I live lakeside in Chapala. In all of Mexico, it’s the most picturesque, comfortable and enlightening place any Mexico-seeking expat could ever hope to find. It’s also quite common (living in paradise) you get drawn into like-minded social media groups.
I try to steer clear of “comment” sections. But a recent conversation erupting on a Ajijic chat site was just too juicy to swipe past. On the surface, it was about a seemly humdrum matter: poop in the lake. The protagonist was a seemingly innocent expat wanting to “doing something” about Lake Chapala and the city’s rainy season raw sewer overflows. This is a common experience across Mexico (and many parts of the US).
This particular topic became one of the website’s most talked-about crises. For an online community that traffics in selling toaster ovens and queries like “Can anyone help me fix my remote control?”, the comments veered to extreme positions I wasn’t expecting.
I took to distilling this vitriolic, sewage–in-the-lake commentary, hoping to find the fault line of when and where we expats turn complaints into activism. While I found no evidence of latent desire for more poop in the lake, it’s clear the expat community is nowhere near common ground on what to do about it. We seem to be caught in a swirl of doubt: being “sensitive” versus “don't waste your time”. The result: with some exceptions, we expat residents sit self-sidelined on issue after issue.
Now a resident of the longest standing colony of Americans living anywhere outside the US, I expected more multicultural activism. A Presidente Municipal whose grandfather was from Wisconsin? It would seem plausible, given generations of lakeside living by Americans and snowbird Canadians. However, we expats are still in another orbit from our Mexican neighbors. As shown by the recent social media uproar, when a community issue arises we too often run for our respective ideological motherships.
Most of us expats are here for the right reasons and will donate to causes in generous fashion. We’re just letting all this sunshine and the well-stocked shelves of Super (market) Lake run our ideologies amuck. For those on one side (liberals?), it’s an abandonment of the credo Think Global, Act Local. In the doo-doo diatribe about Lake Chapala sewage, this group once again shoot themselves in the proverbial huarache. Being “sensitive” (and choosing to do nothing), these folks plop (so to speak) right into the “it’s not our country” cushion of hypocrisy. I do appreciate the one kind soul’s solution: quite simply, we all switch to compost toilets. Bless the 1960’s.
In the other corner (I can’t really say if they are socially conservatives) are those bringing their First World problems and material hang-ups to their new lakeside home. Mexico is a mere coincidental backdrop for living behind a wall, with better weather AND Costco. This group harps about Mexico’s corruption and how nothing is ever going to change. So “why bother” becomes their answer to everything.
It’s not that we invaders only want to save the world one stray dog at a time, or by opening yet another bazaar for dead people’s furniture. We are a damn talented bunch. If you doubt this, spend an hour at our Ajijic Open Circle get-together/lecture some Sunday morning; you’ll meet social crusaders, engineers, architects, teachers, writers, esteemed diplomats and true global citizens. 95% of us are gringos, starved (as is our lot) for information and insight. We are a great generation of listeners and learners, kind of like our parents were just Great.
But how do the “why bother” and the “let’s be sensitive” viewpoints come together? Do we “respect” Mexico and Mexicans when we withdraw to the do-nothing comfort zone? Do we exacerbate the problem when writing off expat activism as futile in the face of bad government, weak institutions and corruption?
I propose it’s time for a communal coming of age for Lake Chapala expats. Learn some Spanish, get your residente permanente visa, vary your dining and drinking routine, make Mexican friends, and find a cause. Hopefully, it’s something more important than another cat rescue shelter.
Maybe then we act with our neighbors in battling shared afflictions. Most Mexicans would cheer our taking notice of public nuisances. Even more would appreciate us working toward solutions.
Pictures, top to bottom:
- Malecon Ajijic
- Lopez Vega mural, Calle Ocampo
- Treasure hunting at Diane Pearl Ajijic