Leaving Mexico

NO, NOT ME. Gadzooks! I’ll be here till I die.

But sometimes people from above the Rio Bravo move to Mexico, stay a spell, and then pack up and go back, after all the bother of coming here in the first place, and it is a bother. Culture shock too.

What inspires this post today is a recent blog entry from Debi Kuhn who lives with her husband, Tom, in Mérida. They’ve been in that sweltering city for 10 years, but are planning to pack up and return to the United States, an incomprehensible step, to my way of thinking.

Debi is a little vague on the cause of the return, pointing mostly at the difficulty of learning Spanish. And that can truly be a major problem. But it can be solved by moving to San Miguel de Allende where all Mexicans within the city limits are obligated to learn English for your convenience.

And the weather is way nicer than Mérida too.

The first two or three years, I would have returned to the United States had it been financially feasible. It would have required returning to the workforce — a horrible thought — due to the far higher U.S. cost of living. Living in Mexico is cheap. Don’t believe it when people say otherwise.

I moved south alone seven years before I was eligible for Social Security. I lived on a measly corporate pension of $540 a month, and I took up the slack with savings. And I lived just fine. When I got married at age 58, the two of us lived well on the same money for the next four years.

Time has passed, and I’ve grown used to Mexico. Culture shock is long gone. I feel utterly at home. Culture shock would likely hit me if I returned to America where I have not set foot since early 2009.

I like it here very much.

The language thing Debi mentions can be a bear. If you come here as a couple, which means you speak English daily, learning Spanish well enough to have conversations is almost impossible except for the very young.

Virtually everyone I know of who can converse in Spanish has either moved here solo or is married to a Latina.

flagIt takes time to acclimate to this very different world. But go back now? No way, José.

I love hearing burros braying in the distance at dawn, and roosters and dogs. I love sunrises over mountains that I watch every morning above this computer screen where I read the news from America and its ethnic conflicts, race riots, deficit spending and “social democracy.”

In an odd way, I even love the passing trains that gently rattle window panes in the middle of the night. I love the weekday morning exercise walks around the nearby plaza where sits a 16th century church.

I love that I can get a plumber or electrician or bricklayer or any talented workman to come to the Hacienda on a moment’s notice and do whatever needs to be done for a pittance of what it would cost up north.

I love that I can pay cheaply for traffic infractions on the spot without having all the bother of waiting in courthouses, even though that’s only happened once in 15 years. I still favor the system.

I love that our infrastructure improves daily, highways, shopping malls, and first-class, snazzy, inexpensive bus transportation nationwide. I love that you can fly an airliner anywhere — except to the United States — without being strip-searched and otherwise abused and humiliated.

I love that you can easily get a doctor appointment for tomorrow or even today in a modern facility, and when you leave you pay in cash and still have change left for Sears or Walmart or a café latte at Starbucks.

And I love that you can voice unpopular opinions without being fired from your job or socially ostracized or have your children turned over to the state. You may get punched in the nose, but that’s only fair.

I love perfect avocados in the outdoor market and high-quality, name-brand shirts with an invisible flaw that you can buy for eight bucks not far from where you just purchased those perfect avocados.

And I love that you never hear the words racist, sexist or transgender, and that television shows that regularly feature men passionately kissing other men are invariably beamed down from America, and that shows produced in Mexico feature manly men with mustaches, often clutching tequila bottles, sporting sidearms and punching other men, not kissing them.

MariawhoopiAnd women on Mexican television, from actresses to commentators to weather girls, always look like Penelope Cruz or Maria Grazia Cucinotta, not Ellen DeGeneres, Whoopi Goldberg or Rosie O’Donnell.

I love living in a PC-free world, and I love paying just $80 in property taxes on two homes and an apartment in Mexico City. Total.

I love that a beautiful, bright babe not much older than my daughter said yes when I asked her to marry me. I love it that when I pull back the bedroom drapes on summer mornings, I see a sea of golden datura.

And there’s the elegant, artsy Hacienda, which I could never have built or maintained in the United States. I do love that.

* * * *

I hope Debi and her husband, Tom, do not regret returning to the United States, but we will always welcome them back if they decide it was a mistake. For me, I cannot fathom such a move.

