Once Upon A Time


How Expats Claim Turf in a New Country

by Beryl Gorbman
The Yucatan Yenta

Imagine an elegant, colonial Mexican city called Gongora. Gongora was in the State of Montebello, Mexico, where breezes played through the hills and there was music in the streets. Magnificent churches and cathedrals dotted the hilly, verdant metropolis. The museums showed art from all over the world, the symphony and opera offered sophisticated programs, and the population was peaceful.

Now this town had been settled initially by the DeLanda family of Spain, and so lots of things were named after them. There was the DeLanda Library, Avenida DeLanda, the elegant Teatro Francisco DeLanda, and many restaurants offering venison prepared DeLanda style, medium rare, in a rich wine and cream sauce.

All the DeLanda descendants owned sumptuous homes and controlled the businesses of Gongora, mostly minerals and precious metals mined from deep under the rich soil.

When the DeLandas had arrived in Gongora (then known as Tklingit) in 1533, they found about two hundred palm huts and a bunch of naked natives, who they named the Orozco tribe. Shocked and repelled by these primitives, the DeLandas set out to civilize the peaceful tribe. Within two years, the Orozco were thoroughly clad and all of them had jobs.

The Orozco, of course, worked for the DeLandas and the other European families who settled in Gongora. The indians slaved in the homes of the white folks and worked long days in the blazing hot fields, to plant and reap crops. They were also assigned the filthiest and most dangerous jobs in the mines.

The Orozco weren’t paid in cash, but but received grain, sugar, clothing and trinkets in return for their labors. Since the Europeans had deadly weapons that had unfortunately been used to subdue indians who attempted to speak up, and the Orozco possessed only bows and arrows, this system continued for centuries.

Nothing much changed for the next 450 years, except that the businesses became more diversified, the Orozcos wore European style clothing of their choice, and they were at last, paid in cash, just enough to survive. They were now expected to speak Spanish, wear shoes, and give up their heathen ways. And they did. Gongora became a big city, creating a wealth of abysmal jobs for the Orozcos.

The Orozcos were an outwardly peaceful people and the city appeared idyllic. Around 1970, a few northamericans started to trickle in. Mostly people without much money who realized they could make out better in Mexico than in Tampa, Edmonton, or Oswego. They bought a few of the old downtown Gongora houses, put in modern plumbing, and reveled in cheap household help and all the beer they could drink. Although they considered it annoying that so few people in Gongora spoke English, they managed somehow by forming close associations with each other.

Many of the early expats were from the southern United States and had become frustrated at the increasing difficulties of telling dark-skinned people what to do. American black people had begun to look at them in the eyes, challenge them, and in many cases throw down their mops and say, “fuck you.” This was untenable. The end of a gracious way of life.

In Gongora, there were no such problems. The foreigners perceived the genial dark-skinned Orozco as obedient, if a bit stupid and lazy, and there was no need to be polite to them.

In the mornings, the more dissolute of the northamericans would gather at various watering holes downtown to start the day with large amounts of local beer. Their cigarettes formed clouds over the outdoor restaurants. There was little rancor or animosity in these groups, just good-natured name-calling and practical jokes

Year after year, more foreigners arrived, until by about 2000, there were several thousand of them in this city of 800,000. The city of Gongora became a mecca for foreigners wanting to leave their own countries and live in a place with a lot of music, cheap servants and alcohol. As the numbers increased, the politics among the foreigners became more complex and adversarial.

In the next several years, Gongora became positively chic. Pretentious foreigners discovered the joys of creating the dream home they’d always wanted and restored some of the crumbling downtown homes abandoned by wealthy Gongorans who were moving to the suburbs, into new, clean homes.

All kinds of foreigners started moving to Gongora. Retired professionals, fugitives from the law, people who couldn’t afford to live well in northamerica, musicians, artists, wealthy people. and a great many people who said they were artists, writers, corporate executives, performers and successful entrepreneurs. It became difficult to distinguish the lies from the truth, but no one really cared. People who had never seen a violin became ardent patrons of the symphony. People who had never visited a museum attended fashionable art gallery openings.

