You asked for it…

When I was visiting NOB, one old friend asked for more pictures in my blog, so here is a down payment on that request. My dear wife just got a handy new camera, so you’ll soon see real quality photography. These are just the everyday views I have out walking the dog.

These ornamental grasses were “topped” just before we left; six weeks later, spectacular again
My dog insisted on being included; he enjoys hunting lizards in the hedge wall
Mountains right above my development
Mountains on the other side of the lake, which you can almost see just above the treeline, in the distance

I don’t think that word means what you think it means

So we’re safely back lakeside after our six week adventure NOB. In relaying to our many friends and family how we are doing down here, I often referred to how many Gringos there are lakeside, compared to the Mexican population. I noticed that several people winced when I used that word, as they perhaps had been led to believe it is a slur.

Then I noticed a Facebook discussion about the term Gringo, which repeated the contention it is a slur for Americans, and also dredged up several stories about how the term came to be.

Well, you know me and words, and if you don’t, just drop a “fulsome” or “impact” in conversation the next time you see me, then stand back when I go off. So let’s do some etymological research, shall we?

The common story about the term Gringo tells you it is a specific slur against Americans, evidenced by the signage “Gringo go home” which popped up in several Latin Americans countries in the 20th century, as the US intervened in them. This derivation ties the term to the US invasion of Mexico during the war of 1846-48. One version cites that the US troops wore green, and Mexicans yelled after them “Green go home” which became Gringo. This version fails for the simple reason the US Army wore blue, not green. A second explanation cites that US troops sang a popular song entitled “Green grow the lilacs” (note: there are several other such songs which make the same claim) as they marched through Mexico. Mexicans heard this and started referring to the invading troops as Grin-gros, but could not pronounce the second “r” so it became gringo. While Americans have trouble rolling an “r” as sometimes required in Spanish, Mexicans do not. Furthermore, there is no evidence the US Army used that song as a marching tune at the time. It was popular during the US civil war a few years later, but not during the war with Mexico. Both of these versions share the basis of the term with animosity toward the United States as an invading power, which aligns neatly with those 1950/60/70/80s signs I mentioned.

If these popular stories don’t stand up to scrutiny, what is the origin of the term? Most likely, you already know the answer, you just don’t realize that you know the answer. There is a phrase common to almost all western languages (English, French, Spanish, German, Italian, etc.), a phrase we all use when we hear or see something we simply can not understand. Guessed it yet? How about “It’s all greek to me!”

A variation of this phrase exists in all those languages, and it is meant to convey incomprehensibility. Why? We have the Romans to thank for it. The common language of Rome was Latin, but educated Romans learned Greek and used it to signal their status. Greek is a fairly simple language, but it uses a different alphabet, which renders it especially challenging to the non-speaker. Many Romans who spoke only Latin could still run into Greek texts or speech, and be flummoxed by it, leading to the phrase “it’s all Greek to me.”

But wait, what does this have to do with Gringo, and where’s the proof? In etymology, hard proof is difficult to come by. But the corresponding phrase in Spanish is “hablar en greigo” which is literally “to speak in Greek” and means to be incomprehensible. And there is a Spanish Dictionary published in 1786 which cites the term “gringo” as used for foreigners who have difficulty speaking or understanding Spanish. There are several other citations for the same meaning of the term from the mid 19th century, none of which deal directly with Americans. While Americans started noticing be called Gringos after the war with Mexico, that was probably because they were encountering an existing term, not something created especially for them.

So the obvious and more recent usage of Gringo as an anti-American slur is not the full story.  Sure, someone could use it that way. My Spanish teacher here at lakeside put it this way: “in Mexico, its not the words you say, its how you say them.” She went on to add that Mexicans aren’t as hung up on formal Spanish, they like to use nicknames and diminutives (like the suffix -ita/ito), and they frequently say “please” (por favor). So if you want to call someone a Gringo, just make sure you’re smiling when you say it!

A Matter of Faith

The final leg of our Great American Road Trip included visits to New Hampshire and Maryland.  The former was for the ordination of my brother-in-law as a Deacon in the Roman Catholic Church; the latter for my niece’s Bat Mitzvah.