51 thoughts on “Leaving Mexico”

  1. I took Spanish in high school and college and dated some Chicanos (with ’57 Chevys), and attended the folk mass on the Mexican side of town when I was going through a should-I-become-Catholic phase, so I learned Spanish when I was young enough to retain most of it. My husband didn’t take Spanish, so when we got to Mexico we enrolled in a language class and I tried to help him with the basics. He gave me a hard time – all that “old people can’t learn a language” nonsense so I finally just cried, in public, and he felt so bad he quit complaining and started to learn the language. Now, he does pretty good, except he told our 90-year-old neighbor who speaks no English that he would kill her doctor with an avocado and asked the taxi driver in Guadalajara, in the midst of a conversation about Mexican baseball, to please find his birthday, but at least he tries and is getting better with practice.

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      1. Debi: Your comment, though very brief, is very revealing. So, he wants to go back, and you do not. You have quite a dilemma.

        Have you two considered moving instead to San Miguel? I know of three or four people from my town who have found it too challenging here and who have packed up and moved there, apparently quite happily. From what I know, living there without speaking Spanish is quite common and not that difficult. There are the added attractions of the weather being far nicer than Mérida, and — to me at least — it’s a much prettier and better located city.

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  2. Another great blog post, Felipe.

    The reasons Estadounidenses return to the Old Country are generally Medicare, family, not fitting in, and homesickness. There’s a brick wall ranging from two to five years, and those who stay abroad for more than five years are not likely to return to their place of origin. Maintaining a residence in the Old Country or frequent visits back there seem to bode the expat’s eventual return. And then there’s the matter of whether the foreign views himself as an expat or an immigrant.

    Not once did I ever (nor will I ever) entertain the notion of going back. It will never happen. But then, unlike you, I moved here with a house in place, a moving van hauling all of my earthly possessions. More than 16 years would pass before I would see a dime of Social Security.

    I am at home in Mexco. This is where I live, and this is where I belong. Am I totally integrated into Mexican culture? Hell, no, not even with my Mexican passport. And as much as I try, it will never happen. I’ll always be the immigrant, and I’m okay with that. Do I butcher the Spanish language? Sure, I do, but I keep on trying, even though I’m known for making more gaffes than Joaquín (“Juay de rito?”) Lopez Dóriga.

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    1. Gracias for the kind words, Ms. Shoes. As mentioned, I did waffle the first couple of years, but the waffling has long since vanished. Couldn’t drag me over the border with a team of angry burros these days.

      I’ve never applied the expat word to myself, never thought of myself as that for a moment. Dunno why. I am an immigrant, but I don’t really think of myself that way either. I’m a legal Mexican, but as you know, integrating totally will never happen. Doesn’t even interest me. To my mind, I’m just an American who’s resettled in Mexico permanently.

      The Kuhns’ returning after nearly a decade is very weird.

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  3. It would have to be a most unusual reason for me to go northward, but like James Bond said, Never say never. You never know when fate will suddenly slip you a joker from the deck. But I’ve cut so many ties it would take a miracle to get me back there. I’ve heard that it costs about $3 grand to renounce American citizenship now. I don’t understand that. I suspect it has something to do with taxes? All I can say is catch me if you can. A friend told me years ago they can put you in jail. I said, you mean at last they’re going to do something for me? I plan on being cremated here and dumped into the Zahuapan River. Meanwhile, I’m going to watch events in the USA. Its better than Comedy Central.

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    1. Señor Mystic: Comedy Central indeed. When I see what’s going on up there I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. If the situation in the United States did not affect so many things worldwide, I would just laugh. But certainly that’s not the case.

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      1. Not a typo considering all that has happened in what I grew up believing was “The Land of the Free.”

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  4. Husband blames his so called lack of progress in speaking Spanish on me! Funny thing, when I was housebound last year, his Spanish was just fine. His major problem is that he is a little deaf, that and being a bit shy. English is the language of our relationship, so we speak English at home. He can’t imagine ever moving back north. He sometimes says things in Spanish that confuse me, but the intended audience seems to understand him.

    I know Tom and Debi, the language problem has always been lurking in the background. I have no idea what the precipitating event was that tipped the scale in favor of moving back.

