Unfazed by Trump, 'bunch of gringos' chase Mexican dream

Sofia MISELEM
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With its warm weather and colonial charm, Mexico's 16th-century city of San Miguel de Allende has been enticing Americans of a certain age to move south of the border for decades

Despite recent strains in US-Mexican ties, US expatriates say they won't let President Donald Trump's tough talk of border walls and "bad hombres" stop them from chasing their Mexican dream.

"People like me go to Florida to die. They come to San Miguel de Allende to live," Michael Gerber says of his adopted home in central Mexico.

With its warm weather and colonial charm, this 16th-century city has been enticing Americans of a certain age to move south of the border for decades.

Gerber is one of some 10,000 Americans who live in San Miguel de Allende for at least part of the year.

The 74-year-old Cleveland native decided to move abroad after retiring from his job as a hospital administrator.

He lived in Turkey, Switzerland and Greece before settling in San Miguel 15 years ago.

And he plans to stay, he says, because he's never encountered a better place than this scenic city of 160,000 people, ranked the best place to live in Mexico last year by Travel & Leisure magazine.

"I and many of my friends have lived in many places in the world, but we've chosen San Miguel as our home because it's just wonderful. It's affordable and there are a lot of opportunities to give back to the community," he told AFP.

- Proud to be gringo -

Gerber is on the board of trustees of Feed the Hungry, a charity that provides food for 3,000 needy children.

It is one of dozens of community organizations launched by US expats that have helped transform the city.

As Gerber walks through streets lined with stately mansions and Spanish colonial churches, he points out the good deeds done by his fellow "gringos."

"This bunch of gringos" renovated a park, "that bunch of gringos" rescues stray dogs and another "bunch of gringos" builds houses for impoverished families.

"I'm proud of being a gringo," he said.

Back at his house, he shows off a red hat modeled after Trump's "Make America great again" caps.

Gerber sports an ironic play on the billionaire Republican's campaign slogan.

"Make America Mexico again," it says -- a reference to the huge swath of territory that Mexico was forced to cede to the US in 1848, after the Mexican-American War.

- Expat boom -

The mass arrival of US retirees in the past 20 years has boosted San Miguel's economy and fueled a real estate boom.

Real estate broker Salvador Moreno says it is an ideal spot for Americans seeking "the flavor of Mexico" -- colonial buildings, picturesque plazas, burbling fountains, cobblestone streets and the leisurely pace of life they conjure up.

The most expensive homes here sold for around $110,000 in the 1980s, says Moreno, the owner of ABC Realty. Today, the price tag is more like $12 million.

At city hall, there is even a special department to assist foreigners -- 10 percent of the population.

That includes helping them launch and run charitable organizations, said its director, Theresa Guerrero.

Americans "want to repay all the love and friendship that San Miguel has given them," said Guerrero, a Mexican-American from Los Angeles who moved here 15 years ago.

- Soul searching -

Trump's presidency has prompted new soul-searching for some US expats in San Miguel, who have a foot on either side of what has become a deeply politicized border.

"I'm very upset about the situation in the USA and what (Trump) says about Mexicans.... Mexico is my second country," said Laura Kuykendall, a retired lawyer from Cleveland who spends her winters here.

Her friend Amy Wegner, a registered Democrat from Los Angeles, says she shares her concern but agrees with some of Trump's positions.

"I have to agree that I don't want members of gangs coming over, drugs, cartels coming over. I do believe strongly that people that want to come should come legally and with a clean record," she said.

But the 62-year-old former publicist admitted the US depends on its immigrant labor force.

She was visibly moved when she recalled the "absolutely adorable" Guatemalan maid who worked for her for 15 years.

Would she have been kept out by Trump's wall?

"She never said how she arrived. And I never asked," she said.