There's a familiar feel to the going-nowhere streets of El Cid, which meander through fine homes and a private golf course like a wise old property developer doodling a dollar sign. The shiny cars parked in the driveways—many of them hung with plates from California, Minnesota, Washington, Arizona and Texas—suggest that this could be Any Gated Community, USA.
That's kind of the idea, although El Cid lies more than 1,000 miles south of the United States border in the Mexican coastal resort city of Mazatln. It's the most secure and prestigious of several local neighborhoods—with names like El Dorado, Gaviotas and Sabalo Country—where a growing number of Americans have transplanted themselves to multiply the power of their dollars and enhance the luxury of their retirement dreams.
How secure is El Cid? It's the neighborhood of choice for the U.S. government when it buys homes for U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency personnel stationed in the crucial drug-trafficking state of Sinaloa. How prestigious? The mark of success for a Sinaloan drug trafficker is a home in El Cid.
For some American expatriates, whose financial security may have been jeopardized by poor personal planning, the broken pension promises of their employer and an indifferent government, moving to Mexico not only rescues their retirement but adds the romance and adventure of living in a foreign country.
"Well, that's what a lot of them like to say," offers Patty Fletcher, a resident of El Cid who also heads the U.S. Consulate office in Mazatln. "But the reality is that most Americans who come to live in Mexico just want more bang for their buck—and they want things to be like the States. They end up re-creating their culture here."
Most of them congregate in neighborhoods where English becomes the dominant language and American holidays and traditions are openly observed. Few learn to speak more than scattered phrases of Spanish or go out of their way to make local friends. There's a lot of complaining about customs and conditions they don't understand or just don't like—the music, driving habits, the sewer system, street and beach vendors, on-the-take traffic cops, poor people seeking a few pesos for washing car windows or performing acrobatic stunts at stoplights, children bagging groceries, and old men directing parking-lot traffic for spare change. Otherwise, the focus of most American immigrants is on the news and people they left back home.
"American immigrants in Mexico tend to behave exactly the same way as Mexican immigrants are characterized in the United States," observes Roger Culbertson, a real-estate agent for Mazatln Homes who went to Santa Ana Valley High in the late 1950s and has been living here for 20 years. "They come for economic reasons, they congregate in the same neighborhoods, they don't learn the language, and they hold on to their traditions."
* * *
"JOIN US FOR SUPER BOWL SUNDAY!" announces a huge, full-color banner that hangs above 25 tables surrounded by eight TVs—each of them tuned to the National Football League playoffs. "PRIZES AND FUN! THE BEST PLACE TO WATCH THE GAME!"
The Saloon is a homey watering-hole-in-the-wall for American and Canadian expatriates in Mazatln. It's scrunched among a dry cleaners, a pharmacy, an art gallery and a pizza joint in a tacky section of the so-called Golden Zone. You've got to walk up a little alley to reach the door.
"But once you get inside, this place could be any sports bar in the U.S.," says waitress Michelle Faubert, 40, who moved to Mazatln from the Pacific Northwest in August when her daughter married a Mexican. "People come here to feel more at home. It's not always totally comfortable to live in another country. We make it easier."
The Saloon hires only Mexican waiters who speak good English, and their press-pass-style name tags include guides that show how to pronounce, for example, "Martin" as "Mar-TEEN" and "Ruben" as "Ru-BEN."
Meanwhile, the football game on TV is getting exciting. People are roaring after each play. The outbursts roll down the alley and out to the street, where a wrinkled Indian woman and her daughter are selling packs of gum. It's a strange sound to the little girl, who can't stop herself from running up the alley and poking her head into the restaurant after every cheer—even though she inevitably gets embarrassed and runs back out to her mother.
"We're watching the game here because we just got into Mazatln last night and I haven't got my DirecTV dish hooked up yet," explains Jerry Jayne of Chicago, a retired IBM exec chomping peanuts with his wife, Judy. They live six months a year in Mazatln, parking their massive motor home in one of several parks that turn into bluehair versions of Woodstock. "We come because of the cost; if it were as expensive as the U.S., it wouldn't be worth the hassle. But I love the Mexican people . . . well, except for two things—they play their music too loud and they are litterbugs."
Actually, there's one more thing.
"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 Mazatln, 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.
"[Mazatln'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 Mazatln. 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 historic, 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 Mazatln 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 Mazatln, 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.
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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."