    I also found myself blogging on this theme. My take is slightly different..

    regards,
    Theresa

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    1. Hi, Theresa. Funny you should mention a “precipitating event” in the case of the Kuhns. I also had that thought, that there was a straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back for them, something related to struggling with Spanish. And the shyness you mention about your husband. That is my wife’s primary problem with learning English, which she’s been struggling with for many years. Self-consciousness can be a real barrier. Of course, her not speaking English has been a real blessing for my Spanish.

      Dunno why your comment was sent to the moderation file. I suspect it was due to the link you included.

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      1. Self-conscious is a real barrier that we all have to leap over. We have to get used to the fact that most of us are not going to speak Spanish at a level that we can communicate in English, and it’s helpful to remember that even Mexicans speaking Spanish don’t always get the subjunctive right. Hell, even educated Estadounidenses foul up grammar in their native tongue. You have to be able to laugh at yourself. Remembering how that Chinese professor sounded back in statistics class in college helps.

        The first time I went under general anesthesia, I was terrified that I’d wake up and not speak Spanish, so I went under telling myself “Speak Spanish when you come out.” Never mind that everyone told me that the surgeon wouldn’t pay attention to whatever I said in any language, I did manage to say “Que fue rápido. Todavía terminado?” Then a few years later, when the paramedics were picking me off the sidewalk, they asked if I spoke English or Spanish. I told them Spanish. Then when they asked me how old I was, I’m trying to remember my age, since it was only a few days after my birthday. And then I proceeded to tell them “Veinticinco” when I really meant to say “Cincuenta y cinco.” And when I came out of anesthesia in that episode, my first words were “Voy a vomitar.”

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  5. I considered returning north only once — during my first year in Mexico. You might recall that was when I headed north with my ankle, broken from ziplining, to train my successor at work for six months. The first week I was there, I discovered that I was far happier in Mexico. I have a large network of friends in The States (and Europe) that keep me interested in matters outside of Mexico. But I can see no circumstances where I would return north. And when my family moves down next year, I will have no incentive to leave. Even they are committed to dealing with The Language Thing.

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    1. Good Lord, Steve. That zipline event happened that long ago?! I am really surprised. Seems like yesterday, but — as I am sure you’ve noticed — the older you get the faster time flies.

      Your returning to train your replacement seemed like a mighty strange thing to do, then and still now. But I’m glad you remain here because you’re an endless source of amusement.

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      1. Once during a meeting at work (back before the Punic Wars), I was rather miffed that the vice-presidents were not taking my analysis seriously. One of them (a rather good friend) turned to me and said: “Steve, you can either pilot the plane or be the court jester. You can’t be both.” I am glad I have finally chosen my best path.

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  6. Great post, Felipe, one of your best and full of wisdom from experience. Having to return to California multiple times in the last few years (selling properties, etc.) makes me count the minutes when my car crosses the border each time. Even when we were building the house back in ’89, each time we crossed the border our stress level and mental attitude improved. You mentioned so many reasons why life SOB is right for me, starting with values for one, that NOB has seen slipped away in the last decade or so. When a man’s word and handshake has to be backed up with reams of paper, that along with 3 or 4 warning labels on every appliance was the turning point for me. I only wish I could have started the escape sooner, but at least I still thank my lucky stars for the quality of life south of the border, which is a sad fond memory of what it use to be NOB.

    Although I am not as proficient in Spanish as my wife, I seem to get along just fine. Perhaps it’s being around Mexican friends and not Gringos. As I have mentioned before, I can count my Gringo friends on one hand.

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    1. Gracias, Tancho. And I think the fact that your Latina wife speaks very good English reduces her language advantages for you. I’m guessing the two of you speak English together 99 percent of the time.

      It’s great living here. One must only roll one’s eyeballs on seeing the ridiculous hysteria put out in the United States about us, especially that coming from the State Department. The upside is that it keeps the Gringos above the Rio Bravo where they belong, or in San Miguel de Allende.

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  7. How sad that the couple is returning to the USA. Makes me want to weep. I can only surmise that there must be some major health issue that was sprung upon them! Their move back may be a very sad thing for them, and I wish them courage and peace.

