My first contact with San Miguel de Allende took place in the small airport that services Textitlán: León, Guanajuato. One time I happened to be flying alone, and I was seated next to a retired woman who was returning from a visit with her daughter in the U.S. She was enthusiastic about living in Mexico, and she had lived there for nearly a decade. As we talked, she told me about San Miguel’s natural beauty (it sits on a large hillside), the colonial architecture, and the ambiance of the pleasant mix of friendly, hospitable Mexican nationals and the growing American community. Her only regret? That San Miguel was changing too quickly. “It’s becoming Americanized,” she said sadly.
I’ve flown in and out of the León airport dozens of times, and each time I’ve met at least one or two retirees coming from or going to San Miguel. I’ve heard so many stories about the town, the local scandals among the American community (there are many), the occasional conflicts with the local government, and day-to-day life, that for a while I considered carrying my tape recorder and extra tapes onto the plane and simply recording interviews in-flight. In fact, I wish now I had done that.
When I started looking for academic material on San Miguel and its retirees, however, I found very little had been written on the subject. In the field of immigration studies, the topic of retirement migration was at a peak in the 1970s and early 1980s. Most of the articles and books written at that time addressed the issues faced by retirees moving into the U.S. sunbelt: Arizona, Florida, and the Southeast. Not surprisingly, as international immigration picked up in the 1980s and then seemingly exploded in the 1990s, most of the scholarship followed the migrant flows, and little attention was paid to retirement migration. The few articles and dissertations that I found did not deal with San Miguel directly, but gave me some insights to the complexities of retirement enclaves abroad. Lorena Otero wrote a very interesting article on retirees in Jalisco (Otero, Lorena Melton Young. 1997. U.S. Retired Persons in Mexico. American Behavioral Scientist. 40: 914-922) and David Truly’s doctoral dissertation (Truly, David. 2001. International Retirement Migration: A case study of the Lake Chapala Riviera in Jalisco, Mexico. Ph.D. diss. University of South Carolina) also focused on retirees in Jalisco, but his approach was less about immigration and more about the way the tourism industry in Mexico attracts retirees to live there.
At the same time, however, the numbers of magazine and news articles on Americans retiring to Mexico (and later Central America) were many. AARP the Magazine, for instance, runs a story about Mexico or border retirements once or twice each year; NPR has also done several features on Americans who are buying up land in Mexico, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Belize to build grand retirement homes. If you do an Amazon search on books on retirement you’ll find dozens dedicated to how to plan to retire abroad. From the trade publications alone it is obvious that retiring abroad is not a straightforward process, but the people who have done it are content as retired expatriates. It was also obvious that there the popular interest in the subject is quite large, making the idea of a formal scholarly study here all the more appealing. That is, there seems to be a built in audience for this work, and it is clearly under theorized and not adequately studied.
So, I decided to try my hand at a research grant. For those of you who long to do ethnographic work abroad, be forewarned: it is difficult to find support for this type of work, and you may end up financing a good bit of it yourself. I knew, however, that I was not willing to finance this myself. My children are no longer babies, and I have to send them to college in the next decade. I am no longer at a point in my life where I want to use my vacation time and money on fieldwork. If there is no outside support, I planned to pick a domestic project.
For those of you who have not sought external support for your research, you should also be prepared for a wait. Grants sources are not what they once were, and it can take several years to get an award even if your project is worthwhile. I started applying for the NEH summer stipend in 2004 and also my university’s internal summer support (see 1st entry below) the same year. My first few rounds were not successful, but I we diligent about writing to the NEH and my institution to get the reviewers’ feedback. It was a very wise decision. In every grant cycle, I had some reviewers who were not very detailed about their criticisms, and thus their feedback was not very helpful. But for the most part, I had one or two outstanding reviewers who were able to ask questions about my proposal, questions that helped me see where the project needed revision and rethinking. I also asked the NEH for copies of successful proposals in my field, and again, this was extremely helpful. You can’t really know how to write a great proposal until you’ve read a few for yourself.
In the end, it was also the reviewers’ comments that convinced me to move forward with this project. Comments like “this proposal is highly original” or “a very interesting research idea” indicated that my peers thought I was on to something. When I finally got the notification that I got the awards, the time, energy and prior disappointments certainly seemed worth it.
Beyond the more straightforward and very academic reasons for picking San Miguel (and perhaps other retirement destinations in Mexico) for my second book project, I also wanted a place where my family would be comfortable hanging out with me while I worked. Ken was with me for about a month, and the kids were with me for the entire time I was in Textitlán for the extended visit, but it was not an easy time for them. I loved Textitlán because I had been working with the people from there who had migrated to Pennsylvania, but Ken didn’t speak Spanish (and most there didn’t speak English) and found life there difficult. If you decide to read my first book (and I sincerely hope you will), you’ll see that I dedicate a chapter to everyday life in a Mexican village. I did this to highlight the beauties and complications of life in Mexico. It’s funny now to re-read those experiences and to think back about how we managed, but I also know that Ken would not be excited about roughing it for months at a time for my next project. My kids were also small the first time we did this, so some of the inconveniences (like the fact that they had to sleep in a toy tent for three months because my landlady refused to let me use the entire rental house) seemed like a game to them. They’re not babies any more, and although they are flexible, good-natured travelers, I don’t want them to hate going to Mexico with their mother. I want them to learn to love Mexico as I do, to love speaking Spanish and playing with Mexican children. I also want them to learn the craft of ethnography, but that is a musing for another day.
The bottom line is this: San Miguel is a popular retirement spot because it offers a lot of amenities for Americans. When I go to Mexico, I enjoy getting away from American life and living a more quiet neighborly existence, and I don’t mind running out of water every now and then or flushing my toilet with a bucket. But I cannot deny that having some of the conveniences of home, like a high-speed internet connection and a phone in my apartment, is something I prefer. In the end, my great idea about the American community within Mexico made sense for all of us as a family as well as for me as a scholar. I certainly would not pick a field site solely on the basis of looking for a pleasant place to live, but this is my second book, after all. I’ve worked long and hard to get to this point, and it’s nice to know I can have both this time around.