Back to top

The Other Side of the Fence

The Other Side of the Fence
American Migrants in Mexico

A remarkable examination of U.S. citizens, particularly retirees, who migrate to Mexican towns such as San Miguel de Allende and reverse the conventional wisdom about immigration and identity.

January 2009
This is a print-on-demand title. Expedited shipping is not available.
270 pages | 6 x 9 | 14 b&w photos, 2 maps, 4 tables |

A growing number of Americans, many of them retirees, are migrating to Mexico's beach resorts, border towns, and picturesque heartland. While considerable attention has been paid to Mexicans who immigrate to the U.S., the reverse scenario receives little scrutiny. Shifting the traditional lens of North American migration, The Other Side of the Fence takes a fascinating look at a demographic trend that presents significant implications for the United States and Mexico.

The first in-depth account of this trend, Sheila Croucher's study describes the cultural, economic, and political lives of these migrants of privilege. Focusing primarily on two towns, San Miguel de Allende in the mountains and Ajijic along the shores of Lake Chapala, Croucher depicts the surprising similarities between immigrant populations on both sides of the border. Few Americans living in Mexico are fluent in the language of their new land, and most continue to practice the culture and celebrate the national holidays of their homeland, maintaining close political, economic, and social ties to the United States while making political demands on Mexico, where they reside.

Accessible, timely, and brimming with eye-opening, often ironic, findings, The Other Side of the Fence brings an important perspective to borderlands debates.

  • Preface
  • Introduction: Reversing the Lens
  • Chapter One: Southern Pulls and Northern Pushes
  • Chapter Two: High-Tech Migrants: Technology and Transterritoriality
  • Chapter Three: Waving the Red, White, and Azul: The Transnational Politics of Americans in Mexico
  • Chapter Four: "They Love Us Here!": Privileged Belonging in a Global World
  • Chapter Five: Rethinking the Fence
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Author of Imagining Miami and Globalization and Belonging, Sheila Croucher is the Paul Rejai Professor of Political Science and American Studies at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.


Had people with such exotic customs, such irrational beliefs, such complex social organizations, and such tremendous power, been of any other skin colour they would have been studied in great depth and detail. Unfortunately, however, most of the world's anthropologists are white, and it is a rare anthropologist indeed who studies somebody of his own colour.

Ron Crocombe, letter to editor of the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Sociology


Not only at the borders, but also in cities and towns throughout this North American country's heartland, immigrants are arriving in increasing numbers. Few speak the language of their adopted land, and most reside and socialize within an isolated cultural enclave. They continue to practice their own cultural traditions and celebrate their national holidays. The grocery stores are stocked with locally unfamiliar products that hail from the immigrants' homeland. These settlers maintain close political, economic, and social ties with their country of origin, and establish local organizations designed to promote its values. They vote in foreign elections, raise money for candidates running for office abroad, and meet with political party representatives from their country of origin while residing in the new land. Meanwhile, these immigrants also make political demands on the host country where they reside, although few choose to pursue formal citizenship there. Some live and work in the new country without proper documentation (read: "illegally"), and have even been involved in the unauthorized transport of drugs across state borders. Their presence is so pervasive that the local governments of the receiving state have been forced to adapt in many ways, providing additional services, linguistic and otherwise, to address the needs of the growing foreign population.


The portrayal above is now a familiar one in the United States, and the scenario it describes is a source of significant tension. Citizen groups throughout the United States have mobilized to protest the presence of Mexican immigrants in their cities. Cadres of minutemen militia are patrolling the southern U.S. border. Towns in the state of Georgia have passed regulations prohibiting taco stands and soccer. In 2006, Pahrump, Nevada, outlawed flying a foreign flag unless it is flown alongside and below the American flag. Numerous cities and states throughout the United States have declared English the official language, and the U.S. Congress is considering federal legislation that does the same (Jonsson 2006). And on October 26, 2006, President Bush signed into law a bill to construct seven hundred miles of fencing along the southern border with Mexico. Meanwhile, politicians and media pundits in the United States build lucrative careers railing against the economic, political, and cultural dangers associated with immigration—particularly that from Mexico. Besides being tarnished with the charge that "they" take "our" jobs and lower "our" wages, immigrants are also accused of not respecting U.S. culture and clinging too tightly to their own (Chacón and Davis 2006). Yet, the immigrants described in the opening paragraph and throughout this book are not Mexicans living in the United States; they are U.S. citizens living in Mexico.


The project presented here joins countless others in investigating why migrants move, how they adapt to life in a new land, the degree to which they stay connected to their homeland, and the implications for the sending state, the receiving state, the migrants, and the societies that host them. The familiar focus on migration northward, however, is reversed. Americans, as will become clear in the pages that follow, are moving to Mexico in growing numbers. They cross the same geographic border as their Mexican counterparts, but are headed in the opposite direction and typically with access to a more advantageous array of economic, political, and cultural resources. They remain closely attached to and promote the values of the United States through organizations that include the Democrats and Republicans Abroad, the American Legion, and the Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution. These migrants use Voice Over Internet Phones (VOIP), e-mail, satellite television, and satellite radio to stay connected with loved ones (and financial advisors) in the United States. They establish social organizations to build community with other Americans in Mexico and to ease the transition for new arrivals. Surprisingly few of these Americans speak Spanish, including some who have lived in Mexico for a decade or more; and most rely heavily on the willingness of their servants, wait staff, and other Mexican professionals to adjust accordingly. Meanwhile, and despite Mexico's constitutional prohibitions against the involvement of foreigners in the country's politics, Americans living in Mexico lobby local governments on a range of issues including development, security, sanitation, and historical preservation.


Relative to the volumes of scholarship that focus on immigrants heading north across the U.S./Mexico border, the scholarly or political attention in the United States or in Mexico to the flow of U.S. citizens moving south to Mexico is scant. The size of this human movement southward is smaller than the reverse flow, but still significant (and growing) in number and in political and theoretical relevance for Mexico, the United States, and academics focusing on globalization, transnational migration, and changing forms of cultural and political belonging. This book will reverse the lens of so much contemporary scholarship to focus on the under-studied case of American migrants in Mexico.


Using the term "American" as an exclusive referent to people from the United States is admittedly problematic because inhabitants of North, Central, and South America are all technically Americans. Unfortunately, the English language does not contain an appropriate term for people from the United States that functions in the way "Colombian," "Mexican," or "Nicaraguan" does to identify individuals that hail from those countries. Due to the lack of a preferable alternative, and the fact that "American" is so widely used as a referent for individuals from the United States, I will use it that way here as well. The chapters that follow explore which factors pull Americans to Mexico and push them from the United States; how technology is reconfiguring the relevance of territory for Americans in Mexico who live their lives across international borders; the ways in which American migrants practice a form of extraterritorial citizenship in a country where they retain political membership, but do not reside, and in a country where they reside, but do not have formal citizenship; and how migrants of relative privilege negotiate belonging in a global, postmodern world.


