Moving to Mexico

retirement in thailand concept
     by Doug Bower

The very first thing you should consider once you've made your mind up as to where you are going to live overseas might surprise you. The many letters we receive from potential expats always begin with the theme of cost of living. While important, most who contact us in our adopted home of Guanajuato, Mexico, never get past this economic issue. It is as though the economic issue is the most important point in the whole expatriation adventure. We answer their pleas with the statement that if you downsize your American lifestyles, live as close to "going native" as is humanly possible and comfortable for you, then you will do fine economically.

However, in Mexico, we rarely, if ever, hear from those who are concerned with what we regard as the First Step-the language-when moving to a country where your native tongue is not the predominate language.

I've also wondered if those Americans who move to any country in which English isn't the predominate language are concerned with the linguistic issue. The answer is, apparently not. I talked recently with a retired Foreign Service Officer who not only served in the Foreign Service but also who was raised in a family where her parents were Foreign Service employees. The story she told was the same with slight variations on the same main, monolingual theme-language is at the bottom of the list when moving overseas!

The expatriation phenomenon in Mexico is predominantly composed of baby-boomers who are rapidly finding out retirement in the U.S. is going to be all but impossible unless you are in Bill Gates' will. A smaller segment of the American expats in Mexico are those who work here or who have mobile enough jobs and can have a great adventure in another land while making a living via the Internet. It's what I do. I send stories to publishers in America and my books surf the email waves to those who want to buy my manuscripts. But, most of the Americans and some of the Canadians are "retirees" who, for the most part, never learn Spanish.

Through the years of our expat adventure, we've discovered those American retirees who move to Mexico fall into two classes when it comes to the linguistic issue. There are those who have absolutely no intention of ever learning Spanish. I know this to be true because I've been told this to my face. I've heard this story over and over again from bilingual Americans who are truly puzzled that their fellow Americans do not want to learn Spanish. When they ask their fellow Americans why they don't learn Spanish, they get the same answer I've gotten-refusal.

The reasons for this are varied. Some retirees respond to the slick-shtick the real estate moguls spew in their advertising that you don't have to know Spanish to live in such-and-such city. They will make the claims that bilingualism is so great in the city to which they are trying to get you to come and buy a house, that you won't ever need to utter a word in Spanish. While in some cities this is true and is true because of American Cultural Imperialism, this sort of screed presents an image of Mexico that is not a reality. Many Americans are truly perplexed when they come here and don't find English predominately spoken in places the real estate gurus have targeted as places where cheap housing and affordable living can be found.

Another class of Americans who move to Mexico to retire actually gives the linguistic issue more than a passing thought. They take Spanish classes at the local adult education schools before moving to Mexico. Eventually they expatriate to Mexico and take even more classroom instruction, only to find they've shelled out a fortune in classes and cannot communicate much more than "Where's the bathroom?" and "Can you make change?" Frustration sets in and the American retiree arrives at the horrible conclusion that he or she can't learn Spanish.

This is an all-too-often scene in cities like San Miguel de Allende. The expats with whom I've spoken and those who post in the online forums express a genuine remorse, for lack of a better term, for their continued monolingualism.

This essay is targeting that group of Americans, or any monolingual expat, who still has some semblance of hope that he or she can one day communicate in Spanish and not have to be forced to live in an Americanized Mexican City that is now as expensive (if not more) as the hometown he or she left.

That is, by the way, one of the great advantages of learning Spanish as an expat. You not only can live anywhere but also will have the linguistic skills to ask Mexicans who to avoid renting or buying from in a particular city. I am convinced that's why my wife and I have repeatedly had the rare opportunity of fellowshipping with Mexicans in the privacy of their homes. This is something most expats I know have never experienced. And, think about it: How can you have any sort of social communion with someone with whom you cannot communicate?

The Failure Factor


Doug Bower is the author of  "Guanajuato, Mexico: Your Expat, Study Abroad, and Vacation Survival Manual in the Land of Frogs". You can reach him at his website: