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On Being a Mex-Pat

Teaching English and Living in Mexico

A spring afternoon in Oaxaca, Mexico
A spring afternoon in Oaxaca.

In May of 2001 I graduated with a Master's degree in U.S. History. Not surprisingly, six months later I was still looking for a job. I had long thought about trying to live overseas and I knew that teaching English was a good vehicle for doing so, so I enrolled in a 1-month crash course in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) to figure out how to do it.

Not long after I completed my course I came across a posting on the Web for a university English teaching job in Oaxaca. I had heard that Oaxaca was a beautiful and fascinating place, plus I already spoke a little Spanish. So I sent in my resume, completed a phone interview, accepted the job, and got on a plane to Mexico all in the span of about ten days.

As spontaneous and daring as my trip seemed to me at the time, I was far from a pioneer in blazing a trail from the U. S. to Mexico. During recent discussions of absentee voting in the run-up to November's U.S. presidential election, I read estimates that placed the U.S. ex-pat population of Mexico as high as one million. From what I hear now from compatriots back in the States expressing disillusionment in the wake of the election, that figure is poised to grow even higher.

Those one million U.S. citizens—as well as the countless Canadians, Brits, Irish, Aussies, etc.—who make up Mexico's English-speaking population, came here for a variety of reasons. Many are retired folks who find that their pensions go farther south of the border. Others are business people, taking advantage of NAFTA's gift of easy access to Latin America's largest economy. And some are volunteers trying to make a difference in what, in many places, is still a third world country. But for those like me who are far too young to retire, who have no interest in helping make multinational corporations richer, and who don't have the savings to support an extended volunteer (or slacker) existence, teaching English offers perhaps the best entry into a Mex-pat life.

There are a million reasons to aspire to a life in Mexico—great food, great climate, a fascinating history, vibrant indigenous cultures, colonial architecture, fabulous beaches, spectacular flora and fauna, snow-capped volcanoes, mariachis, tequila, etc., etc.

But you know all that already. What you might not know, however, is exactly how to go about getting a teaching job here and then what adjustments you'll need to make once you set up housekeeping in Mexico. I've done it, and so have a number of friends I've met here, and the following is a brief guide I've put together based on my experience and theirs. I hope you find it useful.

Teaching

In general, the minimum academic requirement for English teaching positions in Mexico is a university degree and a TESOL certificate. Some private language schools will take teachers with the certificate only, and others that will require nothing more than native-level fluency. Conversely, some universities require a Master's degree. But for the most part, a bachelor's degree and the TESOL certificate will qualify you to teach in Mexico.

The TESOL certificate course is an intensive, 1-month program that provides a basic introduction to language teaching methodologies and gives the participant a handful of hours of observed practice teaching. The courses are offered worldwide by a variety of organizations, and just about any will be accepted by employers in Mexico.

I completed my TESOL certificate at the School for International Training in Vermont, and once I had finished, I found my first job in Mexico on an Internet job site and confirmed the position while I was in the States. This gave me the advantage of peace of mind: I arrived in country knowing exactly what I'd be doing and where, and I had prior contacts to help me get oriented and settled.

Others choose to go to a location first and look for a job once they arrive. The benefit of this approach is that a teacher can do interviews in person where they can meet a potential boss face to face and also meet some of the teachers to get their perspective on the job. It can also be helpful to view the school's facility and resources first-hand rather than having them described over the phone or via email.

Furthermore, the schools themselves often prefer to interview teachers face to face. And since many employers count on a steady stream of teachers knocking at their doors, a good number of positions in Mexico are never posted on Internet job sites. Therefore, a teacher already in the country has access to far more job opportunities than one searching the Web back home.

Suzanne Bacon of San Diego came to Guanajuato in central Mexico last year with her boyfriend, Jared. Neither of them had a job lined up in advance. So they immediately went on foot, resumes in hand, to three language schools and to the local university. "We each got job offers pretty quickly from all three of the language schools," says Suzanne. "I think the key is just being here. The schools get a lot of emails from people who are thinking about coming and then don't end up doing it. If you're there in person, that's a big plus."

Language Schools vs. Universities

While some teachers find jobs at primary or secondary schools or in a business setting, the bulk of English teaching jobs in Mexico are either at universities or private language schools. Each of these teaching environments has its pros and cons.

