Mexico City, a paradise for American workers, not locals

(CNN Business) — Sandra Ortiz has a hard time talking about her family’s restaurant without tearing up.

“They came and told us they had five minutes to get everything out,” Ortiz said, recalling his family’s evacuation in February.

Ortiz, 55, and his four brothers took over Torteria Colima from their father, who started it as a bakery in 1968. The brothers expanded it into a restaurant, which became popular among locals in Mexico City.

Sandra Ortiz, 55, and her siblings are unable to maintain their family restaurant due to the rising cost of living.

For 54 years, the Ortiz family ran their business from the ground floor of a four-story building in a bustling corner of the increasingly desirable Colonia Roma.

But in recent years, the family has seen the society around them change. The influx of foreigners, mostly from the United States, prompted Mexican owners to renovate their properties to accommodate better newcomers. Ortiz saw visitors and tourists suddenly become full-time neighbors.

“The prices are too high,” he said. “It’s difficult because there are a lot of these foreigners coming in and there’s a lot of money to spend on these apartments and rent.”

Ortiz’s landlord followed a commercial course. The family fought back and tried to keep their place, but after a long legal battle, they were finally evicted in February. When they were chased away, more than half a century’s worth of stuff piled up on the street. The building is currently being converted into high-end apartments.

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“It hurts so much… they hurt me so much,” Ortiz said as she washed dishes with her two sisters. Now they work in another restaurant, no longer as owners, but as employees, in a much less central location than Torteria Colima.

Ortiz acknowledged that the crippling effects of Covid-19 and rising global inflation have worsened the situation, and he doesn’t blame foreigners for wanting to visit Mexico City. But he worries that as more American foreigners move in, more locals will be pushed out.

While renovations are underway on the floors above his restaurant, which is now closed, across the street is a shop with a sign that is attracting new residents. “Hello Mexico City!” That’s what the board says… yes, in English.

For more than 50 years, Ortiz and his four brothers ran the restaurant, which was popular among locals, but as prices rose, it became unaffordable for the family.

“Please leave, we don’t want you here!”

It’s not hard for locals to understand the appeal of moving from the US to Mexico City.

“It’s good, your money is worth more here, you can live in a nice and big house or apartment, make a better life,” said Fernando Bustos Gorospe. “But here there is no interest in understanding the local culture.”

Bustos Gorozpe is a university professor born and raised in Mexico City. He noted that because Mexico has fewer border controls than other countries, the trend of American expatriates traveling to Mexico’s capital has accelerated with Covid-19. That coincided with the number of US companies allowing their employees to work remotely. Many chose to do so south of the border, in Mexico City.

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The US State Department reports that 1.6 million US citizens live in Mexico. But he doesn’t know how many people live and work there on tourist visas. The Mexican government also doesn’t track that data, but it has recorded more than 5.3 million U.S. tourists who visited Mexican airports from January to May 2022. This is nearly a million more than the same period in 2019.

The State Department says 1.6 million US citizens live in Mexico. More than 5.3 million American tourists flew to Mexico between January and May 2022.

Real estate agent Edita Norejko said she receives dozens of calls a week from Americans about moving to Mexico City.

“Mostly it’s coming from Los Angeles or New York City,” he said, adding that most want to avoid the rising cost of living in the U.S. and take advantage of the strong exchange rate.

In 2014, Norejko, a native of Poland, and her husband, Eduardo Alvarez, from Mexico City, created a real estate company with expats in mind. They say 70% of their business comes from customers outside of Mexico, who prefer to live in the nation’s capital.

“There are a lot of benefits for foreigners living in Mexico City,” said Norejko, referring to the tourism revenue generated by Americans traveling to Mexico. “We need them.”

In the first five months of 2022, tourism from US travelers generated nearly $11.5 billion in revenue for Mexico, according to the country’s tourism ministry. It is on track to surpass pre-pandemic levels.

“It’s money coming in, but it ends up in the hands of a few,” Bustos Gorozpe said. “And local residents are moving out because they can no longer pay for the more expensive areas.”

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In neighborhoods like Roma and Condesa, cute cafes and trendy restaurants now cater to English-speaking expats. Bustos Gorospe noticed that fewer foreigners were making an effort to speak Spanish and, in some cases, assumed that locals could understand English. This led to growing frustration among some residents.

“Of course, it’s not like ‘we hate outsiders,'” Bustos Gorozpe said.

But Bustos Gorosbe says the signs posted in a cultural community reveal growing anger.

“They said, ‘Please leave, we don’t want you here!’

Digital nomads

Eric Rodriguez paid $2,500 for a studio when he lived in San Diego, but today he says he only pays $800 a month for a one-bedroom apartment in Mexico City.

Eric Rodriguez, 37, is among the American expatriates who have arrived in Mexico City in recent months.

Rodriguez first traveled to Mexico City as a tourist and now lives in the city and works remotely as an economic development analyst for a US-based agency.

Although his grandparents were born in Mexico, Rodriguez admits he wasn’t in Mexico City to rediscover his roots or improve his little Spanish. He is there to save money while enjoying a quality lifestyle.

“In San Diego, my apartment (a studio) is maybe $2,500 (a month),” he said. “I have a one-bedroom apartment here, and I pay $800 a month.”

Rodríguez and other so-called ‘digital nomads’ find themselves in city cafes or parks, laptops open, busy at work. When he first arrived in Mexico City, he said, he felt welcome.

“We want people to come here to stimulate the economy. I think there’s a sense of ‘thank you for being here.’ But I know there have been complaints recently from locals about the effect foreigners living here have had on their own lives,” he said.

Rodriguez says he’s not sure if he’ll be in Mexico much longer. But, he added, “it’s starting to feel like home.”

Eden Hayes

"Wannabe gamer. Subtly charming beer buff. General pop culture trailblazer. Incurable thinker. Certified analyst."

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