The aims of this book are threefold: empirical documentation, conceptual application and refinement, and political enlightenment. The empirical contribution lies in focusing on a relatively invisible migration flow from an advanced industrialized country best known for importing immigrants to a less developed country better known for exporting them. Drawing on intensive fieldwork, the chapters that follow detail the intriguing story of Americans who leave the United States to settle in Mexico, and offer vivid portrayals of life in two Mexican towns heavily populated by Americans: San Miguel de Allende in the state of Guanajuato and the Lake Chapala region in the state of Jalisco—specifically the small village of Ajijic. As with most case studies of migrant streams, this discussion will include a focus on what motivates these migrants to move and how they live their daily lives across borders.


In recent decades, scholars of migration have updated conventional conceptual and theoretical frameworks to account for the growing tendency of migrants to remain closely connected to their homelands while establishing themselves in the country of settlement. The growing frequency and intensity of immigrant transnational practices and transnational social fields have challenged the model of immigration as an abrupt rupture with the past. The bulk of the burgeoning scholarship on immigrant transnationalism has been applied to migrants who leave a less developed country for one that is more so; and theorizing on the topic of transnationalism has been premised almost entirely on assumptions of power imbalances between politically and economically weaker sending countries and more advantaged receiving ones, and between marginalized immigrants and their more well-off host society. This analysis of U.S. migration to Mexico borrows heavily from that scholarship, but applies it to a case study of migrants of privilege. The project is interested in how the academic literature on immigration, transnationalism, globalization, and the politics of identity and belonging applies to the case of Americans in Mexico, but also how this somewhat peculiar case may call for refinements in existing theory. This effort at conceptual application and refinement begs the question of terminology. Should Americans living in Mexico be characterized as "immigrants," or something different: "expatriates," a "diaspora," "settlers," "sojourners," "legal or illegal aliens," "colonists"? As discussed below, the terms are not neutral. They are not neutral in what they convey politically and culturally, nor in the related bodies of scholarship they call forth.


Finally, this project is also not politically neutral. The patterns and practices described in this book have significant political and policy implications for both Mexico and the United States. Moreover, given the maelstrom swirling around Mexican migration to the United States, this book is motivated by the hope that "reversing the lens" on migration will open the eyes of some in the United States (politicians, policy makers, pundits, and disgruntled citizens) to the countless and sometimes invisible forms of border crossing that globalization has inspired, or at the very least, facilitated. U.S. citizens, in other words, are migrants too.


The Lens


If all identifying characteristics were eliminated from the opening paragraph of this introduction, the portrayal would read like so many others that fill the pages of books, journal articles, and conference reports on transnationalism and migration. We are living in a world in motion. In 2005, more than 190 million people lived outside of their country of birth, up more than 100 million from three decades prior (United Nations Population Division 2005). If this group of migrants comprised their own country, it would constitute the fifth most populous in the world (International Organization for Migration 2007). Globalization has played a powerful role in propelling this intensified human movement. The faster and freer flow of goods, services, and capital, and the social disruptions that result, have compelled, sometimes forced, people to leave their country of birth in search of enhanced security and stability. Sophisticated advances in communications and transportation technology have facilitated that movement, as well as the maintenance of ties to the homeland. Worldwide migration is not, however, merely a consequence of global interconnectedness, but also a powerful force driving it as migrants carry with them ideas; languages; and cultural beliefs and practices, values, and preferences, and adopt and develop new and different ones in the act of migration. All of this movement and transformation have captured tremendous political and scholarly attention. Many hundreds of books have been written on the topics of globalization and migration and identity, and thousands of such articles have been published in scholarly journals. Countless governmental commissions have been convened nationally, regionally, and internationally to address the topic of migration, and numerous think tanks have formed to compile data and analyze the trends.


Why, then, has the case of U.S. citizens migrating to Mexico not captured the attention of scholars or policy makers the way so many other cases (Colombians, Dominicans, El Salvadorans, Haitians, and Mexicans moving to the United States, for example) have? Of the possible explanations for this oversight, perhaps the most obvious, and one that is not totally without merit, is that the number of Americans leaving the United States for Mexico is smaller than the number of immigrants arriving in the United States from the opposite direction. Yet, as will become clear, the size of the migrant flow from the United States to Mexico is not insignificant; and the available data reveal some interesting parallels. For example, Mexican immigrants in the United States comprise the largest proportion, 30 percent, of the total foreign-born population (Grieco 2003); and U.S. immigrants in Mexico comprise the largest proportion of that country's foreign-born—69 percent (General Census of Population and Housing of Mexico XII 2000). In other words, while the absolute numbers of Mexican immigrants in the United States may be higher, the relative size and impact of Americans in Mexico may be as great, or greater. Moreover, size is not the only, or even necessarily the best, measure of the significance of a migration flow. Other studies have shown that migration flows that might not be numerically significant at the national level can have profound effects at the local level (O'Reilly 2000; Rodriguez et al. 1998). For example, of the millions of Latino immigrants who have arrived on U.S. shores over the past fifty years, Cubans comprise but a small fraction. By 2000, the U.S. Census reported 35.3 million Hispanics living in the United States. Only 3.5 percent of that total Hispanic population was of Cuban origin. Mexicans comprised 58.5 percent. Yet the political, economic, and cultural impact of Cuban immigrants on the United States generally, and South Florida specifically, has been notable, and not constrained by their relatively smaller numbers (Population Resource Center 2002).


Some readers might aver that the lack of attention paid to U.S. immigrants living in Mexico reflects not necessarily their smaller numbers, but their positive, or at least not negative, impact on the host society. This hypothesis of American migrants' benign impact on Mexico will be discussed in the chapters that follow, but suffice it to say that although assessing the question is complicated, the impact of the migration flow southward is arguably mixed. Moreover, to accept the allegedly benign impact of U.S. migration to Mexico as an explanation for why so little attention is paid to the topic is problematic for additional reasons. Such an explanation, when considered in the reverse, tacitly accepts that the magnitude of attention focused on Mexican immigrants in the United States is a direct consequence of the empirical harm they cause to the U.S. economy and culture. It assumes that social and political realities mirror perfectly an established set of objective, empirical facts. This proposition is highly debatable (and much debated). For example, the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States tends to correlate with periods of economic or political insecurity in the country, but tying directly the real or perceived hardships of the native-born to immigration or immigrants is next to impossible.


