The unspoken rule when becoming an expat:
Before entering, observe the ecosystem you intend to enter. Then once you do, do so gently. Try to make a soft wake.
It’s (hopefully) common knowledge that this means respecting the culture, learning the customs. It means, whether or not you’re capable of picking up a new language, at least attempting to use the local dialect in day-to-day interactions — even if it’s with a translator app. But what does this rule mean from an economic standpoint?
I’ve been living in Mexico part-time for a few years now, since the end of 2019. In turn, I’ve witnessed the most recent, dramatic rise in expat presence — specifically American expats, like myself — to hit Mexico City beginning fall 2020/spring 2021. It was a perfect storm. To counter the economic impact of their Covid shut-down, Mexico continued to freely accept the American passport, even while most other destinations were rejecting it. Suddenly, more US travelers than ever before — some who may not have otherwise considered Mexico — were introduced to the beauty and quality of life the country has to offer. Combine that with the rise of remote work, historic inflation and a full-blown housing crisis in the US, you get what you see today: a country inundated with expats, navigating the pros and cons of such an influx. Most notably, the economic pros and cons.
There’s no way to soften it. The prices have gone up. And, understandably, there seems to be a rise in anti-American sentiment to match — at least in Mexico City. Of course the expat uptick is not single-handedly responsible for the shift. For instance, multiple interviewees for this piece — particularly those working in local politics and finance — cited expat scapegoating being used to deflect attention away from some of the other factors, and encouraged taking the resentment with a grain of salt. But scapegoating or not, it’s undeniable the rise in expat presence is playing a key role in the recent shift in economic landscape. And the intense focus it’s garnered has pushed me to take a closer look at my presence here. It’s led me to ask: If I’m going to be here, how can I increase the positive impact of my presence, while mitigating its negative? How can I bring consciousness to my expatriatism?
Of course, some might argue there is no such thing as conscious expatriatism, at least not right now. Then others might call that an overcorrection. It’s nuanced, and each person’s individual experience — their conditionings, privileges, needs, compassions — will lend itself to a unique perspective on where the sweet-spot lies. That said, I understand everyone has their reasons for being where they are, living where they do, and I won’t be so presumptuous as to question the legitimacy of those reasons. With a compassionate lens, what I intend to explore is not whether expatriatism should or should not be. Nor is it how much of the current market shift is attributable to the rise in tourism, vs. local economic policy, generalized inflation, etc. The question is:
If expatriatism is going to be a given, how can it be optimized? Both in general, but especially, economically. What does it mean to be a conscious expat?
And this isn’t a rhetorical musing, or something I’m going to definitively answer for you — I’m genuinely asking. In fact, I have been asking. For some time now. Asking Mexican-born locals from varied walks of life, distinguished in their respective fields. From the financial and political sectors. The Mexican middle and upper-class. Small business owners, who both operate and reside in the most impacted neighborhoods. I’m going to compile what I’ve gleaned from those conversations here, throwing a few ideas of my own into the ring, maybe even incorporating insightful responses from the comments section as they come in.
The goal is to come away with an actionable list — geared towards the expats, informed by the locals. We can’t single handedly change the tide of a river, but we can self-govern, bring mindfulness to our own actions, the intentions behind them and their impacts. So let’s discuss, shall we?
From the conversations I’ve been having, high level, across the board, the common sentiment seems to be this — a great deal of the harmful economic effects of expatriatism can be curbed by simply educating oneself on local prices. To be clear, this is not for the sake of protecting against price-gouging, but rather to protect against destabilizing an already delicate market. Of course it’s impossible to separate the two — they are intrinsically tied — but let’s at least attempt to tease them apart, focus on community over personal impact.
HOUSING / REAL-ESTATE
Let’s start with the housing market, and for sake of scope, let’s set aside the decimation Airbnb has done to markets around the world and focus on leased properties. Currently, the cost of rent in CDMX is higher than it’s ever been, particularly in the neighborhoods most desired by expats. Obviously, concern over this is being voiced by renters, not landlords. That said, let’s see if there’s not room for improvement in how expats navigate the housing market.
I’m no economist, but I do understand a shift in supply and demand, combined with inflation is going to boost the cost of housing. However, even taking that into account, there’s something else going on. It seems a lot of people moving to town have just… no idea what the market-rate is down here. They’re coming in with budgets that may indeed be discounted according to, say, New York City standards, but are still pretty over-inflated for the CDMX market.
