The Americans retiring to Mexico for a more affordable life: ‘We are immigrants’


Jym Varnadore doesn’t see himself as an expatriate.

Indeed, he and his spouse, Renee, have made their lives outside the U.S. They sought a standard of living that eluded them back home. Now, they’re settling into the serene embrace of Rosarito Beach.

Their abode is cozy, perfect for two, blending intimacy with touches of luxury, such as a spacious jacuzzi. Their balcony presents a seascape that merges seamlessly with the sky—a vista often exclusive to the ultra-rich in America, yet here it’s theirs.

“We’re immigrants,” Jym asserts. “To label us otherwise would be insincere. Embracing this identity was a conscious choice when we decided to leave the U.S.”

The Varnadores chose life in Mexico, but leaving San Diego felt like a necessity. Jym’s routine bill management led to a sobering review of their retirement funds. The reality was stark: post-retirement, they could afford either their grocery bills or their mortgage, but not both.

This realization dawned during the tumultuous 2016 election, adding to Jym’s unrest. The pivotal conversation with Renee wasn’t just about politics—it was about survival.

Their choices were clear: remain in San Diego, accepting a diminished lifestyle, or bid farewell to Renee’s longtime home.

“We’re moving,” declared Renee, resolute.

They embarked on a nationwide search for a new locale—perhaps Oregon, northern California, or Seattle. Renee scoured online listings, and they visited promising spots, even considering Hawaii. Yet, the costs mirrored those in San Diego, nullifying the move’s intent.

Renee approached Jym one day, disheartened. The affordable places in the U.S. were marred by harsh weather, unsettling politics, or a perceived lack of culture.

It was time to look beyond America’s confining borders. Their gaze turned southward.

San Diego’s notorious for its steep living costs, consistently ranking among the priciest U.S. cities for housing. Amid a worsening housing crisis and reduced housing funding, the city’s average home value has soared to nearly $1 million.

Renters need to earn triple the minimum wage to cover average rent, and a significant portion of homeowners are deemed cost-burdened, dedicating 30% or more of their income to housing expenses alone. But this isn’t unique to San Diego—nationwide, affordable housing is scarce. The economic slump hasn’t halted the climb in home prices or rents, making basic shelter a luxury.

This housing dilemma is symptomatic of widening disparities. For families earning under $100,000, medical care remains out of reach for nearly 10%. With the middle class contracting, income and wealth disparities in the U.S. outpace those in most other developed countries.

The shortcomings of the system place a significant burden on America’s aging population, which is becoming an increasingly larger segment of the nation. Nearly half of U.S. families lack any savings for retirement, and over 15 million citizens aged 65 and older are facing economic insecurity. The Economic Policy Institute states that the current retirement system is failing most workers, particularly affecting Black, Latino, lower-income, and those without a college education, and sometimes even impacting affluent, white professionals.

Weighed down by student debt, healthcare costs, and other continuous financial obligations, some elderly Americans have come to terms with the grim prospect of having to work indefinitely due to the lack of sufficient safety nets in the U.S.

Yet, there are those who, given the choice, refuse to resign themselves to such a dire outlook and instead seek stability and opportunities elsewhere. Their journey, fraught with administrative challenges and cultural shifts, may not be as straightforward or idyllic as it appears. Nevertheless, the tranquility and security that follow can make the effort worthwhile.

Visitors to the Contreras’s residence in Baja California, Mexico, are invariably struck with awe. The breathtaking view from their expansive deck, set against the backdrop of the Pacific Ocean with its deep blue waters and crashing waves, conjures up visions of paradise.

“We’re fortunate, incredibly so,” Mary Contreras muses from her tastefully arranged living room.

Amidst such vast and serene surroundings, it’s difficult to envision a more desirable place to be. Yet, despite frequent visits to Mexico, Mary never envisioned that she and her husband, Chuck, would settle there permanently. They had deep roots in the U.S.; she was a lifelong educator and a fourth-generation Californian, while he worked for a non-profit, providing service dogs to children and adults. They had spent nearly thirty years in Carlsbad, California.

