The visitor crossing from Tijuana to San Diego these days is immediately slapped in the face by a huge billboard screaming, “Stop the Border Invasion!” Sponsored by the rabidly anti-immigrant vigilante group, the Minutemen, the same truculent slogan reportedly insults the public at other border crossings in Arizona and Texas.
The Minutemen, once caricatured in the press as gun-toting clowns, are now haughty celebrities of grassroots conservatism, dominating AM hate radio as well as the even more hysterical ether of the right-wing blogosphere. In heartland as well as in border states, Republican candidates vie desperately for their endorsement. With the electorate alienated by the dual catastrophes of Baghdad and New Orleans, the Brown Peril has suddenly become the Republican deus ex machina for retaining control of Congress in the November elections.
A faltering GOP hegemony, too long sustained by the scraps of 9/11 and the imaginary weaponry of Saddam Hussein, now has a new urgency in its appeal to the suburbs. Not since Kofi Annan conspired to send his black helicopters to terrorize Wyoming, has such a clear-and-present danger threatened the Republic as the sinister armies of would-be busboys and gardeners gathered at the Rio Grande.
To listen to some of these demagogues, one would assume that the Twin Towers had been blown up by followers of the Virgin of Guadalupe or that Spanish had recently been decreed the official language of Connecticut. Having failed to scourge the world of evil by invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, Republicans, supported by some Democrats, now propose that we invade ourselves: sending the Marines and Green Berets, along with the National Guard, into the hostile deserts of California and New Mexico where national sovereignty is supposedly under siege.
As in the past, nativism today is bigotry as surreal caricature, reality stood on its head. The ultimate irony, however, is that there really is something that might be called a “border invasion,” but the Minutemen’s billboards are on the wrong side of the freeway.
The Baby-Boomers Head South
What few people – at least, outside of Mexico – have bothered to notice is that while all the nannies, cooks, and maids have been heading north to tend the luxury lifestyles of irate Republicans, the Gringo hordes have been rushing south to enjoy glorious budget retirements and affordable second homes under the Mexican sun.
Yes, in former California Governor Pete Wilson’s immortal words, “They just keep coming.” Over the last decade, the U.S. State Department estimates that the number of Americans living in Mexico has soared from 200,000 to 1 million (or one-quarter of all U.S. expatriates). Remittances from the United States to Mexico have risen dramatically from $9 billion to $14.5 billion in just two years. Though initially interpreted as representing a huge spike in illegal workers (who send parts of their salaries across the border to family), it turns out to be mainly money sent by Americans to themselves in order to finance Mexican homes and retirements.
Although some of them are certainly naturalized U.S. citizens returning to towns and villages of their birth after lifetimes of toil al otro lado, the director-general of FONATUR, the official agency for tourism development in Mexico, recently characterized the typical investors in that country’s real estate as American “baby boomers who have paid off in good part their initial mortgage and are coming into inheritance money.”
Indeed, according to the Wall Street Journal, “The land rush is occurring at the beginning of a demographic tidal wave. With more than 70 million American baby boomers expected to retire in the next two decades… some experts predict a vast migration to warmer – and cheaper – climates. Often such buyers purchase a property 10 to 15 years before retirement, use it as a vacation home, and then eventually move there for most of the year. Developers increasingly are taking advantage of the trend, building gated communities, condominiums, and golf courses.”
The extraordinary rise in U.S. Sunbelt property values gives gringos immense economic leverage. Shrewd baby-boomers are not simply feathering nests for eventual retirement, but also increasingly speculating in Mexican resort property, sending up property values to the detriment of locals whose children are consequently driven into slums or forced to emigrate north, only increasing the “invasion” charges. As in Galway, Corsica, or, for that matter, Montana, the global second-home boom is making life in beautiful, natural settings unaffordable for their traditional residents.
Some expatriates are experimenting with exotic places such as the Riviera Maya in Yucatan or Tulum in Quintana Roo, but more prefer such well-established havens as San Miguel de Allende and Puerto Vallarta. Here the norteamericanos make themselves at home in more ways than one.
An English-language paper in Puerto Vallarta, for instance, recently applauded the imminent arrival of a new shopping mall that will include Hooters, Burger King, Subway, Chili’s and Starbucks. Only Dunkin’ Donuts (con salsa?), the paper complained, was still missing.