Analysts have been more successful at establishing psychological and political explanations for nativism in the United States than providing empirical proof that immigrants harm the economy and that anti-immigrant attitudes are a consequence of that harm. Curiously, some of the most fervent anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States has bubbled up in states with the smallest number of immigrants, and among population groups least likely to be affected by immigration (Cornelius 1982; Esses et al. 2002; Fetzer 2000). Moreover, and to return to the case of Cubans, the amount and type of scholarly and political attention paid to immigrant groups in the United States have never been solely a function of their perceived negative impact. Cuban immigrants, like some Asian immigrant groups, have been spotlighted at certain historical moments as model minorities whose human and social capital stimulated the U.S. economy and contributed positively to U.S. society (Levine and Asís 2000; Stepick et al. 2003; Rieff 1993). In other words, explaining which migration flows capture public attention and what kind of attention requires that we look beyond factors like the size of the migrant population and that we interrogate more fully the politics behind widely circulating social perceptions.


A more helpful explanation for the relative disinterest in Americans migrating southward (and a central premise of this book) is suggested in this introduction's opening quotation. "Immigrants," in the minds of U.S. politicians, academics, media, and public at large, are not "white." They are not U.S. citizens. They do not leave wealthy and powerful countries, completely voluntarily, to live in poorer and less powerful ones; and "immigrants" do not typically arrive in the new land possessing greater economic, political, and cultural power than the majority of their hosts. The opening quotation also reminds us of the importance of what Thorstein Veblen (1914) termed "trained incapacity." In one of the earlier examinations of transnational communities, sociologist Robert Smith invoked Veblen to illustrate how long and deeply held assumptions about citizenship, migration, and assimilation had trained analysts to focus on certain phenomena to the neglect of others (1998, 197). This same trained incapacity has likely blinded us to a recognition of Americans as transnational migrants too. Moreover, the processes by which some issues capture widespread public attention and others do not, or by which some circumstances are defined as "problems" and others not, are rarely politically neutral ones. Political scientists, sociologists, and philosophers have demonstrated that power often resides in the ability not to openly exercise power (Digeser 1992). Put differently, power and privilege are often at their most potent when they are the least visible.


From this perspective, understanding why some questions are asked and topics explored, while others are overlooked or ignored, requires a recognition of power as deeply embedded in social discourse, and as something highly decentralized that works through us, and not merely on us (Edelman 1988; Foucault 1980). Anthropologist Mark Pedelty offers as an example the fact that in the United States people are often quick to observe the work of ideology on individuals in other societies, be those chiefdoms, dictatorships, or socialist states, but are unable or unwilling to recognize how they themselves live under the influence and in the service of capitalist ideology (2004, 293). In the case of Americans living in Mexico, power and privilege have contributed to allowing a significant social reality to persist under the guise of the mundane. Why, some readers and observers will ask (and many U.S. citizens residing in Mexico did ask), is it important or interesting to study Americans in Mexico? "We" are not exotic. "We" are not like the "others" who consume the attention of scholars in the United States. These assumptions and trained incapacities are precisely why it is important to study Americans who migrate to Mexico. Interrogating the seemingly mundane is a valuable intellectual endeavor that can yield meaningful theoretical and political insights.


The Method


Returning again to the quotation that opens this introduction, I am not, formally, an anthropologist, nor is skin color a prominent theme in this book, but I did set out to study a group that qualifies, at least in many respects, as what Crocombe might characterize as "my own people." I lived in Mexico for eight months—in June 2005, June 2006, and January through June 2007—in San Miguel de Allende (in the mountains of the state of Guanajuato), in the village of Ajijic (on the shores of Lake Chapala in the state of Jalisco), and in Mexico City. During this time I immersed myself in the lives of Americans living in Mexico. I conducted in-depth interviews. I read daily and did archival searches of local English-language newspapers, blogs written by American immigrants, and Internet lists catering to Americans in Mexico. I attended meetings, fund-raisers, church services, and parties. I went on bus trips and bike tours with Americans living in Mexico, and I spent many hours sitting in public spaces where the American communities in these Mexican towns congregate, engaging any and every one I could in conversation about U.S. migration to Mexico. These experiences, which were immeasurably rewarding and fascinating (but also at times challenging), inform the analysis that follows.


San Miguel and Ajijic/Lake Chapala form the primary focus of this study. Americans are living in cities and towns throughout Mexico, along the borders and on the beaches, but these two sites rank at the top not only in the absolute and proportional size of the immigrant population, but also in terms of their notoriety and established history as American settlements. In both locales, I combined reputational and snowball sampling techniques to identify research participants who were residing permanently in Mexico. The interviews with these Americans ranged in length from forty minutes to two hours, and in many cases I was invited to join the respondents at another time for a meeting of their club or organization, or for a dinner party in their home. These semistructured interviews, guided by open-ended questions, aimed to assess the following: what led these Americans to leave the United States and settle in Mexico (which factors pulled them or pushed them across the international border); in what ways do they stay connected to the United States (how often do they visit, communicate with loved ones, access U.S. news sources, vote); what is the nature of their daily existence in and/or adaptation to Mexican society and culture (do they speak Spanish, socialize with Mexicans, celebrate Mexican holidays, stay abreast of or participate in the cultural and political life of the Mexican town in which they live); and how do they perceive their impact on the Mexican people and Mexican towns they inhabit, and the reception they are extended by their Mexican hosts?


I also sought out individuals whose positions or professions were particularly relevant to the themes of this study: real estate agents; current and past officers of the prominent civic organizations and clubs; contributors, owners, and editors of the English-language periodicals; and authors who have written about San Miguel and Ajijic. Because the political transnationalism of Americans is a significant focus of the book, I interviewed officers and members of the Democrats Abroad and Republicans Abroad in San Miguel, Ajijic, and Mexico City, and when the need for further information warranted it, I communicated with their national officers in D.C., and in one case with an officer of Americans Vote Abroad who resides in France. The interviews in Mexico City were designed primarily to gain insights and information from individuals in positions of political or social leadership within the American community in Mexico who could provide background on national-level (meaning throughout Mexico) activities and trends related to Americans abroad. The length of time the respondents had lived in Mexico ranged from one year to fifty-seven years; and these research participants ranged in age from thirty-eight to eighty, with the overwhelming majority over fifty-five years of age. Chapter One provides more extensive background on who these immigrants are and why they move.


