Janet Blaser feels it the minute she lands in an American airport. It’s like a discordant, all-enveloping buzz, a palpable tension in the air, a crackling, anxious energy. Like the constant hum of an air conditioner, it’s always there, everywhere.
Call it the vibe of living in the U.S.A.
“You get used to it if you’re living here,” Blaser says, sitting at a café table in the Santa Cruz sunshine. “But when you’re not living like that every day, it’s weird, very weird.”
Blaser was born in the U.S. and lived here most of her life. For close to 20 years, she was a writer, editor and community activist in Santa Cruz.
But in 2006, on the verge of turning 50, she left Santa Cruz and moved to Mazatlán, Mexico, alone and knowing no one. On the trip south in her packed-to-the-gills Toyota Echo, she cried herself to sleep in roadside hotel rooms, consumed with worry that she was making a disastrously wrong decision.
More than a dozen years later, she’s still in Mexico, happier than she has ever been. “I can’t imagine ever living in the U.S. again,” she says.
That line comes from the introduction of Blaser’s new book Why We Left: An Anthology of American Women Expats. It is also the dominant theme across the series of testimonials from 27 American women about their decision to take a one-way trip to Mexico.
The book features women from wildly different backgrounds, and different parts of the U.S., but their stories strike similar chords: the differences between life in the U.S. and life in Mexico are stark and transformative; many of the oppressive stresses of American life are absent, even if they are replaced by uniquely Mexican problems; the deprivations of living outside the U.S. are compensated by unexpected bounties; and, to quote cancer survivor Joanna Karlinsky, another writer in the collection, “I have no interest in going back to America. I left so I could recover, get back my lost energy and find myself again. And I have.”
Why We Left articulates and makes real a common fantasy of many Americans, particularly those struggling to maintain a decent life among shifting economic realities or distressed by ugly and ruthless political developments: Can you find the American Dream by leaving America?
Blaser was a prominent and well-connected personality around Santa Cruz in the 1990s and into the 2000s, as a food columnist and feature writer for the Santa Cruz Sentinel and contributor to Good Times, as well as a representative of the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk and manager of the downtown Santa Cruz farmer’s market.
In the mid 2000s, she found herself at an uncomfortable pivot point in her life. She was approaching 50. Her three children were grown, and she was feeling the pinch from the stresses of maintaining a career in journalism—a field that was shedding jobs—while dealing with the ever-increasing cost of living in Santa Cruz. She didn’t want to leave, but staying was becoming untenable. She was mulling making a move, maybe somewhere in inland California.
All this was on her mind when she took a long-planned vacation to Mazatlán, Mexico, a place she’d never been before. On her third day there, she visited the city’s historic Plaza Machado, a leafy and colorful downtown center that dates back to the early 19th century. Seeing the plaza was her first epiphany moment; she couldn’t escape a feeling of elation and enchantment.
“It was like coming home,” she says now.
The second epiphany came soon after, when she learned that there was no reliable English-language source of information about Mazatlán attractions and businesses for tourists, expats and seasonal “snowbirds.” What if she started a monthly magazine celebrating all things Mazatlán for an English-speaking audience?
“That’s when it went, ‘Ding! I know how to do this,’” Blaser says.
She returned to the U.S. with a crazy new plan to start over in Mazatlán. But leaving Santa Cruz—particularly her three adult children, Spike, Vrinda and Dennis—was more emotionally difficult than she had anticipated. The four-day drive from California through the Sonoran Desert to Mazatlán proved to be an ordeal of self-doubt and unpleasant surprises. She had two cell phones, neither of which worked. Any confidence gained from a year of learning Spanish evaporated pretty quickly in the Mexican sun.
The days turned to weeks, the weeks to months. The struggle was intense and the culture shock was profound. But eventually, Blaser found her footing, and even became grateful for the struggle. Her magazine idea took off and, as editor of M!, she assumed a central role in Mazatlan’s culture, a valuable link between the expat community and the locals.
“It’s definitely home now,” she says of Mexico, during a recent visit to Santa Cruz. “It’s a simple life. There’s something wonderful about constantly being humbled. I mean, I say I speak Spanish, but I’m not great at it. I speak like a cave person. Sometimes I think, ‘Jeez, I’m 63 years old and I can’t order a sandwich.’ But I think there is something really refreshing to the soul about that.”
Blaser’s story of moving to Mexico is included in her new book, but she didn’t want to focus primarily on her own experience. Instead, she wanted to collect other stories of American-born women who have emigrated.
“There are many ‘My Mexico Experience’ memoirs out there,” she says, “One person’s story wasn’t enough. For me, it was the breadth of experiences which was interesting and exciting.”
She drew from fellow expats whom she had met, but she also solicited submissions from the various Facebook groups of expats all over Mexico, which she estimates reach about 300,000 people. What she ended up with was more than two dozen essays, each a personally revealing account of what went into a life-altering decision.
The portraits that emerge of different regions of Mexico are often compelling and vivid. “I eat freshly cubed mango from the corner fruit vendor for less than a dollar,” says former South Carolinian Nova Grahl, who now lives in Guadalajara. “I hear the screeching of green parrots flying overhead.”
Former Florida resident Judy Whitaker now lives in El Golfo de Santa Clara at the very northern end of the Gulf of California. She regularly eats fish “fresh from the ocean, before it ever hits the fridge.” Of her life in Mexico, she writes, “Stress is a word not in my vocabulary.”