Soon the foreigners created a distinct population within the larger city, and people began to take on roles, much as they did before they moved. There were the drunks and hangers-on, there were the would-be community leaders, and all the folks who had re-invented themselves into indispensable roles. There were con artists and thieves. There were selfless altruists. There were people looking for sexual adventure. This entire new complex society was entirely encapsulated by language limitations and the northamericans’ disinterest in local culture. The people of greater Gongora, of course, could have cared less.

The expats divided into cliques. Some enjoyed the genuine camaraderie of others. Some of them preyed on each other, following patterns they had established well before moving to Gongora. They perpetrated hoaxes, or sold each other useless properties or made unfulfilled promises to repair people’s piles of rubble for stiff upfront fees.

Some of the expats became enmeshed in power battles, trying to drive their own stakes into the new land, the new society. They competed – by throwing the most extravagant parties, decorating their homes with fixtures and furniture they hoped would be admired, providing services to other expats, supporting well-publicized causes. Some formed spouse-trading parties. Many positioned themselves as power brokers, as authorities, posturing as the elite. Nothing new really, just old patterns in a new venue.

In efforts to establish turf, people bought homes that most of them couldn’t afford in the US or Canada and they knocked out walls, added outbuildings, added stories, whatever you could do to a house. They made their mark on the city. They had real turf.

Suddenly, within a few years, hordes of expert architects, engineers, stonemasons and all kinds of housing experts sprung up as if from nowhere. Never had Gongora seen such a wealth of supposedly skilled restoration people. Home decor became a giant competitive field. The degree to which you made your house perfect was a measure of (please excuse me) how far you could pee.

And there were other diversions. Some of the retired northamerican men realized how easy it was to go wild in Gongora, and fulfill all the fantasies they had been unable to realize previously. They gleefully shopped for hookers, either male or female, and they drank more than ever. Men, gay or straight, all being men after all and following their biological imperatives, shopped for the very youngest and most nubile young partners and found them easily, for a price.

In fact, as a group, the expat men weren’t nearly as caught up in the turf battles as the women. Perhaps they took the edge off with their recreational activities or maybe they had worked hard all their lives, knew that retirement was essentially the end of the road, and were able to accept it with more grace. And their homes offered unending possibilities to drastically and physically change their surroundings. They came up with ideas about how to keep the humidity from eating the walls, how to build irrigation systems, how to make the paint stick, presenting all of these concepts with the authority of educated northamericans. All the solutions failed.

Some of the expats were sure they were being cheated (and sometimes they were) so they short-changed their household help and construction crews. After a few years, expats attained an unfortunate reputation in the local community.

Certain expats, to their credit, took it upon themselves to try to give back to the community. They helped out organizations and individuals. They bought medication for dying old parents of their servants. They gave them extra food to take home. They even ventured carefully out of their comfort zones and had English conversations with local students in their schools. Some taught village women how to make unattractive non-native objects to try and sell to foreigners. They saved pitifully starved and diseased dogs from the streets.

Around 1990, the women expats of Gongora formed a Club to help each other adjust to this new land and to do some good in the communities. The Club did indeed find ways to help. They implemented a scholarship program to help local girls get through college, and as education is the key to getting out of the poverty cycle, it was the best thing they could have done. They still do it today.

The Club was a mecca for bewildered foreign women who had just arrived and wanted to make English-speaking connections. The intentions of the Club were stellar and although there was some jockeying for position within the leadership, it all worked out.

Until recently, that is, when all-out war broke out in the Club. The war was a case study of people vying for power. These were transplanted people who had left all the accoutrements of their lives, moved to a strange place, and were desperately trying to reclaim some of the power they had before moving. Since most of them didn’t speak Spanish, they had only each other to bicker and argue with.

The Club had interpersonal problems so severe, that the regular order of business pretty much stopped. The big problem, believe it or not, had to do with the bylaws of the organization. The problem wasn’t so much with the bylaws themselves, but who controlled them. The bylaws review committe worked over the old bylaws and wanted to put the new material to a vote, but the leadership of the Club didn’t want the membership to vote.

What happened here? How did a large group of northamerican women, who taken individually, were pretty nice people, get into this bitter polemic over something so unimportant? Was it symptomatic of a more general issue in this expat community?