The in-depth interviews were a valuable source of information, but so, too, were countless activities that fall under the heading of "participant observation." I worshipped with the Unitarians in San Miguel and at the Lake Chapala Society's Sunday morning "Open Circle." In Ajijic I attended a Rotary meeting, had brunch with the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, and joined members of the local Republicans Abroad and others on a bus trip to a nearby town for the annual Candelmas celebration (a festival that commemorates the purification of Mary forty days after giving birth, as well as the presentation of Jesus in the temple). In San Miguel I attended the monthly meeting of the local chapter of Democrats Abroad. At the public library, or biblioteca, I sat in on a meeting of the community security advisory committee (a group, formed during the 2006 serial rapist crisis, that sought to improve communication between Mexican officials and the foreign community on issues of security in San Miguel). I joined a group of mainly foreigners at El Charco del Ingenio, a large nature preserve just outside San Miguel, to celebrate the full moon with a bonfire, incense, chanting, and drums. In Mexico City, I pedaled through Chapultepec Park with the Young Democrats Abroad, attended a gathering of the Newcomers group, and had cocktails with the Mexpats (both of the latter social networking groups for foreigners, and predominantly Americans, in Mexico). Throughout these months in Mexico, I enjoyed the generous hospitality of many Americans who invited me to join them for impressive meals in their equally impressive homes, and to sip tequila while soaking up the spectacular views of mountains and lakes from their rooftop terraces.


In addition to interviews, social and political events, and the many hours I spent sitting in cafes, parks, libraries, and other public spaces participating in and overhearing conversations with Americans living in Mexico, a variety of published sources also provided significant current and historical information on this migration phenomenon. Since 1975, residents of San Miguel have had access to the English-language weekly Atención. The paper provides a schedule of upcoming cultural and civic events, announces the opening of new restaurants and art galleries, publishes news about the town, and prints social, political, and cultural commentaries by local residents. The foreign community in San Miguel comprises the bulk of the paper's readership, and that community is predominantly American. Atención is currently available online and maintains electronic archives. Bound copies of all of the previous year's editions are housed on the second floor of the biblioteca. An additional and particularly illuminating look at the lives of Americans in San Miguel comes from Internet groups, discussion forums, and bloggers—of which, as discussed in Chapter Two, there are many.


The residents of Ajijic and other villages along Lake Chapala also have access to several English-language publications. The Guadalajara Reporter is an American-owned, English-language weekly that has been in operation since the 1950s. Although operated out of nearby Guadalajara (another site that is home to a large population of American migrants), the paper publishes a special section devoted to the Lake Chapala community. The Guadalajara Reporter is online and maintains an efficient electronic archive. Two other English-language periodicals are published monthly by and for "Lakesiders" (as the immigrants refer to themselves): the Ojo del Lago (Eye of the Lake) and the Lake Chapala Review. Both are distributed free of charge, owned by foreigners, and packed primarily with real estate advertisements. They also publish social, cultural, and political commentary by Americans and Canadians living along the lake. Finally, Americans living south of the border have written an array of books about moving to or retiring in Mexico. Most of these are of the "how to" variety, but are still revealing in terms of what they choose to emphasize about life in Mexico, and the advice they proffer to prospective immigrants.


A particularly intriguing aspect of this fieldwork concerns how U.S. citizens living in Mexico reacted to me and to this study. Their reactions can be grouped into three, not necessarily mutually exclusive, categories: enthusiasm, suspicion, and curiosity. Some Americans living in Mexico whom I met were interested in the project and enthusiastic about being interviewed. On several occasions, I attended functions that allowed me to introduce myself to large groups of people and to explain my research. Inevitably, at the close of the meeting or event, many people would approach me volunteering to help, share their stories, and offer advice on individuals I should contact and places or events I should attend. Other people whom I had already interviewed would introduce me to their neighbors and friends, explaining sometimes with a sense of pride: "We've been interviewed for a study." On occasion, I would arrive at a shop or office to introduce myself, and the person I was seeking would say, "Oh, yes, I have heard about you being in town," seeming to welcome the opportunity to contribute his or her unique perspective on the topic at hand. I very much appreciated and benefited from the generosity of these research participants.


Another category of Americans in Mexico was more hesitant to talk and somewhat suspicious, at least initially, of me, and my intentions. This was particularly the case when it came to the topic of politics. Because the political mobilization of Americans abroad is an important theme of the project, it was imperative that I interview officers and active members of groups like Democrats Abroad and Republicans Abroad. This project is not a partisan one, nor do I consider my own partisan affiliations relevant to the study. A small number of the respondents, however, did. One officer of Democrats Abroad began our conversation by asking me to clarify my own political position. On another day, as I waited outside a large iron gate on a quiet street in San Miguel for a scheduled interview at the home of an officer of the local chapter of Republicans Abroad, my host came to greet me by explaining (jovially, I think): "We have this gate here to keep Democrats out!" I spent much of that particular interview trying to steer the conversation away from critiques of "leftist" professors and "liberal" universities and back to the topic I came to discuss: American political participation from abroad. In another instance, a respondent who was initially hesitant to talk with me explained later: "Well, I googled you, and you do seem to be who you say you are."


I attribute these more challenging interactions to several factors. Some Republicans in these two Mexican towns feel outnumbered (and seem, perhaps, to be), and the red state/blue state tensions that have frayed nerves and hurt feelings in the United States appear to have crossed the border along with American migrants. I should also acknowledge, however, that one officer of Republicans Abroad in Ajijic and his wife, who were initially hesitant to talk with me, later invited me to their home for a delightful dinner party that not only included on the guest list active members and former officers of Democrats Abroad, but also offered some hope for respectful bipartisanship among Americans—at least those living on the other side of the fence. For their part, the Democrats Abroad in Mexico are a highly mobilized crowd and were keenly interested in how my findings might assist them in their efforts to reach American voters in Mexico. Finally, the comment about "googling" me reflected a fascinating aspect of life in these towns that is discussed further in the next chapter. I was warned repeatedly to be cautious of "border promotions": a reference to the tendency, allegedly widespread, of some people who have left the United States for Mexico to embellish their previous rank, status, position, or profession once south of the border. "San Miguel," Nicholas Bloom writes, "is where the dead sergeant's wife becomes the admiral's widow" (Bloom 2006, 198). Hence, strangers like me who arrive in Mexico announcing some particular set of credentials may initially be viewed as suspect.


The most intriguing response I encountered during my fieldwork, and a common one, was curiosity as to why this issue—Americans living in Mexico—was worthy of academic analysis. Many of the Americans with whom I spoke saw nothing particularly interesting or peculiar in their decision to migrate. In fact, few, if any, thought of themselves as immigrants; and many bristled at the idea of being objects of study. These last two reactions stimulated engaging conversations and, for me, important thought processes about the political implications of terminology (a point developed below), and the ways in which power and privilege allow significant and potentially revealing social phenomena to persist in the guise of the mundane. Academics and journalists, typically North American, dissect regularly the lives of immigrants living in the United States, Canada, and Western Europe. Why these immigrants come, where they reside, and how they lead their daily lives are just a few of the legitimate and familiar topics of analysis. Rarely does anyone question the value or fascination of the subject matter. I have no sense, nor have I seen addressed, how those immigrants, typically originating from the global South, feel about being objects of analysis; or whether having the social, political, and psychic space to even reflect on that question (or at least to reflect openly) is itself a function of power and privilege—reserved for migrants like the Americans headed to Mexico, or academics like myself.


