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Finding and Losing the American Dream in SMA

by Pam Walters

On April 2nd I donned a fedora with a “PRESS” card sticking up from the band and attended a lecture. The series – i3: ideas that inform & inspire -- is a popular offshoot of the San Miguel Literary Sala. (www.i3sma.org) They had their kick-off back in November, 2016, just one week after the Trump election. Former Mexican President Vicente Fox was their first presenter. I wish I could have been there for that.

The April 2nd speaker was Dr. Lisa Pinley Covert, an associate professor of history at the College of Charleston in South Carolina. She’s also a current Fulbright Global Scholar and an expert on Mexican history. Her book: “San Miguel de Allende: Mexicans, Foreigners and the Making of a World Heritage Site” is an excellent read.

Dr. Covert's topic for this lecture was “Finding The American Dream in Mexico.” As he outlined the various reasons why people have been coming to Mexico since the late 19th Century, I kept thinking about what’s going on right now.

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Primarily, Dr. Covert concentrated on the migration just after WWII and people striving to achieve the American Dream. The Dream was primarily available to white folks. Picture a white family of four standing outside their new home with their one car garage, waving to the camera. The image is complete once you added the nearby factory/plant, a good school and a church. Dad goes to work at the plant every day while Mom stays at home raising their two kids and baking cookies. The children play with other nice, white kids in the backyard.

Nice and tidy as it was, this image left a lot of other folks out of the picture. Gays, blacks, non-comformists and others struggled to make their way in the States. Forget about the ideal; just trying to get through the day was a problem for many. During the Cold War, there was an influx of Americans coming to Mexico to find first freedom and then the Dream.

Then, under the Counterculture umbrella, there’s a sub-set of people who had achieved the American Dream and found it lacking substance. They wanted out of the Rat Race. They were reexamining their goals and dreams. Heck, they were reassessing their lives.

My husband and I, for example, moved here last September because of finances and politics. Separately, early on, we both had achieved the American Dream. Then situations changed. Times changed: divorce, lost wages and costly health issues.

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Dr. Covert took us up to around 2000. Historically, she explained, the main reasons why people have migrated to Mexico are: 1. Economic Insecurity; 2. Political Oppression; 3. Racism; 4. Counterculture. But to these four I would add a fifth. And this fifth reason seems more dominant now in explaining who’s moving to SMA now.

Before marrying and moving to SMA I lived in Carmel, California for twenty years. There I watched homes and property being gobbled up by foreign investors. In many cases, their new home in Carmel might be their second, third or even fourth residence. Many wealthy homeowners might spend only a couple of months a year at their Carmel residence.

Today, many new residents of SMA are in a similar position. Many of the people who come to SMA and build homes and attend lectures have achieved the “American Dream” a couple of times over. They haven’t found their accomplishments lacking. They aren’t disappointed with their life choices. They’re building upon their successes.

And it isn't only wealthy Americans that are coming to San Miguel. Wealthy Canadians are coming and monied Mexicans are setting up residence in even greater numbers. There was another big push once SMA earned the UNESCO World Heritage Site designation in 2008. Being named the #1 destination city in the world created even more popularity.

With this increase in popularity, and the advent of Airbnb, rents have skyrocketed. Home and construction prices have risen tremendously. Yes, there have been benefits from all this wealth entering San Miguel. There have been economic benefits to the local community. But many Mexicans have been priced-out. They have gone to live in small communities on the outskirts of SMA or in Queretaro or Dolores Hidalgo where the cost of living is much lower. Many of these workers now commute. They take buses into the city to do their jobs.

Then, of course, there are other downsides. Think of the traffic on weekends. Think of the loss of local culture that accompanies the gentrification of El Centro.

But, money talks. Here and everywhere. And it is not only local Mexicans that are being priced-out of San Miguel. Many foreigners have been priced out of, at least, the Centro and other fashionable neighborhoods. And we've all been chased out of El Centro by weekend traffic.

There are other places in Mexico that still serve as a refuge for those escaping economic, political, racial or cultural oppression. There are still people coming to this great country to find first freedom and then their own Dream. But it is ironic and sad that the capitalist juggernaut has arrived in our little hamlet, transforming its once bohemian beauty into someone else's dream.

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Pam Walters is a new resident of San Miguel de Allende. Her poetry and prose have been published in The Southampton Review, Chicago Literati, Switchback, Cutthroat, Cutbank literary reviews and Round-Up Writer's Zine. Seven of the chapters from her memoir, "I Hope Prince Charming Drinks," have been published in literary journals. She's won writing competitions for memoir and humor. Two of the chapters from her book were performed live. She recently won for non-fiction at the San Miguel International Writer's Conference. She and her husband reside in Centro.

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