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    1. Angeline: Most folks, if they are going to return north, do it long before 10 years have passed, which makes their case unusual. I don’t think it has anything to do with health issues because she really stressed the language thing. Plus, we have excellent medical facilities down here. No need to go north.

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  8. Felipe: From being a longtime blog reader, I get the distinct sense that you have somewhat “bloomed” personally since you entered Mexico, having seemingly found the right woman and the right situation and your own little rincón del paraiso. And I also believe a good chunk of that stems from your determination and success in learning to speak Spanish.

    I think it’s kind of sad that so many expats struggle with Spanish. Both Europe and Asia are filled with people who regularly speak two or three languages. And virtually every business person in Europe uses English in business. I used to work for the US subsidiary of a major Italian bank, and the bank’s official language was English, as was pointed out in a company-wide memo sent out at one point. Italian was tolerated in Italy, but English was to be used everywhere else. And all the Italian managers spoke excellent English, albeit some with heavier accents than others.

    Personally, I think peoples’ (incorrect) belief that they can’t learn Spanish is the biggest stumbling block; with a change in attitude could come a change in ability. And then they’d also learn something about the country where they live. In short, if you don’t speak Spanish decently, there’s no way for you to really understand Mexico. Full stop.

    I could probably have done my trip without speaking Spanish, but I wouldn’t have learned a tenth of the things I did learn, and I would not have had all the amazing human contact that I did have. The trip would have been merely sightseeing and not a cultural adventure. I can’t imagine trying to live in Mexico without Spanish. Outside of SMA it’d probably be very difficult.

    Saludos,

    Kim G
    Boston, MA
    Where we’d probably have trouble adapting to a climate like Mérida’s, though.

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    1. Well stated, Señor Kim. There are lots of factors at play with the language thing. In Europe, you only have to drive a couple of hours from any point to be in a different language zone. Not so in the United States where people can — and most do — live forever with just English. There is no compelling reason at all to learn a second language in the United States, so they do not. That also makes Americans quite provincial.

      I think you may be overly optimistic about Gringo retirees’ — and that’s what most of us are — capacity to learn Spanish late in life. You, I think, like some people, have a knack for it. My second wife also had that knack. My current wife does not. I think I stand somewhere in the middle. I was determined to learn Spanish when I moved here, immediately enrolling in a language school my first week, and then I married someone with whom I can only communicate in Spanish. That really helped, to put it mildly.

      As you note, if you don’t speak Spanish here, your grasp of the nation and people is marginal at best. Plus, understanding Spanish makes life easier and far more interesting.

      My “blooming” began three years before moving to Mexico. It began with mind-altering drugs, truth be told. Had that not happened, I never would have even moved over the border.

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      1. I’ve been thinking about the foreigners I know who’ve left Mexico after more than five years. Most of them have been gringas married to Mexicans, with a divorce in their future. Their reasons weren’t “I’m getting a divorce, so I’m outta here,” but instead “I want my children to learn Irish dancing and connect with the US instead of Mexico.” The inability to make a good living here in Mexico also played into their reasoning. And strangely, or not, not one of them ever considered becoming a naturalized Mexican citizen, insisting that their allegiance was to the US. I don’t think one of them ever contemplated living permanently in Mexico, never mind that each of these women was fluent in Spanish. Language played no part in this group’s decision to leave.

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    2. I take pleasure in listening to and often understanding Spanish. That doesn’t make me fluent, but I think I’m proficient. The hardest aspect is understanding Spanish spoken by a native speaker, hablando a toda velocidad. Sometimes I get it, other times I have to ask for a rerun.

      And while we are known to and accepted by our ranching community, I wouldn’t claim to be “integrated.”

      As far as living here for the long haul, September of this year marks ten years since we moved here. We never had a thought of moving back NOB, and we never will. If we did, we wouldn’t have the delight of the LP gas trucks, with their recorded spiels, such as “¡Gaaaas!” and (romantic music, please, Maestro) <"Señora, ama de la casa. Aquí viene Gas de Lago, su marca de confianza." …and other, more localized cries of mobile vendors., such as the shrill, “¡¡POLLOS!!” every morning.

