Mexican snow birds – a vanishing species?

by Terry Oliver on March 1, 2011

Mexican snow birds – how much longer will the migrations last?

On the ferry crossing to Vancouver, on my way south to Mexico, I met a woman complaining bitterly about the current political disturbances in the Middle East – specifically about Jordan and how she had been forced to change her holiday plans twice as a result. She seemed to take it as a personal affront that she was being inconvenienced in this way.

I felt embarrassed to be lumped in with people like her as yet another parasitic snowbird, happily exploiting people in a third world country for my own pleasure but accepting no responibility for how the situation came to arise.

I’m now in southern Mexico in the small town of San Miguel de Allende and feeling distinctly uncomfortable. The Mexican people have become heavily dependent here on us Canadian and American snowbirds and the difference in lifestyles between them and us is blatantly obvious.

Many of the longtime winter tourists get involved in local projects aimed at improving the living conditions and educational opportunities of the local people as a way of salving their consciences. I’ve only been here 10 days and already I’m looking around to see how I can contribute too.

But it seems as though both communities – natives and incomers have been put in false positions. The Mexicans are very polite and friendly – cynics say they have to be because they have become dependent on us. We incomers, at least those who don’t have thick skins, feel we should do something to justify the dramatic differences between the way we can afford to live down here and the children, young mothers with babies and elderly Mexicans who must beg for a living on the streets of this beautiful old colonial town.

And now things have become progressively worse as the Recession bites deeper and violence and drug wars frighten away the traditional winter snowbirds. Apartments sit empty, lavish second homes are on the market for a fraction of the price we would pay back home and local people dependent on tourism go out of business. There are fewer of us snowbirds  down here now and we are mostly in denial. Life is good, the sunshine is non-stop and we just want eveything to stay as it’s always been.

Meantime, the Middle East is unravelling at an even faster rate than the former Soviet Union and the unrest spreads around the globe, as chickens come home to roost. Despite our most ardent wishes for business as usual, the developing world is finding its voice and demanding change now.

I, for one, no longer feel I want to be identified with complacent snowbirds like the lady on the ferry. So probably I’ll be joining the growing band of people who have decided to stay at home next year and help prepare for the rapid changes ahead.

After all, being a role model for our kids is one of our most valuable functions as 3rd Agers.

The alternative is just to party on – as Louis the Fourteenth said, “Apres moi – le deluge.”

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Camilla Morrow March 4, 2011 at 8:56 pm

Some interesting food for thought, Terry. I’m back at the Quaker House in Mexico City after a few weeks on the Jalisco coast in a small town, where many of the Mexicans greet the gringos in English, and most restaurants have the menu in English. I felt uncomfortable a lot of the time…at least here, back at ‘La Casa’, this Centre for Peace and Understanding that’s trying to do its small part to change the huge inequities on the planet, I feel better….but the inequities are still here, of course.

Terry Oliver March 9, 2011 at 11:16 am

Thanks for the comment, Camilla.
I agree that probably the only justification for visiting countries like Mexico is to become involved in some local project.
Pleased to hear that your microfinance project in el DF is underway.
All the best, Terry

Sheila Turnbull Reid March 20, 2011 at 11:01 pm

I wrestle with this problem as well, wondering if we can justify our presence in this beautiful, but very troubled country. There’s no doubt that Free Trade has taken a terrific toll on Mexico, converting it into a country where only the wealthy have any guarantee of well-being. When I first came to Mexico in the 70’s most of the campesinos still lived on ‘ ejidos’ created after the Revolution, practicing a subsistence agriculture that at least provided them with the basics. Now their land has been purchased by huge multinationals and is no longer available to them. As they flock to the cities jobs there too become sparse. Add to that the drug trade and the vastly increased spending on the military and you have a disastrous situation. Yet the Mexicans continue to make the best of it and if you’re lucky enough to be in a city that hasn’t been hijacked by the drug trafficers you’ll meet some very generous people still living with joy in the face of adversity. Unfortunately there is also an increasing poverty that deprives many people from participating in their communities at all.

What to do about it? I agree with Terry that becoming involved in a project is the only way to justify a prolonged stay. At the same time we can do all the activist work that we would have done at home in the north on the internet. If we can figure out a way to get here that doesn’t involve flying I think we could actually reduce our carbon foot-print for a few months by saving on fuel (not needed) and a car (also not needed.)

There are some terrific projects going on here in San Miguel de Allende, such as one to reactivate the local water-shed, to live totally off the grid and teach others to do same, and to build a very innovative small house out of local materials for poor families. There are many more projects which “gringos” involve themselves in readily.

Are we really such a menace or is it our lack of political will at home that is the problem? I’ve seen Mexico in better times and I know it’s not the majority of Mexicans that are causing the problems. It’s the so-called “globalization policies” which are putting the resources of countries like Mexico into the hands of multinational companies, with certain support to the very most wealthy Mexicans, who in their turn support the multnational take-over of their country. It’s pretty daunting to think of trying to alter this multinational world of ours so that it serves all of us and not just the economic elite. Furthermore, the worst part of the snow birds’ present reality is not the fact that they are taking advantage of the cheap labour and holiday opportunities in a country like Mexico – it’s that all of us northerners are in some way profiting from the multinational takeover- be it through stocks, pensions or other investment opportunities- and we can see what devastation it’s causing, to the environment as well as the economy. What can we do about that?

Terry Oliver March 21, 2011 at 1:18 pm

Thanks Sheila,
It’s hard to square the circle with regard to being a snowbird in Mexico and I agree that globalisation is the biggest problem. But as individuals, I guess we have to ask ourselves are we part of the problem or part of the cure?
For me, this means i can only justify coming back here if I become involved in some way, however small and not adding to the problems of global exploitation of Mexicans in whatever form.

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