An Immigrant to Mexico, Not an Ex-Pat

This year, I will live in North Carolina for only a few weeks. I will be here to vote. That is mostly why I bought my apartment condo in Downtown Durham, though you could say I could vote absentee ballot.  But to do that, you need a permanent address. A post office box will not do.

I’m prompted by this fact to remind myself that I am a Mexican immigrant and not an ex-pat. I will explain.

Read this important definition: Ex-Pat or Immigrant

I am here, too, because I have good friends, dear family and a need to have one toe in the water, even though the water now is scalding hot. We are getting burned.

You haven’t heard from me in a while and there’s a reason. My return to Durham was interrupted by Hurricane Florence and the aftermath of clean-up and tragedy, babies loosened from the arms of their fleeing mothers, ripped away by the torrents of rushing water, lost forever. The news captured me. Saddened me.

Then, the drama of the Senate Judiciary Committee interviews of Christine Blasey Ford and a Supreme Court Justice nominee called Kav permeated every fiber of my being. I watched the entire day of testimony from start to finish. Big mistake.

Now, I’m in recovery, big time. I’ve been in near isolation for three weeks. Not much to write about, it seems, in comparison to the big events called politics in the United States of America. I understand why people want to escape. Go on a cruise. Eat ice cream. Not vote. The aftermath disgusts me.

SOLD. intricate embroidered blouse, San Bartolome Ayautla. $265. Size L-XL

In the meantime, I was asked to write a chapter for a book about ex-pat women from the USA who moved to Mexico. Did we flee a god-forsaken nation hell-bent on self-destruction or what?

I procrastinated. Then, I finally sat down to write it. As soon as it’s published, I’ll share it with you. But the most important kernel for me is that I came to realize I’m an immigrant, not an ex-pat.

The distinction is subtle and also simple. The standard definition: An ex-pat lives outside her/his home country. The standard definition: An immigrant claims their adopted country and intends to live there indefinitely.

Immigrants put down roots and embrace the culture, consider that the place they have moved to will always be home. Makes some attempt to learn the language and interact with the local community. Realizes that humility goes much further than arrogance. Defers to local customs. Waits for acceptance.

Ex-pats in Mexico are snowbirds, needing a warm and affordable place to spend the winter. Ex-pats might also be those testing the waters of retirement, determining where to live on a fixed budget that will stretch farther. They are far away from home in the USA or Canada, but for most, replicate that sense of home in a new place, sequestered in gated communities, attached to tennis clubs and those who speak the same language.

If I am being judgmental, please share your opinions.

This discussion gave me pause to think about where I fit in the definition, and part of the ultimate question we all must ask ourselves from time to time: Who am I? Where do I belong?

I’ve been part of Oaxaca for 13 years. Not so long in the scope of my life. But long enough to know it is home and I will live there indefinitely.

Next Monday, Omar arrives. He is the youngest of the Chavez Santiago children. He is bringing beautiful hand-woven rugs for sale and teaching cochineal dye workshops. After Durham, we are going to Philadelphia together where he will be hosted at five different venues. You’ll hear more.

Then, for me, I’m back to Mexico on November 8. After I’ve voted. It won’t be too soon.


43 responses to “An Immigrant to Mexico, Not an Ex-Pat

  1. Hello Norma from one of your blog readers (we have never met but I love Oaxaca and Teotitlan del Valle.)
    Thank you for voting in the States. I truly hope people will not abandon all the folks who can not, or will not, leave the US as immigrants or expats. Please vote for us… I am forcing myself to keep it at that…I could go on a rant about the US politics and my fears for our country but will control it. PLEASE everyone who can vote in November do your research …and vote!

    • Hi Nancy. Thank you for writing. I recognis your name. I agree with you. It is important not to turn our backs on the USA. We need to vote to keep the dream of democracy alive and not allow the despots to drive us away.

  2. Beautiful, Norma.
    Well said
    Tears in my eyes

  3. Thank you for sharing your experiences and feelings. Isolation is sometimes needed during these difficult times to reflect and heal. You are not alone. These weeks have been very difficult for millions of survivors. May all of our collective pain bring greater enlightenment and action to vote. I rarely comment but love your love of Mexico and your blog. Sending you wishes for healing and peace.