Newly-minted Deacon Rick Hilton, welcomed by the Bishop

The juxtaposition of these two family events got me to thinking about one thing you bring with you as an expat: your faith. As the famous philosopher Buckaroo Banzai once said, “wherever you go, there you are.” In the context of being an American expat, you bring your faith with you to the new environment, and it will almost certainly be an environment very different from the States.

Take Mexico, for example.  Mexico is an overwhelmingly Catholic country: 91% Catholic according to the 2010 census, making Mexico second only to Brazil worldwide for numbers of Catholics. Every Mexican town has a Catholic church in the main square, and that church is the center of town life. The festival for that church’s patron saint is a major party, and other saints have similar festivals which involve early morning bands, parades, parties, and day or week-long fireworks. Some churches broadcast daily prayers, like a rosary, over loudspeakers for the whole town to enjoy. So Mexico is noisily Catholic.

While Catholicism is prevalent in Mexico, it is not overwhelming. There are growing numbers of younger Mexicans who are culturally Catholic, but whose beliefs and practices more closely resemble the “Nones” NOB. The missing nine percent from the 2010 census belong to a variety of other Christian churches, which have proselytized in Mexico for years.  Most importantly, the Catholic church in Mexico has had a contentious relationship with the federal government in Mexico City, going all the way back to the Mexican War of Reform (1857-1860). During the revolution in the early 2oth century, the Church opposed the socialist groups which consolidated power, and the eventual winner, the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) returned the favor by expropriating Church property and outlawing public displays of religion. By the 1920s, this led to the Cristeros rebellion, which was especially brutal. After this inconclusive conflict, both sides remained combative, but over time a gradual truce developed where the Church was left alone as long as it stayed out of politics. So Catholicism in Mexico may sometimes be out of sight, but rarely out of mind. Learning all this was quite enlightening to this Irish Catholic, and put the culture wars NOB in a different perspective, since the culture wars down in Mexico were real wars!

When choosing where to live as an expat, you’ll need to consider how your faith will fit in with your new country. Lakeside is unique for Mexico in terms of the number and diversity of faith offerings for expats. Having a faith community to welcome you can be a big boost psychologically, and can provide important assistance during the critical early transition period. Likewise, not understanding local religious practices can lead to a rocky start. I have heard more than one expat complain about the noisy Mexican patronal saint celebrations, expressing surprise at something that happens every year on the same date, usually with a big build-up in the weeks preceding!

Especially for Americans accustomed to faith being a personal or private matter, it can be a challenge adapting to other cultures where faith is something very public and shared! Not insurmountable, but still one more thing to consider in deciding to go the expat route.

A video with a side of politics

While we continue our travels across the US (currently in New Hampshire), we try to keep up with news from back home in Mexico. Judy found this embedded video on FaceBook. It is from some media source called CGTN America, of which I have never heard, but it captures some of the different aspects of life around Lake Chapala. It is 16 minutes long, but worth the watch.

What I think is unfair in the video are the several mentions of Americans arriving in Mexico because they disagree with the state of politics in the States. I don’t doubt some expats move abroad for such reasons, but if you are running from something rather than toward something, your expat experience is far likelier to fail.

The bottom line is there are, according to the US government, 10,000 baby-boomers retiring every day for the next 20 years! Most real estate markets in the States have recovered from the real estate bubble many years back, so retirees who need to sell their homes to pay for a retirement place can now do so. Mexico remains close at hand, inexpensive, and fairly welcoming. Thus we’ll see a continuing stream of newbies trying out the expat lifestyle.

An Unwelcome Surprise

Our Stateside mail is delivered to our daughter’s home; she kindly screens it and lets us know if we need to respond to anything important.  We visited her recently, so we got our snail-mail in real time. One afternoon, she said “you got a letter from the IRS…it’s probably nothing; they sent me a survey last week.”

I glanced at the envelope and noticed official notification language, and a an action identification number, and I knew this was no survey. Now everybody dreads hearing from the IRS: they don’t bring good news. I was especially upset because of a past experience; let me explain.

