San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, and Straw Men
When I shared with an academic friend that I was going to push this gig of writing about expatriation and the Gringolandias best secured loan Mexico, her response was that I had a tough job ahead of me. If I knew then of the profundity of her comment I wonder if I would have stayed on the fiction-writing track instead. That is, Gourmet Gift Basket they say, water under the bridge, and here I am, yet again, writing about Expat Issues.
The reason for my reawakening is that I met up with someone on the streets of Guanajuato who, after reading my articles and I think a book of mine, actually tried engaging me Andy Griffith Show house insurance discourse. Later, she wrote me an email with more good stuff in it. She was critical. She made a few observations that I think were great, critical as they were. So refreshing was it to be able to engage with someone who, rather than attack me with all manner of vile threats and name calling, decided to step through the door of what I've been seeking all along - rational discourse with lots of logic sprinkled generously over the argument.
I've contended all along that there is a philosophy of expatriation that if one were to adhere to its principles, the average Joe or Jane American would have the least impact on the local culture when he or she moved to another country. Now, granted, I've been living in Mexico for only five years now and my main thesis in my diatribes has actually been evolving. But, what I've been after since I began writing is to find a way to communicate that historically, when Americans move to another country for whatever reason, they don't tend to engage in cultural assimilation. I've postulated that the only access to culture is through language. Whatever the language of the country to which an individual moves, unless mastered with the highest possible proficiency, there can only be a very limited understanding of culture.
I've tried over the past five years to show that it matters to the locals when the expatriates do not learn the language of the country to which they've expatriated. I've tried showing that without language there can be absolutely no mutual understanding between the locals and the expats. One cannot know what the other is thinking without communication. I've pointed out that to substitute the axiom, "All my friends are Mexicans" as an excuse for not putting in the work to learn Spanish is too ludicrous to even comment on-but I will anyway.
To substitute interpreters for the real thing is to forever depend on someone who may or may not be giving you the entire picture. When a monolingual Gringo tells you all his or her friends are Mexican, that means all their friends are bilingual Mexicans who may or may not be delivering all the goods when it comes to culture.
I've also tried showing that the Immigration Battle Cry of the right-winged nutters in the States is that if a Mexican (and you know that's exactly who they mean in this insanity of theirs) moves to America, that he or she should learn English and assimilate into the culture. And yet, when the vast majority of Americans move to Mexico, they DO NOT LEARN SPANISH and they do not ASSIMILATE INTO THE CULTURE.
The hypocrisy is astounding and I believe screeches loudly in the minds of Mexicans everywhere who are familiar with the monolingual Gringolandians who live in Mexico.
Is it not reasonable to expect Americans who move to Mexico to practice what they preach?
And yet, my engaging friend, who did try to resort to proper argumentation, made the observation that in my articles, I've erected a Straw Man.
"A straw man argument is an informal fallacy based on misrepresentation of an opponent's position. To "set up a straw man" or "set up a straw man argument" is to describe a position that superficially resembles an opponent's actual view but is easier to refute, then attribute that position to the opponent (for example, deliberately overstating the opponent's position)." - Wikipedia
"A straw man argument can be set up in several ways, including: Presenting a misrepresentation of the opponent's position and then refuting it, thus giving the appearance that the opponent's actual position has been refuted." - Ibid
So, I guess the next move in the argument is to prove whether or not I have misrepresented my opponent's position. Have I built a misrepresentation of what Gringolandians do when they move from America or Canada to a Gringolandia? Did I make it all up? Did I lie?
A disclaimer that Americans always seem to want to hear is that "not all expats without exception" are moving to Gringolandias and ending up committing Cultural Imperialism as I have postulated many times. This fact should be self-evident, I would think, since not only do I not believe it but have never said that it is true that all Gringos come to Mexico and remain monolingual and set about changing the local culture into Little Americas. So, all those with tender hides, there you go! Feel better?
My basic premise has been that the vast majority of Americans move to towns in Mexico that has an existing Gringo infrastructure-A Gringolandia-because they are monolingual.
I've gone on to postulate that the result of being monolingual is that they must create a separate and distinct Gringo Bubble in which to survive. Without it, they simply could not get along. In doing this, they change forever the unique culture and language of the city in which they've created their bubble. They don't live in the culture they profess to love and admire.