Almost all of the essays are careful not to paint Mexico as some sort of paradise. The drawbacks are plentiful: diffident bureaucrats, corrupt cops, scary insects, dangerous drinking water, having to do without such luxuries as gourmet dark chocolate and California wine. Many have a hard time adjusting to seeing a breadth of poverty unusual in the U.S.
The stories in the new book operate from two seismic sociological assumptions, ideas that some Americans would openly resist or deny. The first is that whatever benefits, rewards and perks come with living as a citizen of the mighty United States of America, they might just come at too high a price for our mental and physical health, and to our sense of purpose and well-being. The second assertion is that Mexico, though not without its problems, is a nation of grace and beauty in which millions live abundant and fulfilling lives, many of those American expats. It’s a country, the book contends, that many Americans, perhaps influenced by inflammatory political rhetoric coming primarily from the White House, have gotten way wrong.
According to State Department statistics, there are about 9 million American citizens living as full-time residents in countries outside the U.S., and an estimated 1 million of those are in Mexico. Many Americans who have “permanent residence” status or otherwise live mostly in Mexico come with preconceived notions earned from a lifetime north of the border.
California-born Norma Schafer, who worked in academia in North Carolina, moved to Mexico in 2005 at the age of 58. She was drawn to Oaxaca by its distinctive textiles and natural dyes. But she first came to the region hampered by stereotypes that Mexico was primitive, its people were simple, that poverty, filth and crime were daily facts of life. In her experience, none of that turned out to be true.
“This place is very much like it used to be in rural America, when most people lived on farms, where people still work in small family enterprises,” says Schafer by Skype from her home in small village a few miles east of the city of Oaxaca. “I feel a huge sense of honor to be living in a traditional Zapotec village of 10,000 people who have been here for 8,000 years. I mean, these people discovered corn! Corn was first hybridized right up the road from where I live.”
Schafer still maintains a residence in the U.S. that allows her to vote and stay involved in the affairs of her native country. She says that she is baffled by some of the attitudes Americans have about Mexico. Recently, she hosted a small group of undergraduates from North Carolina State University to her sleepy, artistically inclined rural village. “Most of them said that their parents didn’t want them to come, that they had to beg their parents to let them come,” she says. “The one faculty member that was with them had to do a complete evacuation itinerary at every point of contact on the ground in case there was an emergency and the kids needed to get out.”
“Quite frankly, I feel much safer here,” says Susie Morgan Lellero, another contributor to Why We Left. Lellero first moved to Mazatlán in 1996 and stayed only for a few years. The isolation of that pre-Facebook, pre-Vonage age was too much for her and she left, only to return less than a decade later, this time to stay.
“It was the best, worst, hardest, most fun, most grueling time of my life,” she says via Skype of her first stint in Mazatlán. At 63, she’s semi-retired now, makes bagels for a small deli in her neighborhood and rides a Yamaha V-star motorcycle.
“In the U.S., I was basically going through the motions. But here, especially for a single girl, you have to be a scrapper. You do,” Morgan Lellero says. “Even now, it’s scary and lonely sometimes. But I’m a different person in the sense that I’m cognizant of the joys of living every day, seeing a green parrot fly by my window or finding a pineapple (plant) in my backyard.”
In collecting the stories of expat women in the book, Blaser thought she would run into a strong vein of political anti-American exhaustion or disappointment. “I had anticipated that there would be more women who would say, ‘Oh, when Trump was elected, that was it. I’m outta here,’ or had some other complaints about America. But that was really not the case.”
Many of the contributors instead talk about the seductions of Mexico, both culturally and environmentally, and certain priorities about the value of living. “It was like I was given the gift of new eyes,” is how writer Nova Grahl put it. Contributor Lina Weissman wrote of “a sense of wonder, of challenge, of peace.” Others talk of an elemental lifestyle that by comparison casts a bad light on the pressures of living in the U.S. “What we don’t do here,” writes contributor Virginia Saunders, “is sit in traffic, worry about how we’ll afford health insurance, or dread Mondays.”
Many of the essays delve into the financial benefits of moving to Mexico, and several claim to live comfortably on little more than Social Security benefits. “Here you can live for about $1,000 a month and live well enough,” said Norma Schafer. “But I’m of the belief that that should not be the first reason you choose to live in Mexico. The first reason should be the love of the art, the history, the architecture, the culture, the food. There are so many rich traditions here than Americans have no idea about.”
Now in her seventies, Schafer still travels across Mexico alone. “I’m trying to see more of the world before I can’t walk anymore.” (Schafer has a sister, Barbara Beerstein, who lives in Santa Cruz County and, ironically enough, she also has a burial plot in Santa Cruz.)
Many contributors in Why We Left make a point to declare their commitment to living in Mexico. Morgan Lellero, for example, is anything but ambivalent when it comes to the idea of coming back. “I pray to God,” she says, “that I never have to return to the United States. That would be a really sad day.”
For a significant part of the American electorate, suspicion or even open hostility to Mexicans in the United States has become a norm. For many of the contributors to Why We Left, the opposite is the case in Mexico for native-born Americans.
“It’s my experience that neighbors are very welcoming,” says Blaser of her expat status in her adopted country. “They are curious about us. They’ve been told that America is the Land of Milk and Honey, and they wonder, ‘Why would you ever want to leave that?’”