They moved from the U.S. to live in Mexico but don’t call them expats; They’re immigrants

Apr 12, 2024

Immigrants Renee and Jym Varnadore walk near their beach condo in Rosarito Beach, Baja California, Mexico.

By Alexandra Villarreal

Don’t call Jym Varnadore an expat.

Yes, he and his wife, Renee Varnadore, are living abroad. But they left the United States in search of a quality of life that’s no longer in reach for them stateside. Now, the clear blue waters of Rosarito Beach are quickly becoming home.

Their condo is just the right size for two. It’s intimate but not without its luxuries, like a huge bathtub with jacuzzi jets. Then there’s their balcony, overlooking a world of ocean that bleeds into the horizon. It’s a view reserved for millionaires and billionaires in the US, but not here.

“We are immigrants. And I think it’s disingenuous to call us anything else,” Jym said. “When I decided that I wanted to move out of the US, it was eyes wide open with that word in mind. I am an immigrant.”

If the Varnadores’ life in Mexico is a choice, they say that moving away from San Diego wasn’t. Jym had been working his way through biweekly bill payments when he decided to check in on his 401(k) and social security. As he started crunching the numbers, he found that – after retirement in a matter of years – they would be able to afford either groceries or the mortgage on their condo, but not both.

Jym and Renee Varnadore, with their cat, Paz, in their condo.

His epiphany coincided with the 2016 presidential election, a political train wreck that had also been bothering Jym. But when he called Renee over to talk, the question he posed was first and foremost about financial planning.

They had two options, he told her: stay in San Diego and substantially lower their standard of living, or leave the city she had resided in for most of her life.

“We’re gonna move,” Renee said, without missing a beat.

So they started scouring the US for a new home – maybe Oregon, or northern California, or Seattle. Renee would look up real estate prices online, and often, they’d go scout especially promising locations in person. They even visited Hawaii – another place mainlanders flock to, not without controversy – and found a potential property there, but the cost ended up being much the same as their expenses in San Diego, defeating the purpose.

 

If the Varnadores’ life in Mexico is a choice, they say that moving away from San Diego wasn’t. Jym had been working his way through biweekly bill payments when he decided to check in on his 401(k) and social security. As he started crunching the numbers, he found that – after retirement in a matter of years – they would be able to afford either groceries or the mortgage on their condo, but not both.

His epiphany coincided with the 2016 presidential election, a political train wreck that had also been bothering Jym. But when he called Renee over to talk, the question he posed was first and foremost about financial planning.

They had two options, he told her: stay in San Diego and substantially lower their standard of living, or leave the city she had resided in for most of her life.

“We’re gonna move,” Renee said, without missing a beat.

So they started scouring the US for a new home – maybe Oregon, or northern California, or Seattle. Renee would look up real estate prices online, and often, they’d go scout especially promising locations in person. They even visited Hawaii – another place mainlanders flock to, not without controversy – and found a potential property there, but the cost ended up being much the same as their expenses in San Diego, defeating the purpose.

Rosarito Beach is a destination for locals and Americans living nearby, with live music, lounging and snacks.

After a great career helping people, Chuck had every intention to meet his goal of retirement before the age of 60. But on Mary’s salary alone, in an economy that doesn’t value education as much as other professions, they couldn’t realistically continue thriving in the community they called home, where she had served so many other families as an English teacher and principal.

“That I can’t continue living there – having worked my entire life and worked hard – that to me is just like, something’s wrong. Something’s really wrong,” Mary said.

“I feel incredibly blessed and fortunate to be living here,” she said of her life in Mexico. “I love living here. So it’s not that,” she quickly clarified. But “every now and then I get in touch with some anger … We had a beautiful home up there, and we had a beautiful life there. And why that couldn’t continue?”

Similarly, Renee taught English and drama to middle schoolers and high schoolers in California for more than a decade. Jym, meanwhile, comes from a military family and spent years in intelligence for the navy, working in the informational nerve center of a ship.

You can take the boy out of the navy, but you can’t take the navy out of the boy, as Jym says. So when, during tours of Mexican real estate, he walked into a unit where he could see the vastness of the ocean through a floor-to-ceiling glass wall – in a huge apartment with a price tag far below what they were paying for their condo in San Diego – he turned to Renee and told her he was ready to sign a lease.

“I love it, I live for it. People write songs about this stuff, you know? ‘The sea’s in my veins. My tradition remains.’ It’s true. It’s true,” Jym said.

For Renee, the decision to move to Rosarito Beach wasn’t so easy. She didn’t have particularly fond memories of Mexico, a country that for her was defined by a family vacation gone awry and uncomfortable drives to Tijuana as a teenager for orthodontics. Plus, the look and feel of Rosarito bothered her – rusted-out houses on the brink of collapse, juxtaposed right next to luxury high-rises where many of the expats lived.

But then, Renee started to connect with Rosarito’s more humane approach to – among other issues – homelessness. There, unhoused people’s possessions were not trashed and disrespected in the kinds of police sweeps that often defined life on the streets in San Diego, and meanwhile, Baja California was jam-packed with community-based organizations doing good, which she learned from reading the region’s English-language newspapers like the Gringo Gazette.

Renee Varnadore buys locally, learns Spanish and engages with the people who live outside their beach condo area.

Once the Varnadores made up their minds, it took about two weeks for them to fix up their home in San Diego, and another week to get six offers on it. When they had a garage sale to get rid of much of their stuff, Renee cried.

But, about six months into living by the ocean in Mexico, walking on the beach every day and feeling the waves come in, something had changed inside her.

“I started healing, not only physically, but emotionally and spiritually,” Renee said.

