The following is the first of what we hope are many interviews with "re-pats": Mexicans who have lived in the United States or elsewhere, and have chosen to return home to the Yucatan.
YL: Where were you born?
Belina: San Diego, California, but grew up in Tijuana, Baja California. When I was born it was the custom to "have" your children across the border in San Diego where the best hospitals were located.
YL: When did you move to the United States (or other country outside of Mexico)? How long did you live outside of Mexico?
Belina: I did not live in the US until after my first marriage, in 1971 when I was 18. (I know... Gasp!) and I went to live in Santa Maria, California. During the years I lived in Mexico off and on, in Tijuana, then Puerto Vallarta for quite a while, Mexico City (where I went to school) and now Merida. In the States I lived in (long list to follow…) all areas of San Diego County from Chula Vista to La Jolla, Santa Barbara, San Francisco, Princeton, NJ, New York City, Chicago, Las Vegas…. Adding it all up, I’d say I’ve lived in Mexico more than the US. I’ve traveled around.
YL: When did you decide to move back to Mexico? And why?
Belina: We’ve known we were going to live in Mexico for about 20 years now, but due to the ups and downs of both countries and our fortunes, our stays lasted about 5 to 10 years at a time. First to Puerto Vallarta for about 10 years, then to Vegas for a long spell, back to Vallarta, and finally Merida.
Why Mexico? Even though we (all of us, husband, son and me) have dual nationalities and are bi-cultural and bi-lingual (sounds impressive, huh?) we’ve always known we would settle in Mexico. Everything here is a better “fit” for us, from better schools to less crime to the slower pace and the welcoming feeling, we consider ourselves Mexican! There is a definite higher quality of life here which is not measured in $$$$$, but personal worth. We like that.
YL: Of all the places in the world and in Mexico, why did you choose to move back to the city you are currently living in? Do you plan to stay here?
Belina: Our first choices were Paris, Florence or Venice, but I needed to figure out how to immigrate there. After that, naturally it was Mexico. We did a lot of homework before deciding on Merida, let me tell you. We did a lot of research. First in Zacatecas (where my husband is from) and Aguascalientes, but found it had deteriorated and seemed more like Tijuana than the center of Mexico; then Puebla (which we love) but it’s too large and busy now. Mexico City (where I spent a lot of time as a student like my husband) is not livable anymore but makes a great vacation destination; Queretaro, Veracruz were nice but not enough. Vallarta’s qualities have been strained by too many new residents and expats and is not the same. Cancun is horrible to live in and Merida seemed just right, from the schools to the clean streets and cultural ambiance. Yes, we are hoping to stay for a long while.
YL: Did you live legally in the United States? Are you a dual citizen?
Belina: Yes, all my family is legally in the US and we are all dual citizens.
YL: If you were not legally in the US, or some member(s) of your family was not legally in the US, did that influence your move back to Mexico?
Belina: This question does not apply to us and we were concerned with where would we be happiest.
YL: What are your concerns or opinions about the current debate over illegal immigrants in the United States these days?
Belina: The US needs the workers and I am convinced the US economy would collapse if they all came home, but maybe it would be a good test if they did for a while so everyone could value everyone’s contributions. I would also like Mexico to get organized and be able to offer employment to everyone so they wouldn’t need to leave and cause families to break apart and impact future generations with absentee parents.
YL: What were your financial issues in moving back to Mexico?
Belina: My husband is retired so we have a secure situation and for the first time in a long while I do not HAVE to work as I always have.
YL: If you have children or elderly parents or both, how do you think your move back to Mexico is affecting them or will affect them in the future?
Belina: My children have all lived in Mexico but we only have the youngest with us now and he is 15 and in first year Prepa at Rogers School (Colegio Peninsular Rogers Hall) and fortunately for us he is 100% integrated into the culture and is doing well in school. By the way he enjoys going to school here and enjoys his schoolmates which he did not in Las Vegas.
YL: Do you have family in Mexico? In the US or other countries? Did the location of family members affect your decision to move back?
Belina: Yes, my husband and myself have family all over Mexico and the US. His: Zacatecas, Morelia, Puebla, Mexico City, Tijuana, San Diego, Santa Barbara and Spain. Mine: Tijuana, Juarez, Chihuahua, San Luis Potosi, Mexico City, Las Vegas, New York, Coronado & Colorado, Spain too. And no, that did not influence our decision to return to Mexico but was a happy part of it. You will notice we tried to live closer to them but chose according to our own criteria and ended up elsewhere...
YL: Are you treated any differently by Mexicans or by your family now that you have moved back to Mexico?
Belina: In the US they didn’t know how to treat us... sometimes as Mexicans, sometimes like Americans. We were discriminated against too. In Mexico sometimes they treat us like Americans and we’ve suffered discrimination here too. It’s never been easy, just challenging and sometimes frustrating.
Our families treat us as they always have, “the crazy gypsies”.
YL: Would you consider leaving Mexico again and if so, why?
Belina: Boy! If a great opportunity presented itself, I might consider it, wouldn’t you? If I get EU documentation I would move, otherwise I hope we can settle down for a while, but we’ve always been gypsies so who knows...
