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Interview with Susan – an American expat living in Mexico

Updated 2 Feb 2010

Susan McKinney de Ortega lives in a small village in Mexico. She describes herself as a memoirist, journalist, spa owner, mother of bilingual teenaged girls, daughter of former National Basketball Association coach, and beginner dressage rider.

Read more about expat life here in the Expat Arrivals guide to Mexico or read more expat experiences in Mexico.

About Susan

Q: Where are you originally from?

A: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Q: Where are you living now?

A: San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, Mexico

Q: How long you have you lived here?

A: Almost 18 years

Q: Did you move with a spouse/ children?

A: No. I came alone.

Q: Why did you move; what do you do?

A: I wanted to work on a book I was writing. I rented a little house in San Miguel for the summer of 1992. Before I came to San Miguel, I had been bartending in the White Dog Café in Philadelphia, and before that, I was a television news reporter for WEAU-TV, Eau Claire, Wisconsin and then WISC-TV, Madison, Wisconsin. 

About Mexico

Q: What do you enjoy most about San Miguel, how’s the quality of life in Mexico?

A:  San Miguel´s beauty is found in its warm, sunny days, its abundant gardens, its colonial architecture and its peaceful inhabitants. The crime rate is low. Crimes committed with arms are rare. One particular advantage is that there is less pressure on teens (we have two) to stay up-to-date with expensive or designer-wear apparel.  

Q: Any negatives? What do you miss most about home?

A: Negative – earnings are lower than in the United States. My income is lower than any of my siblings, although I am the one with the maid!

Q: Is the San Miguel safe?

A: While San Miguel is not crime-free, violent crime is very low. People worry about purse-snatchings and break-ins, rather than handguns.

About living in San Miguel

Q: Which are the best places/suburbs to live in San Miguel as an expat?

A: We live in Los Frailes, slightly outside of town on the presa or lake, although many people prefer living in the centro (downtown).

Q: How do you rate the standard of accommodation in Mexico?

A: There are lovely luxury hotels and designer homes for rent for those looking for top-notch accommodations. Equally, there are economic options. 

Q: What’s the cost of living in Mexico compared to America? What is cheap or expensive in particular?

A: Home prices in the upper end are not cheap. One CAN find bargain homes however, outside the center of town. Domestic help is pretty cheap and most people have a maid or gardener or both.

Q: What are the locals like; do you mix mainly with other expats?

A:  My in-laws are Mexican. We spend a lot of time with my brother-in-law and sister-in-law and their two kids. And there is a lively group of Americans of all ages (although, especially in the winter months, the ex-pat group is heavily populated with retired snowbirds). I have many friends in the San Miguel Literary Sala. Also, lucky for me as I am a writer, San Miguel draws many writers and I´ve met some amazing people.  

Q: Was it easy meeting people and making friends?

A: Yes, members of the American community here meet each other in the Jardín, the town´s central plaza, that is, and in coffee shops and at lectures. It´s easy to strike up a conversation. 

About working in San Miguel

Q: Did you have a problem getting a work visa/permit?

A: No. There is the requisite paperwork, but it's doable. 

Q: What’s the economic climate like in San Miguel, is there plenty of work?

A: It is difficult, but not impossible, to make a living here. Most ex-pats have retirement income, or husbands that work in the States and come and go, or sell real estate or have started small businesses in town like I did with my husband. We have had Jasmine Day Spa, offering massages, facials and body treatments, for ten years.

Q: How does the work culture differ from home?

A: Generally, Mexican employees are very sensitive to criticism. If reprimanded harshly, they will likely quit.

Family and children

Q: Did your spouse or partner have problems adjusting to their new home?

A: My husband is Mexican. 

Q: Did your children settle in easily?

A: They were born here, and are full citizens of both Mexico and the United States.

Q: What are the schools in San Miguel like, any particular suggestions?

A: There are several good grade schools, including a Waldorf school – Colegio Los Charcos - and a Montesorri-based school - Colegio Atabal. My kids went to Atabal for about a million years. It´s a small school and they enjoyed it. They are in a new school called Colegio Multicultural Siglo XXI in downtown San Miguel for middle school. Siglo XXI also has a high school and they will likely stay. Some parents send their kids to US boarding schools for high school. 

Q: How would you rate the healthcare in Mexico?

A: Inexpensive and good.

And finally…

Q: Is there any other advice you like to offer new expat arrivals?

A: This is an unhurried, patient culture. Leave your hurry and anxiety behind. Cultivate patience. It´s useful to suspend logic at times, too. 

~ Interviewed January 2010

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