Mexico comes with obvious benefits to those who live here or know the truths about the country; however, it is currently suffering from an image problem. It has dropped in International Living’s list of top places to retire. All the bad press about the highest number of murders in history is causing a lot of people to rethink visiting or relocating to Mexico. Rampart crime by the drug cartels is widespread, affecting all areas of Mexico. In previously popular places like Acapulco and now Cancun the drug cartels are totally in control and there are many places even the police won’t go. The idea of having a peaceful, no stress, vacation is quickly disappearing. Tourists are warned to only stay in their guarded hotels and not venture out, especially at night.
None of this is being helped by the President’s recent decision to disband the Tourist Board. Mexico is in strong competition from other Latin American countries, like Panama, which has the best retirement plan in the world, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Argentina and others who have well-funded tourist campaigns that work. Right now tourist numbers for people who have traditionally vacationed here in Mexico are dropping like a stone. The only increase is with tourists from Japan, which may only be because they aren’t as aware of all the negative publicity about Mexico.
The millions of dollars spent by people visiting or relocating to Mexico is critical to the local economy. The other major factor is that the average amount of money being spent by overseas tourists is less than half what Canadians and Americans spent. This means that the decline in tourist numbers is not as critical as the decline in spending per person.
Although the new President has promised to reduce violent crime and corruption in the government, these things are historical and will not be solved quickly. By his own admission, it might take his six-year mandate to make a difference. Mexico can’t wait that long to get back in people’s good books and improve the currently disastrous image for the country. Something radical needs to happen, and quickly.
That brings up the idea of making Mexico an officially bilingual country, Spanish and English. Right now there are an estimated one million Americans living in various parts of Mexico. Add the increasing number of Canadians and Brits who have moved here, primarily because of the wonderful climate, which for those folks is a dream come true compared to their own countries hostile climate. All still a small percentage of the Mexican population, but an important one when you look at how many dollars they bring with them.
The number of Expats now living here in Mexico is suspect because it is also reported that up to eighty percent of Americans are living here illegally. No question that figure is grossly overstated; however, unlike many other countries in Central and South America, people here are rarely stopped and asked for their “papers”. In Panama, for just one example, you can’t travel more than a few kilometers on any major highway without getting stopped by a heavily armed officer demanding your papers. If you are caught in the country illegally you get deported immediately, plus you pay huge fines and bribes when you leave. Not so here in Mexico.
The other issue affecting the legal status of those living here is the immigration process. As many people do, you can come on a six-month tourist visa. which you usually pay a small fee for as part of your airline ticket. If you decide you want to stay in Mexico you need to apply for your temporal or permanente visa from outside the country, then complete the process within thirty days when you return. The issue with applying for visas is the vast difference in how various Mexican embassies and consulates apply the laws. In some cities they are known to be very lax, especially when it comes to income requirements and in others they are very stringent. In a recent case in Laredo someone qualified with an income of four hundred US dollars a month, far less than the law requires.
To qualify for a temporal visa your income must be forty times the minimum wage and this was just increased from about eighty pesos to around a hundred and twenty pesos, so the requirements went up substantially. The income requirements for a permanente are much higher and very few pensioners qualify. Completing the temporal process can be complicated, often requiring the assistance of an immigration consultant or a lawyer. Even if you are approved you must then pay about four thousand pesos a year until you apply for your permanente. Right now you get your permanente automatically but this may change under the new President.
So, back to the language issue.
According to Wikipedia:
“The second most spoken language in Mexico, however, is English. It is used extensively at border areas, tourist centers, and large metropolitan areas, a phenomenon arguably caused by the economic integration of North American under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the immigration phenomenon and the return of workers and their families from the United States. In border cities, American TV and radio waves in English (and Spanish) are received as much Spanish-speaking radio and TV stations from Mexico on the US side of the border, thus a bilingual cross-cultural exchange is at work.”
If there is any frustration living in Mexico it is the lack of services available in English, the second most popular language spoken here. From websites, such as Mercado Libre, which has no translation, Amazon Mexico, which only has limited translations on items they want you to buy, but no translation for any help, to companies like Telcel, who take thousands if not millions of dollars from English speaking customers, but have no translation available anywhere on their website or their chat help. On a recent visit to one of their largest offices here in San Antonio Tlayacapan with ten agents working I was told I could only deal in Spanish.
