NARRATION: Since 1999, the number of Americans leaving the United States has more than doubled. A 2016 estimate by the State Department had that number at about 8.7 million Americans. For context, that’s about the size of Virginia, the 12th largest state in the Union.
Many of these expats are Latinos, and they’re moving to Latin American and Caribbean countries. Some of them are seeking to reconnect with their roots and heritage. Others are looking for a better life for their families. And others are following their heart to the ancestral land that calls them.
What makes the move easier is the openness in which some Latin American countries receive American citizens. Mexico has a fast-track approach that allows U.S. citizens to get a one-year temporary residency, with an option to renew. In the Caribbean, Barbados introduced the “Barbados Welcome Stamp,” and it’s a 12-month visa for remote workers who can financially support their stay. This relaxed and welcoming immigration policy plays a part in the story, but are Latino expats contributing to the flourishing of these countries, or to their problems? In this episode I talked to three people about their life-changing decision to move away and leave the American dream behind.
You’re listening to the Pulso Podcast, we’ll be right back.
NARRATION: Bex, Ricardo and Lola are three Latinos who are either getting ready to move, or have already moved to Latin America.
Each of them have unique reasons for leaving the land of the free and finding space somewhere new, or in the case of Bex, a first-generation Latina who is moving to Tequila, Mexico, a place that brings familiar comfort.
Bex Carlos: I’m really excited about it. I think it’s going to be really liberating for me.
NARRATION: Bex is looking forward to the healthy things this move will bring to her life, like peace, sunshine and maybe even the benefits of tasting delicious artisanal tequila at the source.
Bex Carlos: I need something different. That really just gives me, like, time to focus on my mental health. Um, I have so much anxiety living in the United States just because of the state of things. But even just like in normal, like, work culture, you know, it seems like everything is so, like, there’s that sense of urgency and it has to come out now.
And I’m looking forward to being in a place that doesn’t feel so rushed in life.
NARRATION: In Mexico, Bex is looking forward to reconnecting with the community her family is originally from.
Bex Carlos: I feel alive in Mexico in a way that I don’t in the US and I don’t really know where that comes from. Maybe it’s the fact that I-in St. Louis, it is a space that is, like, predominantly, like, Anglo-Saxon and to be able to find, like a Latin or even like a Mexican or even a Latin community is, like, hard. You have to kind of really be searching for it. And with a lot of the gentrification that’s been happening here, it’s harder and harder to find and I don’t wanna have to go looking for my, like, culture or my identity, you know?
NARRATION: I do know. I can tell you from my personal experience, as an immigrant living in the United States, that it’s easy to get lost trying to find where you fit in.
Bex says she’s also looking forward to having more work-life balance.
Bex Carlos: I feel like I’ve had a lot of time like where I’ve just compromised a lot of things that I wanted because I was just like,
“Well I have to work, I have to work, I have to work, I have to work.”
NARRATION: Latin America can be a very enticing move for many U.S. Latinos. Not just for the amazing food, culture and promise of decent weather. There’s also a vibe, and if you’ve ever stayed in Latin America for an extended period of time, you might know exactly what I mean.
Bex Carlos: I think that people in Mexico are so much happier.
Maybe it’s just the sun, you know, maybe when so much sun seeps into your head, you’re just happier. But I feel like in the States, maybe it’s just what Americans do. I feel like we’re so, like “woe is me” about our lives and how everything is going like badly. I don’t know what it is, but I feel like Americans have a harder time seeing the bright side of things.
NARRATION: Ricardo, on the other hand, came to the United States as an immigrant but has recently moved back to his native Colombia, seeking a better life for himself and his family.
Ricardo: I started to think about my future and how I want to, you know, live my life and see my, my child, um, manifest herself through the world.
And I just didn’t think America was the right place at that point.
NARRATION: However unique their reasons to move away, one thing Ricardo and Bex have in common is the need for connection. Whether that is connection to the land, their families or their roots, they all knew that staying in the United States was only keeping them from finding their true selves.
Ricardo, who moved back to Medellín, Colombia with his wife and young daughter, is looking forward to the deeper connection this new location will bring between him and his family.
