Who am I, and how did I end up in Mexico?
I remember my introduction to the theory of Chaos in the movie Jurassic Park. Mathematician Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) takes the top of Dr. Sattler's hand (Laura Dern) and drops a tiny drop of water on it. They watch together as the water runs off. He repeats the procedure, dropping the water in the same exact spot. Sattler is surprised as the drop rolls off her hand in an entirely different direction than before. Malcolm attributes the variation in result to the tiny imperfections in the skin of her hands; the minutest of details can have enormous effects and cause completely unpredictable outcomes. This is Chaos theory, which seems to be at work in my own life.
I´ve only recently really realized how much contingency has created unexpected chains of events in my life. Is it destiny, pure coincidence, or Providence? I do not even pretend to know, but the point is, here I am in Mexico, an American from Boston, head over heels in love with a Mexican man who I met while studying in Spain. I never would have dreamed the turn of events that brought me here; it was beyond my wildest vision of the future, and yet I can follow the sequence of events in a logical fashion.
My love for Spanish and Spanish-speaking cultures was an accident, or better said, the result of junior high immaturity. I chose Spanish classes over French simply because I had heard rumors that the French teacher was weird. No one seemed to be whispering about the Spanish teacher, so I signed up. This decision went against all logic, given the fact that my mother´s side of the family immigrated to the United States from Quebec. My great grandmother, whom I never met, never even learned to speak English, and my mother grew up surrounded by French relatives.
So silly or as immature as it sounds, so began my love affair with Spanish, and indirectly, with Carlos, from Monterrey, Mexico. I can trace it back to that one, seemingly insignificant decision. It´s scary to think that a decision I made at only 12 years old has affected my entire life.
Things took off from the very first day of Spanish class in seventh grade. There was something about it that I really loved. Perhaps it was the new challenge for me of learning a foreign language for the first time, or perhaps it was the language itself. I suspect the latter because I have tried learning German as well, and the language has never had either the romance or the appeal to me that Spanish has. The German language simply does not move me, while even studying Spanish irregular verb forms fascinated me.
After I had been studying Spanish for 2 years, I made some French friends at a summer camp. I had my first summer romance - with a Frenchman. I had never met a Spaniard or a Mexican at that point, and yet I was still mesmerized with Spanish. I begged and pleaded with my mother to host a Spanish exchange student one summer. She wanted a French student, if anyone at all. Then, by chance, a woman arrived at the high school where my mom taught with news that she was coordinating home stays for a Spanish exchange program.
David, from Leon, Spain, arrived that summer, and it was instant chemistry. We all loved him, and we got along so well that his parents flew over at the end of his stay to meet us. David's visit was a turning point. I envied his experience and his courage. I made up my mind to spend all of my junior year of college studying in Spain, and I never doubted or looked back on that decision.
My first semester in Spain, was both a success and a disaster at the same time. I made a ton of new friends and had a great time experiencing Madrid night life. But at the same time, all of my new friends were American, and I didn´t practice my Spanish except in classes. I was living with a Spanish señora, but it wasn't the family experience I was hoping for. After my first semester, I made the decision to move to a university dormitory.
Colegio Mayor Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe was a mixed dorm, special in the sense that half was Spanish and the other half Latin American. Mexicans made up the majority of the Latin American half. I was happy right from the start, and I quickly got in with a group of Mexicans. They were kind, caring, open, and in general, wonderful.
My favorite person in all of Spain after a just a few weeks was a Mexican from Monterrey named Carlos. Although there was nothing romantic between us at first, I had never laughed so hard with anyone in my life.
Then one day, everything changed. I needed to iron some shirts, and the only person with an iron that I knew was Carlos. He, of course, lent it to me, and while I was ironing away, nothing awry, suddenly the handle fell off. I was left with the broken plastic iron in one hand and the hot iron on the shirt….Darn! I tried to fix it, but the plastic piece that held the handle to the iron was totally broken. Ni modo, I would have to buy him a new iron.
The next day I woke up early to buy the new iron before I saw Carlos. Unfortunately for me and fortunately for Carlos, the department store did not have the same model, so I had to buy a more expensive model. I took the bag back to the dorm. That night after dinner I saw Carlos, and I explained what had happened to his iron. He started to laugh….and laugh…and laugh. I was startled by his reaction-what had I done? Then the truth came out. Another friend of ours from Nicaragua had borrowed the iron before me, and HE was the one who had broken the iron. Carlos had forgotten to mention to me that the handle was attached to the body by a thread. I finally saw what was so funny! Carlos told me to return the new iron; the broken iron wasn´t my fault.