What happens to groups of Americans and Canadians when they transplant themselves into a foreign environment, essentially creating their own small town within a city?

People need to scratch out their positions in the world. After living most of their lifetimes in northamerica, and having attained certain positions of power in their jobs, it was hard to move somewhere new and start over.

For decades, we’ve heard jokes about men in retirement feeling useless and driving their wives crazy with their confusions about their new roles, but as times change, the same thing has become true of women.

But women, having clawed away at the glass ceiling all their lives, or having worked themselves to a frazzle to support children on wages lower than men’s, have come out with their claws still bared. A lot of them aren’t fulfilled by standing around the kitchen. They have gotten used to a level of power they are unwilling to give up. They think they want to retire, but they are so conditioned to the battle, the spirit of retirement eludes them.

Retiring wasn’t as much fun as they thought. They look for new venues to establish their positions, and because the foreigners of Gongora were basically a small expat town, the opportunities were limited. They tried to be useful in the community, they organized parties, they dabbled in the arts, they visited the US a lot. But it wasn’t enough.

The bitter fights for power manifested themselves in the Gongora Club around issues like organizational bylaws or scholarship budgets, but the level of fury was disproportionate to the issues.

Perhaps versions of this occur in other expat communities around the world. Perhaps anywhere you drop a population of northamericans with nothing much to do, they form opposing cliques and hate each other. Sort of like high school.

One American group, comprised solely of foreigners, took it upon themselves to “advise” the local government on how to improve certain City processes in Gongora. They were politely marginalized.

Competitions for power in Gongora sprung up in nearly every organization where northamericans were involved. Self-help groups started in about 1992. Pretty soon, there were folks who considered themselves the absolute authorities on everything. This was their power base, dammit, and nothing could change that. This attitude discouraged new memberships.

Earlier this year in Gongora, a lot of foreigners were taken in by a false charity that collected a lot of money, supposedly targeted for an impoverished AIDS shelter. The money didn’t get to the AIDS shelter. When the fund-raising group was exposed, many people were furious at the messengers who exposed them, who were labelled “homophobic.”

This too is a microcosm of big city politics. Groups of people form unshakeable positions, unaffected by reason and logic. It is part of digging themselves in and forming alliances that seem important.

Will foreigners continue trying to eke out positions that in their minds, give them authority in this polite foreign country? As the expats get more and more hostile to each other, will their antipathies start to boil out into the general population?

Greater Gongora deals daily with expat senses of entitlement and resentments. To most of the Mexicans, the foreign community today is a source of amusement and occasional annoyance.

Gongora, of course, does not exist. It’s a good thing none of this is real.

About BG

Beryl Gorbman is a writer and private investigator who divides her time between Seattle WA and Merida Yucatan Mexico. She has published two works of fiction, 2012: Deadly Awakening, and Madrugada. They are both available on Amazon and other outlets. Also at Amate Books, and Casa Catherwood in Merida. You can read about them in various articles on this site.
This entry was posted in Merida Expat Life and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

34 Responses to Once Upon A Time

  1. John says:

    This is quite a damning indictment of an entire North American expat community in Merida. You imply rudeness, intolerance, back-stabbing, and aberrant sexual proclivities as endemic. Although one could expect all of the above to occur to a degree within a community of several hundred (or thousand), I doubt it is as rampant as you suggest. I’ve been reading many of the Merida blogs and have found those people to be aware of and sensitive to the cultural differences. I’m 63, gay, and in a 30+ year relationship. I’m also a southerner. Please do not paint us all racist. My partner and I will visit Merida for the first time in January and hope to enjoy the beauty of the city, the friendly people, and perhaps attempt to engage a local in conversation with our (very) limited Spanish. And did I mention we might look at a few of those lovely colonials for sale?

    • BG says:

      Hi John,
      Of course things probably aren’t half as bad as I paint them. I am simply the counterpoint for all the sites that say the place is perfect.
      You’ll notice I still live here. All in all, it’s pretty wonderful. I’m sure you will enjoy it.

