Editor’s Note: Here’s an interview with Henry Vales, an expat… but really what we call a "repat", because though he grew up in various places and ended up in Miami, he was born in Merida. Henry and his team are in the process of installing a mural at the United States Consulate, which we hope to hear more about later. In the meantime, let’s get to know Henry!
YL: When did you move to the Yucatán and from where did you move?
Henry: I was born in Mérida and traveled back and forth attending schools both here in Merida (Colegio Montejo (Marist Brothers) and in Cuba (Havana Military Academy).
My mother was a diplomat, the general secretary at the American Embassy in Havana. We actually rented our house to the Ambassador. So I spent the first thirteen years of my life back and forth between La Habana and Mérida as my parents pursued their individual interests. This was very common back in those days.
My dad was an archaeologist and an expert on the Maya. There is a book of his diaries called The 9th Glyph.
YL: Why did you move?
Henry: We were in Cuba during the Castro thing and moved to the States for safety. Then we stayed in Miami for political reasons.
YL: Why did you choose the city you now live in over other places in the world?
Henry: I decided to move to Merida for a good part of the year because my family is growing older and my mom wants to come and do her last dance here. She is 90 years old and of course, thinks of Mérida as her second first home. She knows everyone down here and has a lot of friends. She has a ton of nephews that, of course, are going to miss going to Palm Beach to visit her when I bring her down here. My sister lives in Italy where I also travel often, as well as Hawaii where I have developed a keen interest in their native culture.
YL: So, from this, I gather that you just moved back here… how long ago?
Henry: I started coming back little by little upon my separation from my 20+year marriage around 3 years ago. Every time I stayed longer and now I’m kind of hooked again. Although I still get lost driving around.
YL: Did you buy a house right away or rent first? Do you think you made the right decision?
Henry: We have family homes down here and I simply float around. I mostly live in Colonia Buenavista at an old Mérida house with a large garden in the middle.
YL: Are you doing now what you intended to do when you moved here? If not, why not?
Henry: I have been doing what I want to do wherever I go. I am a composer of popular music, with a tendency towards melancholy, nostalgic themes. I also have a business building mosaics. I love bringing communities together, and preserving the values that last, so that children can grow as proud and contributing members to their society.
YL: What are the most interesting things about living here for you?
Henry: The music, the music, the music. How the “first word is always yes” from the people here. I love the isolated beaches and my old house and having friends over. I love listening to the memories of the old people and sharing that with some of my fellow gringos.
YL: What do you absolutely love about living here?
Henry: Getting inspired to write. Hanging out by my pool, taking guilt- less naps. My crazy cousins who never grew up and still are doing the same things we used to do when we were “young and callow fellows”.
YL: What do you miss from your "former life"?
Henry: The roads, the mountain driving, visiting one of my daughters at Emory University in Carmel, California. Things that there are just no words for in Spanish. I miss COLLEGE FOOTBALL. I miss coffee houses with original live music.
YL: What don’t you miss from your "former life"?
Henry: The color of the water along the East Coast.
YL: What is your favorite local food?
Henry: Mamey. (For those of you unfamiliar with mamey, it is a locally-grown tropical fruit.)
YL: What is your favorite time of year here and why?
Henry: The winter. I like going to the beach with a sweater to drink tea and write music.
YL: Where do you take guests who visit you here to show them something really special?
Henry: I normally stage parties at my house or a friend’s restaurant Hacienda San Antonio and "troba" for hours. I delegate the touristic stuff to the experts. I learned to walk in Chichen Itza again, but I abstain from taking people to the Mayan ruins. My sister gets that delegated to her.
YL: The last time you went out to dinner, where did you go and why?
Henry: hmmm… Other than my house, I go to Trotter’s with family members or I go find a good “troba” somewhere.
YL: How is the city where you live different for residents than it is for tourists?
Henry: Merida Centro has to have such a Hollywood impact on tourists. I would think that for the cultural traveler, every street is like a dream if they can focus on the old architecture.
YL: Do you have friends from the local community or do you pretty much hang with the expat crowd?
Henry: I do not know anyone in the expat crowd. I hang out with both sides of my family and they are very protective. I want them to branch out and meet some cool gringos.
YL: What is it like owning and running a business here or working here? How is it different from doing the same thing in your country of origin?
Henry: I am still the executive director of a children’s nonprofit (The Golden Rule Foundation). In addition, I run my family’s Fundación Valcer de México, a non-profit that specializes in building character through generosity and service to others. We are presently working on a long-range international program. I have to visit the states at least four times a year for board meetings and health check ups.
YL: Do you find it more or less difficult to make a living here than in your country of origin?
Henry: I have always been an altruistic entrepreneur. I think to work here in Yucatan, one has to scale down their financial ambition at first in order to be successful. It makes sense to get acquainted with the system here and how people think. Once that has been done, I feel that a good, smart person can find an opportunity here or anywhere.
YL: Are your work habits different here?
Henry: No, I basically pick the things I enjoy doing which I have to do, in order to get to do the things I love to do.
YL: Did you speak Spanish when you moved here? Where did you learn Spanish (if you did)? Is the language barrier a problem for you in your daily life?
Henry: Spanish is my native language, but I grew up speaking English. Now I am trying to get rid of my gringo accent. Funny, but my family gets mad at me because I don’t speak as much like a gringo as I used to. They used to enjoy watching me struggle with the language. Now they don’t have that much to laugh at anymore.
YL: What interesting Spanish word or saying have you learned lately? What does it mean and how did you learn it?
Henry: Well, two words. One is actually Mayan and I don’t know you well enough to repeat it. The other one is le da vuelta a su tortilla which means something like “he knows how to earn a person’s trust”.
YL: You mentioned missing “things that there are just no words for in Spanish”. Can you think of a few? I can think of the opposite but… Just curious.
Henry: Mostly expressions like…“sweeeeet”, “stuck on you”, or “hit the spot”.
YL: Have you traveled much within Mexico? If so, where and what has been your favorite location to visit? What did you see there that you liked so much?
Henry: I have done very little travel in Mexico, actually. I do travel often to D.F., Monterrey and, of course, the Yucatan Peninsula. And of course, I love Cancun… Cancun water is the best.
YL: How are you treated by the locals?
Henry: This is a little provincial town and it is hard to “get in” at first, even for me. A lot of them still wonder why I really came back? Like I care! I was born here of a Mexican dad and I don’t mind reminding them of that. Good people are the same everywhere.
YL: What are some changes you are hoping for in Merida? Do you see any progress towards these changes?
Henry: I want more integration between expats and locals. There is a lot of growth that can happen socio-economically, not to mention culturally.
YL: What are your plans for the future here?
Henry: I want to write and play music and enjoy the people I am in life with. I also want to keep doing my philanthropic work, building mosaics, joining some local causes, etc.
YL: What is the one most important piece of advice you would give planning a move to the Yucatan?
Henry: Can your personality really adjust to the people here without being
judgemental? Would you be trying to change people, be left alone, stay secluded. You are allowed one yes and three no’s.
YL: If you could say something to all the people of Mexico, what would you say?
Henry: “I’m back!”
YL: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Henry: Start reading Yucatan Living and get in touch with other expats.
Find out more about the Golden Rule Mosaic at the Consulate.
More about the book, The Ninth Glyph.