost much popularity here. Calderon, the PAN candidate who replaced Fox as President, has distanced himself from the US administration. Barack Obama has suggested that he will focus considerably more on Mexican-American relations. He has proposed specific ideas which could help the situation: (1) Hold an annual meeting with Calderon. This may be largely symbolic but would undoubtedly bring the US president to Mexico and show that the US respects Mexico, which does not seem to be the case now. (2) Involve citizens, labor, the private sector, and NGO's from both countries to form an active bilateral agenda for discussions between both countries. (3) Invest in drug education on both sides of the border. Mexico, although the main conduit for drugs tot he US, is also facing many drug-use problems as well. (4) Disrupt money laundering and drug smuggling from the United States. I think this may be his toughest challenge, but his pledge to work with Calderon will help, since Calderon has made this a top priority here. (5) Develop a bilateral strategy for lifting up border communities, including creating micro-loans for Mexican businesses to create jobs. The most problems in Mexico tend to be in the border communities in terms of violence and economic desperation. (6) Finally, Obama hopes to renegotiate NAFTA to help create enforecable labor and environmental standards. NAFTA has not been good for Mexico, and has resulted in many corn, beans, and sugar farmers struggling to stay in business because the heavily subsidized US farmers can sell corn, beans, and sugar for less than Mexican farmers can.

Whether Obama can really deliver and help Mexican-American relations remains to be seen. But living in Mexico has opened my eyes to the other side of the problem of immigration to the United States.

First of all, I am surprised how many Mexican people I meet here have lived in the United States and have returned to Mexico. I am not sure why they have all returned, whether they were deported or chose to return on their own, but they seem to have great respect for the United States and miss being there. At the same time, they are emotionally attached to Mexico. Over Christmas, we met people who had returned to Mexico to spend time with their families. They were proud to demonstrate their fluency in English and were happy to be able to send money to their families here, but are very sad and frustrated with the hate being expressed for the Mexican immigrants, whether legal or illegal, in the United States.

I was also surprised at how many families have relatives living in the United States. Mexicans refer to the US as the "other side." In many small villages in Mexico, most of the young men have gone to the US, leaving their children and parents behind. It is almost a "rite of passage" in some Mexican towns for young men to cross the border for a year or two.

Although most Mexicans are not happy with the way they are being labeled in the US, they are most gracious hosts. They are unfailingly polite and helpful to Americans living here, and speak very positively of the United States. They are very frustrated that NAFTA, which I assumed would be good for Mexico, is hurting many aspects of their economy.

I think the debate about immigration in the United States is fueled by ignorance and racism. I am glad to see both McCain and Obama willing to adopt a more reasonable immigration policy towards Mexico. Both countries need each other, and the sooner US politicians come to grips with that reality, and start ignoring the hate mongers, the better off we'll all be.

Friday, February 22, 2008

The Future of Ajijic

Now that we are soon to be invested in the Lake Chapala area permanently, as homeowners, I have been wondering what the future holds for Ajijic. Perhaps the most startling thing about this village is that, in spite of all the gringos who have moved into town, it remains very Mexican. As I walk into town from our rental on the West side, I walk through "Seis Esquinas," Six Corners, a very Mexican neighborhood, and see the rhythms of Mexican life continuing in spite of the influx from the North: the old man cutting sugar cane, coconut, and nopal cactus to sell at his fruit stand, two old women in robozos chatting through a metal door, schoolchildren in their plaid uniforms and their backpacks holding their mothers' hands on their way to school, my friend Salvadore washing his horse and smiling to me with his gold front teeth, young men mixing cement with sand on the cobblestone street....hardly the image of a retirement community. Of course, I do see the gringos, like me, in their straw hats, walking their dogs, shopping at the little grocery stores, mixing comfortably with their Mexican neighbors.

Of course, many of the American, Canadian, and European expats tend to live outside the village in "fracciomentos" or gated neighborhoods east, west, and north of the village. We found homes in Ajijic to be unaffordable and with little or no outside space. Wealthy gringos are slowly buying up Mexican property and gutting the homes, transforming them into colorful showcases among the grey, cement Mexican homes.

The main road, or Carretera, which runs along the north shore of Lake Chapala connecting Ajijic to Jocotepec to the west and Chapala to the east, and beyond, is congested, particularly now when the population swells with the seasonal visitors. But even in the summer, the road is inadequate for its traffic. More and more gringo-oriented businesses are popping up to try to capitalize on the retirement migration.