Chuck, after a fulfilling career dedicated to helping others, aimed to retire before turning 60. However, relying solely on Mary’s salary in an economy that undervalues educators, they found it unrealistic to maintain their standard of living in the community they cherished, where Mary had contributed so much as an English teacher and principal.

“The fact that I can’t continue to live there, after a lifetime of hard work, feels profoundly wrong,” Mary reflects.

“I’m incredibly grateful to be here,” she says of their life in Mexico. “I love it here. That’s not the issue,” she clarifies. But occasionally, she admits, “I feel a surge of anger… We had a wonderful home and life there. Why couldn’t it go on?”

Renee, too, had a long career teaching English and drama to middle and high school students in California. Jym, on the other hand, hails from a military family and spent years in naval intelligence, operating at the heart of a ship’s information center.

As Jym often says, you can take the man out of the navy, but not the navy out of the man. So, when he encountered a property in Mexico offering an expansive ocean view through a wall of glass, all for a price well below their San Diego condo’s cost, he didn’t hesitate to tell Renee he was ready to commit.

“I adore it, it’s my passion. It’s the stuff of songs, you know? ‘The sea’s in my veins. My tradition remains.’ And it’s the truth,” Jym declares.

For Renee, the transition to Rosarito Beach was fraught with hesitation. Her past experiences in Mexico were marred by a holiday mishap and the discomfort of dental trips to Tijuana during her youth. Moreover, the contrasting scenery of dilapidated structures and opulent towers housing expatriates in Rosarito was unsettling.

Yet, Renee’s perspective began to shift as she witnessed Rosarito’s compassionate handling of homelessness, a stark contrast to the aggressive police actions she knew from San Diego. She discovered a wealth of local organizations dedicated to social good, a fact highlighted in the region’s English-language publications like the Gringo Gazette.

Once the Varnadores resolved to move, they swiftly prepared their San Diego home for sale, receiving multiple offers within a week. The emotional weight of parting with their belongings was palpable for Renee, who shed tears during their garage sale.

However, half a year into their new life beside the Mexican shores, daily beach walks and the rhythmic tide brought about a profound transformation within her.

“I began to find healing, not just physically, but on emotional and spiritual levels,” Renee shared.

Driving towards the San Ysidro border, billboards in English tout the allure of seaside living and affordable luxury in Baja. “Own the dream in Baja,” one beckons, picturing an idyllic coastal dwelling.

“Starting at 347 K,” another entices, suggesting a lavish lifestyle in Rosarito Beach within reach.

These advertisements speak to middle-class Americans who, after a taste of Baja’s charm, reluctantly face their return to the U.S. The billboards give voice to the silent reveries of these holidaymakers: envisioning a redefined American dream in Mexico, complete with property ownership, weekend escapes, and perhaps a tranquil retirement. Pura vida.

“It’s one thing to fantasize and discuss, but taking action is a whole different ballgame. You’re truly committing to a new country, leaving behind the familiar—your birthplace, friends, and family,” Chuck Contreras reflected.

“It will be challenging, daunting, and even frightening,” he admitted. “But the most rewarding endeavors are often the hardest.”

The narrative of migration has long focused on the northward journey across the Mexico-U.S. border. Yet, the less conspicuous southward movement has a rich history, reflecting as much on the U.S.’s flaws as on the allure of other lands.

Historically, individuals escaped enslavement in the U.S. by fleeing to Mexico before the civil war. Post-World War II, American veterans sought a “GI paradise” there. During the cold war, some Americans headed south to avoid McCarthy-era persecution.

More commonly, Americans have looked to Mexico for a better, more affordable lifestyle while maintaining proximity to the U.S.—securing oceanfront views at a fraction of the cost and visiting family across the border with ease. In the wake of the pandemic, the rise of remote work has drawn young American professionals to cities like Mexico City in such numbers that tensions have arisen with locals who sometimes see these newcomers as opportunistic gentrifiers indulging in Mexico’s lower living costs.