Every single person contemplating working, studying, or retiring to Mexico (or any foreign country) should have to read a little book published in 1958 by W.W. Norton and penned by William Lederer and Eugene Burdick. This fictional account is a story of life in a fictitious Asian country in which many diplomatic blunders occur because of linguistic and cultural ineptitude. Though fiction, the authors go to great lengths in the epilogue to show how the stories in the book were based on actual people and events in the American Foreign Service.
The book is called, The Ugly American.
The premise of the book says that when linguistic and cultural incompetence abounds, so does the presence of arrogance and prejudice, as perceived by the natives, wherever Americans are stationed. Americans, in the story, seem to be more occupied with entertaining, mixing with only their own kind, and presenting an image of America that frankly is appalling. They cannot mix with the locals in the country to which they are assigned because they cannot communicate with the locals. They cannot find out what's going on in the country in which they live because they cannot speak, read, or write the language of their host country!
They must depend, in most cases, on interpreters who don't always give the correct interpretation because of cultural affectations. They also could be working for the other side.
In the factual epilogue of the book, the authors point out a New York Times story that reported as few as 50% of the Foreign Service Corps in 1958 had a speaking knowledge of any foreign language. This figure represented those who were completely monolingual. These employees were assigned to foreign countries with no ability to communicate in the language of the host country.
On the other hand, 9 out of 10 Russians, the then cold-war enemy, could not only speak the language of the country to which they were assigned but were linguistically and culturally ready before arriving on station. They came ready in the language and were culturally sensitive so as not to offend the host country's occupants.
The point is: not knowing the language, the portal to the culture, is being inadequately equipped. Our enemies knew the right strategy. The Americans?
Linguistic and cultural ineptitude can result in grave and maybe deadly consequences in the Foreign Service Field.
I wanted to find out today if America had woken up to the need to require Foreign Service applicants to be fluent in a foreign language. In 1958, there was no requirement for applicants to speak a second language. After all, a character in the book points out, "interpreters are a dime a dozen." This attitude ended up, for real, costing the U.S. a lot in the Cambodian and Vietnamese conflicts. Interpreters were no substitute for knowing the language and it turned out, in 1958, to be lethally inadequate.
The 2007's State Department's Web Site says:
" There is no foreign language requirement to join the Foreign Service. However, the U.S. Department of State welcomes candidates who are proficient in one or more foreign languages. Those who pass the Oral Assessment can raise their ranking on the List of Eligible Hires or the Hiring Register by passing a language test in any foreign language used by the U.S. Department of State." (http://www.careers.state.gov/specialist/join/index.html#6)
Incredibly, there still is no requirement for applicants to the Foreign Service to know a foreign language!
Another point the authors make in their novel and in the epilogue are that when Americans come as tourists, and especially when they come as expatriates, a strange and sudden change comes over them. There is the offensive tendency to isolate themselves from the everyday life of Mexico (or whatever foreign country). If they've come here to be a part of the culture, one Mexican national observed, then why do they seek to live outside our culture in their own little communities? The Mexican national tends to see this as pretentiousness and arrogance. The expatriates the Mexican national tends to favor and speak of in positive terms are those, no matter from which country, who blend in by mastering the language, being sensitive to local customs, and who do not abuse the language or culture.
The creation of the Gringolandias, the Gringo Ghettos, the American Colonies, and the way they isolate themselves from the Mexican nationals is most often cited as the reason for the Mexican nationals' disdain of the Americans. In some of Mexico's West Coast Gringolandias, the Canadians were also mentioned as isolationists.
I received a letter from an attorney in Hawaii who read my article: Want to Be An Expat or a Fakepat? He wrote to say that he and his native Hawaiians were victims of the very things I've been writing about when the Americans came into their lives and culture. Hawaii was forever altered. There was no respect for culture or language and the consequence was devastating to the locals. He made the point that indigenous Hawaii suffered exactly what I've been suggesting happens in Mexican towns when Gringos come sweeping in as monolinguals. In many cases, they don't even have the desire to learn the language, so vast and monstrous culture-eating Gringolandias are created-just like in my reader's native Hawaii.
He pointed out that today you can barely find a native Hawaiian who can speak the indigenous language.
I recently asked someone who grew up in a family in the American Foreign Service about this situation. She had a vast international experience before getting married and settling in Alaska. She told me that what I've just written above is still very much alive and well in the Foreign Service. Most, no matter where on the planet, do not learn the local language and consequently isolate themselves from the locals. There are Gringolandias everywhere Americans go.