In many areas of Mexico, particularly major tourists areas, English is widely spoken, including here in most areas of Lakeside. Although not always, in stores like Walmart or Soriano you can usually find someone who understands English, or with limited Spanish and hand signals you can usually figure it out. As in most of the Spanish speaking countries, commerce usually dictates the level of understanding. Everyone understands money.
That is not the case when it comes to dealing with any level of the government, a frustrating process at best. Everyday transactions like getting a driver’s license or paying your taxes are often impossible if you are not fluent in Spanish. Even Immigration hands you all these documents in Spanish, along with website links that, if they work at all, are only in Spanish.
Just for argument sake, the population of Mexico right now is just over one hundred and thirty million. Let’s assume that based on all the misleading, and no doubt incorrect numbers for immigrants living here, there are more like two million English speaking permanent residents. Then let’s add the number of English speaking business owners who are permanent residents or Mexican citizens now. Based on economic reports that number could be as many as another million with many business owners having been here for decades. Then let’s add all the international companies who do business here in Mexico, whose local distributors, dealers, employees, agents or representative speak primarily English. Hard to come up with that number but let’s include that in the number for business owners, increasing that number to two million.
Now let’s add tourists. According to recent media reports, and I quote:
“Last year saw a total of 35 million visitors to Mexico, an increase of 9 percent over the previous year, bringing in $19.6 billion in revenue, according to the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO). That result brought Mexico close to world-ranked seventh-place, with only the United Kingdom having 600,000 more visitors than Mexico in 2016.”
So now just to keep the math simple let’s assume that about forty million people who speak English as their first language. That would mean about three percent of the population. A small percent, yes, but also consider the economics. Poverty in Mexico is rampant, with the government’s own estimate being that forty percent of the population lives below the poverty line. If you view language in purely economic terms then you would eliminate those people from the total population, or down to ninety million. That then means that English speaking people are closer to forty percent.
Radical idea, and possibly arguably by many, what effect would adding English as an official language be?
Having grown up in Canada, a country with two official languages, English and French, there have always been passionate arguments for and against, mostly because French-speaking people mostly live in Quebec and parts of Manitoba and New Brunswick, meaning it really isn’t a national language spoken in all areas of the country. Not surprisingly the cost to Canadians for bilingualism is 2.4 Billion dollars a year! That is only the costs incurred by the Federal and Provincial governments. Add the cost to goods and services where everything from packaging to websites to customer service must be available in both languages. Then add the Quebec government’s language laws that everything from signage to menus must only be in French. That certainly ruffled a lot of feathers and made a lot of people encourage Quebec to go ahead and separate.
The same would hold true for Mexico but it would depend on how far the law goes. English is taught in most schools so that generation won’t have any trouble getting jobs when English is required. Not true for existing government employees so a training program would need to be established as it was in Canada to teach French, unfortunately, something rarely used in government there. Having government services available in English would be a start plus it would have significant benefits to the image of Mexico. It could be the only Spanish speaking country to embrace English as a second language, a significant indicator to the world at large.
Then it turns to private industry to either adopt the measures voluntarily or be legislated. Smart companies would realize the benefits and start training their staff in English. It would probably start as not much more than token support because companies like Walmart are not suddenly going to train all their staff. In the same vein, manufacturers are not suddenly going to have bilingual labels on their products. That being said though, there are a lot or imported products that are only in English, so the reverse would be true and they would need to add Spanish. A smart voluntary move would be to add a translation to their websites and be able to deal in English with their customers who ask for help. Once companies see the benefits of adding English to goods and services the move would gain momentum.
Unlike many other countries, an important aspect of the language issue here in Mexico is that Mexicans do not have any disdain for people who speak English and struggle with Spanish. In my experience in other countries if you don’t speak Spanish you are not welcome and you can’t function. The locals in those countries consider it an insult that you don’t speak Spanish. That’s not the case here in Mexico at all. Yes, they like it when you try, but they will still do their best to understand your broken Spanish or what little English they understand. Just another part of what a warm, welcoming people they are here in Mexico.
Might be time for AMLO to float a trial balloon on adding English as an official second language to gauge the reaction and support?