The following was written as a general introduction and commentary on working and living in Mexico.
The main thing to say about working and living in Mexico (and I’m writing this as an Englishman), is that it is very different.
Actually, when I first came to live in Mexico, and lived for six months in a large city (Guadalajara), I was surprised by how much it looked superficially familiar. There were extensive affluent areas with large houses and two cars, shopping malls with multiplex cinemas, some of the same kind of shops (Starbucks, Mc Donalds etc), traffic jams, cafes, bars and restaurants. It did not fit my stereotype of what the so-called “third world” might look like.
But with time, I appreciated that these similarities were mainly on the surface. There are profound cultural differences. Living and working here over time, these become more evident and impactful.
For example, in the work context, there are major differences between Mexican ways of working and an English/US approach. People do not arrive at meetings on time. Actually, to be more accurate, mostly they do not arrive on time, but sometimes they do – this inconsistency can make Mexico so baffling. Likewise, if people say they will do something, you cannot guarantee that it will be done, but then neither can you be sure it will not get done. Usually, over time, and with applying pressure, things do get done, but in a rhythm and manner that defies Western organizational logic.
Typically, too, in Mexico, many things get done at the last minute. There can appear to be systems of planning, which are immensely bureaucratic, but then, even when it seems that a rigorous planning process is in place, what still happens is that everything is left to the last possible moment. A Mexican friend told me that this is typically how Mexicans like to pay their bills – leaving everything to the last possible moment.
The positive side of this is that Mexicans can be very creative – as they discover ways to negotiate and short-cut bureaucratic requirements – and very good at improvisation. I realized at the first conference I was involved in organizing, that the speakers could not be relied on to turn up. Nor was it possible to know exactly how many people would be there. All these uncertainties mean that people in Mexico have to be prepared for a whole range of eventualities, which makes them good at dealing with ambiguity and uncertainty.
I have made reference twice now to bureaucracy. If you are going to stay in Mexico for longer than six months, or own a car or house here, you will inevitably have to get involved in the different bureaucracies here. For example, to work here, you will need a work visa, which is obtained from the local immigration office. And to get a work visa you will have to provide copies of all sorts of information, ranging from proof of address to a statement of the accounts of the organization that is going to employ you. And you are not always told in advance what documents you will need, so it is well worth making the effort to find out in advance.
Likewise, when I was offered work in a university here, I was astounded by how much information I had to provide compared with England. Not just obvious things like copies of all my academic degrees (authenticated, stamped and translated) but also extensive evidence of what I was claiming to have done – certificates verifying the presentations I had made at conferences, examples of courses I had run, testimonials from various people, etc.
All this means that working and living in Mexico means you have to give up western-based expectations of how things are going to get done or be organized. At times the bureaucracy can be very frustrating and time-consuming and you have to learn to laugh at it, as do nearly all Mexicans do so.
On the theme of laughter, that is another big cultural difference. Laughter is heard everywhere. Mexicans generally seem happier than most westerners. They love to banter, joke and play with words, and their good humor is infectious. As part of this ability to enjoy life, Mexicans also love their fiestas, which can last for weeks.
The family is very important here. Because public organizations like the police and justice system cannot be relied on, the support of your family and friends is very important. Mexicans, at least in the past, tended to have large extended families and the role of, and affection expressed between, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins is more important than in the west. To get things sorted out, connections (what Mexicans call “palancas”) are key, so having a large family and wide group of friends with all their extended connections is useful. This is true in every culture, of course, but it is more extreme in Mexico. Knowing the right people gives you power and influence in situations, which you might expect to be more governed by notions of justice and fairness.
Other obvious differences include the food and the climate (at least for an Englishman). People, at least in Europe, do not realize how big Mexico is and the huge regional variations that exist in geography, food and climate. We have a stereotype that Mexican food is hot, which some of it is indeed, but there is an enormous variety to Mexican food.
The other great thing about the food is that it is cheap. If you choose not to eat in international-style restaurants, you can feast yourself for a few dollars, especially in the local markets. And with care, eating in places that are well frequented by others, it is possible to avoid being ill and suffering from Moctezuma’s revenge (sickness and diarrhea). In general, it is possible to live well and cheaply in Mexico. Though salaries are lower, rents are much less than in the West (about a quarter of the price), and local food, especially meat, fruit and vegetables bought in markets, is cheap, varied and abundant.
The other issue that can concern Westerners is security. Recently, there has been a lot of press coverage of the violence occasioned by the fights between the drug traffickers and with the military. However, as in any culture, one quickly learns what to do and what not to do to stay safe. Some regions are very safe, and within areas that have a reputation for danger, (the states of Chihuahua, Sinaloa and Baja California), there will be both safe and non-safe areas. If in doubt, ask your Mexican friends and contacts who – in general – are very concerned to look after you and ensure that your experience of their country is a good one.
In conclusion, then, to state the obvious, do not come to Mexico if you are expecting it to be similar to Europe and North America. Mexico, like all countries, has its advantages and disadvantages, and it is well worth the effort to discover yourself what these are.