Ricardo: I’m able to take my daughter away to school, just be able to be there for her, this first six years to me are super important that I spend, um, the most time with her.
I think that United States becomes very difficult for you to actually spend quality time for your kids. And when you have kids, you realize how much time they take and how much energy they take, how much effort they take. But if in the first couple of years you’re not there, It’s almost impossible to make that up later on.
NARRATION: And of course, there’s also the promise of a lower cost of living.
Ricardo: I remember when my parents bought their first house in Pembroke Pines, South Florida. The first house they bought at that time was like $98,000, right?
Now in our generation, you go to school, you have a hundred thousand dollars debt, then you get married, it’s $40,000. Then you get a mortgage that’s now 400 to $600,000. So you’re like stuck in debt for life. And that’s another reason we decided to move out of America because I said to myself and my, how do I-I want a quality of life.
I don’t wanna just be working and getting on debt, on debt, on debt, on debt.
NARRATION: Lola, who formerly described herself as “New Yorican”, moved to Puerto Rico over two years ago, believing she was called back to find her true identity.
Lola: I always had a connection here. I just never thought I would live here. And that’s also another part of the journey too, because I realized that there was a part of me that pushed it aside.
NARRATION: A sense of connection is what got Lola interested in moving to Puerto Rico, but it was her ancestors who came calling for her return to Boriquen in a dream.
Lola: A cousin of mine who was murdered over 30 years ago, he was murdered here. He doesn’t speak to me in my dream, I see him clearly, and I see him as I remember him with his big Afro and his-his basketball jersey. He’s just smiling at me, and-and I’d never dreamt of him before. Never. And so that made me realize that there was something.
NARRATION: And that “something” was the catalyst for Lola’s decision. Before that, she had not touched Puerto Rican soil in over seven years.
NARRATION: It’s easy to fetishize life away from the U.S., especially in a beautiful beachy town like the one Lola lives in now, where the weather is usually perfect. But as she shares, you can’t move out of the United States expecting to live the same lifestyle. Things are going to be different.
Lola: When everything is going smoothly, y la fiesta y el party y hangout, everything is going fabulous. Of course, everybody wants, right, wants to be a part of that, or a lot of people wanna be a part of that. But what about when,
literally, there’s an apagon, or you know, you don’t have water for two days? And, and so there are challenges here. I don’t, I definitely don’t say, “oh, you know, yo me fui and, and everything is beautiful.” What I do say is that my heart already knew that here was home.
NARRATION: With every amazing new experience comes some sort of challenge to get used to. Leaving behind a country where things are open 24/7 or there is always an easy solution, can set you up for the wrong expectation in Latin America.
Besides the mosquitos, and not always having a WIFI signal, or as she calls it “WEE-FEE” — another thing Lola has been adjusting to in her new home is the sound of everyday life in Puerto Rico.
Lola: It’s loud. It’s loud. And sometimes I’ll, I’ll just hear people, like, ask him for the, the neighbor next door. And they’re like, “Flaco!” And I’m like, “OK, could you just tone it down a little bit? Just trying to work in here.” Um, I, I love it. I love it.
NARRATION: Cultural challenges aside, life in Latin America brings a promising opportunity for U.S. Latinos who are looking for a fresh perspective on everyday life.
For Bex that perspective came the morning of January 6th, 2021.
Bex Carlos: Everything that was done during the insurrection is misguided people who care about this country, but I’m like, y’all care about the wrong things. And so just like seeing like, you’re American and I’m American and we’re not part of the same team, uh, I think was a really like the – when the red flag was like, “I need to get outta here.”
NARRATION: Leaving hate and violence behind is also what Ricardo most looked forward to when him and his wife decided to leave the U.S.
And he came across a very clear sign one Mother’s Day while he was shopping in the outskirts of Miami Florida.
Ricardo: So I go to Aventura Mall. I’m not lying to you. I get there. As soon as I open the door to go into the mall, all I hear is bam, bam, bam, ba, ba ba ba! I walked like 10 steps inside. I ran the fastest I’ve ever ran in my life. Obviously, I see the chaos. Afterwards, I felt horrible but it was just like, fight and flight mode. But I was like, man, I, I’m, I’m a father to a four month old baby. I, I have a wife, I’m responsible for my family.