On the drive to the San Ysidro land port of entry that cuts between Tijuana and southern California, English-language billboards advertise beachfront properties and luxury condos. “Own the dream in Baja,” reads one, adorned with an idyllic image of a home by the ocean.

“Starting at 347 K,” reads another, promising opulence for less in Rosarito Beach.

It’s not hard to conceive of the signs’ target audience: middle-class Americans, drawn to Baja for a holiday, now on their way back to the US and dreading it. The billboards vocalize what many of these vacationers have probably been quietly imagining since they arrived: a new American dream, here in Mexico. Property ownership. A place to go for weekends, and maybe even to eventually retire. Pura vida.

“It’s great to think about it and talk about it, but doing it is a different story. ’Cause you’re actually really doing it. You’re moving to another country. You’re leaving a country that you were born and raised in, and you have friends and family,” said Chuck Contreras.

“It’s gonna be tough. It’s gonna be hard. It’s gonna be scary,” he continued. “But most things that are worth it, you know, are hard.”

There’s been much ado – now, and for the last century plus – about northbound migration across the Mexico-US border. Meanwhile, traffic in the other direction has flown comparatively under the radar. But it’s always been there, in a history that often says just as much about the shortcomings of the US as it does about the appeal of other countries.

Before the civil war, people fled enslavement in the US to Mexico. After the second world war, American veterans moved there in search of a “GI paradise”. And during the cold war, political types stateside went south as a red scare “exile” to evade persecution under McCarthyism.

Often, though, Americans have simply turned to their southern neighbor to live better and more cheaply while staying relatively close to the US – to get ocean views for a fraction of the price, and still be able to visit family across the border on weekends. Especially post-pandemic, as remote work has surged, younger US professionals have descended on popular metros like Mexico City in such droves that they’ve at times clashed with locals, some of whom view these newcomers as gentrifiers taking advantage of Mexico’s lower cost of living to party away their youth.

Whatever the motivations, when US citizens move to Mexico, they are crossing an international line, a choice that brings with it not only culture shocks, but also serious legal obligations. The Varnadores and the Contrerases were both careful to follow Mexico’s immigration laws, but the process wasn’t easy. Jym described hoop after administrative hoop he and Renee had to jump through to build their lives aboveboard in Rosarito Beach – consular appointments, photos, paperwork, fingerprinting. One of the toughest, or even insurmountable, hurdles for many applicants are high financial requirements to show “economic solvency”, demonstrated through bank statements, investment reports or other records.

For Americans moving to Baja because it’s where they can afford a roof over their heads – who are renting apartments for $300 or less – those economic thresholds can be untenable. So instead, Renee said, people come in on tourist visas and overstay, much like the US’s own undocumented community.

Then, there are Americans with the means and qualifications to immigrate legally, who simply don’t want to follow the process – a particular pet peeve for Mary.

“I have a real issue with people who live here – and some of our friends who have been here longer than us – who don’t have permanent residency,” she said. “To me, you know, how dare you talk to me about immigration, or any issues with immigration, if you’re not gonna do what the country you’re in requires you to do.

“You don’t have a voice then. You know, and don’t talk about it [immigration] about the United States, either.”

She and Chuck felt strongly about doing everything the law required, from following immigration rules to getting local car insurance and healthcare. They’ve also bought two “memberships” at a funeral home, the ultimate permanent residence.

“We want to make this our home,” Mary said. “Truly, our home. We’re not visiting. We’re living here. And we want to be a part of the community.”

For Día de los Muertos, the Mexican holiday to commemorate the dead, Jym and Renee install an altar at their home. They decorate it with photos of the loved ones they’ve lost, surrounded by beautiful ephemera like marigolds and candles.

Some of the honorees, including Jym’s mother, have been up there for a long time. Others, like Renee’s mom, are more recent additions.

One is their pet cat that crossed the border with them years ago, whose photo and ashes they place alongside a dish of water and some food. The food is gone by morning. Was it their other, living cats who ate it? Maybe so, but the Varnadores like to think otherwise.

“This holiday makes sense to us,” Jym said. They and the Contrerases embrace Mexican traditions, do their best to learn Spanish, find ways to give back to the local community and are acutely aware of not imposing US norms on to Mexico.

In essence, they try.

Admittedly, Mary has learned some hard lessons after misguided steps or language-related miscommunications during community work. Now, she has conversations with non-profits and the people who lead them about how to make a positive difference alongside their Mexican neighbors.

“The thing that I think we have to be sensitive to and aware of is that we’re not doing it at them, but with them,” she said. “Involving them and asking what is it they need and want from us, you know, rather than coming in and looking like the Americans who know it all and can fix things and make it, you know, everything better. It does not work, and it’s not appropriate or right.”

That’s not to say that Americans in Baja don’t still celebrate their culture from home. They do, just like diasporic communities in the US. It just may look a little different.

Around Thanksgiving, the Contrerases had decked out their dining table with gourds, flowers and a big “thankful” centerpiece. Their neighbors and friends were coming over for Friendsgiving – a celebration their son had started with them while he was in college – and their table was laid with themed napkins and cups.

But instead of turkey, they’d be eating Chuck’s tacos. “He makes utterly incredible tacos,” Mary gushed.

The Contrerases’ home is filled with little mantras: a hanging scroll that reads “In a world where you can be anything, be kind!” and a stone that simply says “gratitude”, next to a rendering of the Virgen de Guadalupe.

Yet the words that ring most meaningful are stitched on a pillow, simple and even a little basic but somehow also profound: “I love this place.”
_________________

Credit: The Guardian

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