I was a small-business manager, and she was an executive assistant, and, financially, we always seemed to be just getting by. I was raised in a workaday Midwestern steel town, steeped in the idea that you were your job, which, of course, I resented. She was a San Diego native born to a cross-border Mexican family; by 30, she had experienced half a lifetime of just getting by on menial jobs.
We were together for several years before we found ourselves struggling against a downturn in the economy, unemployment, rising debts, and a new baby. Facing pending financial ruin, and with an eviction notice pinned to our door, our world and relationship began to fall apart. To be honest, our financial lives had been in decline for a few years before the economy tanked, but now all our time became consumed with being new parents and trying to survive.
Maria’s pregnancy hadn’t been easy, which made things more difficult for us both. By the time the baby arrived, she was deep into postpartum depression and I was trying, and failing, to keep it all together for our new family. For the first time in either of our lives, the possibility of homelessness was part of our daily conversation.
One night, over frozen pot-pie dinners, I suggested something I was sure she would reject out of hand. “Let’s move to Tijuana.” Maria replied without pause, “I was thinking the same thing.”
Maybe the cheap rent and cost of living south of the border would give us some room to breathe, along with a chance of putting money back in our pockets. Because our American reality was that we didn’t have enough money to pay the rent, and moving to a different apartment was out of the question. I had about two-thirds of the current amount due in my pocket. In San Diego, all that would get us was evicted. In Tijuana, we reasoned, that money was equal to about six months’ rent. As we were out of options, it was settled: we were moving to Mexico.
The next morning, we began to sell off possessions we hadn’t already sold or pawned. Within a week, we were loading everything that remained into the car and heading down to Tijuana.
South of the border
Living in Mexico is a lot different than living in the States, in a lot more ways than you might think. First, the obvious: it’s less worrisome, financially. In Mexico, most rental agreements are verbal, and deposits are usually very low, if required at all.
After four months of searching, we rented a large, American-style house for a fraction of what our one-bedroom apartment in San Diego had cost. There was a flip side, however. In Mexico, if you default on your rent, the landlord may well walk into the house and start grabbing your things, to sell or keep in lieu of funds owed. Still, with prices this low, and the border crossing less than five minutes away, I figured I’d find a job on the American side, after which things would surely pick up. In Tijuana, this is one of the most sought-after living scenarios: American job, Mexican cost of living.
The author’s two-story 3300-square-foot house in Tijuana rented for just $500 per month, $300 less than the one-bedroom San Diego apartment from which he’d been evicted.
It didn’t take long to realize that moving to TJ wouldn’t improve our lives as much as we thought. Living in Mexico posed challenges, chief among them the fact that, even with the border so close, the wait to cross could be as much as three hours. It turns out that having a job in the States — if you can find one — means crossing in the U.S. before 6:00 a.m. and crossing back into Mexico after 6:00 p.m., regardless of your working hours. And American employers are notoriously unsympathetic to cross-border dilemmas. You need to maintain an American address so that they don’t know that you reside in Mexico; otherwise, with most of them, your application goes to the bottom of the list. It was soon clear that we’d need to make money south of the border. With biting poverty and an overabundance of poorly paid local labor available, that would be difficult — especially for gringos.
We did our best for a while. We tried a lot of different things, including selling homemade food — a common business in Mexico — and gathering up free or inexpensive things from Craigslist and yard sales around San Diego, even items abandoned in alleys. We crossed these things into Mexico to sell at neighborhood sobre ruedas (swap meets).
Within a few months, we were working longer, harder hours than if we’d had regular jobs, but for a fraction of the money. Most days, we did only a little better than break even. On one occasion, after being on the road with the baby the entire day, we were fleeced of the last of our gas money by Mexican border inspectors. We ran out on the side of a dark Tijuana road, three miles from home, and wound up trading a pair of boots, a rocking chair, and some tools for a gallon of gas. That misadventure cost twice what we’d earned from the day’s haul. Taking so many steps backward was frustrating, but we tried to remember that, because of this effort, we weren’t homeless. We were taking care of our child.
In addition to the difficulty of obtaining items to sell, people who buy at the sobre ruedas are muy tocano (as the locals complain while tapping their elbows) — meaning, really cheap. They’re a frugal people, accustomed to doing without, so it’s difficult to sell things unless you can get the items inexpensively. It’s a tough life in Tijuana. Most of our neighbors wondered why “those Americans” would do it willingly.
Among people with options — especially an ability to cross the border — it’s understood that you can live nicely in Tijuana if you have American income: a job in the States, unemployment benefits, Social Security, or welfare. But you can’t make it on Mexican money alone.