A week later about 30 of us from the dorm went out to dinner at a special Mexican restaurant in Madrid. After numerous shots of tequila (my first experience with the substance) everyone was happy, and Carlos started to sing to me. He got daring, and began to explain that he had had his eye on me (How could I have been so oblivious?) and that the iron incident was what cinched it for him. He said it showed that I was responsible and caring. I thought about what he had said overnight; I was afraid to ruin a good friendship, but I decided it was worth the risk because no one had ever made me feel so special before.
It's hard even for me to believe, but after one week I was absolutely in love with Carlos. Something in my gut told me to relax and go with it, so I did. The only problem was that Carlos had made it clear from the beginning that if the relationship were to continue, we would have to take it to Mexico; he had no intention of living anywhere else. I understood and respected that, so the future of the relationship depended on me - could I live in Monterrey? My first step, of course, was to visit. Well, I was completely enthralled. I loved the lifestyle, the culture, the city, and most of all I loved the people. It helped that Carlos's family was loving and extremely accepting of the new "gringa" in the picture!
So, after three visits, I arrived in Monterrey in August 2002 with the intention of starting a more permanent life there. The strange part is that when I arrived in Monterrey, Carlos was still in Spain finishing up his degree. He did not arrive until the middle of October! These 2.5 months in Monterrey with his family, but without him, were extremely important to me. I knew that if I could survive and adjust successfully without his help, things would be even better and easier with him around to help me. My sense of relief was amazing as I found a job, started to make my own friends, drove around the city alone, and in general, began to understand and adapt to the way of life in Monterrey.
That said, moving to a foreign country with the intention of staying forever is downright intimidating, and it is a serious adjustment for anyone. As good as I thought I was at adapting to different cultures, I have discovered you cannot compare living and working abroad temporarily to settling permanently outside your own culture.
I did a lot of research before leaving the United States, but since I had no idea what problems I might run into, I haven´t been prepared for everything; there are still many missing pieces in my knowledge of how things work in Mexico. I am slowly finding out about the nuances of Mexican culture and society, and every day brings something entirely unexpected. Inevitably, whether the unexpected is positive or negative, funny or serious, I thrive under the challenge of each new day in Monterrey.
So while this column is a heartfelt attempt at saving you from the "mortificaciones" that I experience every day in my new home, it is also an attempt to make you laugh and open your eyes to the many differences - large and small - between the two cultures. Do your research and go prepared, but the best thing you can do is learn to take it all in stride. You will not succeed in changing Mexico, but Mexico will change you. Let it happen - it's for the better.
Supporting Yourself: Making the Move Possible
For a recent college grad, retiring to a beach in Mexico was out of the question. And I had (have) yet to make my millions by investing in the stock market, winning the lottery, or just plain working hard. That could only mean one thing: I had to find myself a job in Monterrey.
I had worked before in Spain, so I was familiar with the hassle of finding work abroad. The European Union makes finding work extremely challenging for Americans, so I was delighted to find that work visas are easily applied for and attained in Mexico. Unlike Spain, for example, obtaining a work permit does not require a visit to your home consulate in America simply to apply for the visa. The whole process, from start to finish, can be accomplished without ever having to set foot out of Mexico. In fact, leaving while the visa is being processed is prohibited.
I researched jobs online before I left for Monterrey, but finding a job without actually being at your destination is next to impossible. It makes sense - it's simply too big a chance to hire someone you have never met in person. If you work for an American company with branches in Mexico, you might be able to request a transfer, especially if you have seniority, but starting out at an entry level position with a history degree severely limited my possibilities. Mexican companies tend to hire people with degrees corresponding directly to the job they apply for. In other words, a liberal arts degree is not worth a whole lot in Mexico.
I decided to go to Mexico even though I didn't have a job. I realized I was getting nowhere over the internet and I needed to take the chance. I decided my best move was to teach English, even if only for a short while. It's the easiest, most available position in Mexico for English speakers, and it's often a great way to make contacts and eventually supplement another income. I researched various English schools and their locations on the internet before leaving home, and I saved up as much money as possible beforehand so I would have something to fall back on while looking. Timing was also key - to have my best pick of teaching jobs I had to arrive at the beginning of August. Most schools require several weeks of training for new teachers and the school year often starts in September.
