What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down."
Mending Wall, Robert Frost (1874-1963)
The United States of America does not sit in splendid isolation on the North American continent; it is sandwiched between the foreign sovereign countries of Canada and Mexico with two extravagantly long and until very recently, relatively undefended borders. 9/11 changed so much as Americans, who had felt protected by the vast oceans between their country and the rest of the world, suddenly realized that they were far more vulnerable then they ever dreamed.
Thus no one should be surprised that the United States began paying more attention to its "near abroad" in the years that followed that catastrophe and so in 2006 US lawmakers passed a bill to build a 700 mile wall on the border between the United States of America and the United States of Mexico. A very popular project in the USA; it passed the House and the Senate with comfortable majorities and was signed into law by President Bush. A wall is a powerful symbol and one's interpretation and feelings about it depend greatly on where one sits in relation to it.
As the United States government was building this wall, a large number of American citizens were either already on the other side of it in Mexico or were merrily heading past it going south. I am endlessly fascinated by how Americans and their government in the US focus entirely on the flow into the US and pay absolutely no attention whatsoever to the outbound flow (unless, of course, it is to focus on the few who go off to join terrorists groups, for example).
Just a few short years after this wall project kicked off Sheila Croucher published the results of a study she made of Americans in Mexico called The Other Side of the Fence. A lot to like in this book - she asks some very good (troubling even) questions about what she found. However, I think a few caveats are in order here first.
The study was limited to two towns in Mexico that have significant American communities. She conducted extensive interviews and spent time in these communities observing them. What she wrote was a "thick description" of them based on what she was told and what she saw. Moreover, there is not much distance between her and her subjects : she is a homeland American academic studying Americans in a different context where language and common culture are a given, not an issue. An argument could be made that she is simply exposing a kind of narcissism of small differences between these people and their compatriots on the other side of the wall. Also the strong reliance on personal interviews can be suspect because people are not necessarily honest. One could argue that she didn't spend enough time there to get a broad enough perspective. I have an extended family member living in Mexico and I did not recognize her at all in any of the portraits painted by Croucher.
Sometimes, thick description looks a lot like writing biography, a perilous undertaking with the dead, much less the living:
"..all we have to do is look and listen and to listen and to look and soon the little figures - for they are rather under life size - will begin to move and to speak, and as they move we shall arrange them in all sorts of patterns of which they were ignorant, for they thought when they were alive that they could go where they liked; and as they speak we shall read into their sayings all kinds of meaning which never struck them..." (Virginia Woolf, 1930)What saves the book is that she is aware of these things and admits to those limitations. This is not a definitive book about Americans in Mexico in the first decade of the 21st century. It's a sketch that leaves out a lot and once we have that firmly in our minds, we can look more closely at some of her arguments and the questions she asks about the meaning of this group in the larger picture of regional migration on the North American continent.
One of the most salient points she makes is that these US citizens in Mexico are significant (a high estimate says that there over 1 million of them living south of the border) and that there are commonalities between Mexicans in the US and Americans in Mexico. Both, she says, comprise the largest portion of the foreign-born in both places. Mexicans in the US in 2003 were 30% of the foreign-born in the US and US migrants in Mexico were a whopping 69% of the foreign-born population there: "In other words, while the absolutely numbers of Mexican immigrants in the United States might be higher, the relative size of Americans in Mexico may be as great, or greater."
Another commonality is that both move at least in part because of economic factors. In her analysis of push/pull factors she noted that a low cost of living in Mexico is a big "pull". They can simply live better on less with access to more affordable housing, household help, and cheaper healthcare. This is international retirement migration and these Americans are doing what many French and UK retirees are also doing - finding a place where their limited retirement dollars buy a better life. What she finds more interesting are the "push" factors - that life in the US is perceived as unaffordable for people on fixed incomes and that the social and cultural rhythms in Mexico are more attractive and fill a void that they did not know they felt until the left the US. Some of the features of US culture that they say they are relieved to have escaped are, she says: "a hurried uptightness about time, a readiness to judge others, a fixation with material consumption" and different attitudes toward family, a warmer social context and a respect for older people.
All of this is very interesting but where Croucher shines is when she raises uncomfortable questions and at times makes some very keen but unflattering observations. In a discussion about why Americans living long-term outside the US are so reluctant to call themselves "immigrants" or "migrants" she talks about race and racism. You might not like that very much and neither did I. And yet rereading an old post about these terms, note how I deftly skipped around the race issue:
People from developed nations who move to to other countries usually refer to themselves as "expatriates." People from developing nations are called "immigrants." What is the difference here other than the supposed "rank" of the country of origin? This makes me very uncomfortable because it feels like those of us from developed nations are trying to elevate ourselves and put distance between us and those who move from poorer countries in search (many claim) of economic gain..This is one we need to think long and hard about. What is the difference really between an American who comes to France to live, work and marry and someone from Tunisia who comes for the exact same purposes? Wealth is not an answer, nor is education. I know Tunisians in Paris who are far better educated and have a great deal more money then many of the Americans I know. I don't think it's coincidence that Croucher talks about this in the context of Americans in Mexico and Amanda Klekowski von Koppenfels talks about it in her book on Americans in Europe.
There are other observations in her book that I am sure will raise some hackles but I personally found the book to be a breath of fresh air. Americans abroad are people, not archangels, for heaven's sake. This book does not exactly extol our virtues but that makes it a much better read for me than someone who presents me with comfortable platitudes about all the good we do abroad, or who casts us all as villains in a morality tale about tax evasion. The terms we use and the stories we tell about ourselves should be scrutinized more thoroughly.
Are these the walls we build in our minds?