Try Smiling

There’s a joke (una broma) that Mexicans in other parts of Mexico tell among themselves, I learned this week, that goes something like this: If you want to visit San Miguel de Allende, you’ll need to get a U.S. visa.

In other words, Mexicans themselves don’t think of SMA as being in Mexico, it’s so overrun with us Norteamericano gringos.

This broma, like most jokes, contains a large grain of truth. In the eight years I’ve lived here, I’ve often heard SMA being referred to as “Mexico Lite” and “Gringolandia.” In fact, in 2010 the director Dennis Lanson made a video titled “Gringolandia” about this very fact (

According to the most recent estimates, we expats represent only about 10 percent of the residents of San Miguel, but our presence seems to me to be outsized. We gringos are everywhere, all the time – in all the many restaurants, boutiques, stores, galleries, parks, narrow sidewalks, busy streets — perhaps because we’re either tourists taking in all that SMA has to offer or we’re living here as retirees, no longer tethered to stifling offices or running in circles in the U.S. rat race. We’re free (at last!) and savoring every minute in this stunning, old, proud, historic city.

“Surely this influx of gringos benefits the economy and therefore the locals’ lives?” I asked my source, who was born and raised in San Miguel and has lived here all her life. Her response was somewhat equivocal: Yes, but. The jobs that are engendered for Mexicans here, she explained, unlike in other cities such as Queretero, which has been attracting large industry, are mostly in the service sector – maids, gardeners, waiters, taxi drivers, manual laborers – which earn low incomes. So there’s a deepening divide.

As I understood my source (she speaks in fast Spanish), too few extranjeros (foreigners) even try to learn to speak Spanish or to engage with the Mexican community. Many do, of course; but many more could but don’t. Those who don’t make the effort appear to set themselves apart from – even above – Mexican nationals, as if they see themselves as kings and queens on their own imaginary thrones. The reality is none of us are kings or queens. Not here, not anywhere.

One of the enduring takeaways for me from my experience serving in the U.S. Peace Corps in my early fifties was the fact that we were told repeatedly in our training to consider ourselves as guests in our host country. We were strongly advised to always behave as appreciative guests.

We were there to learn and share, to make friends and to build bridges, not to lord it over others or tell them what to do. In our two years of Peace Corps service we learned respect for other ways of living and being, in addition to learning how to converse in the local language. As most returned Peace Corps Volunteers will tell you, this experience was beyond enriching.

Stock photo: Racool_studio on Freepik

Every gringo friend of mine in San Miguel gives back in gratitude in every way possible – from contributing generously to charitable organizations, to volunteering her time to helping others, or in teaching English to young people. And we’re all learning (at least struggling to learn) to speak Spanish in our old age. But more of us extranjeros, I feel, could (and should) follow suit, even on a small scale.

One American friend, the most giving person I know, who’s been an enormous inspiration to me, keeps a bag of 10-peso (the equivalent of about 55 US cents) coins in her pocket and gives one to every poor person sitting in a bundle on the sidewalk with a hand out. Every single such person she passes on the street.

My friend doesn’t concern herself with what the recipient does with that money (alcohol? drugs? tortillas for the family?); it’s not for the giver to control that outcome, she believes. She puts the coin in the person’s hand (not in the hat or jar) and greets them in Spanish, acknowledging their humanity.

It doesn’t take much to say thank you to the big-hearted, good-natured, often-smiling Mexican people who have taken us in. Gracias is a simple word to remember and to use. Muchisimas gracias (thank you very much) is an even better expression.

And, if all else fails, just look into the smiling faces of the local people you see every day and say thanks with a slight nod and a genuine smile. This small gesture, I feel, made by enough of us, might even help to close the widening divide.

20 thoughts on “Try Smiling”

  1. Bonnie, Gracias for this “once again, hit it on the nail” commentary on our mutual need as “gringo guests” in San Miguel de Allende to respect and enjoy the great opportunity we have. While owning a home and living in San Miguel at least six or seven months out of the year (until we sold our house) I felt it a privilege to learn Spanish ,to interact with the Mexican community–it was why I was here, to enjoy that benefit of being part of and immersed in “another” culture. My husband and I made deep, personal connections with at least three families. I had the joy of teaching Spanish to a young woman from the time she was twelve and now she is ready to graduate from university with her degree in engineering—I am as proud of her as I would be of my own children and grandchildren. Everyday that I have to return to San Miguel as a “guest” and “amiga” to my Mexican friends enriches my life more! And like your other friend, we, too, make it a point when in San Miguel to keep coins in our pockets to give to those way less fortunate than us–an important reminder how lucky we are to have the means to be there. Thank you for writing this reminder for us all.

  2. What a wonderful admonition for us expats. Everything is so true. We need to at least try to learn the language even though it’s hard for us older ones. Thank you Bonnie

  3. I was quite taken aback by the comment made in Pat Hall’s referenced article. -“volunteering abroad takes jobs away from locals and encourages local governments to rely on free labor.” I’ve never thought how the Government authorities could take advantage of this generosity.
    Your article, Bonnie, is a necessary reminder, that none of us are superior simply because of where we were born. We are simply lucky!
    Also, a smile is the most gracious of human communication.

    1. Thank you, dear Loula, for your always-sensitive-and-insightful response. Yes, I took exception to some of what was in that article too; but to each his/her point of view. I do think it’s way past time that Americans got over their superiority complex. It’s so unwarranted.

  4. Beautiful piece, BonnieDear. The Mexican people are so impressive. They have welcomed Americans to their city because they have generous hearts, not because it’s to their financial benefit to do so. Isn’t it wonderful to live in such a place? xoxo ~ Be

    1. Yes, so true, BeDear. From my eight-year observation, I’ve found that Mexican people have a wonderful live-and-let-live approach to life. They’re impressively tolerant and patient with others — even with us gringos.

  5. Dear Bon,
    I’m sure you are the perfect guest in SMA, but we all know that Americans vary widely. I’ve never seen any examples in your posts about Americans behaving badly, but it must happen. Your friend with the 10 peso bag and you with your volunteer work have the right idea. If all the American guests did the same, it would only promote goodwill.

    1. Ah, Paul dear, I’m never the perfect anything. But goodwill is always a good aim. My friends and I feel so grateful to be here; it’s always a topic of conversation when we get together. — LU2, BB xx

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