The house we are buying is in Riberas del Pilar, between Ajijic and Chapala. The area is not very built up at the moment, although clearly, many houses are starting to be built in this area. There are many businesses along the Carretera in Riberas.

I try to imagine what the north shore, between Jocotepec and Chapala will be in ten or twenty years. The pace of influx of Northerners has abated a bit, probably because of the poor housing market in the US. If people can't sell their homes in the United States, they cannot afford to pay cash for a house in Mexico. Of course, the Canadian market is better, but overall, real estate here is selling slowly. For example, we were able to get our house for $30,000USD below the original asking price. But eventually, as more baby boomers retire, Mexico, and this area in particular, will become an increasingly popular retirement destination. The prices will probably keep going up, at least somewhat. There are new developments popping up all along the carretera, and I expect that, in the future, the entire corridor between Ajijic and Jocotepec will be developed.

The big worry is will the infrastructure be able to handle it? Will the water and sewer systems be adequate? Is the Mexican government planning for this increase in population? They are clearly glad to have the expats coming here, and I am sure planning is going on, but it is a huge challenge.

I am afraid that Ajijic itself will have to change as time goes on. As the limited space in the village is bought up, and the value of the property continues to increase, there will be more pressure on Mexican families to sell to assure their economic future. As this happens, the village will, inevitably, become where gringos live and Mexicans work. I hope this does not happen, but I think it likely will, eventually.

As the area becomes less Mexican, prices will probably rise, as has the price of real estate. Probably the best argument for us to buy a home here is to avoid getting priced out of the housing market. Rentals are reasonable now, but are likely to go up in the future.

We're betting that, in spite of the challenges ahead, the Lake Chapala area will continue to be a wonderful place to live. Certainly living in the US has its own challenges. The weather here, without the need for heat or AC, will continue to help us live simply. The abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables and fresh meats will continue to help us eat well. And, most of all, the beautiful, generous, and kind Mexican people will keep us here. As case in point: we shop at the outside market every week. Last week we inadvertently left a bunch of Bananas behind. This week when we returned, Aaron, the man who we buy our fruits and veggies from, shouted out: "Bill! Pixie! You left your bananas last week. Here, I have a new bunch for you today!" I hope this type of kindness never changes.

Finally, I am including a recent poem I wrote after Eric and Crystal brought the latest ultrasound image of Isabelle for us to see.


We think we see your spine

As we gather intently around the screen

To view the grainy disk

Your parents brought to Mexico

To demonstrate their fertility.

You do not know the world

Into which you are about

To be thrust.

Will you shine or struggle?

I think I see your foot

And now perhaps your face

Inscrutable and silent

Reserving judgment on us all.

Your heart, tiny and furious

Belies your otherwise buoyant repose

And I wish I know

What it will hold dear,

How often it will break,

If it will carry you well

Through tears and tragedy,

And how it will pound with passion

Against some lover’s breast

In darkest nights ahead.

I think I see translucent eyes

Peering into vacant space

And I wonder what they’ll see

Eighty years from now

When we are gone and you remain.

What will you think of us?

Thursday, February 14, 2008

New House for Valentines Day

After looking at all the available property in our price range over the past several weeks, we decided that we liked the pink house, shown on the last blog entry, most of all. Since we were not successful in our previous offers, we decided that it was a good house and it was worth one more try. We increased our offer slightly, and they accepted. So, we are now in the process of doing all the things necessary to move in soon after the closing date of March 14.

Fortunately, we were able to save some money from the sale in our house in Maine to buy some furniture for the house here. This house is largely unfurnished, although it includes all the appliances. We took Daniel with us to inspect it today, and he found only minor problems which he says he can help us fix. I have enclosed photos below, including one of Daniel inspecting the roof.

The house has two bedrooms with bathrooms, one of which we will use as a den with a pullout sofa for guests, an open living-room, dining room area, a kitchen with lots of storage including a butlers' pantry, a laundry room, a large bodega (shed), a two car covered parking space, a small front garden, a nice yard in the back with a deep covered terrace and another terrace in the back of the yard for a BBQ area. The house is four years old and in good shape. As you can see from the, photos it's very Mexican (the sellers are Mexican) and we can add more Mexican touches as we live there for awhile.