Twenty years ago when I was filing my taxes, I did a worksheet showing my child care expenses (using TurboTax), but when I finished compiling my income, the program informed me that I was not eligible for a child care credit due to how much we earned that year. So I went ahead and filed and received a notification my 1040 was accepted and later deposited my refund.  About three months later, I received an envelope from the IRS. In it was a notice informing me that I had incorrectly filled out my 1040, that I WAS eligible for the child care credit, and attached was a check!

I knew they were wrong. The check had a 30 day expiration date, and I spent that time trying to get ahold of the IRS (before the internet, and before 24 hour call centers). On the last day before the check expired, I cashed it, figuring maybe the IRS knew more than I did, and I sent them a letter re-explaining the whole episode. I soon received a response from the IRS claiming I should NOT have cashed the check, that I was NOT eligible for the child care credit, and that I owed the money back to the federal government immediately WITH INTEREST. Three cents interest, to be exact. I sent them a check; I was tempted to put three pennies in the envelope, but I knew the IRS had no sense of humor, so I added the three cents interest to the check. The next IRS letter acknowledged my payment, but claimed it was deficient, since I actually owed six cents of interest, and I should immediately remit the remaining payment.

I lost patience at this point, and I sent them another letter explaining it was all their fault, I did not owe them anything, and I was not going to respond to them any longer on this issue. Only then did I get a final note saying the matter had been “settled.”

It was with this history in mind that I confronted this new IRS missive. It said I had not accounted for the profits from the sale of my home in 2015, and I should file the appropriate forms and schedules and pay them the appropriate amount, including penalties. The good news was, I took a loss on that home sale, so I owed no taxes. Only in the loopy world of taxes is a loss good news. That was what I filled in on a TurboTax worksheet that year, but apparently it did not generate a form and schedule letting the IRS know, so as far as they were concerned, I owed them money. Here is where the tie-in to being an expat comes in. See, the IRS is very impatient, and since this issue dealt with my 2015 taxes, they demanded I respond within 21 days. And I was in the US on a visit for six weeks.  And my records were all neatly organized and stored in….wait for it…Mexico.

I was literally driving cross-country the next day, so when I arrived in the late afternoon, I called the IRS response phone number and dutifully waited until my call was answered by the next available IRS agent, about 30 minutes. I dreaded this call. I did not have any documentation with me, I did not have easy access to same, and I knew (by reviewing my 2015 1040) that I had not submitted the proper forms, so the best I could hope for was an extension, which would leave this issue hanging over me throughout my trip. I knew that while my paperwork was wrong, I did not owe any taxes. Still, based on my past experience, I did not relish proving that to the IRS.

When an agent came on the call, she asked me a few questions to get to the appropriate case materials, and then asked how she could help. I reviewed with her the instructions on the material the IRS sent me to ensure I understood them correctly. I mentioned that I noticed I had not properly filed the forms, due to an error in my TurboTax worksheet, so I understood why the IRS was looking for a payment.  The agent was silent. I mentioned my documentation was not readily available, but I could retrieve it next month. I said I could quickly file the forms, showing the loss I incurred.  The agent interrupted me at this point, “you took a loss on the sale? How much?” I replied with the sum, and she said, “oh, ok, well let me check this.” She paused for a moment, then returned with “I just took care of it. You will receive a notification that this action is cancelled within a week.” Now it was my turn to be silent. I probably should have said “thanks and good-bye,” but I stammered out “you don’t need any documentation?” She said no, and I relayed that this was most unexpected, but welcome. She laughed, and asked if there was anything else I needed. Pressing my luck, I told her “I bet you don’t hear this very often, but this phone call was the best interaction I could ever imagine with the federal government.” She laughed again, and said, “no, not very often.”

As she promised, the next week I received an official notification from the IRS informing me that the matter was now closed, and I owed them nothing. Judy attributes the near-miraculous outcome to her prayers to the Blessed Virgin; I would be hard pressed to disagree, since I invoked Our Lady of Guadalupe several times myself. On a practical note, American expats still owe federal taxes on all income, and are still liable to the long arm of the US federal government. If you plan to live outside the US, you need to establish a legal domicile in the States, you need a way to receive mail and official notifications, and you need to keep all the same tax records as if you were still in the States.