University jobs are preferable in that they usually pay better than language schools and often offer benefits like paid vacations, Christmas bonuses, and health coverage. Furthermore, they are almost always legal positions, meaning that the university will help the teacher to obtain the FM3 visa granting legal working status. This is important because a legally employed teacher has rights under the law. While some private language schools hire teachers legally, many prefer to pay under the table.

Still, while they tend to offer the best package deals to their teachers, university jobs in Mexico can still vary greatly in salary, benefits, and overall desirability. For example, at my first university teaching job, I earned almost 15,000 pesos a month ($1,300) with benefits and perks like an office and a computer. At my next job, also at a university, I earned slightly more that 4,000 pesos a month ($350) for teaching more hours to bigger classes. Benefits and perks were few, and I had to buy many of my own materials.

Karen Green, originally of Helensburgh, Scotland, has worked both at private language schools and at universities during her almost eight years in Mexico. She prefers university teaching, she says, in large part because she feels that universities are more attentive to quality of education.

She mentions one private school she taught at that required their teachers to wear uniforms, yet paid little attention to the classroom instruction. "The aim of the school is to market the image of professionalism and publicize itself by means of the uniform. They seem to think the nice image will imply good service and education — kind of selling the school on its looks."

Private language schools do offer some advantages, however. For one, it's easier to find work at a language school than a university since there are more of them and they don't always require a lot of experience or even a university degree. You can also find work at a language school at practically any time of the year, whereas universities often hire only prior to each new semester.

Furthermore, some teachers find the students at private schools easier to deal with than university students. Tom Bass is an American who has taught in both settings in Mexico. He found motivation to be a problem among his university students, many of whom, he says, attended classes only because it was a prerequisite for graduation.

Tom currently teaches at a language school in Puerto Vallarta, where he finds his students—mostly adults—to be much more motivated. "In a tourist-based economy, English is a basic survival skill in the work place," he notes, so the need to learn English is more immediate than for the average university student who has yet to enter the working world. Plus, he adds, "Most of my students devote significant personal resources (i.e. time and money) to learn English, and that also helps to keep them focused and attentive."

Still, student demographics can vary from school to school. Many private language schools draw largely from secondary and preparatory school populations, and these students can be as unmotivated and unfocused as any.

Cultural Adjustments

I have an English friend here who once told me: "I've traveled all over Europe, even lived in other countries there, and whenever I heard people go on about 'cultural differences.' I thought they were full of it — that 'cultural differences' were just a big myth. But now, having lived in Mexico, I know exactly what the term means."

This friend was speaking from the small city of Guanajuato in an area of the country noted for its Catholic conservatism. Foreigners living in the larger urban areas—places like Mexico City, Guadalajara, and Monterrey—probably see far fewer differences between their native and host cultures. And of course, cultural differences are not necessarily something to fear. Many of these differences—a more relaxed attitude towards time, the afternoon "siesta" break, the greater importance of family—will quickly become very appealing to you. Nonetheless, wherever you end up in Mexico, there will be at least some less-ingratiating cultural norms and practices that you'll need to accept, or at least learn to deal with, if you hope to last here.

Plaza San Fernando in Guanajuato, Mexico
Plaza San Fernando in Guanajuato.

The Guero

For me, when I first arrived in Oaxaca, I was initially taken aback to have people constantly call me guero, a word that when most literally translated means something like "Whitey," though in terms of strength is more like "Blondie." However, I I quickly learned that in Mexican culture, identifying people by their most striking physical attribute is a matter of custom and not considered to be rude. Therefore, you'll hear people freely referring to others as "Gordo" ("Fatty"), "Flaco" ("Skinny"), "Chaparrito" ("Pee Wee"), and in indigenous areas where some people have very Asian features, "Chino." People with dark complexions might be called "Negro," so foreigners of African descent should ready themselves for the term.

Mexico's culture is very race-conscious, a phenomenon dating back the Colonial period when the conquering Spanish virtually enslaved the dark-skinned indigenous population. From out of that tradition has grown an idea that to be white is to be rich and have power, whereas to be dark is to be indigenous, poor and backwards. That perception is still very much alive today, for in a country where today about 10 percent of the population is white, 60 percent mestizo ("mixed") and 30 percent indigenous (at least racially if not culturally), those three demographic percentages very neatly overlap with socio-economic standing. Understandably, European features in Mexico are simultaneously coveted and resented.

