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.