      Saludos,
      Don Cuevas

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  9. Well done, Felipe! We are relative newcomers to Mexico having moved to the mountains (about 4 miles from Mazamitla) 5 months ago and can relate to most all of your “I Love” observations.

    Regarding learning Spanish, I’m an old dawg (68) with hearing aids, but am surprised how far I have come with daily repetition and practice. There are few English speakers in our village (of 10K), so it’s kind of a sink-or-swim proposition to get by with daily living. My child bride of 34 years (59) has really moved ahead of me on her ability to communicate in Spanish.

    As to cost of living, we rent a 3500 sq. ft., 2-story home with 4 BR, 3 BTH, etc., etc., for 2100 pesos a month. We are able to live quite comfortably on my SS and bank all of our passive monthly income from investments. A specific recent example of costs: We went to a local dentist last week and both had our teeth cleaned and 3 cavities filled for 600 pesos total. Mind you, this was quality dental care with state-of-the-art equipment. I’m also getting a partial denture (I did mention that I’m an old dawg) for 3,100 pesos. I was quoted the equivalent of 21,700 pesos in the USA before we moved.

    Will we make it here permanently? Well, so far we love it here and ask ourselves daily why we didn’t make the move sooner. If, for whatever reason, we feel compelled to move on, we will head south instead of north. We have our permanent residency in Belize, and if that doesn’t work out we’ll try Guatemala, then Panama. If Hillary gets elected (God forbid), we would consider the South Pole if it wasn’t so cold there. 🙂

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    1. Jeff: I had to Google Mazamitla to find out where it is. Looks like you chose very well. Also looks like a rather odd spot for anyone not fluent in Spanish, so keep up the studies. One good aspect, which you surely know, is that prices are even lower where few Gringos are in sight. My dentist charges twice that for a cleaning, for instance, yet he is still far cheaper than a U.S. dentist. And it sounds like you’ve found a terrific housing deal.

      Stop it now with the old dawg business because you’re two years fresher than I am.

      And if Hillary gets elected — and she will not — moving to the South Pole won’t save you or the United States either, for that matter.

      But let’s not foolishly underestimate the stupidity of the U.S. voter.

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      1. Mazamitla is on the far side of Lake Chapala. It was one of the first places we visited when we first moved to the Lake Chapala area. It is beautiful. Like a Swiss alpine village. How did you ever find such an obscure spot, Jeff? Also, be aware that you are a straight shot (less than 2 hours) from Comala, in Colima, one of our favorite spots to visit. I think if helps to be forced to use the language to communicate. I often think we have handicapped ourselves by living in an area where English is spoken at most of the places we frequent.

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        1. Hi Bonnie:
          We met a retired US Army veteran (with a Mexican wife) online that lives in our town of San Jose de Gracia. He got our attention with the low cost of living and wonderful climate. When we moved here, the Gringo population swelled to 3. We considered Mazamitla which is also about 10K population with only a couple of Gringos but the population reaches 30K every weekend with the Mexican Tourists from Guadalajara and Mexico City which equates to higher prices for housing & most everything else. This really is a beautiful area though. We haven’t checked out Comala yet. Thanks for the tip.

          Yes, immersion into the language is a trip. We are rather bold and don’t worry too much about blunders, some of which are quite comical. It seems like the locals sense that we are trying to learn and are met with patience and help. At first, I aspired to be somewhat conversational after 6 months or so. Well, it’s going a lot slower than that, but I seem to do better each day.

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          1. I Googled “San Jose de Gracia,” and there are several towns of that name in Mexico. Which one do you live in? Is it in Michoacán?

            (Is that where those strange pottery pineapples are crafted?)

            Saludos,
            Don Cuevas

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          2. Are you also retired military, Jeff? We are retired Navy and have friends in our area (San Antonio, Tlayacapan – near Ajijic) who are also retired Navy – we all go to Charros baseball games together in the fall. We have the same response from our Mexican neighbors when we use Spanish, they are helpful and understanding. And do check out Comala – 2 ancient ruin sites, active volcano – Volcan de Fuego – and the most wonderful, welcoming people. Walking on the street, the locals thanked us for visiting. I may end up moving there.