A related and rather insidious cultural conception in Mexico is that beauty is also very much a product of race. Some visitors to Mexico are quite taken aback to see that in a country that is predominantly brown-skinned, virtually all Mexican TV and film stars are white, as are advertising and fashion models. As a result of this peculiar ideal, most Euro-featured foreigners can expect a lot more attention from potential suitors here than back home. This phenomenon can be good and bad, especially for women.

In his definitive work on Mexican-U.S. relations, Distant Neighbors, former New York Times correspondent Alan Riding wrote that "to be accompanied in public by una guero is considered by many (Mexican) men to be the height of status." It's also true that men here can be quite relentless in the pursuit of a woman, so for those women of European features, the constant and insistent attention can at times be quite overwhelming.

A Woman's Perspective

Karen Green says that when she first came to Mexico, she went from being invisible to sticking out like a sore thumb. "In the U.K. people are invisible—you walk down the street and avoid eye contact with people," she says. "In Mexico, I was stared at constantly... and still am pretty much. Men would stop the car in the middle of the road just to observe me walk by." And it's not just stares that women endure here, either: whistles and inappropriate comments are common as well. "It drove me mad for quite some time," says Karen. "But I think after a couple of years I got used to it."

As for that inescapable nickname for fair-skinned people, Karen says: "Being called guera bothered me for a while until I realized that it was nothing more than an observation. It is a society where it is okay to make physical observations. However, I think it is difficult for women from North American and British culture to eliminate the innate negative reaction to being addressed in such a way."

"There is of course a fine line between an observation and derogatory, insulting comments from men who seem to have no concept of what it means to show respect," she adds. "What doesn't help is the stereotype they have of North American women who come to Mexico for a ~good time.' How you dress does of course make a difference. The tighter the clothes, the shorter the skirts; you have to remember as a foreigner in Mexico that the more visible you make yourself, the more hassle you'll get."

Karen does, however, note a positive side to all the extra attention she receives. For example, she says that she notices that cars are more likely to stop for her when she crosses a busy street. "Mexican men are fairly chivalrous at the best of times, so blondes don't normally lack attention with the detalles," she notes. "It's something that can also take some time to get used to. It wasn't easy for me to agree to have car doors opened and closed for me, or have men carry my bags. It isn't that they don't think we can do these things, but rather they have been brought up to understand that being a man means being a gentleman. So not only is it a case of adjusting to being treated badly, but also to being treated well."

The Gringo

Another word that you'll hear quite a bit more of than you'd probably like is gringo, a term meant to refer to white people from the U. S. but often used for any foreigner with caucasian features. This term is different from guero in that it can be both affectionate and derisive. The distinction is in the delivery.

Gringo is word that carries a lot of baggage. Mexican history will never allow its people to forget the war of 1848 that saw the country lose almost half its territory to the U. S., and that historical resentment is today compounded by the glaring inequalities in the two countries' economies and the cruelty of U.S. immigration policy. Non-U.S. citizens can quickly distance themselves from the gringo legacy, and in fact, can even turn it to their advantage. A British friend who teaches English here tells me that he finds that the quickest way to get new students on his side is to crack jokes about Americans. But for those who are in fact U.S. citizens, the burden of gringo-ness may be hard to ever fully escape.

It is, however, fairly easy to convince people that you're not a "bad" gringo. Making an effort to speak the language goes a long way, as does expressing a keen interest in Mexican culture and traditions. It also doesn't hurt to express a distaste for, say, the Iraq War or U.S. border regulations. You'll find that with a little friendly interaction, most people here are quite willing to separate U.S. citizens from the policies of the U.S. government.

The Bureaucracy

Founded in 1928 as the PNR (National Revolutionary Party), later renamed the PRM, the Party of the Mexican Revolution, Mexico's ruling political party institutionalized itself in the 1940s and once again renamed itself accordingly. And as with any institutionalized party, the hence-named PRI (Party of the Institutional Revolution) set out to construct a massive bureaucracy with which to maintain its hold on the nation. It succeeded on a grand scale, not only in facilitating a long-term stranglehold on Mexican politics, but also in creating a nationwide culture of bureaucracy. Though the PRI's 71-year-long grip on the country began to weaken with the election of opposition presidential candidate Vicente Fox in 2000, its legacy of massive, intransigent bureaucracy lived on in each infuriating trip to the immigration office and every hour-long wait in line at the bank.

