Bluehair Woodstock

Welcome to America's Mazatlan

"I don't understand why more people don't speak English here," says Jayne, who speaks no Spanish, although his wife recently bought a computer program that she hopes will familiarize her with the native tongue. "I just think that speaking English would make life so much easier for the Mexicans and their children. You know, it's the most important language in the world."

*   *   *

Bells herald morning Mass from the worn towers of Templo de San Jose, the oldest church in Mazatlán, but most of the locals were awakened a couple of hours earlier by crowing roosters and barking dogs. Amid the narrow streets and colonial architecture of the central city, days have begun much the same way for more than two centuries.

If the bells and roosters and dogs aren't enough of a jump-start, however, these days you can order a double espresso or a mocha through the ornate iron bars of one of those 200-year-old crumbling colonials.

Other architectural gems are being converted into bed-and-breakfasts, gift shops, restaurants, bars—and homes for middle-aged Americans who are cashing out on their houses in the States, using about a quarter of the money to rehabilitate one of these old classics and living off the rest while waiting for their retirement to kick in.

"[Mazatlán's] Old Town is rapidly becoming yuppified," confirms Culbertson, the realtor, who acknowledges mixed feelings—concern over such a demographic shift in the city's historic center and appreciation for the commissions it brings him. "In pure numbers, El Cid and the other modern neighborhoods have the most Americans. But as a percentage, I think Old Town has the largest concentration, and it's all happened in the last five years."

It's tough to judge the number of Americans living among the 500,000 residents of greater Mazatlán. There are about 5,000 registered with the U.S. Consulate, but office chief Fletcher acknowledges that there are many more—and emphasizes that they aren't all retirees and speculators.

"I started out waitressing in a bar when I arrived in the '80s," she says with a laugh. "Lots of people don't register because they don't want Big Brother watching. A lot are running away from something—alimony, bail, whatever. Also, as social services in the U.S. have been reduced, we get a lot more Americans who are homeless, mentally ill, addicted to alcohol or drugs. They rely on the social services here."

Reactions among old-time expatriates to the influx of their countrymen is often negative, particularly in places like the centro historicó, which until recently was a refuge from Americanization.

"I know it's somewhat hypocritical," says a former Long Beach high school teacher who spoke on the condition of anonymity—Big Brother, you know. He floated into Mazatlán several years ago to restock his sailboat and fell in love with an apartment in Old Town. "But what's happening now makes me want to throw up." He just moved out of that apartment to rent a room on the outskirts of the city.

"I came to Mexico," he says, "to live in Mexico."

*   *   *

An hour's drive into the hills above Mazatlán, in the tiny 441-year-old mining town of Copala, 72-year-old Daniel Garrison is sitting on the porch of the grand, rustic hacienda he built half his life ago—back when he left Orange County to take his widowed mother back to the pueblo where his grandmother was born.

In the 1960s, Garrison drilled wells in the Bolsa Chica oil fields. Over the past 36 years, he has become fluent in Spanish, married a couple of Mexican women, and built and operated Copala's biggest restaurant and rooming house. Retired now, he takes morning moseys through narrow cobblestone streets where little boys ride burros and a magnificently decaying church tower presides over a picturesque town square.

One look at the restful ease that Garrison has found in the land of his ancestors, and you deeply understand what people mean when they use terms like "coming full circle" or "goddamn lucky bastard."

Of course, people don't know what the hell they're talking about.

"People come up here for a little visit, and they think they could live here forever," Garrison says, shaking his head derisively. "They wouldn't be good for more than a couple of weeks. They couldn't hack it. There's nothing to do. I can hack it because I watch TV."

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