    • Dear Pamela, thank you for your heartfelt comments. They bring tears to my eyes. It is wonderful how we can touch and support each other, even though we don’t “know” each other. But it seems that we do. Un abrazo. Norma

  4. Thought provoking. Norma…thank you! I try to shy away from labels, but I feel so fortunate to have you , Sheri, and others show me how to interact with heart while in Mexico.

  5. Norman,
    Thanks for explaining the distinction between an ex-pat & an immigrant. Also a class issue as ex-pats usually have $$ and immigrants often do not. I appreciate that you are an immigrant.
    Pat Cervelli

    • Hi, Pat. The financial disparity between foreigners living on the dollar and locals living on the peso is huge. We have an extra responsibility to be generous and circumspect. Thank you for adding your comments. I really appreciate it.

  6. Hi Norma,
    Wonderful writing as usual. Thank you.

    Just a note about voting in NC. You don’t need a permanent address to vote absentee. They only ask for your last address that you voted from. I will admit I was totally surprised but happy to find this out. The folks at the Durham Board of Elections were super helpful and super nice.

    Glad you’re back in the world. We miss you here in OAX.

  7. Allow me to throw something else into the mix. As a Canadian, I cringe when I hear the term “snowbird.” For me, it conjures thoughts of 1) Ann Murray’s schmaltzy 1970 recording about the dark-eyed Junco, “spread your tiny wings and fly away.” 2) Military connotations alluding to the Canadian Forces (CF) Snowbirds performers of precision military exercises and 3) a seasonal infestation of old white wealthy retirees driving to Florida for the winter. I don’t identify with any of the above. Just like the Monarch butterflies who migrate from northern climates to Mexico, I identify more closely to the term “seasonal migrant.” No doubt some will push-back due to associations with migrant labour but I’m happy to be in their company.

    • Hear, hear, Marnie. I’ll join forces with you. I love the term, seasonal migrant. Marching right along with my compadres, thank you very much. And, I never realized that snowbird was imbued with all that symbolism and emotion that you explain. Which makes me even happier that I opened this discussion. I am ignorant in many ways! Now, I’m really wondering about these terms, definitions, and do we really need to drop these terms and come up with something else … or not. Maybe seasonal immigrant would fit the bill. Which is wordplay on seasonal migrant! Thanks for commenting.

  8. Thanks Norma. That is a loaded word! There was a hot debate on FB recently. I am good with calling myself a snowbird or golandrina. I don’t call myself ex-pat because my understanding is theat it’s a class and race/elitist term. One of privilege. Maybe snowbird is too. I voted before I left Vermont and it felt great! Best to you in your journey here or there ❤️

    • Nancy, yes, LOADED. And, I’m an ENFP, so it’s easy for me to change my mind, and as someone else said, maybe there should be another term. And, maybe, it doesn’t really matter, although, yes, from what I’ve read, too, Ex-Pat connotes a person of privilege. Although, perhaps all of us who do, are privileged to live and visit Mexico! The response to this post has been HUGE and so I think we have come upon something that is important to discuss further. Abrazos,Norma

  9. I am also in despair (shouldn’t have watched that whole day of testimony…yet somehow I can’t stop reading the news since either). I think we keep adapting to each new outrage and then something even worse follows and we adapt to that. I am losing hope that the long slide downward will end. This may be the new normal and it is truly awful. We emigrated to New Zealand during the second Bush administration (which now seems benign compared to today), but returned for various reasons. We are considering distancing ourselves again in Mexico or back to NZ where we have permanent resident status. For awhile I thought we should stick together here in the US and hope things get better, but I am beginning to think this is hopeless and will Only continue to worsen. Life really can be better outside the US, as you said Norma. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and providing space for conversation. I wish my shared thoughts were not so dismal!

    • Jill, I’m giving myself a break from “news.” I need it. Maybe you do, too. I totally get what you are saying, want to stay hopeful and find it difficult. Maybe this is why I am happy to be cutting this trip shorter and getting back to Oaxaca sooner. I will vote. I will continue to send text messages, emails and make phone calls to my two Republican Senators (one of whom sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee). I know it doesn’t help. Despair is what creates stress which creates illness. We need to stay healthy. Do I really care if Nikki Haley resigned and was the secret writer of the NYT op-ed piece? Sending big hugs. Norma

  10. Great article! So glad you’re an immigrant! I’m now a Mexican citizen!

  11. Norma: Even though we haven’t met I feel as if we have because we have so many mutual friends in Oaxaca and doubtlessly several in NC (I live in Raleigh). I’m taking my third trip in Oaxaca in a couple of weeks but alas I’m leaving Oaxaca on Nov. 3rd. And yes, I’ll be doing early voting (which starts in Durham County next Wednesday, BTW…) Enjoy your trip!