    • Debi says:

      John , not to worry. Beryl is painting quite a distorted picture. Yes, these things do occur, in fact most, if not all, are currently unfolding dramas. Fortunately there really are only a handful of people involved. This really is a great place to live IF you can handle – well – just about anything. An idyllic pastoral place it is definitely not.

      I’m still lovin it!

  2. Rainie says:

    Hi Beryl
    Is this an outline for your new book? Fiction of course!
    I’m glad to see that you labeled this article as an editorial. It’s good to know upfront that this is your unique perception and opinion.

  3. Rummy says:

    this is sad

  4. Debi says:

    The reason dogs have so many friends, they wag their tails and not their tongues~

    uncredited, I did not think of this on my own


    • BG says:

      But Debi, if I wagged my tail, I might attract the wrong kind of friends.

      • Debi says:

        oh sweetie, some would say you already do that!

        I do have to concur with John; not all of us are as bad as you paint us! That’s a pretty broad brush you’re swingin!

        But oh how this one made me laugh !!

  5. María Cristina Llera says:

    Right on Beryl. You´ve hit the nail on the head. Ignore the unbelievers.

  6. kwallek says:

    Nice essay.

    My advice is the old water off a duck, keep your house in order and let the rest pound sand.

  7. María Cristina Llera says:

    Just remembered that when I was a child my father owned a book on the mythical city of Gongora…which he shared with me (in the original Spanish version, of course). Towards the end the book described the unfortunate events which befell the land of the Orozco and De Landa descendants…after the year 2012 the value of tastefully appointed homes fell precipitously, along with the high levels of security previously enjoyed, and the high quality of life deteriorated considerably. The book hinted at cosmic events and phenomena being responsible for these developments. Then, the foreign influx into the city came to a mere trickle…among those foreigners already there some got the hint and abandoned their traditional power struggles and learned to refocuse on survival…and survive they did, but in a far meager version of their former lives. Those who didn´t adapt to the now harsher realities of life in Gongora returned to the trailer parks of their respective homelands.

    • BG says:

      That sounds like a great book. Yes, I think the events of 12/21/2012 will cosmically change everything and perhaps restore the balance of power to the original residents of Montebello, the Orozco tribe. Perhaps the foreigners, in their reduced circumstances, might move to the pueblos, and the Orozcos, for the sake of convenience, might move into the abandoned grand houses of Gongora. The foreigners will unite as they have a common problem, and at last present a united front which will be useful when they appeal to the Orozco for higher salaries and second-hand clothing.

  8. Dany Ream says:

    So are you telling me…that I will never be able to get the paint to stick to the walls??? Just a little levity,which from NOB is easy to do. Glad I’m not there,as having read numerous accounts and opinions, I wouldn’t know which way to be blown! It’s always been my experience that people spend FAR too much time telling other people how to live, and spent little to NO time in looking at how they live. One would like to think that as we grow older,that, just maybe the adage, that we grow wiser,would possibly be true. But then,I’m not there,so I will continue to sip my tea,(I’m in private no one can see) and watch the (damn) snow fall!

  9. María Cristina Llera says:

    Are you sure you didn´t skim through the book before? Because everything happened as you say. The abandoned multibedroom residences, previously housing barely one or two foreigners, became filled with the enchanting laughter of Orozco children. The adult Orozco, being by nature congenial, non confrontational and used to hardship, tilled the formerly landscaped yards, turned the swimming pools into rain water reservoirs…and thus ensured their survival when the availability of foodstuffs dwindled due to global warming and skyrocketing prices. Insightful foreigners welcomed Orozco families into their large homes and benefitted from ancestral Orozco wisdom on making do with little. The foreign hosts soon began to cooperate with their house guests and babysat for the young offspring of the Orozco, cared for the Orozco elderly, hand washed Orozco linens and clothings…since unprecedented worldwide energy shortages rendered reliance on electrical equipment a thing of the past. And the surviving expats accepted converting their now useless automobiles and SUVs into kennels for pets and/or cages for chickens, pigs and goats…

  10. Santisima Beryl, Nuestra Señora de la Verdad Evidente, ruega por nosotros.

    My fleeting and highly limited experience of Merida’s “expat community” revealed it as a Chernobyl-like cesspit of toxic craziness.