How About Now? A Case Study
Sheila Croucher, a professor of political science at Miami University in Ohio and author of "Globalization and Belonging: The Politics of Identity in a Changing World" made these observations about San Miguel de Allende, one of the most well-defined and well-honed Gringolandia Infrastructures in all of Mexico:
San Miguel de Allende attracts one of the largest foreign populations in Mexico.
Most do not learn the local language and reside and socialize within an isolated cultural enclave. These immigrants practice their own cultural traditions and celebrate their national holidays. Grocery stores are stocked with locally-unfamiliar products that hail from their homeland.
American professionals largely work illegally in San Miguel and pay no taxes.
They typically do not pay their servants the Social Security taxes required by law.
The illegal businesses run by the American gringo community rips off the local San Miguel de Allende government in excess of more than four million pesos a year in unpaid taxes.
Some Americans are actually illegal aliens and do not bother with proper documentation.
Some are even involved in the Illegal Drug Trade and take drugs across the different Mexican state lines.
(You won't read this stuff in the tour and expatriation guides. I guarantee it!)
It would appear that times have not changed very much at all. Whether it is Southeast Asia in The Ugly American or modern day life in San Miguel de Allende, it looks like Americans are still up to their old tricks of establishing Gringolandias, Golden Ghettos, or Gringo Gulches.
"Many people who reside in San Miguel have set up business in San Miguel and become rich. Many of them are totally without working papers and send their income outside of Mexico. This is remarkably common a story here. People set up shop without permits, and word-of-mouth businesses in their home, to the tune of a lot more money for their wares than the field workers taking the same paperless stance in California.
This goes for galleries, jewelry designers, painters, decorators, caterers, psychotherapists, and more are all shouting their open secret of working without permits as foreigners in San Miguel, notably listed in the want ads of the important publication, Atencion San Miguel, the weekly newspaper that is the must-read in town about all the goings-on and absolutely the place to advertise to be considered in the "dollar economy" of San Miguel.
Many people swoop into town to give workshops, lectures, sell paintings, do jobs in big houses, conduct tours, and especially, rent houses, without paying taxes to the USA or to Mexico. Namely, Internet listings are the magic doorway for transactions that move guests to discreet bed-and-breakfast places that are not registered officially in San Miguel. These arrangements are straining the infrastructure of San Miguel, and especially cost the local, registered, tax-paying businesses."
I would strongly suggest that I have not built a Straw Man. Wherever Americans have congregated overseas, the vast majority do not learn the local language, thus never assimilate into the culture, and end up bringing their own home culture into the foreign one-Cultural Imperialism.
"These immigrants practice their own cultural traditions and celebrate their national holidays. Grocery stores are stocked with locally unfamiliar products that hail from their homeland. Few choose to pursue citizenship in their adopted land, and most follow closely and participate in the political and economic life of their homeland."
If this is what has been going on for decades when Americans expatriate abroad to any country, then how have I built a Straw Man? This is exactly what I have been saying for the past five years. Just how have I misrepresented anything?
This has already begun in the city of Guanajuato, the capital of the State of Guanajuato.
I've lost count of the Americans I've met who are moving to this city and who have told me that such-and-such does not satisfy their American tastes, so they set about to change it so it does. Why come to a foreign country if it is American Aquaman you are seeking? From real estate to stores, Americans come to Mexico wanting it to be a smaller version of America and American life. Guanajuato now has an Applebee's, McDonald's, Subway, Domino's Pizza, and a host of trendy expensive boutique shops at the Mega Mall.
The quintessential Gringolandian, no matter the country, could not be summed up better than in this quote from a Internet Travel Forum:
" I'm going to Antigua and want to know about the shopping there. Can I buy contact lens solution, liquid soap (Olay), creams. I'm not interested in the arts and crafts. I want my American products. Is the main market in Antigua, or out of town. Are there fast food restaurants around? Is it cheap? Thank you to whoever replies."
She didn't want "arts and crafts"-CULTURE-she wanted to find a Little America with her American products in this foreign country.
It is this absurd and horrid Gringolandia I've been attacking. Have I been erecting a Straw Man and misrepresenting the Gringolandian's position?
I hardly think so.
Doug Bower is celebrating his fifth year living in Guanajuato, Mexico with his wife, Cindi. They've co-authored a book called, "SUSTAINABLE EXPATRIATISM - How Not To Change Culture When Expatriating to a Foreign Country" Check their website for release date