    • Hi, Mark. So many of my friends are virtual — believe it or not, through this blog and Facebook, I consider them good friends, people of like mind and spirit and love for Mexico even though we have never met in real time. I think we can put each other in that same category. I’ll be in Raleigh next Wednesday. Will vote on Thursday. Stay tuned for a Oaxaca event with Omar Chavez Santiago at Meredith College. I’ll be announcing it here. Maybe you could make an appearance! Saludos, Norma

  12. I read a bit of the article that distinguished ex-pats from immigrants. That was an interesting question about an ex-pat and an immigrant walking into a bar. How can you tell the difference? I never got to the answer in the article, but my answer is that the immigrant orders the local beer; the ex-pat orders a Budweiser (or in Norma’s case, perhaps mezcal rather than bourbon).

    • Sounds like a reasonable analogy to me, although the term ex-pat is said to be laden with privilege and superiority. Maybe its the immigrant who orders the Victoria and the ex-pat who orders the microbrew on draft.

  13. Dear Norma – a very interesting post.How we see ourselves in another culture is what I’m reading . I really resonate with: “I’m an invited guest in my adopted country and it’s my responsibility to learn, understand, accept and acknowledge similarities and differences..” How about just appreciating the culture!!!
    That’s definitely how I feel when I’m in Mexico…and I’ve had a relationship since I went there at 19 to go to college. Over 50 years in relationship with the MAGIC Mexico!!! YIKES. A a young women, I realized I had a lot to learn about Mexican culture and the gift has been the learning process (which will go on forever….!!!) Such an amazing culture…slowly revealing itself each moment, each day, each fiesta, each smiling face, market and huipil! I know I’ll never figure it all out – but I THANK Mexico for accepting me as an appreciative friend and guest!

    • You are a wise woman, Sheri, which is why I love you. Yes, how about just appreciating the culture and supporting local artisans and not bargaining. There’s a start! Yes, we are fortunate to be there, to immerse ourselves in the people, the beauty, the history, to be embraced and accepted, mostly I think because we try to do the same. I’d say we are integrated and that’s a very special thing. Thank you for adding to the dialog. See you in Oaxaca … or Chiapas.

    • Well said, Sheri. I actually got tears in my eyes while reading this. It really hit home. I, too, started my love affair with Mexico in my teens. It calls me back on a regular basis. I think the fact that I grew up with pure American culture, made me fascinated by other cultures. I never knew a relative who was born in a different country. We have been here a long time, so the old customs are long gone. A few recipes from grandparents is the only thing that has survived.

  14. As you know, Norma, I’m an immigrant to Canada from the US, and it saddens me to say that if I someday have to choose between the two — I expect the US to ban dual citizenship one day — I will be going to the US consulate here in Toronto and renouncing my citizenship. The Kavanaugh tragedy has sickened everyone I know. He has tainted the Supreme Court.
    I have voted using an absentee ballot — using my old California address, which is legal in that state. I always just have to hope that it is received and counted.
    I will never be able to immigrate to Mexico, but my brief winter visits to Oaxaca City, dating back to 1991, are an integral part of my life. I have been deepening the experience every year, and will certainly add an En Via tour, and a stint volunteering at the Teotitlan spay/neuter clinic next time. I do rent in a small, walled group of apartments, but I feel involved in the life of the city around me. I met my husband, a Canadian, in Oaxaca in 1994, when we were both living on Independencia across from the Post Office.

    • Dear Kate, your love for Mexico and your experience points to the fact that we need new terms to define our relationship with Mexico. Maybe its enough to just say, we love Mexico and to hell with the other fine points. So much in your life is Mexico-centric and how wonderful that you met your husband there. I know you loved him deeply. Abrazos, Norma

  15. I’m not an immigrant, because I don’t plan to live in Mexico indefinitely, but I still have put down roots over the past 3 years of living here, looking forward to hopefully at least 3 years more (own furniture, sign long-term leases, etc), and consider this place home… for now. I was born in the US, but haven’t lived there in 7 years, and don’t plan to live there again, ever.