    One can but wonder why Mexican authorities have yet to establish and maintain a fortified cordon sanitaire around Gringolandia and issue shoot-to-kill orders for its violation.

    Under a more actively prudent mandate, such as that of Tabasco governor Tomás Garrido Canabal, or President Plutarco Elias Calles, Merida’s “expat community” would have been rigorously quarantined and its residents allowed to venture outside only if they continuously rang a hand-bell and cried, “Impuro! Impuro!“, so as to warn Mexicans of their approach.

    Unfortunately, current government oversight of public health and safety is such that Merida’s “expats” are free to roam at will, thereby contaminating large sectors of the city with their unwholesome reputation.

    • BG says:

      No doubt making the expats vectors (in the public health sense) for mental illness, alcoholism, depression and downright silly behavior.

  11. Then there are the expats of Gongora who, when given an opportunity to learn the language or a bit of the local history, put their hands over their ears, close their eyes, and sing loudly.

    The expats with extensive security systems including twelve-camera closed circuit television feeds with two on the pool, two in the kitchen, two on the street, one in each bedroom and one on the roof overlooking the neighbor’s pool.

    The expats with a full room of A/V equipment.

    The expats who enter into every social situation with a bizarre, misplaced hostility that they can’t account for.

    The expats who stumble into the party already drunk.

    The expats who treat the locals more like scenery than like people.

    The expats who behave as though the rest of the city isn’t watching.

    The expats who reduce Gongora to a lavishly decorated stage on which they can play the starring role in their most outrageous fantasies and petty personal dramas.

    The expats who buy and use illicit drugs in a country that has seen over 30,000 people mowed down with gunfire, decapitated with tile saws, or had their limbs hacked off and hung from the trees, all to ensure that gringos have access to the drugs they want.

    The expats who think that none of this will ever catch up with them because, dammit, they’re special.

    There are those expats, too.

    • BG says:

      I have the solution. Paintball. The unhappy, hostile, uncomfortable foreigners could go to a classy arena, with trees and plantings, locate their fellows whom they dislike and lob a chunk of red paint at them. Then they would get a shot of yellow. Doing this for hours should exhaust anyone and dissipate all their anger. Then they could go to the bar and drink themselves into a mellow state and hug.

  12. Nancy Walters says:

    Wow Beryl!
    Thanks for the entertainment. I know you changed the name and added stuff but all the time I could see you were talking about my old town, San Miguel. Saves me from ever writing about it. It’s too bad that people don’t know paradise when they move to it. And, even if they do some try to ruin it anyway. Pity.
    Hey about that De Landa name. I read about a friar named de Landa who came to Yucatan and didn’t like the locals beliefs so he burned all their books and artifacts. This made him very unpopular and later he felt so bad about what he’d done that he tried to tell people about the life of the locals but, of course, he couldn’t remember it all because he had destroyed his best reference, their library. Pity.

  13. Estela Keim says:

    Hats off to Beryl, Hugo de Naranja and Expats Anonymous. The great Jorge Luis Borges said that a writer´s worth is measured not by what he/she has written…but by what he/she has read. Clearly, the three of you have read superbly. Having you here is Merida´s gain.

  14. Catherine says:

    You always remind me about what’s important and what isn’t, and that alsmost everything is funny! thanks.

  15. Vince Gricus says:

    Beryl – I love it. I am just wondering where this place is.
    And you big sillies of course we are not all alike, not all bad and yes not all good.
    After reading this it reminds me of why I sometimes practice the quote from Edith Bouvier Beal.
    I will be staying my own blog soon. I have not yet decided which direction it will take yet. But think it will probably consist of some simple lessons to make you all nicer people. I am already nice and yes very humble.
    All my life my father was constantly telling me – Vinnie (Lithuanian not Italian). We are tall people so it is important for us to be kinder.
    Remember son the most 3 important lessons in life:
    1. Be Kind.
    2. Be Kind
    3. Be Kind.
    Wow was my father a wise man. In later years I learn that this was from Henry James or was it Harry James. I always get the two confused, but it is not important as I like them both.
    I close with this:
    “ONLY BAD WITCHES ARE UGLY” Glinda from the Wizard of OZ.

