Mexico City is becoming a ‘work from home’ haven for American expats, but locals are overpriced

By David Culver and Karol Suarez, CNN

Sandra Ortiz struggles to talk about her family’s restaurant without bursting into tears.

“They came in and told us we had five minutes to get it all out,” Ortiz said, recalling his family’s eviction in February.

Ortiz, 55, and his four siblings had taken over Tortería Colima from their father, who started it as a bakery in 1968. The siblings expanded it into a restaurant, which became popular among residents of Mexico City.

For 54 years, the Ortiz family ran their business on the ground floor of a four-story building, located in a bustling corner of the increasingly popular Roma district.

But in recent years, the family has seen the community around them change. An influx of foreigners, mostly from the United States, prompted Mexican landlords to renovate and remodel their properties to accommodate the wealthier arrivals. Ortiz saw visitors and tourists suddenly become full-time neighbors.

“The prices are much higher,” she said. “It’s difficult because a lot of these foreigners are coming, and they have a lot of money to spend on these apartments and rents.”

The owner of the Ortiz followed the commercial trend. The family tried to push back and keep their space, but after a long legal battle they were finally evicted in February. More than half a century of personal effects were piled up on the street as they were evicted. The building is currently being renovated into high-end apartments.

“A lot of pain… They hurt me a lot,” Ortiz said, washing the dishes alongside two of her sisters. They now work in another restaurant – no longer as owners but as employees – in a much less central location than Tortería Colima.

Ortiz admitted the crippling effects of Covid-19 and rising global inflation have made the situation worse, and she doesn’t blame foreigners for wanting to visit Mexico City. But she fears that as more American expats arrive to stay, more locals will be evicted.

While renovations are underway on the floors above their now closed restaurant, across the street is a storefront with a sign appealing to new residents. It reads: “Hello Mexico!” … In English.

“Please leave, we don’t want you here!”

It’s not hard for locals to understand the allure of moving from the United States to Mexico City.

“It’s nice, their money is worth more here, they can live in a really nice and big house or apartment, create a better life,” said Fernando Bustos Gorozpe. “But it’s not like there’s any point in participating and understanding the local culture here.”

Bustos Gorozpe is a university professor who was born and raised in Mexico City. He noted that the trend of American expats traveling to the Mexican capital accelerated with Covid-19, as Mexico had fewer border restrictions than other countries. This has coincided with a growing number of American companies allowing their employees to work remotely. Many chose to do so south of the border in Mexico City.

According to the US State Department, 1.6 million US citizens live in Mexico. But he doesn’t know how many live and work there on tourist visas. The Mexican government also doesn’t track this data, but it recorded more than 5.3 million American tourists flying into Mexican airports from January to May 2022. That’s almost a million more than the same period in 2019.

Real estate agent Edyta Norejko said she receives dozens of calls every week from Americans asking to move to Mexico City.

“It very often comes from Los Angeles or New York,” she said, adding that most are looking to avoid the rising cost of living in the United States and take advantage of a strong exchange rate.

In 2014, Norejko, originally from Poland, and her husband, Eduardo Alvarez, originally from Mexico City, started their real estate company with foreigners in mind. It is said that around 70% of their business comes from clients outside of Mexico who aspire to live in the country’s capital.

“Foreigners living in Mexico City have many advantages,” Norejko said, referring to tourism revenue generated by Americans traveling to Mexico. “We need them.”

In the first five months of 2022, tourism by American travelers generated nearly $11.5 billion in revenue for Mexico, according to the country’s tourism secretary.. It is on track to surpass pre-pandemic levels.

“It’s money that comes in, but only ends up in the hands of a few people”, Bustos Gorozpe. “And the inhabitants find themselves displaced because they can no longer pay for these areas which have become very expensive.”

In neighborhoods like Roma and Condesa, charming cafes and trendy restaurants now welcome English-speaking expats. Bustos Gorozpe noticed that fewer foreigners made the effort to speak Spanish and, in some cases, assumed that locals needed to understand English. This has led to growing frustrations among some residents.

“Of course it’s not like, ‘We hate outside people,'” Bustos Gorozpe said.

But Bustos Gorozpe said signs posted in a gentrified community express growing anger.

“They read, ‘Please leave, we don’t want you here!'”

Digital Nomads

Among the American expats who have flocked to Mexico City in recent months is Erik Rodriguez, 37.

Rodriguez originally traveled to Mexico City as a tourist, and now lives in the city and works remotely as an economic development analyst for a US-based agency.

Although his grandparents were born in Mexico, Rodriguez admitted he was not in Mexico to rediscover his roots or improve his Spanish, which he speaks little of. He’s there to save money while enjoying a quality living environment.

“In San Diego, my apartment (a studio) was probably $2,500 (a month),” he said. “Here I have a room and I pay $800 a month.”

Rodriguez and other so-called “digital nomads” can be seen in city cafes or in parks, laptops open, busy at work. He said when he arrived in Mexico City, he felt nothing but welcome.

“I think there was a feeling of ‘we want people to come here to stimulate the economy. Thanks to be here.’ But I know that recently locals have complained about the effect expats living here have had on their own way of life,” he said.

Rodriguez says he’s not sure about staying in Mexico long term. But, he added, “It’s starting to feel like home.”

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