At the same time, there’s a mirroring trend in apartment listings. Though majority fall into the appropriate range according to the newly inflated market, I’m seeing outliers, apartments listed way over market-value. And I don’t blame them. Because somebody’s going to come in, having done zero research, see it as a discount compared to what they’re used to paying, and they’re going to take it. I’m not suggesting it’s wrong to utilize your $2500 — 3000+ USD budget. I’m simply inviting you to consider whether the apartment you’re taking appropriately reflects the cost. An apartment in that price-range in Mexico City should be *premium*, not a mid-range property that would otherwise go to someone working with a local budget.
Now, I understand the argument that “overpaying” is still pumping money into the local economy, that the extra money in landlords’ pockets will still be spread across the community. But uneducated renters erratically inflate an already swollen market, and the consequence is that locals are being rapidly priced out of their own community. Short of “simply not being here and not taking housing,” what does conscious expatriotism look like when finding housing? Does that look like educating ourselves on current market standards — i.e. not the standards of a year+ ago — and being mindful not to take “overpriced” apartments? Could it mean having a local friend rate-check the listing before signing the lease? Or is it better to pour into the economy by taking apartments at any rate we can afford, paying less mind to market standards and letting it trickle out accordingly?
What’s more, one person I spoke to lamented how expats are upending the cultural norm of negotiating. She said that, traditionally, rental prices are listed as a starting point for negotiations, set with the expectation of coming down quite a bit. Expats seem to be bypassing this completely, even taking the uncustomary approach of offering more than asking-price. She told me how her friends’ landlord just came to them, mid-lease, demanding they start paying more because he’d received offers over double the current rent. A squeeze. Granted, this is a specific example, influenced by the personalities and pressures of the players involved. Plus, not all rent increases are purely opportunistic . Don’t get me wrong, some very much are, but others are repriced only to make up for landlords’ own increased cost of living, more in line with natural inflation driven by supply + demand. Nonetheless, this story begins to paint a picture of expat-impact when we show up without educating ourselves.
Another local friend who works in the financial sector proposed that expats don’t buy investment properties here. That’s not to say don’t buy property — if we are living in it ourselves, building a life here, that’s one thing. But maybe don’t squeeze the investment opportunities out of a city if we are only passing through. Maybe save that for locals and expats-turned-immigrants, if you will. Look at what happened in New York City in the mid-late 2010s, with foreign investors parking funds in properties which were left to sit empty, subsequently skewing supply + demand without any of the benefit that comes from community participation… Could conscious expatriatism mean, at the very least, taking pause before jumping into financial opportunity? Considering if it is the most appropriate move, or simply the most advantageous?
INTEGRATING WITH HUMILITY
Mexico City has long been an expat-friendly community. But as expats come in higher volumes, I’ve noticed some tend to travel in packs. I’m not going to condemn what makes someone comfortable — I’ve certainly experienced moments of feeling alienated, homesick, and we all need to prioritize our mental health. That said, there’s universal benefit when we set the intention to integrate socially, diversify our circle.
When I think of American expats moving as a unit, I see a swarm of bees, moving from spot to spot, sucking the resources and authenticity from each place as they go. This is, I’ll admit, a particularly disparaging image, so take it with a grain of salt. But one or two bees moving gently through the landscape will not have the same impact as the whole hive.
A local friend spoke to me about the difference between being a “tourist” and a “traveler.” The tourist, she says, visits the recommended spots with their existing friends. The traveler goes out alone, without the social-armor of headphones or a book, open to meeting new people, different people than they’d be able to spend time with at home. The tourist shops at the commercial grocery stores. The traveler goes to the market — what she considers to be the most rich micro-expression of the macro. At the market, she says, you get a true feel for the country’s ecosystem — economically, socially, culturally — at the most foundational level. The tourist seeks to experience the land for their own amusement. The traveler seeks to understand the land; commune with it.
The flip side of this argument is that we should be mindful not to view locals as social-capital. I’ve sensed that here and there, the inauthenticity of it, and it’s not the vibe. There’s a balance, one that is not prescribable. Instead, the idea is to examine the intentions behind our social movements, bring a higher level of self-awareness into the equation.
If we do form relationships with people who grew up here, that same friend proposed taking advantage of the opportunity it provides to have transparent, thoughtful conversations about cultural and fiscal differences. Making a soft wake economically begins with learning the nuances of that economy. This means knowing the minimum wage (currently $172.87 MXN per day, roughly $8.65 USD), average salaries and budgets. If we are so fortunate as to enter another culture in a position of privilege, as many expats are, we should educate ourselves on the details of that privilege. Inversely, this means sharing openly — though still tactfully — about our ownrealities as well. The preconception that if you’re American, you’re automatically rich is alive and well; that if you’re getting paid in USD you have money and free time to blow. I know that, in reality, one does not necessarily equal the other and everyone’s situation is unique. The point is not to garner sympathy or demonstrate financial eliteness — both egoic pursuits. The point is to show up with curiosity, transparency and compassion. Seek to understand. Hopefully we will be met with the same in return.