It would be disingenuous to characterize this fieldwork in Mexico as grueling in any respect. "Work" does not come much better than traveling to beautiful locales with idyllic climates and facilitating leisurely conversations with a constituency that is overwhelmingly bright, interesting, and willing to talk. Pleasure aside, however, the methodology is a serious one, and at times challenging. The qualitative case study method based on in-depth interviews, participant observation, and careful analysis of published materials has proven time and again to be a valuable source of information and insight not derived easily (if derived at all) from conventional survey research. During her ethnographic study of British migrants in southern Spain, sociologist Karen O'Reilly attempted a survey and reported a disappointing 14 percent response rate. She offered several explanations. In addition to her general conclusion that these migrants do not want to be bothered, or asked personal questions, she also noted that some want specifically to avoid being identified in any official records—whether because they are residing or working in Spain without the proper permits or because they simply want to escape bureaucracy, "Life in Spain is about freedom and escape rather than supervision, documentation and control" (2000, 155-156).


A few researchers have attempted to survey Americans living in Mexico and encountered similar challenges. Geographer David Truly, who has studied retirement migration to Lake Chapala, described difficulties associated with the lack of accurate statistical data on Americans in Mexico from either the United States or Mexico, and "the somewhat uncooperative nature of some of the expatriate residents." Describing the refusal of some immigrants to participate in his study, Truly cites one resident who said: "I won't answer your survey or your questions . . . that's why I left the United States" (2002, 269). In 1991, a sociology professor from the University of North Carolina, Richard Dixon, attempted a survey of Americans living in San Miguel. Dixon published his questionnaire in the English weekly Atención, seeking information that included demographic background, level of Spanish-language skills, and reasons for moving to San Miguel. Immigrants were asked to return the survey to the public library or one of the mail delivery companies in town. The response rate, according to Dixon, was too low to warrant proceeding with the study (e-mail exchange, August 22, 2006). Solutions Abroad (, a Web-based resource for foreigners living in Mexico attempting a basic survey of its sixteen thousand users in 2006, reported a disappointing 6 percent return rate (field interview, May 22, 2007). And in 2006, the Overseas Vote Foundation (OVF) conducted a survey of American voters abroad regarding their participation in the U.S. midterm elections. The OVF report included a subsection, "Notably Absent—Mexico," noting the disappointing response of only 1 percent of U.S. voters residing in Mexico (Overseas Vote Foundation 2007).


Survey research has a valuable contribution to make to this topic, but what follows is inspired more by anthropologist Clifford Geertz's (1973) notion of "thick description." Thick description refers to an interpretative, ethnographic approach that does not simply recount occurrences, but aims to capture the symbolic meanings, of social discourse and everyday events by situating and analyzing them in reference to complex webs of meaning. The emphasis is on exploring the nature of particular social phenomena, as opposed to setting out to test hypotheses. In an ethnographic study, the data are more "unstructured" than coded, for example, the number of cases is small, often one, and the analysis of the data collected takes the form of "explicit interpretation of the meanings and functions of human actions," rather than quantification or statistical manipulation (Atkinson and Hammersley 1998, 111).


This study managed to avoid some of the pitfalls that tend to plague qualitative researchers, but confronted obstacles still. Ethnographers have long struggled with the challenges of representation and exploitation. How can a cultural outsider have the authority and maintain the objectivity to represent accurately a subject population of which he or she is not a part—or is it even possible? Do the inequalities in power and position between researchers and their subjects (typically drawn from vulnerable populations), and the process of establishing close personal relationships with research participants, lead to exploitation (Denzin and Lincoln 1998; Irwin 2006)? Heeding Crocombe's call to study people with whom I generally shared racial classification, nationality, culture, and class (and working with a population that was not particularly vulnerable) lessened the potential for exploitation and misrepresentation. This "fieldwork among the familiar" conforms to what has been called "anthropology at home" (Peirano 1998), in spite of the fact that I was interviewing Americans for whom "home" is now in many respects Mexico. The commonalities I shared with Americans living in Mexico also facilitated participant observation—it was typically easy for me to blend in to whatever social or civic engagement I attended. On the other hand, and a point O'Reilly makes well in her ethnography of the British migrants to southern Spain, the lines between observer and participant can easily blur. She recounts an episode during her fieldwork on the Costa del Sol of visiting a local disco and overindulging on vodka. The people she met that night and the insights she gained were valuable to her study, but she acknowledges that she had not in that instance "been much of a detached observer" (2000, 13).


I will spare the reader any details of my own inebriations in Mexico, but acknowledge that this blurring of boundaries, and several points O'Reilly makes about the challenges of the chosen methodology, mirror my own experiences studying Americans south of the border. One evening as I enjoyed fine food and drink in the home of an American couple who had just finished remodeling their first home in San Miguel (the second house they had purchased just up the path would be used as a real estate investment), the woman host said: "My daughter is really pro-Latinos, and she told me, 'Mom, please don't participate in the gentrification of Mexico.'" Chuckling, the American immigrant continued, "And I told her, 'Well, honey, it is a hard job but somebody's got to do it'" (June 23, 2006). As the room filled with laughter, I had to choose between excusing myself to the bathroom to record the poignant moment and my reactions to it on the small notepad I carried with me everywhere, or staying put so as not to disrupt the camaraderie into which I had been warmly welcomed. On several occasions I bowed my head in prayer when I otherwise would not do so in order to avoid offending a host. On one particularly uncomfortable afternoon, I endured, for the sake of an interview, an American immigrant in Lake Chapala ranting about "Muslims," and proposing that "we" take away their children in order to stop the spread of Islamic fundamentalism to the next generation (her viewpoint was in no way representative of the Americans I met in Mexico) (field interview, January 30, 2007).