"The bureaucracy is exactly as bad as everyone says it is," says Ken Richter, an English teacher from California living in Guanajuato. "Everything from getting a phone line installed to getting paid correctly can be a real headache. Anyone who has spent any kind of time living here has a large and always growing collection of stories (about the bureaucracy)."

As an English teacher, you'll undoubtedly accumulate a number of job-related tales of bureaucratic headache. If you need some last-minute copies of a worksheet for class, you may well have to fill out a form in triplicate, get it signed and stamped by the appropriate authorities, then run across campus to wait in a long line at the one on-site copying facility. Or perhaps you missed a day of class because a plate of street-stall tacos didn't sit well with your stomach. Unless you want to get docked a day's pay, you may need doctor's notes, supervisor approval, and a formal solicitation in order to make it excusable.

Mexicans seem to be able to take the unavoidable bureaucratic hassles pretty well in stride, and the legendary attitude is almost a requirement for living here. One thing is for sure: blowing your top at the bureaucratic absurdities will not get you anywhere. Smiles, charm, and the occasional well-placed bribe (precipitated by an innocent "Isn't there an easier way that we could resolve all of this?") are the best tools for dealing with the system.

Trade-Offs

Not so much a cultural difference as an economic one, Ken notes the small salaries of Mexican jobs—especially teaching jobs—as a difficult adjustment. "As long as I stay in Mexico, I have enough money for a modest lifestyle. Fancy restaurants and Hugo Boss suits are obviously not a part of my life any more," he jokes. "But sometimes I find it annoying that I need to save for special purchases—like new Levis. I'm pushing 40, and I find I need to count on my mom and my other family members to pay for things like airfares and hotels when we get together."

But Ken says that such annoyances are largely fleeting. "On balance, I have no real complaints about (financial constraints)," he says. "In good faith, how could I? It was a conscious decision on my part to trade my old American salary for things that seem more valuable to me: free time, less stress, a bit of adventure, and the romance of living abroad."

For Ken, as well as for many others of us enjoying the bohemian Mex-pat life, it's all about trade-offs. "When one chooses poverty, it's not really real poverty, is it?" he philosophizes. "I could go back to the States and work the 70-hour-a-week job and have plenty of money for traveling. Although, of course, then I wouldn't have any time to travel."

He recalls when he was still living in San Francisco and he fantasized of a life in Mexico. Somehow, he says, it never occurred to him that day-to-day annoyances—disputing a phone bill, getting laundry done, noisy neighbors, traffic jams—follow you no matter where you go. "I saw myself sitting at quaint sidewalk cafes in the shade of colonial churches, reading Borges and sipping at good tequila," he says. "I didn't imagine myself getting into fights with my girlfriend about forgetting to clean out the lint trap of the clothes dryer."

That's true for many of us here. The daily hassles and those cultural differences that confuse and confound us are not what we had planned for when moved here, and so it makes them all the more difficult to deal with. That's why it is essential to do as Ken does: try to put them in perspective and fully enjoy the moments that more closely resemble our fantasies of the Mex-pat experience.

"Life is life," says Ken. "In the end, the nice thing about living here is that while I do experience the everyday problems, just as I did in the States, I also get to experience the sort of romantic, cafe-reading-colonial-church-shaded-tequila-drinking experience that I had dreamed of."

For More Info

Teaching certificate courses: The two most well-known teaching certificates are the CELTA (Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages), and the Trinity College TEFL/CertTESOL (Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages).

In Mexico, ITTO (International Teacher Training Organization), runs a TESOL certificate course in Guadalajara.

The School for International Training also offers TESOL certificate courses in Mexico and at sites worldwide.

English Teaching Job and Websites

Some TESOL job boards that list positions and information about Mexico are:

Jonathan Clark is a former editor and reporter for The Herald Mexico, a publication of The Miami Herald International Edition, based in Mexico City. Previously, he taught English at the Universidad de Guanajuato and the Universidad Tecnologica de la Mixteca in Oaxaca.

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