Why I Live in Morelia

A better choice for anyone who is trying to decide between San Miguel de Allende and Patzcuaro would be to consider Morelia. It has all that both these towns have – and more. And I’m going to tell you why.

Like me, it’s old shoe.

In Morelia, expats just are. There is critical mass, but they’re scattered throughout the city. Some are retirees, some teach and research, some work at home and on the outside, some spread the word of a Christian god, some are married to Mexicans, some are Mexicans by choice, and some are there only because a loved one found himself unwelcome in the Otro Lado.

The newly-landed go crazy taking photos of every fiesta, parade and barber’s gardener’s third cousin’s wedding, performing good and charitable works, and proclaiming themselves 90-day wonders. Those who’ve been here a while are content to shoot photos of their dogs, friends, and gardens. And food at restaurants, just because taking photos of food has replaced saying a blessing over the repast.

Physicians, Walmart workers, mechanics, and even bureaucrats speak English in this town, but they don’t make a point of bragging about it. They’re content to let a gringo make a muddled but honest effort to speak some Spanish before letting on that the conversation could continue in English. Even the Jehovah’s Witnesses speak English in this town.

There once was a weekly gathering of English-speakers in Morelia, but as the numbers of English-speakers grew in this town, interest in the group dwindled to the point that a monthly meeting met their needs. But what do I know about that? After presiding over that group for two long years in the century last past, I never went back.  I figure I’ve paid my dues.

It’s easy to go days without seeing another gringo, and that’s just fine with the expats who live here. Even those whose Spanish won’t win them any awards.

There’s no AA group branding itself as bilingual, but one can be created at the drop of a need.

Morelia’s the kind of town where the Costco manager will introduce himself, and in English, to customers, asking them how they’re being treated. It’s the kind of place where parking lot attendants remember you. Get yourself admitted to Star Medica in an emergency, and even if you’re speaking enough Spanish, someone in the emergency room will come up and speak English.

This is the kind of town where you can run into people you haven’t seen in a decade, and pick up the conversation right where you left off.  There’s a steady, evenness to this town. Long before moving here, I asked Montgomery Budd, a long-time expat now long since expired, what the business of Morelia was. “Business is the business of Morelia” was his reply. Beyond being the home base for Cinepolis, an enterprise of the Organizacion Ramirez, which is the largest movie chain in Latin America and the fourth largest in the world, Morelia is government, education, and finance. It’s a clean city, a UNESCO World Heritage site, the planned communities of Tres Marias and Altozano, great shopping and greater golf courses, but it’s also a homey kind of place. It’s the kind of place where you can easily go to the same dentist since 1985, go to the same beauty salon for more than a decade and a half, and where you can run into someone who spent a year at Roosevelt High School in Des Moines.

Beyond learning a few words of a language that’s not your native tongue, be prepared to gain some cultural literacy. We have no English-language newspaper published in this town, and copies of news printed in English are limited and expensive. But that’s what the Internet’s for, isn’t it?

You’ll be hard-pressed to find menus written in English in this town. But really, how hard is it to learn how to read a menu in Spanish?

I think that foreigners should be required to take periodic tests on their knowledge of Mexican history and culture. Hell, for all I care, those questions could be grabbed from SRE’s citizenship exam, starting with really easy ones.

A year or so back, I am having breakfast with two expats in San Miguel de Allende. Both have advanced degrees, committed respectable work back in the Old Country, and one is going on and on about some festival or workshop celebrating poetry, ukuleles, and empowered women.  I bring up my exam idea, posing it as gently as I could when they asked what kind of questions might be asked.

For starters, can you name the state capital of the state in Mexico where you live? (Hint: it’s eponymous.)  Uh, San Miguel de Allende? No.

Can you name the current president of Mexico? Is it Cardenas-somebody? No, and it’s not Porfirio Diaz either.

A successful Estadounidense businesswoman comes by to boast about how special and magic the town is. “Everyone’s so bright and special here,” she tells me. She assures me that something bright and special and magic will happen the very minute these people cross the Rio Bravo, and even to those who might sally up from Morelia. I ask her if I’ll become bright and special were I to move to San Miguel de Allende. She promises me that I will. I laugh in her face. I don’t think she appreciated that.

Morelia’s expats prize continuity and substantial investment in their community over excited flurries of novelty. In more ways than one, we mirror the conservatism of the Mexican community. Foreigners who live in Morelia – or anywhere in Michoacán for that matter – aren’t special, don’t feel the magic, and heck, we’re not even feeling particularly entitled. We just are. And that’s what makes Morelia the perfect, Goldilocks kind of place for me.

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27 comments on “Why I Live in Morelia

  1. Tancho says:

    Love it, the magic of SMA is why we only go there once every few years when I need a reason to assure me why we landed in Michoacan.

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  2. In Crossing Over: A Mexican Family on the Migrant Trail, when Rubén Martínez wote,”people can’t wait to get the hell out of Michoacán, and they can’t wait to get the hell back,” he said it all.

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  3. Steve Cotton says:

    Hint: it’s eponymous.

    Young lady, you do know people have been removed from the A list for using words that liberal arts majors never even dreamed existed.

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  4. I doubt that liberal arts majors utter “ukulele” very often, either.