I discovered, as did O'Reilly, that "Interviews often involved being told what people wanted me to know, rather than what they thought I wanted to hear" (2000, 13). Many individuals and groups had their own agendas and saw my research as a way to advance them. A member of the Overseas Vote Foundation was deeply committed to having the U.S. government better respect the rights of its citizens overseas—whether in terms of limiting undue tax burdens or easing the hassles of voting from abroad—and as a result she wanted to discuss little else. I also observed how participant observation sometimes revealed insights different from or contradictory to the interviews. When I joined the Young Democrats Abroad for a bike ride in a Mexico City park, one American woman who is active in the Newcomers group (formed to provide assistance to, and a social outlet for, expatriates in Mexico) said, "We just know there are other Americans out there like us who are sitting at home crying but we don't know how to reach them" (February 24, 2007). When I later interviewed her individually about what it is like to live in a foreign land, she said: "Oh, everything is just great. I love it here" (field interview, March 4, 2007). O'Reilly's reflections on her research with British citizens living on Spain's Costa del Sol mirror my own fieldwork experiences among Americans in Mexico. She writes:


I learned not to attempt serious discussions in "fun" contexts; I learned to want to stay in Spain forever; I bought a pair of gold-coloured sandals and discarded the casual (scruffy?) clothes which had been more befitting of a university setting. . . . However, I experienced severe role ambiguity—a feeling that I was not being true to my self. (2000, 15)


Terminological Dilemmas


In addition to role ambiguity, I also found myself tripping over terminology in the course of this fieldwork. Before leaving for Mexico, I had been referring to Americans living in Mexico as "expats," without being properly acquainted with the literature on expatriates or having given much thought to what precisely the term was meant to convey. For their part, a surprising number of Americans in Mexico referred to themselves as "gringos," a term I had assumed was pejorative. Mexicans tended to refer to Americans as "norteamericanos," and not to use the term gringo—at least not in open conversation with Americans. Both Americans and Mexicans used the phrase "foreign community," or comunidad extranjero. Nobody used the term "immigrants" to describe Americans living in Mexico.


Early in the project, I attended a service of the Unitarians in San Miguel de Allende. The group had invited a speaker to discuss Mexican immigration to the United States. He framed his talk in terms of the factors that push migrants to leave Mexico and pull them to the United States. It occurred to me that this familiar academic framework might be helpful to me as I invited U.S. citizens to discuss their own migration decisions. I tested it out during brunch after the Unitarian service, and again the following week with a group of American women in San Miguel who meet regularly for Saturday morning breakfast. While most Americans were very willing to share with me what had drawn them to Mexico, it was clear that they were not generally accustomed to, or interested in, thinking of themselves as immigrants. When presented with the immigrant analogy, one American woman responded in an annoyed tone: "Our situation is completely different from theirs" (June 17, 2006).


As the chapters that follow will make clear, the situation of Americans in Mexico is indeed different in many respects from that of most immigrants, but in other respects it is not. As to why the label "immigrants" was not appealing or comfortable to most Americans, I can only speculate (I chose not to push this issue with respondents for fear that any semblance of judgment on my part would jeopardize the interview). Immigrants, as they are often portrayed publicly in the United States and in other developed countries, are poor. They are desperate; they are dirty, and they are brown (Cashmore 1994, 188; O'Reilly 2000, 140). Some Americans may have wanted to distance themselves from this image of inferiority. Others may have wanted to acknowledge openly their privilege relative to "immigrants," as the term is commonly used. Some may have recognized that if they, too, were immigrants, then their presence in Mexico could be used to highlight hypocrisies in the public debates and discourse surrounding Mexican immigrants in the United States. The most accurate explanation for the resistance to the term is likely some combination of all of the above.


If these U.S. citizens living in Mexico are not immigrants, who, then, and what, are they? The question is significant not only for semantic reasons (which term do I use in this book to refer to the subject population?), but for analytical reasons as well. What does the choice of terminology, when used self-referentially, convey about an individual's sense of cultural and political belonging; and what do commonplace uses of one term as opposed to another, whether by scholars, politicians, the media, or the actors involved, reveal about the workings of power and privilege? For example, many Americans responded to the question of a label by stating, "I am just an American living in Mexico." However accurate that description might be, the possibility that Mexicans in the United States would offer a similar response—"I am just a Mexican living in the U.S."—is what many politicians, pundits, and other analysts in the United States rail against. If you are living in the United States, the familiar assimilationist argument goes, you had better adapt to and identify yourself with U.S. culture, society, and government. In fact, when Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo visited the United States in 1995 and told a group of American politicians of Mexican descent: "You're Mexicans—Mexicans who live north of the border," some conservative U.S. politicians and academics reacted strongly to a perceived threat of dual allegiance on the part of these immigrants or descendants of immigrants (Fonte 2005, 9).


"Migration," in the most general sense, refers to population movement, and "migrants" to the people who move. Because the reasons for and contexts in which people move vary tremendously, an array of terms have emerged to capture the heterogeneity of human movement: aliens (legal and illegal), diasporic communities, expatriates, exiles, immigrants, minorities, refugees, settlers, sojourners, tourists, and transmigrants. In reality, the distinction among these groups is often muddled. Is a person who is fleeing economic deprivation a refugee in the same sense as a person who is trying to escape political or religious persecution? Where international law and the control of state borders are concerned, legal definitions do exist to determine who and what are designated by which term. Yet even those lines blur and their application is open to interpretation. In academic and popular usage, the various terms listed above intersect and overlap, are used in contradictory and inconsistent ways, and can rarely be tied to firm or uncontested definitions and operationalizations. In the most basic sense, a migrant is one who moves. When that movement takes place across international borders "immigrant" and "emigrant" are the commonly used terms. The very same border-crossing migrant is an immigrant in the country she arrives in, and an emigrant in the one she left.


The term immigrant is used extensively, but it is applied erroneously, and its meaning seldom interrogated. In the United States, Puerto Ricans, for example, are often referred to as immigrants when, according to U.S. law, they are American citizens. Nor do immigrants arriving from non-U.S. territories typically lose the label "immigrant" once they have become naturalized U.S. citizens. In fact, even many American-born citizens of an ethnic or racial background other than those currently recognized as "white" live their lives in the United States responding to the query "Where are you from?" When Keith Ellison, Minnesota Democrat, criminal defense lawyer, and Muslim, was elected to the U.S. Congress in 2006, he preferred to use the Koran rather than the Bible for his private swearing-in ceremony. Believing that the election of the first Muslim to Congress threatened the nation's values, Republican Virgil Goode of Virginia was one of several outspoken critics who quickly used Ellison's case to point a finger at immigrants:


I fear that in the next century we will have many more Muslims in the United States if we do not adopt the strict immigration policies that I believe are necessary to preserve the values and beliefs traditional to the United States of America and to prevent our resources from being swamped.


What Goode seemed to misunderstand was that Congressman Ellison, although a Muslim, is not an immigrant (Swarns 2006).