And here’s a note from me. Not all, but many Americans traveling here simply are in a position of economic privilege. If you happen to be so lucky as to have that experience, be mindful of your comments and who you’re making them to. I understand how good it may feel to go somewhere new and experience financial comfort, perhaps for the first time ever. But the, “OMG it’s so cheap here!” or, “That’s practically free, let’s get them all,” etc… it’s, frankly, insulting to people who live here and have incomes that are proportionate to the cost of living. It’s all the more reason to have those transparent conversations. If we are indeed in a position of privilege and actually take the time to recognize it, that would (hopefully) infuse some humility and sensitivity into the way we speak about finances. I’ve certainly been guilty of this faux pas to some degree in the past, and the thought of it makes me cringe. So yeah, basically, don’t be pompous. If you are relieved of financial strain here, I’m happy for you — America can be a late-stage-capitalist-hellscape, something that is hard to fully grasp without experiencing firsthand. Just be mindful who you celebrate your escape with.
Finally, when it comes time to tag that cool local spot you’ve been introduced to, maybe take the moment to assess your intentions behind sharing, along with the impact it could have. Am I sharing from a place of ego, to be seen as “in-the-know”? Am I doing it for the likes? If I have a following that could influence attendance, would the business owner want such an influx? Would the community? There is no definitive answer here; to gate-keep or not gate-keep, promote or not promote, universally. Instead, this is simply a call to pause and examine. The answer will vary each time.
If you’re mindful about where you put the power of your dollar at home, keep that energy here. Have you been trying to filter your spending more to women or BIPOC-owned businesses? Avoiding Amazon, Home Depot, or other corporations that lobby against your rights or the rights of your neighbors? That same outlook can be applied abroad.
For instance, I’ve recently been made aware of local concern for workers’ rights, how pervasive the issue actually is here. I’m told it’s not uncommon that workers are paid less than a living wage or expected to operate in unsafe conditions. As an example, one friend shared some of the realities of the housekeeping industry — how, until the most recent expat influx, standard compensation for housekeeping was well below a living wage. Compounding the issue, as many housekeepers reside outside the area in which they work, it’s not unusual for 30% of their income to go to commuting costs. The infrastructure here is not set up the way we’re used to in some other major cities. Direct lines are few and far between, and there’s no such thing as transfers, carrying your payment from one leg of the trip to the next. This is why it’s important to have those open conversations with locals — I may not have questioned the standard otherwise. But now, if I do end up employing housekeeping, I can do so in a way that more accurately reflects my values. And so can you.
Again, we can’t single-handedly put an end to such issues, but we can attempt to educate ourselves, spending and compensating accordingly. Money talks, and where we choose to spend or not spend can speak volumes.
In everyday spending, could conscious expatriatism look like taking the time to inform ourselves on local issues? Spending more in alignment with our values and in support of the community? (Accepting suggestions in the comments on this — places to avoid or support for such reasons, and why. That said, I encourage readers to always do their own research.)
Could it mean spending off the expat-beaten-path, sending our own where the expat-dollar doesn’t usually go?
Could it mean tipping more when we have the means, knowing it’s going directly into workers’ pockets?
Does it mean contributing to charities and nonprofits that uplift local and/or underprivileged communities? An offset of sorts. (Taking callouts in the comments here too.)
Or could it mean paying less mind to price-norms, accepting the so-called “tourist-tax” as the cost of being here and feeling grateful to be able to boost the economy?
This is what I’ve gathered from my conversations so far, and I plan to continue having them. It seems that conscious expatriatism is rooted in self-awareness and self-education. It’s taking the pause to consider the intentions behind our actions, along with their potential impacts. Even more, I believe it means taking the lead from locals. We have been so graciously welcomed into this beautiful city, this country — let’s make sure to treat it with respect.
Once more, this is not a definitive or all-inclusive account. I’d love to hear your contributions to the discussion in the comments — especially if you’re a local.***
***While the opinion of, “There is no such thing as conscious expatriatism. Expats just shouldn’t be here,” is certainly valid and the holder is entitled to it, I’d like to set the boundary that this discourse is not the space for it. Let’s keep this focused on — if expatriatism is a given, how can it be executed with more mindfulness and respect? What actionable steps can be taken to increase its positive and decrease its harmful impact?