The house is located in Upper Riberas del Pilar, about halfway between Ajijic and Chapala, about 5 minutes from each. It has city water, a septic system, and the property taxes are $133 per year, somewhat less than in Maine.

Happy Valentines Day. I told Pixie I was buying her a pink house in Mexico for Valentine's Day. HAHA.

Note: I have included a link to the monthly critical thinking column I am writing for the English-language magazine, El Ojo del Lago, or The Eye of the Lake. You can access the magazine online by clicking on the link at the top.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Buying Property in Mexico

Until recently, foreigners could not buy property in Mexico. They could put property into a trust, but the property could not be passed down to one's heirs. The law has been changed so that now foreigners can buy property here, although not within a certain distance of the coast or the border.

We are in the process of trying to figure out whether or not we will buy a house here or continue to rent. Part of the decision involves being aware of the pitfalls of buying property in Mexico.

One of the primary concerns is that, as northerners, we are not used to the construction styles here. When we first visited here, I looked at the brick and concrete houses with tile floors and thought they must be indestructible. I was used to wood framed houses which always seemed to suffer from water and dry rot. Since it was dry here most of the year, it seemed as though these houses would require less maintenance. This was an oversimplification. Having lived through a rainy season, I have seen the damage water can do. Just like with wood houses, water is the culprit. Water can seep into walls and under tiles to create damage which remains unseen until it is serious. So where your house is, is of utmost importance. Drainage is critical. We almost made a serious mistake on the house we almost bought, as outlined in the previous two posts. We have since decided to limit our search to houses between 1 and 10 years old...enough time for construction flaws to show up but not so old that we are buying a slew of unseen problems....probably.

Another problem is ground stability. This shows up particularly in new construction. We have several friends who built houses on fault lines or on poor foundations who are now finding serious cracks developing in their houses. One friend, Judy, who I volunteer with teaching English, completed a new home last year and the house developed such severe cracks that she can no longer live in the house. She has had to move in with a friend; she is now in Mexican courts trying to get the money back from her contractor.

Mexican laws are different as well. In the United States, when we buy a home, there are laws protecting the buyer from blatantly false claims or serious problems with a property. The warning "buyer beware" is particularly important in Mexico where there is essentially no protection for the buyer. If a seller tells you something that turns out to be false, and you buy the house with that understanding, then you have no recourse. You had better make sure there is water, hot water, a working phone line, electricity to the entire house, etc. before you sign on the dotted line. Most people hire someone to help them check out the house before they buy. Some things buried in concrete, however, will remain a mystery.

Another problem people run into when buying a house, especially in the village, is noise. It's important to visit the house at different times of the day and week. Mexicans love fiestas, which is an endearing fact about living here, unless you buy a house near an "evento," a place rented out for parties which may last all night. Some noise is inevitable, especially during annual celebrations, but you could be stuck in a particularly noisy area without realizing it.

So why would anyone buy a house with all these potential problems? Rents are plentiful and reasonable, and usually come completely furnished. You have the flexibility to pick up and leave with no hassle. But, there are drawbacks to renting. Probably the most important one, in this popular area, is the danger of rental prices escalating rapidly. Yes, rents are affordable now, but once the real estate market in the US stabilizes and baby boomers like us start discovering Mexico as a retirement destination, prices will surely rise. Since we are planning to live here permanently, perhaps for 30 years or so, owning a house outright would be a good hedge against inflation. Also, just like with buying property, there are pitfalls to renting here. Unlike in the US, property here is often rented here without any regulations. The renter is often expected to do required repairs to the house at his or her own expense. If the roof leaks, it can be the renter's responsibility. We've even heard stories about renters who have invested their own money in a house only to have the landlord raise the rent because the property is now worth more!

One of the most important things to remember, whether we rent or buy, is that we are foreigners in Mexico. We cannot expect it to be like the United States. If there are problems, they may be more difficult to resolve here. We certainly do not have the protections which we have come to expect in the United States.

We have been looking for property in our price range; property is expensive here thanks to all the like-minded gringos, many of whom are far more prosperous than us. If we find something soon, we may buy it; otherwise we will find a new rent, probably in Ajijic, which should be relatively easy to do. We will continue to look, as, hopefully, prices will fall a bit, at least for the next year or so.

Here are some photos of some recent properties we have looked at. We put a low-ball offer on the pink house, but it didn't fly. Oh well.