NARRATION: Ricardo and his family moved to Medellin, Colombia shortly after that shooting. If you find that ironic, you are not alone. While Medellin was a hotbed of cartel violence at one point, the city has drastically changed in the post-Pablo Escobar days.
Maribel: Would you say you feel safer there?
Rick: I feel safe here because I know that somebody, if somebody’s gonna do something to me here, it’s mostly cuz oh, they’re gonna rob me for my phone or, or your watch or gimme some money.
They’re not trying to hurt you. If somebody in Columbia wants to kill you, it’s because you’re part of whatever’s on the dark side and they’re gonna kill you.
NARRATION: It’s an interesting perspective I always share when people ask me if it’s safe to go to Mexico. In turn I ask them: “Do you feel safe shopping at the grocery store in your neighborhood? Are you safe at your church?” Because just in 2023 alone, there have been 263 mass shootings reported in the United States, as of May 30th, and things aren’t looking any better.
While some Latinos — like Ricardo — might have great intentions of having a positive effect in their new home town, there are some negatives to the influx of expats arriving in Latin American cities and their decision will affect local communities in a real way.
In a recent trip I took to Mexico City I noticed that there are neighborhoods where it’s more common to see a foreign person than it is to see a local. The food is more expensive there, the vibe is different and even the tacos don’t always taste as good.
So how can Latinos looking to move to Latin American countries help make things better for the local communities, instead of worse?
Lola thinks it starts with bringing something to the table.
Lola: I love this land. Maybe you’ve heard the expression um “Aportar su granito,” which is, you know, put your little, yeah, right? Put your little granito and I say, “I’m here to, to put a bunch of little granitos.”
I make sure that my eggs are from here. I make sure that I’m supporting local, you know? I get my hair done at the local woman who’s from here, generations here, you know.
NARRATION: And Bex thinks it’s about adjusting your attitude and expectations.
Bex Carlos: So I feel like just being able to, like, adapt to the culture that’s already been built and not have to demand anything extra and just allow them to continue doing things the way that they do within reason. I feel like is allowing that, you know? I’m not trying to like move there and automatically, like, stop like aspects of the culture that I have no control over.
NARRATION: Like shops closing early or slower delivery times. Even people arriving late to your social event which you clearly stated a set start time for, and confirmed! Culturally, things just move slower in Latin American cities, especially in smaller towns.
Our very own Pulso team dives into many of these topics on tiktok.
NARRATION: You can find out more about how to have a more ethical impact as you live in or travel around Latin America by following @aroundtheblockwithpulso on TikTok.
(Music transition and short pause)
NARRATION: After the move is over, all the bags are unpacked and the excitement of starting fresh in a brand new environment starts to fade, there is always a bittersweet feeling that follows.
Maribel: What are you thinking you might miss from living in the United States?
Rick: I miss the little things, you know, I miss going with my wife to Costco or, or going to Publix or going to the beach, or going to see the Miami Heat.
NARRATION: I know what you’re thinking, there’s no Costco in Medillin? But where will you get all of your toilet paper from? Bex says she will miss the diversity in food options we have here, and I have to agree with that, if there’s one amazing thing this country has going for it, is the food.
Bex Carlos: I love pho. Like pho is something that I love, like it’s my sick comfort food. And even, like, when I’m not sick, you know? Like, but I already know that that’s not gonna be something I easily get.
NARRATION: Lola says she misses the get up and go lifestyle in New York City.
Lola: Being from New York City. You know, putting on my, my gear and, and just getting out right going with my Metro card, hop on the train. I miss being able to, just get up and go when I want.
NARRATION: There will always be something to miss from our former comfort zone. Take it from me. Even after living here for 20 some years there are still times when I don’t entirely feel at home. But the most important thing is to embrace the challenge that a new place poses, because with every challenge there is always growth.
This episode was Produced by me, Maribel Quezada Smith, it was edited by Charlie Garcia & Liz Alarcon. Audio engineering, scoring & mixing, by Charlie Garcia. Original Music composed by Julian Blackmore. The Hosts of the Pulso Podcast are Liz Alarcon & me, Maribel Quezada Smith