Among the factors typically used to differentiate among terms that refer to human movement are: the intended permanence of the move, the motivation for it, and the degree of privilege that underlies it. The nature and centrality of any of these factors are, of course, open to interpretation. One person's diaspora is another's settler colony or foreign invader (think Jews and Palestinians in the West Bank, Afrikaners and black South Africans in South Africa, or Europeans and indigenous peoples throughout the Americas). Moreover, the meanings associated with these terms are rarely static. Diaspora is used today in ways that differ fundamentally from its usage a century ago, as is the term expatriate. An immigrant is defined today as "a person who migrates into a country as a settler" (Oxford English Dictionary 2007). The intent to settle in the country of destination is central to this and most definitions, and immigrants are typically distinguished from tourists and sojourners by the permanency or long-term nature of their move (O'Reilly 2000, 43; Warnes 1991, 53). Sojourners, as sociologist Edna Bonacich contends, are those migrants who consider their stay in the host country a temporary one; "settlers," she maintains, come with an intention to stay permanently (1973).


Recent scholarly interest in transnationalism has further confounded the question of terminology. If we are living in a world where migrants are crossing back and forth across borders and maintaining close ties with their homelands while also building new lives in a new land, then what does this convey about immigrant settlement and its permanency? Recognizing the significance of the change, scholars like Linda Basch and her colleagues (1994) contrasted the term immigrant with transmigrant. The former was said to convey a permanent rupture, "the abandonment of old patterns of life and the painful learning of a new culture and often a new language" (Basch et al. 1994, 3). The latter term, "transmigrants," was intended to capture a new category of immigrants "who develop and maintain multiple relationships—familial, economic, social, organizational, religious and political—that span borders" (Basch et al. 1994, 3). Although increasing numbers of migrants today fit this latter definition, including many Americans living in Mexico, the term transmigrant never really caught on among scholars or policy makers.


The emphasis on the maintenance of ties with the homeland, and the institutions that arise to link people across borders, evokes another term that refers to population movement, but has historically conjured very different imagery. Diaspora is a term that has become particularly prominent in academic literature in recent years, so much so that some scholars speak of a "shift from ethnicity to diaspora as master tropes of social diversity and migration" (Amit and Rapport 2002, 48). At first glance, a term that originated to characterize ethnic and religious minorities forcibly expelled from their homelands, most notably Jews and Armenians, would seem to bear no relation to U.S. citizens choosing to relocate to Mexico. Nonetheless, since the 1960s, the term diaspora has undergone a "genuine inflation," such that it is now used to designate all manner of population dispersion: expatriates, exiles, refugees, immigrants, and minorities (Schnapper 1999, 225). To some extent, the term continues to differentiate between migrants of privilege and those lacking it, referring mainly to populations moving from the developing to the developed world, but as Kachig Tölölyan emphasizes, in everyday speech, "diaspora" has become so misused that it even gets applied to executives of multinational corporations who disperse around the globe for their careers (1996). Both Schnapper and Tölölyan reject the inflation of the term and offer guidelines for greater precision. Schnapper maintains that "To render the concept of diaspora operative for research, we must reserve it for populations that maintain institutionalized ties, whether objective or symbolic, beyond the borders of nation-states" (1999, 251). Unfortunately, this specification does not take us far from Basch and colleagues' definition of transmigrants.


The term "expatriate" appears in contemporary scholarship on transnational migration in ways that further frustrate terminological precision. In distinguishing what constitutes transnationalism as a new and distinct phenomenon, and what does not, Portes et al. write that "occasional contacts, trips and activities across national borders of members of an expatriate community" do not constitute transnationalism (1999, 219). What is not clear, then, is what is an "expatriate community." For Americans, this term was popularized after World War I in association with American artists and writers such as Josephine Baker, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald who left their U.S. homeland to live in Europe. These well-known examples of Americans living abroad captured two significant senses of the term expatriate—that migration was largely voluntary, but also that it involved an element of withdrawal from or disassociation with one's native country (Oxford English Dictionary 2007). Over time, however, the term "expat" has come to be applied more broadly—to business professionals; diplomats, military personnel, and other governmental representatives; academics and scientists; and retirees. It has also tended to lose its association with disconnecting from or abandoning the homeland. In one of the most comprehensive treatments of the topic in a special issue of Current Sociology, Erik Cohen writes: "'Expatriate' is, admittedly, a loose or 'fuzzy' term, capturing that category of international migrants who fill the gap between the tourist, on the one hand, and the semi-permanent immigrant, on the other" (1977, 7).


Although Cohen ultimately offers a very basic definition of the "national expatriate community"—"the citizens of one country living in a given locality of another country" (1977, 24)—he sharpens the term's precision by emphasizing transiency and privilege as what distinguish expatriates from immigrants, settlers, and sojourners. "The more developed a country," Cohen maintains, "the greater the chance that its citizens living abroad will be expatriates in our sense of the term. This is particularly the case with U.S. citizens abroad, who only rarely become fully-fledged immigrants to other countries" (1977, 14). In the footnote that elaborates, Cohen explains that very few U.S. citizens pursue citizenship in foreign countries where they reside. In this regard, and breaking with conventional uses of the term immigrant, Cohen seems to suggest that "full-fledged immigration" is determined by the pursuit of formal citizenship in the country of settlement. Expatriates who extend their stay in a foreign country indefinitely may become sojourners or even settlers, Cohen acknowledges, but they are still distinguished by their relative privilege (1977, 19). They are, in his words, an "'inverted minority'—which gains status by its entrance into the host society and hence tends to defend the exclusiveness of its enclave and its institutions from the hosts, whereas other, lower-status minorities often have to struggle to preserve their right to seclusiveness from the hostility of the host society" (1977, 24). He goes on to maintain: "They are surely the best-cared for, pampered and well-heeled group of migrants there ever was" (1977, 56).


Irrespective of their privilege, expatriates themselves are typically quick to clarify that they are not "tourists." Writing self-referentially as an expatriate whose husband's work in international finance took them around the world, Dorothy Backer draws a firm distinction: "The tourist may be a lifetime gadabout, but he is not an expatriate. The tourist visits; the expatriate lives" (2001, 269); and expatriates who live in popular tourist destinations, she argues, "wait in dread for the annual invasion" of tourists (2001, 270). Ultimately, she offers a description that confirms Cohen's emphasis on privilege: "Expatriatism is power, freedom from all the restraints of home. One is uncommitted, yet cannot be judged. One is an exception to every rule, a freckled blond among the swarthy, a free man among the slaves, a person in movement among the fixed" (2001, 273).