YL: Now that you are back, what are the most striking differences between where you were living and where you live now?
Belina: Does the phrase “night and day” give you a clue? We were living in Las Vegas!!!! Now tranquil Merida... big difference in all ways and we are enjoying them all! Let me count the ways: no 24 hour city, no drunk zombies on the streets driving, the aggressive angry drivers on the road, the spiraling crime rate, having to live in controlled climate all the time due to the weather, processed foods everywhere, the stress... here all those items are either non-existent or not important to our lives. All is better here.
YL: Now that you are back, what are the most striking differences between the Mexico you remember and the Mexico of today?
Belina: This is a point of sorrow both for my husband and myself who got to live in the most beautiful areas of our country when they were still wonderful. Guadalajara used to be a garden, now it’s polluted and overcrowded; Mexico City was the Paris of the Americas and now you must be careful every moment; Puebla used to be a sleepy colonial town as was Zacatecas (a most beautiful city!) once, now too crowded; Vallarta was the perfect beach town and now it’s gotten overcrowded too; Coyoacan and Cuernavaca were pieces of heaven once, now they are dangerous; even Tijuana when I was growing up was another place than it is now, for us this is very sad and we must retain our memories of those places for to see their present state is sorrowful.
YL: What do you absolutely love about living here?
Belina: The whole Yucatan Peninsula, the Mayans, the greenery, the ambiance. Makes you feel like you traveled back in time.
YL: What do you miss from your "former life" in the US or other country?
Belina: Mmm... let me see... Apart from my dog that stayed behind with one of our daughters, nothing. At least not now, ask me in a couple of years maybe.
YL: How is working or owning a business here different from working or owning a business in the US or other country you lived in?
Belina: I’ve done both, owned businesses in the US and in Mexico, and apart from the much higher cost of opening and operating a business in the US, they’re both pretty much painful, time consuming and frustrating. Although labor laws here are killers as are the unions for being soooo employee-focused. But the way things are changing in the US with all the new laws and requirements, most small businesses won’t be able to survive and it will become the land of the national chains...
YL: Do you have to do more than one thing to make a living here?
Belina: I don’t HAVE to, I might CHOOSE to and I love that flexibility! But no, if I do what I do (whatever that is) I can live with what I make from that.
YL: Do you work as much as you used to "back home" or are your work habits different here?
Belina: You don’t work as much here, or you might work differently. But if I open a restaurant I will work as many hours here as in any place on earth...
YL: How is the city where you live different for residents than it is for tourists?
Belina: Naturally there are differences if you are settled here than not and simply visiting. You organize your life differently if you live here, more permanence, more schedules, etc.
YL: Are you bilingual? Do you find that to be an advantage here in Mexico? Was it more of an advantage in the United States?
Belina: But of course! It’s an advantage anywhere you are if you can speak the language. I am certified (in the US) as a Court Interpreter/Translator and it has always served me well. With so many Spanish speakers in the US it always came in handy, here I use English a lot too.
YL: What is the one most important piece of advice you would give someone planning a move to the Yucatan?
Belina: I would recommend they rent a house or apartment and stay for 2-3 months first and be certain they like it. Plus, it’s important to know if they’ve ever lived in Mexico before too, since it takes getting used to. In Vallarta we used to call it the “three month berrinche”, (YL: tantrum) since it takes about that time to acclimate to the slower pace and you fight with everyone when it takes longer to get things done... then you settle down.
YL: How do you feel about the economic prospects of Mexico? Of the Yucatan?
Belina: Mexico is the land of contrasts and feast or famine. We are used to “make it work, make it do, fix it up or do without” so slowing of the economy is not a death toll. Mexico’s economy is doing well, you see movement and investment. Yucatan seems poised to continue a growing trend too. I hope they will know how to manage growth intelligently.
YL: What are your plans for the future here?
Belina: I am looking to open a very small restaurant very soon and have looked for locations. Most of my restaurants have been called “Quinta Belina” but I don’t know if I will follow the tradition here. I’ll let you know.
YL: Do you see your business growing?
Belina: It’s always happened in the past, nothing to indicate it won’t happen again. I know what I do always has a market and I intend for that to happen here too.
YL: Do you see yourself staying?
Belina: In all probability. (Notice I never say never, huh?)
YL: Any last words?
There are a lot of positive comments I could make about Merida or Yucatan, but “cada cabeza es un mundo” (roughly translated: "Within each head is an entire world") and no one sees things quite the same as another. I would just recommend people to leave themselves open to the experience for there are many good experiences waiting to happen here, if you let them. Leave things better than you found them. Always keep a positive outlook and look for the good in everything (there is always a good side to things, sometimes hidden but there nonetheless. Look for it!), and don’t fight it, let it flow with you and thru you and above all, pass it on...
Belina Garcia has (at least for now) repatriated back to Mexico and lives in Merida. She is currently working on plans to open a restaurant with authentic Mexican (as opposed to Yucatecan) food. You can see what her restaurant in Las Vegas looked like by visiting http://www.quintabelina.dine.com. And when she opens her restaurant, the WGs will let you know!