I arrived in Monterrey on a Friday and I began looking at 9 am on the following Monday. I got really frustrated really fast. The English schools looked run down compared to the sleek, highly marketed schools I was used to seeing in Madrid. Furthermore, I certainly had arrived at a peak time. Nearly all the schools were crowded with applicants handing in resumes and seeking interviews. Most, I noted with some optimism, were Mexican, which would give me an edge as a native speaker with previous teaching experience under my belt. However, that did not change the long lines of people ahead of me waiting for an interview. There seemed to be no organization, and I was tired of filling out long applications that required the same information as my resume, plus details that seemed to me none of their business. Why does it matter what my father does for a living?
On Monday I also left my resume with the Office of International Programs at Prepa Tec Garza Sada. The Tecnologico de Monterrey is the best university in Mexico, with campuses all over the country. The university also runs a number of high schools, four in Monterrey alone, that serve as feeders to the university. I had heard about these high schools, or "prepas" from an English neighbor of my boyfriend. He highly recommended the job. I had been trying to secure a job at a Prepa Tec through the internet and email, but once again, they required a personal interview with the director of International Programs. Interviews for positions starting in September were in Monterrey in April. I had missed them. I decided to stop by the office on my first Monday in Monterrey to leave a resume, talk with the director, and offer myself for the January start date.
On Tuesday, I had a stroke of incredibly good luck, although it feels like a sin to say so. One of the English teachers at the newest high school had a sudden heart attack and passed away after the first day of school. Aside from being stricken with grief by the loss of a long-time colleague, my boss needed an English teacher urgently. My resume was passed along. I was called in for an interview the following day and started my new job on Thursday. It was a whirlwind of paperwork, introductions, books, and materials as I prepared to jump into the school year as a last minute addition. My timing had been impeccable, and I felt incredibly lucky. But how could I say so when there were such unfortunate circumstances behind my new job?
I would recommend trying to get a job with the Tec or any of its high schools to anyone interested in teaching English in Mexico. There are various campuses around the country, and the Tec is the Harvard/old boys' network of Mexico. The Tec's presence is everywhere. Not only is the teaching job well paid on a Mexican scale, with excellent benefits and a good work schedule, but also facilitates making connections that could help you in the future. Another important thing to note is that the Tec handled all the paperwork for obtaining a work visa, which helped me avoid getting caught in the web of Mexican bureaucracy surrounding any type of formal document. My paperwork was held up, however, because of ignorance on my part. Almost any employer in Mexico will ask for your original diploma along with an apostillized copy. (see below, Apostillizing documents) Do not leave it at home as I did…it will delay your pay check and legal work status for months on end…
Overall, I am extremely happy with my new job in Mexico. Teaching Mexican students is a delight. Aside from being excessively talkative and social, they are surprisingly respectful and eager to learn. There is no better way to immerse myself in Mexican culture than through working with teenagers. They are concerned that I experience the best of the world they know and love, and whether it's a discussion about the escapades of Gloria Trevi or a free sample of tamarind-chile candy, every day my students give me new and truly refreshing experiences.
Notes on Looking for Work in Mexico
Where to Look for Job offers
Your best bet from abroad is online newspapers. I found www.elnorte.com helpful for Monterrey. Check the " avisos de occasion" section in the newspaper of your destination.
Word of mouth, or calling on a contact already at your destination could also prove invaluable. Talk to anyone and everyone about your plans, as you never know where people have connections and how they may be able to help.
Once you arrive at your destination, hit the streets as soon as possible. Many English schools, for example, do not bother to post ads in newspapers. Instead, they may post signs in their windows or rely strictly on reputation to bring in applicants.
As a much-treasured and needed English speaker, you might even consider going directly to multinational companies and introducing yourself. Ask for human resources, bring along a resume, and offer your services as a translator or English teacher.
One of the first things you should do if you are planning on doing anything "official" at all in Mexico is apostillize documents. This is basically the international equivalent of a notary seal. The Mexican Embassy or Consulate nearest you will most likely offer this service or direct you to someone who does. For example, in Boston, the Mexican Consulate sent me to a state government office for the apostille. Be warned that you must have your documents notarized first so that the state or consulate will see them as valid. They will charge you a small amount, in my case $3. (Bring cash.) You should also tell them which country you want the apostille to be valid in. It is a good idea to apostillize your birth certificate, diploma, and any other official document you think you might need in Mexico.