The purpose of this detour into the issue of terminology is not only to attempt to clarify the language used in the book, but also to highlight that the terms, beyond being fuzzy and imprecise, are endowed with political significance. This became clear in 2006, for example. As the U.S. Congress was battling over immigration policy, journalists were battling over the proper and politically neutral terminology to use in covering the debate: "undocumented" or "illegal," "immigrant" or "alien" (Zeller 2006). Ultimately, no term seemed free of political baggage. When it comes to Americans in Mexico, some terms available for describing population movements or dispersed peoples are clearly inadequate—exile, for example, or refugees. Other terms like diaspora that would at first seem like a poor fit have come to be used in such expansive ways that they could technically be made to fit. Doing so, however, fails to enhance our understanding of the case study, and further dilutes the utility of the concept diaspora. "Sojourner" is a term that works for those Americans who view their stay in Mexico as temporary, but a large and growing number do not. A survey of American retirees living in Mexico conducted by the University of Texas between January 24, 2007, and April 6, 2007, found 86 percent of respondents answering "no" to the question "Do you plan to return to live permanently in the United States?" Only 14 percent responded "yes" (Connolly 2007a). In my own interviews, I encountered some individuals who left open the possibility of returning to the United States, but nearly every American living in Mexico with whom I spoke was living there with the intention of staying. "Expatriate" is a useful term for Americans if, as Cohen does, we place the emphasis on privilege. His characterization of expatriates as "the best-cared for group of migrants there ever was" applies well to Americans in Mexico, as does Backer's portrayal of expatriatism as "power and freedom." Yet, to the extent that the term "expatriate" presumes transience or disassociation from the homeland, it does not accurately characterize a large population of Americans now residing in Mexico.


Ultimately, it makes the most sense to acknowledge a continuum of human movement stretching from tourism to exile, with varying degrees of agency and privilege located along the spectrum (O'Reilly 2000, 44). No one can say definitively where one position ends and another begins. The individuals to whom the terms apply have varied perceptions of where they fit, and population groups, as well as the individuals contained within them, change places on the continuum. So, if "expatriate," as commonly used today, essentially implies immigrants of privilege, it seems preferable to simply call them that. Although the term "immigrants" will not typically call to mind U.S. citizens settling in Mexico, to shun applying this label further endows groups like these with power, prestige, and privilege (O'Reilly 2000, 143)—this is particularly true given the political climate now surrounding Mexican migration to the United States. This book will, for the most part, use the term immigrants to refer to U.S. citizens living in Mexico. When another term is used by an interviewee, in a published article, or otherwise, I will transcribe it accordingly.


An additional terminological dilemma that plagues this and other treatments of transnationalism results from trying to simultaneously capture fluidity, mobility, and transcendence while acknowledging and confronting, as do migrants, the persistent significance of actual and specific places and conventional forms of belonging. Scholarship on transnational migration, social fields, and communities is filled with dichotomous terminology like home/host society, sending/receiving state, and community of origin/community of destination that implies a more static and unidirectional structure to migration flows than what scholars aim to portray. Additionally problematic, as David Fitzgerald observes, is the fact that the term "sending state" denies agency to migrants who are not sent, but send themselves (2000, 6). Similarly, "host society" implies a degree of welcome that is often missing in the sites where immigrants settle. As is the case with the term "American," no preferable alternatives yet exist, so I will rely on the problematic ones with which scholars and practitioners are most familiar.


Last, but far from least, this study is restricted by its focus on a specific category of Americans living in Mexico. Every U.S. citizen whom I interviewed for this study, and with only a handful of exceptions, every American I met in Mexico, was born and raised in the United States and racially "white." This is not to suggest that my sample is peculiar or unrepresentative of U.S. citizens living in Mexico, but it does exclude a significant population of persons of Mexican descent who are also Americans who migrate to Mexico. They are Americans either by virtue of having been born in the United States to parents of Mexican heritage (whether citizens or not, documented or not) or by virtue of having acquired U.S. citizenship through naturalization. They migrate to Mexico as U.S. citizens of Mexican heritage or as dual citizens who never relinquished their Mexican citizenship or who acquired it/reacquired it after establishing U.S. citizenship. The motivations for and experiences associated with migration likely differ for this group of Americans when compared to the population I studied, and a fuller understanding of migration and belonging in North America will require a closer focus on these migrants of Mexican or mixed heritage. In the meantime, this migrant population offers an important reminder that Americans are also, and increasingly, "brown," and provides a poignant illustration of the complexity of examining fluidity, mobility, and transcendence armed with concepts and terminology deeply rooted in cultural, political, and territorial stasis.


Road Map


I began this project with some predetermined interests and ideas, and structured my initial inquiries with Americans in Mexico accordingly. Having written previously on the implications of globalization for various forms of belonging (Croucher 2003), I was interested in what this under-examined case would reveal about the meaning of citizenship and nationhood for a population of people living their lives across the border of two states. In the course of the fieldwork, other themes emerged that I had not anticipated: for example, the significance of technology in facilitating a transnational and transterritorial existence for Americans in Mexico. The chapters that follow contribute to telling the relatively unknown story of American migrants in Mexico. Each does so with a particular focus and draws upon varied but interrelated bodies of literature on migration, transnationalism, globalization, and identity formation. Chapter One introduces the two Mexican towns, Ajijic and San Miguel, which form the focus of this research and where large numbers of U.S. citizens are settling. The chapter also offers the reader some insight into the difficulty of determining exactly how many Americans live in Mexico. The bulk of Chapter One recounts the prominent pulls and pushes underlying U.S. migration southward, and provides a sustained glimpse into the nature of life within the foreign communities living in Mexico. Other studies of foreign communities provide related insights and some limited opportunity for comparison.


Chapter Two illuminates how the lives U.S. migrants are leading in Mexico confound conventional notions regarding the significance and centrality of territory and place; and how advances in communication, information, and transportation technologies facilitate, for Americans as with other immigrants, this transnational, transterritorial, and in some cases translegal existence. One of the most vivid illustrations of this transcendence of borders and of familiar forms of belonging takes place in the realm of politics and the exercise of citizenship. Chapter Three focuses on the practice of extraterritorial citizenship on the part of U.S. citizens who reside in Mexico but continue to participate actively in the politics of the United States. These American migrants also exercise political influence in the towns and cities where they reside, although few pursue formal membership in the Mexican state. Chapter Four pulls together the themes of Americans' transnationalism developed in previous chapters, but does so with a specific focus on how migrants—in this case, migrants of privilege—negotiate a sense of belonging in a global, postmodern world. Chapter Five summarizes the analytical insights gleaned from this case study and the relevant political and policy implications for Mexico and the United States. Just as the flow of migrants from Mexico to the United States shows little signs of abating, so too with the migration flow southward from the United States to Mexico. Both countries have the opportunity to address the topic of migration and its sociocultural, economic, and political implications in a constructive manner, or not. By adding information on an under-studied dimension of North American migration and belonging, this book aims to contribute to those policy debates, and to the scholarly discussion of transnationalism more generally.