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      2. Did you look more at Mazamitla? It’s an official “Pueblo Mágico,” and judging by my quick Google Streetview tour, looks a lot like Pátzcuaro architecturally, though a drier, sunnier version.

        Looks like I have another entry on my list of places to visit some day.

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        1. Hi Kim:
          I like Bonnie’s comparison of Mazamitla to a Swiss Alpine Village. The whole area, including the town square, has giant evergreen trees. You won’t be disappointed, particularly if you come during the week.

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          1. Hola Jeff! Indeed, some of the stuff I read suggested a similar thing due to the proliferation of wooden houses (a comparative novelty in Mexico) in the surrounding mountains to Swiss chalets. By the way, on the old (libre) highway from DF to Cuernavaca, you can also see many such wooden “chalets” up in the mountains on the Cuernavaca side. Saludos!

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        2. The first six months we were in Mexico we did not have a vehicle so took a lot of tours. Mazamitla was the first place we visited with a tour guide. It is a beautiful town and popular vacation spot with Tapatios. I also recommend Comala. Take a look at webcamsdeMexico.com and watch the Volcan de Fuego and see if that doesn’t draw you to the area – coffee plantations, museums, haciendas, active volcano, ancient ruin sites. We stay at a B&B in Comala that is run by a state certified guide. (Honestly, I am not selling anything. I am just amazed at the number of people who do not know that this beautiful place even exists.)

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          1. Thanks Bonnie! Really, Mexico is chock-a-block with amazing places. I was looking at the list of Pueblos Mágicos the other day and realized how few I had ever visited (including Mazamitla) and thinking that that would be an amazing road trip — visit them all. Saludos.

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      3. Felipe wrote: “And if Hillary gets elected — and she will not….”

        THIS scares the heck out of me because you wrote the exact same thing when Obama was running the first, and second, time. In all cases I wished and hope you are right.

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        1. Señor Calypso: My faith in the American voter is pathetic, isn’t it?

          This time, however, I have history on my side. Only once, perhaps twice, in U.S. history has a president of one party who’s served two full terms been followed by a president of the same party.

          Let us pray.

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  10. Beautifully written. Like you, I am here to stay. Never once have I thought about returning to the U.S. The one time I did venture back, by day two I was ready to return to Mexico. My Spanish is coming along … poco a poco … and I have never felt alienated because I am not yet fluent. Most Mexicans appreciate the effort to speak their language, and when one of them speaks broken English to me I praise their efforts as well. I have found that many times when I speak Spanish they don’t expect it from a guerrito, and I usually have to repeat myself!

    Again, thanks for reiterating why so many of us love living down here. ¡Qué tengas una semana buena!

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    1. Gracias for the kind words, señor Carlos. You mention something my wife and I have noticed. Sometimes Spanish from a Gringo simply does not register with some of the locals. On numerous occasions, I have spoken Spanish to someone who gave me a blank stare in return before turning to my wife. I know perfectly well that I have spoken clearly. My wife confirms what I suspect. That a Gringo is speaking Spanish simply seems impossible to them. This happens quite a bit.

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      1. Charles & Felipe……I’m so glad you brought this point up. I’ve experienced this a couple of times and thought maybe I was using words or phrases that weren’t common to my area.

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      2. What really gets to me are store clerks, even at pharmacies, who simply do not listen, making less than zero effort to comprehend even the most basic requests. As in “Quisiera comprar ibuprofena.” A blank look, then the clerk hand over something completely unrelated to the request, like maybe a flyswatter. I repeat again “Ibuprofena,” articulating it very, very carefully and clearly.

        The clerk hands over a packet of condoms, some lice-killing shampoo, and a tube of Retin-A. What, these are reasonable substitutes for I-BOO-PRO-FENA?

        “No, no, no. Ibuprofena,” I repeat, grabbing a pen and writing it out.

        The clerk stares at what I’ve written as if I’d just handed over something in hieroglyphics.

        I am just about to walk away.

        I’m blaming myself for being old, female, and gringa. And then I’ll walk into another store, another time, with my native-speaker, Mexican-born brother-in-law, and he’ll get the same treatment.

        And then I know it’s not me. The clerk is just plain stupid. Dumber than a bucket of hair.

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