    Vince Gricus

  16. John says:

    I think that now I will delete this site from my favorites. Clever writing, but the tone is making me uncomfortable as I prepare for my first visit to Merida. From my personal experience, mounting the moral high horse has mostly been a twisted outward projection of my own shadow. I’ve learned not to be so judgmental of the embarrassing and silly antics of others. They will most likely fall on their own with no help from me.
    Perhaps if the venom could stop, a real dialogue could begin.

    Peace to all this holiday season.

  17. RP says:

    There was something soooo familar about the mythical place I read about recently, However such a story only tends to hit a nerve of people where, what you describe sounds like an ugly side of themselves, I loved the blog. As for why you write the blog it is an expression, writing is an art, and Not all is pretty in the land of art. but there are some artists who live in a fairytale land and all is not real. There is a difference between what is real drama, and drama centered around confrontation. I feel true artists hit a nerve, to make people think. I love your writing and I love the way you express yourself, the words and ideas flow, and I find it easy to read, so don’t stop writing. you have a gift, use it, not all of us live in the fairtale place, and truly like life in the real world, it prevents us from being numb.

  18. Louis says:

    Well, here in Merida, locals complain about the desperate “gringas muertas por pingas.” Is this also the case in Gongora, Beryl?

  19. bokajo says:

    With your razor-sharp pen (keyboard) you have nailed what has been going on in Meri… (sorry, Gongora) these last few years. Being one of the original settlers in the late ’80′s, have seen a lot during these years, and do not like the new system of cliques, rumours, positioning, and such. And it always amazes me when so many new people do not bother to learn Spanish! (pet peeve) with the idea that the locals who do work for them should learn English!!! I left years ago, and come back for a few months every years now, glad to live elswhere, but happy to spend a few months in the sun, and communicate in Spanish with the wonderful Orozco people!!!!!
    Go Yenta, go!!!!!

  20. @Louis

    RE: Death

    Isn’t a pinga a mixed drink made with lime, sugar, and Brazilian moonshine, aka cachaça?

    I think at a bar in Miami I once had a pinga decorated with pineapple wedges, or maybe it was kiwi slices. I don’t remember. (And you’d think a person would remember something like that!)

    Maybe I’m confused between Portuguese and the Mexican language.

    Doesn’t pinga mean “shredded meat” in the Mexican language?

    I’m thinking for example of tacos such as pinga de pollo tacos.

    I can see why people might be dying for some tacos de pinga de pollo because they can be very, very tasty, even when they don’t have much meat. It’s really the sauce that’s important, in my opinion. A lot of meat can be boring if the sauce isn’t hot and zesty.

    If my memory serves me correctly, I think in Sinaloa I once ran into pinga de chivo, believe it or not. This wasn’t something that I can imagine a lot of people would die for, but it was an interesting change of pace.

    • Maria Cristina Llera says:


      Louis is alluding to the male sexual organ, which in several Latin American countries is called “pinga” in the local slangs. I believe in Mexico you can also try it in taco version.

  21. Lennie says:

    What’s wondrous about Gongora is that it may be viewed through so many lenses. I appreciate the sharpness of your lens with its touches of irony and cynicism. We could all be more capable of turning our lens inward to see our own foibles; for through this can come both the clarity of discernment and the tolerance of imperfection. Thanks for laser-beaming on some creepier corners of ex-patism — with perhaps a touch of exaggeration but capturing the real essence so well.

  22. Judy says:

    This has been a delighful read…your original treatise along with the erudite responsas (Talmudic interpretations of interpretations of Torah verses!). Thanks for the reprieve from my current mundane depressing reality. I loved it all! Judy

  23. Grant says:

    Maybe if we just had more of President Obama’s community meetings we could sort all this out and help the Mexicans fix their problems, too.


  24. BG says:

    Thanks, agua. My thoughts precisely. But of course I was too polite to mention it.

  25. Debi says:

    HA! you both seem to have misunderstood me!
    I happen to be a fan of ms Berlina, and support her right to open yap with gusto!
    I do appreciate a good debate!
    Debi, although I do admit I may start using Debberino, me gusta mucho!

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