An American citizen client we recently moved to Mexico reported to me with sadness that his son told him that because my client was no longer living in the US, my client was no longer “an American.”
This is not an uncommon accusation and one that even some expats living here in Mexico in their private moments struggle with. Can you still be “American” while living outside the US?
The answer would, of course, depend on how one defines “American.” If you believe that to be American you must physically live within the geographical political boundaries of the USA, then the answer is simple: if you live anywhere that is not within the physical boundaries of the United States, then by definition, irrespective of how you act, you are no longer American, even though you keep your US citizenship, vote in US elections, pay US taxes, etc.
I don’t believe that.
Expats in Mexico CHUCK BOLOTIN
And, according to my reading of the Declaration of Independence, the Founders of the US didn’t believe that, either. The Declaration of Independence (and what is more “American” than the Declaration of Independence?) begins with universal principles, not in any way subject to geography.
If you haven’t read the Declaration recently, it’s worth a refresher in that even the first several sentences are arguably the most brilliant universal political statements ever made.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Does this statement contain anything about geography? If so, I missed it.
Then if geography doesn’t define what it is to be American, what does?
Jet Metier and Chuck Bolotin with Mexican children at Festival of the Virgin of Guadalupe
I believe to be American is defined by the American attitude, American values and American culture identified by the Declaration and then infused into and consistent with how it is to “act American.” If one believes and acts according to the principles of the Declaration, then one is “American” in the way that matters—how they are as a person — regardless of where they are physically located.
In the four and a half years we have lived in Mexico, we have, of course, seen how those from the US interact with the local Mexicans. I must admit that, before witnessing this myself, I had some trepidations about how “we” would act. Thankfully, this was a fear that was wholly unwarranted.
Almost without exception, we have never seen an “Ugly American”; quite the contrary. Seeing how the Americans in Mexico act has made us extremely proud to be Americans. Americans who live in Mexico are almost without exception kind, gracious, and extremely beneficial to the locals, volunteering and helping out everywhere. We have Americans donating libraries, building schools, helping the handicapped, etc. You can be proud of how “America” is represented by the actions of people who came from the US to live in Mexico and how Americans are viewed by the locals.
Jet Metier with young Mexican man in Mexico with Philippines t-shirt
Why Americans act this way can be found in the universal values in the Declaration and lived by generations of Americans after that, whether American because they were born in the United States, or because they came to the US looking for a better life, i.e., to a place that is governed by the principles stated in the Declaration. And it’s not just that some men created the Declaration of Independence and then forced everyone to abide by it; the Founders were just stating what they believed to be true and the rest of us used the gift of this construct to build a country and a culture around those principles, imperfectly, of course, but different from how other countries built theirs.
What happened to this construct of the American way of acting? It created an American character that was shared by many (but not all) living within the physical boundaries of the US, and the value of this construct also spread to other places not within the physical boundaries of the US. In places that do not have the American way of acting as described by the Declaration of Independence, their people have seen what “acting American” can achieve, and they want it, too.
In the roughly one year we spent traveling through Mexico and afterwards, we have been fortunate to interact with lots of local Mexicans, including a young Mexican man and his wife who ran a tiny roadside carwash in an out-of-the-way village in Baja California Sur, about an hour from La Paz. As this young man explains in the video, he has three jobs: he manages a restaurant, helps his wife in their local bakery, and he has the car wash, of which he is the founder, CEO, Chairman of the Board, and along with some part time help from his wife, the only worker. When I asked him which of his three jobs he liked best, without a second of hesitation, he told me he liked the car wash the best. When I asked him off camera why, he told me because the car wash was the one in which he was working for himself and the one in which he had the chance, if he worked hard and provided a good service to his clients, to build into something more.
Mexican car wash owner in Baja California
So who is more “American” in his attitude and values, this young Mexican man who has three jobs and treasures the most the job where he created his own business, or, for example, a young man of the same age born and living in the US who plays video games all day in a room at his parent’s house and complains that others are not doing enough for him?
In my view, the Mexican business-owner is more “American.” He is not waiting for others to help him or blaming his circumstances on anyone. He is self-reliant, works hard, and the only time he asks for money from others is after he provides them a service. Could it be that this Mexican is pursuing the American dream? I would say definitely “yes”, the same as my ancestors who came to America and made me “American.” All he or they asked was for the freedom to work hard at whatever they wished and keep enough of what they created to build a better life.
So, does our client have to worry that he is no longer American just because he lives in Mexico? I don’t think so. I just think he has to explain the idea of “America” to his son, without the map.
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In 2016, my wife and I decided to try life abroad; selling, giving away, or putting into storage anything that wouldn’t fit into a large, white van, in which we and our two dogs toured the best-known expat areas in Mexico, staying in vacation homes along the way, all while knowing very little Spanish. More recently, I created Best Mexico Movers to move our clients’ household goods to and from Mexico. It is from this background and perspectives that I write for you about life and retirement abroad. I hope you enjoy it.