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.

Regardless of their motivations, when U.S. citizens move to Mexico, they cross an international boundary—a choice that entails not only cultural adjustments but also significant legal responsibilities. Both the Varnadores and the Contrerases meticulously adhered to Mexico’s immigration laws, although the process was far from straightforward. Jym recounted the administrative hoops he and Renee had to jump through to establish their lives legally in Rosarito Beach—consular appointments, paperwork, photos, and fingerprinting. Among the most challenging, if not insurmountable, hurdles for many applicants are the stringent financial requirements demonstrating “economic solvency,” typically evidenced by bank statements, investment reports, or other financial records.

For Americans relocating to Baja because it offers affordable housing—such as renting apartments for $300 or less—these economic thresholds can be unattainable. Consequently, some individuals enter on tourist visas and overstay, mirroring the situation of the U.S.’s own undocumented community.

Then there are Americans who possess the means and qualifications for legal immigration but choose not to follow the process—an issue that particularly irks Mary.

“I take issue with people living here—some of our friends who have been here longer than us—without permanent residency,” she asserted. “To me, how can you discuss immigration or any related issues if you’re not willing to comply with the host country’s requirements? You forfeit your voice. And don’t even bring up immigration in the United States.”

Mary and Chuck were resolute about fulfilling all legal obligations, from adhering to immigration rules to obtaining local car insurance and healthcare. They even secured two “memberships” at a funeral home—an ultimate commitment to permanent residence.

“We want to make this our home,” Mary emphasized. “Truly, our home. We’re not just visitors; we’re residents. And we want to actively participate in the community.”

For Día de los Muertos, the Mexican holiday honoring the deceased, Jym and Renee create an altar in their home. Adorned with photos of lost loved ones, surrounded by marigolds and candles, the altar pays tribute to those who have passed. Some, like Jym’s mother, have been memorialized for years, while others, like Renee’s mom, are more recent additions.

Among the honored is their pet cat, which crossed the border with them years ago. Its photo and ashes rest alongside a dish of water and food. By morning, the food has disappeared. Did their other living cats consume it? Perhaps, but the Varnadores prefer to believe otherwise.

“This holiday resonates with us,” Jym explained. Both the Varnadores and the Contrerases embrace Mexican traditions, diligently learn Spanish, contribute to the local community, and conscientiously avoid imposing U.S. norms on Mexico.

In essence, they strive.

Mary acknowledges that she has learned valuable lessons from missteps and language-related misunderstandings during community work. Now, she engages in conversations with nonprofits and their leaders, seeking ways to make a positive impact alongside her Mexican neighbors.

“We must be sensitive and aware that we’re not acting upon them but rather with them,” she emphasized. “We involve them and ask what they need and want from us, rather than assuming we know it all and can fix everything. That approach doesn’t work—it’s neither appropriate nor right.”

This doesn’t mean that Americans in Baja abandon their cultural heritage. Like diasporic communities in the U.S., they celebrate their culture, albeit with a unique twist.

Around Thanksgiving, the Contrerases adorned their dining table with gourds, flowers, and a prominent “thankful” centerpiece. Their neighbors and friends were gathering for Friendsgiving—a tradition their son initiated during his college years. The table featured themed napkins and cups, but instead of turkey, they indulged in Chuck’s remarkable tacos, which Mary enthusiastically praised.

The Contrerases’ home resonates with uplifting mantras: a hanging scroll bearing the words “In a world where you can be anything, be kind!” and a simple stone inscribed with “gratitude,” placed near an image of the Virgen de Guadalupe.

Yet, it’s the stitched words on a pillow that hold the deepest meaning—simple and unpretentious, yet profoundly heartfelt: “I love this place.”.

Source: The Guardian