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How to survive - and stay - in Oaxaca

Stan Gotlieb

This was written in 1994. How to survive - and stay - in Oaxaca, were very much on my mind. (The picture is of the Oaxaca State Band playing their Sunday concert in the zocalo.) Photography by Diana Ricci

Every day, hundreds of Mexicans risk their lives, their health, and their savings, in the attempt to cross the border into the U.S.A. They are lured by the higher wages and generally better working conditions in El Norte.

Every day, hundreds of U.S. citizens risk Montezuma's Revenge and their Christmas Club money by crossing the border into Mexico. They are lured by the lower costs and generally more exotic living conditions in the Tropics.

Thus is the pattern of cross-migration established: they come to work, and we come to spend. Of course there are exceptions, but it's a pretty safe bet that the Gringo you see walking down the street in Oaxaca didn't come here to work 9-to-5, and that the Oaxacan who owns the little kiosk where you buy your newspaper has been working 60 hours per week, 50 weeks per year, for 40 years -- if he's been lucky enough to have steady employment.

The vast majority of Nortenos who come here are on vacation, and have a return plane ticket. The next largest group are retired, and have a pension or other independent means. The few remaining are either scamming, or desperately trying to figure out a good scam. All are united by the Five Iron Rules of Expatriate Economics.

Rule 1 is a sort of Heisenberg Principle of price escalation: just by being there, you jack up the cost. It doesn't matter where you go, when you get there your exotic presence becomes a beacon for every entrepreneur in the neighborhood.

Rule 2 is that rule 1 is just, fair, and good. There is nothing more pathetic that a Gringo trying to explain to a Mexican that, despite appearances, he is not really rich. Puh - leez ! The concept of having to conserve your money, so you can last a year instead of "only" three months, just doesn't signify to someone who feels lucky to be able to take his family to the beach - or the mountains - once a year, for a week. And taking time off from work to "find yourself" is about is as comprehensible as sprouting wings and flying.

Rule 3 is a corollary of Rule 1: third-world locales remain cheap to live in only so long as no-one wants to live there. Also known as the law of supply and demand, it as true for natives as it is for foreigners. As Mexico City becomes less habitable, many Chilangos (citizens of the capitol) are moving to Oaxaca, driving up the price of land -- and rentals.

Rule 4 is: wages never do manage to catch up with prices. This appears to be a truly Universal law, every bit as good on Mars as it is in Puerto Escondido or Podunk.

Rule 5 is: wherever you are, living like you live in the U.S.A. will cost about the same as living in the U.S.A.

These rules are not popular among the expatriate population, who came here dreaming of genteel retirement in exotic but comfortable circumstances. These rules are ugly, ugly, ugly if you are scamming. For instance, take those three bohemian-looking, gray-bearded geeks over there, in a sidewalk cafe. Along with their roasted peanuts and beer, they are nibbling a little Reality Sandwich: the money is getting thin, and all too soon, they will find themselves tumbling down the slippery slope of "going back", to yet another round of (Ugh!) wage slavery.

"Buzz" has been here 7 years. After seeing his youngest off to college, he sold his business and his house. While living off the proceeds, he tried his hand at making jewelry, being a tour guide, being a business consultant, and raising Doberman Pinschers. A New Age type, he is hoping to find The Way by chanting his mantra, but it is beginning to look like the only Way for him, as the song says, leads to San Jose (California, that is), and a stint in his nephew's aluminum siding business.

"Pops" retired at 62, last year. Having been a socially responsible guy most of his life, he didn't work much in covered employment, and as a result his Social Security doesn't amount to enough to keep him. His wife has five years to go before she can retire from her executive job in the U.S.A., and she's not about to support him unless he's with her. Besides, his teeth are going bad, and she's got a great dental plan...

"Shadow" is a semi-survivor of the '60s and '70s. He left pieces of himself in the Haight, the communes, the busted marriage, the alienated family and the prison stretch. He's down here behind an inheritance, and he's hoping that "something will come up" before the money runs out. Otherwise, it's back to driving hack in Chicago.

Every year, thousands of people try - and fail - to make a home for themselves in Paradise. Some do make it, though, and failing in Paradise just may be more fun than succeeding in Podunk. So come on down and give it a shot. It's bound to be interesting, for you and for us/them. Just one thing: don't whine, O.K.?

If you have comments or suggestions for Stan, you can contact him at:
If you have comments or suggestions for Stan, you can contact him at:

Published or Updated on: September 1, 1994 by Stan Gotlieb © 2008
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