The gringo footprint is largest (and brings the most significant geopolitical consequences) in Baja California, the 1,000-mile long desert appendage to the gridlocked state-nation governed by Arnold Schwarzenegger. Indeed, Baja real-estate websites ooze almost as much hyperbole as those devoted to stalking the phantom menace of illegal immigrants – just in a far more upbeat tone when it comes to the question of immigrant invasions.
In essence, Alta (Upper) California is beginning to overflow into Baja, an epochal process that, if unchecked, will produce intolerable social marginalization and ecological devastation in Mexico’s last true frontier region. All the contradictions of post-industrial California – runaway land inflation in the coastal zone, sprawling suburban development in interior valleys and deserts, freeway congestion and lack of mass transit, and the astronomical growth of motorized recreation – dictate the invasion of the gorgeous “empty” peninsula to the south. To use a term from a bad but not irrelevant past, Baja is Anglo California’s Lebenstraum.
Indeed, the first two stages of informal annexation have already occurred. Under the banner of NAFTA, Southern California has exported hundreds of its sweatshops and toxic industries to the maquiladora zones of Tijuana and Mexicali. The Pacific Maritime Association, representing the West Coast’s major shipping companies, has joined forces with Korean and Japanese corporations to explore the construction of a vast new container port at Punta Colonel, 150 miles south of Tijuana, which would undercut the power of longshore unionism in San Pedro and San Francisco.
Secondly, tens of thousands of gringo retirees and winter-residents are now clustered at both ends of the peninsula. Along the northwest coast from Tijuana to Ensenada, a recent advertisement for a real-estate conference at UCLA boasts that “there are presently over 57 real-estate developments… with over 11,000 homes/condos with an inventory value of over $3 billion… all of them geared for the U.S. market.”
Meanwhile, at the tropical end of Baja, a gilded gringo enclave has emerged in the twenty-mile strip between Cabo San Lucas and San Jose de Cabo. Los Cabos is part of that global archipelago of real-estate hot spots where continuous double-digit increases in property values suck in speculative capital from all over the world. Ordinary gringos can participate in this glamorous Los Cabos real-estate casino through the purchase and resale of fractional time-shares in condominiums and beach homes.
Although Western Canadian and Arizona speculators have taken large bites out of Baja’s southern cape, Los Cabos – at least judging from the registration of private planes at the local airport – has essentially become a resort suburb of Orange County, the home of the most vehement Minutemen chapters. (Many wealthy Southern Californians evidently see no contradiction between fuming over the “alien invasion” with one’s conservative friends at the Newport Marina one day, and flying down to Cabos the next for some sea-kayaking or celebrity golf.)
Manifest Destiny, the Sequel?
The next step in the late-colonization of Baja is the “Escalera Nautica,” a $3 billion “ladder” of marinas and coastal resorts being developed by FONATUR that will open up pristine sections of both Mexican coasts to the yacht club set.
Meanwhile, The Truman Show has arrived in the picturesque little city of Loreto on the Gulf side of the peninsula. There, FONATUR has joined forces with an Arizona company and “New Urbanist” architects from Florida to develop the Villages of Loreto Bay: 6,000 homes for expatriates in colonial-Mexico motif on the Sea of Cortez.
The $3 billion Loreto project boasts that it will be the last word in Green design, exploiting solar power and restricting automobile usage. Yet, at the same time, it will balloon Loreto’s population from its current 15,000 to more than 100,000 in a decade, with the social and environmental consequences of a sort that can already be seen in the slum peripheries of Cancun and other mega-resorts.
One of the irresistible attractions of Baja is that it has preserved a primordial wildness that has disappeared elsewhere in the West. Local residents, including a very eloquent indigenous environmental movement, cherish this incomparable landscape as they do the survival of an egalitarian ethos in the peninsula’s small towns and fishing villages.
Thanks to the silent invasion of the baby-boomers from the north, however, much of the natural history and frontier culture of Baja could be swept away in the next generation. One of the world’s most magnificent wild coastlines could be turned into generic tourist sprawl, waiting for Dunkin’ Donuts to open. Locals, accordingly, have every reason to fear that today’s mega-resorts and mock-colonial suburbs, like FONATUR’s entire tourism-centered strategy of regional development, are merely the latest Trojan horses of Manifest Destiny.