    I think the definitions of expat and immigrant are a bit rigid and outdated: An ex-pat lives outside her/his home country. An immigrant claims their adopted country and intends to live there indefinitely. What do we call someone who doesn’t plan on living someplace indefinitely, but still adapts the culture, embraces their new home, learns the language, etc? There are more and more people living this way, but to call them immigrants would be incorrect, while “expat” carries weird connotations.

    At the same time, I am often spoken to with self-righteousness by those who claim “immigrant” status here. I don’t think immigrants have more right than expats (using the technical definition, not the insinuations that go with the word) to claim that they’ve “put down roots and embrace the culture” or that they make “some attempt to learn the language and interact with the local community” (I’d say if you plan to live there *indefinitely*, you should certainly make more than “some attempt”). Anecdotally, I know far more expats (people who don’t or can’t plan on living in Mexico, indefinitely, in many cases because their relocation is work-dependent) who learn the language, adapt to the culture, etc here in Mexico as compared to immigrant retirees.

  16. I was actually in Oaxaca while the Kavanaugh hearings were taking place. Social media was blowing up with women friends full of rage, sorrow and disbelief, justifiably so. My method to escape was to go on an En Via tour, based on a rec from you (and a few others) and also on a collaborative tour with Innovando + Traditions Mexico, to meet a woman in Atzompa who makes her own comales, from the earth up. Both were inspiring and powerful. I wouldn’t have known about these organizations if it wasn’t for your blog, so thank you deeply. My two boys are still in school, so living in Mexico isn’t quite yet a possibility (although it’s a Plan B that my husband and I have discussed if things get even worse) but I do appreciate you distinguishing between Ex Pats and Immigrants. I don’t think all ex pats live in gated communities but what I do find, if I dare say it so bluntly, obnoxious, is the lack of interest or effort in learning the local language, adapting cultural norms and striving (just simply trying can go a long way) to be a part of your new community. It actually takes more effort to stubbornly fight these things, and I just don’t get it. Anyhow, thanks so much. If you get a chance, make a stop at Christina Martinez’ Compadre lamb bbq restaurant in Philly.

    • Thanks, Bonnie, I’m glad you found EnVia to be a great experience. I’m happy you were there to explore and discover. I’m certain that it was much better being in Oaxaca than glued to a computer or TV screen. Many foreigners who relocate to Mexico are not cognizant of their behavior, nor are they motivated to integrate. It’s a good life living on the Dollar. I certainly know that. And, I am so appreciative of the lifestyle I am able to have. I always have to remember that the bottom line is — I’m an invited guest in my adopted country and it’s my responsibility to learn, understand, accept and acknowledge similarities and differences. Not many of us are acculturated to be open to inviting people who are different than us into our lives. I will definitely try to find that restaurant in Philly. Omar will love it.
      Thanks for writing.

  17. I so understand this. We have friends in Ajijic Mexico who are very involved in the local community & friends who live “securely” in gated communities. Involved to some extent but easily sequestered. Friends ask if we’re moving there because of US politics. No. But I’ll be glad to be less involved on a daily basis. I too watched the whole day of hearings & agree it was a mistake. I have shed many tears since. We will also vote before we leave. With hope always in our hearts.

  18. Hi Norma,
    Last week was excruciatingly difficult. I felt alternately on high alert or sick to my stomach. Too much turmoil for our souls. It recedes a bit and then comes rushing back. Be well and I know you will be glad to be back in Mexico. Love, Lynne

  19. It’s all unbearable. I’ve never felt lower in my life with the exception of grieving after loved ones have passed. But even then I knew that life would somehow go on. I’ve come to think it will not. You left out Climate Change in the list of disasters. This weekend we were informed that we have only 10-12 years to save the earth. How in God’s name is that going to happen? We have a President and administration that refuses to believe it exists
    and is dismantling protections. All nations of the earth would have to work together and how likely is that? We are headed into the abyss, terrifyingly.

  20. Love your post Norma, very enlightening. I look forward to spending more time in Oaxaca!

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