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  5. David Leffler says:

    I had the same barber in New York City for 30 years. When he retired, I felt lost and didn’t know where to go for a haircut. It has been several years, and I still haven’t settled on a satisfactory barber. Perhaps I never will. And while we can maintain long-term relationships with our barbers here in New York City, I think that the connectedness that you describe in Morelia does not exist here in this city. Thanks for a lovely piece, Jennifer. It was warm and comfortable, like an old shoe.

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  6. wkaliher says:

    enjoyed this but with my whiz bang computer abilities I once again failed to post my comment bill

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  7. Don Cuevas says:

    Morelia: love the restaurants. Hate the traffic. But some of our best friends live there, as well as our best doctors, and stores, so we go.

    And, of course, there’s El Templo de Costco, where we attend services at least one a month.

    Saludos,
    Don Cuevas

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  8. John Calypso says:

    “Foreigners who live in Morelia – or anywhere in Michoacán for that matter – aren’t special, don’t feel the magic, and heck, we’re not even feeling particularly entitled. We just are….”

    Absolutely. Were it that everyone knew this – it would get better ;-)

    A TERRIFIC piece even if I did have to think hard about the context of eponymous (I mean I thought I knew what it means ;-) Oaxaca and Xalapa are my Capitols and I knew that ;-)

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  9. Lee says:

    What a refreshing read! I bought into the “special magic” bit for a hot minute until I started encountering other expats who drank the same Kool-Aid and realized that I could never sustain that entitled, patronizing attitude for very long.

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  10. Babs says:

    Lovely article. Were it warmer in Patzcuaro, I would have been living there for the last 13 years. It suits me much better. But, here I stay, like an old shoe!

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  11. Croft says:

    We spent only one night in Morlia. I blame that on the lack of an RV park and when there is a place to stay, we will be back. We spent the night parked in the WalMart parking lot and took a cab downtown where we wandered, ate and took too many photos (including of our food) for a few hours. Our friends Chris and Juan found a water park that let them stay for a few days with electric hookup. That would do for us as well.

    Our visit was somewhat marred by the only dishonest cop we met in Mexico who successfully got cash from us (read, got cash from Norma, I would have held out for several hours) although he did downgrade his demand from $200 US dollars to 200 pesos when I ventured in our dual wheeled motorhome away from the curb lane in order to turn left. A serious misdemeanor according to him.

    I had to look up two words from your post ;). That is good!

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  12. Croft says:

    I also suspect real estate prices in Morelia consist of at least one fewer digit than in SMA. Another plus!

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  13. Kim G says:

    I found Morelia lovely when F and I visited in 2007. The plazas are nice, the air’s clean, and it’s a beautiful place overall.

    Did you ever consider one of the big cities like DF, Guadalajara, Monterrey, ore perchance Mérida?

    Saludos,

    Kim G
    Boston, MA
    Which we’ve always found a smidgen small for our taste.

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  14. No, I never considered the DF, Guadalajara or Monterrey, but Cuernavaca was always on my short list. So, too, was Puebla. I adore Mérida, but it’s too damn hot there. If money were no object, I could easily live in Valle de Bravo.

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    • Kim G says:

      I totally agree with you on Mérida. I lived for three years in Houston, and I’m not sure I could take living the rest of my life in a similar climate. Cuernavaca has a lot going for it, and it’s a LOT cheaper than DF. F and I went to Puebla in 2006, but my memories of it are vague, and we pretty much just saw the area around the main plaza. Oaxaca intrigues me too, though I’d have to spend some more time there to get a better feeling for it. I’ve never been in Valle de Bravo, but I guess it’s kind of the “Lake Tahoe of Mexico,” prices included, and without any skiing, of course.

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  15. Don Cuevas says:

    I love Oaxaca, but that’s from the POV of a visitor, as I’ve never spent more than 3 weeks there, and then only in winter.

    Saludos,
    Don Cuevas

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  16. Tony says:

    You love Morelia for the same reasons I do. Although, we aren’t there as much as we used to be, Morelia will always be a special place for us.

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  17. Foreigners (i.e. Gringos and Canucks) who live anywhere in Michoacán do not “feel the magic”? Au contraire. We have quite a few of them in the Pátzcuaro area.

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  18. Kathleen M. Neylan says:

    Jennifer, this was a fun read, indeed. Elkader had the distinction this week of being the coldest place in Iowa. Kathleen

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  19. Kathleen, what a surprise to hear from you! I remember what you went through when Elkader had the 100-year flood, the 500-year flood, and the 1000-year flood in what seemed to be practically consecutive years.

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  20. I am going to visit Morelia for the first time in about a month and a half. It’s been quite some time since I have been to Mexico and am concerned about safety as I heard that for awhile it was getting dangerous in Morelia. Can you tell me if that is true and do you feel safe there?

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  21. mounddweller says:

    Red Shoes,

    Although I’ve been reading your blog for some time, this is my first comment. I really enjoyed this post. I read it after reading your more recent post comparing San Miquel de Allende to Patzcuaro. From both of these posts I’ve confirmed that I won’t fit in with most of the expat crowd in SMA, may very well fit in and like Patzcuaro (Felipe, over at The Unseen Moon, and I seem to agree on most things), and should add Morelia to my list of possible retirement havens. I look forward to your future musings.

    Regards,
    Troy

    Like

  22. Marvin Lehrer says:

    Just came across this – wonderful! You’ve got it in down. Too many people live in their head and try to figure things out (thinking tht everything MUST have an explanation – and live vicariously. There’s no perfect place, but like you say, old shoes fit the best. Thanks

    Like

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