We went to Mexico to get ahead. We smuggled cheese to get back.


"No passport and no drugs, Officer!"

"Kinda, sorta like FedEx"

I was a small-business manager, and she was an executive assistant, and, financially, we always seemed to be just getting by. I was raised in a workaday Midwestern steel town, steeped in the idea that you were your job, which, of course, I resented. She was a San Diego native born to a cross-border Mexican family; by 30, she had experienced half a lifetime of just getting by on menial jobs.

We were together for several years before we found ourselves struggling against a downturn in the economy, unemployment, rising debts, and a new baby. Facing pending financial ruin, and with an eviction notice pinned to our door, our world and relationship began to fall apart. To be honest, our financial lives had been in decline for a few years before the economy tanked, but now all our time became consumed with being new parents and trying to survive.

Maria’s pregnancy hadn’t been easy, which made things more difficult for us both. By the time the baby arrived, she was deep into postpartum depression and I was trying, and failing, to keep it all together for our new family. For the first time in either of our lives, the possibility of homelessness was part of our daily conversation.

One night, over frozen pot-pie dinners, I suggested something I was sure she would reject out of hand. “Let’s move to Tijuana.” Maria replied without pause, “I was thinking the same thing.”

Maybe the cheap rent and cost of living south of the border would give us some room to breathe, along with a chance of putting money back in our pockets. Because our American reality was that we didn’t have enough money to pay the rent, and moving to a different apartment was out of the question. I had about two-thirds of the current amount due in my pocket. In San Diego, all that would get us was evicted. In Tijuana, we reasoned, that money was equal to about six months’ rent. As we were out of options, it was settled: we were moving to Mexico.

The next morning, we began to sell off possessions we hadn’t already sold or pawned. Within a week, we were loading everything that remained into the car and heading down to Tijuana.

South of the border

Living in Mexico is a lot different than living in the States, in a lot more ways than you might think. First, the obvious: it’s less worrisome, financially. In Mexico, most rental agreements are verbal, and deposits are usually very low, if required at all.

After four months of searching, we rented a large, American-style house for a fraction of what our one-bedroom apartment in San Diego had cost. There was a flip side, however. In Mexico, if you default on your rent, the landlord may well walk into the house and start grabbing your things, to sell or keep in lieu of funds owed. Still, with prices this low, and the border crossing less than five minutes away, I figured I’d find a job on the American side, after which things would surely pick up. In Tijuana, this is one of the most sought-after living scenarios: American job, Mexican cost of living.

The author’s two-story 3300-square-foot house in Tijuana rented for just $500 per month, $300 less than the one-bedroom San Diego apartment from which he’d been evicted.

The author’s two-story 3300-square-foot house in Tijuana rented for just $500 per month, $300 less than the one-bedroom San Diego apartment from which he’d been evicted.

It didn’t take long to realize that moving to TJ wouldn’t improve our lives as much as we thought. Living in Mexico posed challenges, chief among them the fact that, even with the border so close, the wait to cross could be as much as three hours. It turns out that having a job in the States — if you can find one — means crossing in the U.S. before 6:00 a.m. and crossing back into Mexico after 6:00 p.m., regardless of your working hours. And American employers are notoriously unsympathetic to cross-border dilemmas. You need to maintain an American address so that they don’t know that you reside in Mexico; otherwise, with most of them, your application goes to the bottom of the list. It was soon clear that we’d need to make money south of the border. With biting poverty and an overabundance of poorly paid local labor available, that would be difficult — especially for gringos.

We did our best for a while. We tried a lot of different things, including selling homemade food — a common business in Mexico — and gathering up free or inexpensive things from Craigslist and yard sales around San Diego, even items abandoned in alleys. We crossed these things into Mexico to sell at neighborhood sobre ruedas (swap meets).

Within a few months, we were working longer, harder hours than if we’d had regular jobs, but for a fraction of the money. Most days, we did only a little better than break even. On one occasion, after being on the road with the baby the entire day, we were fleeced of the last of our gas money by Mexican border inspectors. We ran out on the side of a dark Tijuana road, three miles from home, and wound up trading a pair of boots, a rocking chair, and some tools for a gallon of gas. That misadventure cost twice what we’d earned from the day’s haul. Taking so many steps backward was frustrating, but we tried to remember that, because of this effort, we weren’t homeless. We were taking care of our child.

In addition to the difficulty of obtaining items to sell, people who buy at the sobre ruedas are muy tocano (as the locals complain while tapping their elbows) — meaning, really cheap. They’re a frugal people, accustomed to doing without, so it’s difficult to sell things unless you can get the items inexpensively. It’s a tough life in Tijuana. Most of our neighbors wondered why “those Americans” would do it willingly.

Among people with options — especially an ability to cross the border — it’s understood that you can live nicely in Tijuana if you have American income: a job in the States, unemployment benefits, Social Security, or welfare. But you can’t make it on Mexican money alone.

Comments

I didn't think I would like this story, but I did, it was great. And the account on how the border Nazi's treat you is quite accurate, at least by my experiences there, which have been thousands of times. You are allowed to bring cheese into the U.S. so long as it's a cheese that doesn't contain meat products. Kind of weird, seeing as how most cheese is made from cow's milk and meat comes from cows and stuff. But whatever.

The main thing? They want to scare you. And it works. The truth is, there is NOTHING illegal about bringing food over the border that is approved by their regulations. Great stuff, hope things work out well for you in the ol' U.S. of A.

I didn't know what to make of this story at first. I thought sure there must be more than meets the eye going on. I mean who smuggles groceries? I thought the organizers must be stashing some drugs in the cheese, or putting them in the car without the driver knowing-- but the dogs would have caught it.

Plus, what is so special about this food? Yea, I know-- there's nothing like real Oaxaca cheese. But I'm under the impression that tons of it are legally shipped in regularly. You mean to tell me that Mexican folk in the US are willing to pay primo prices for home made? It just doesn't seem to make sense on the face of it.

I don't think they're paying "primo" prices - I think they're paying a lower cost to have the foods they want. If they were truly paying primo it wouldnt make sense.

Well, it appears to me like it would add up to primo prices, but the fact is we don't actually know what they're paying so it is hard to judge. It just strikes me as an odd and pricey way to get groceries. I'm curious to know what is being purchased that can't be had at a good, local mercado.

They aren't bringing in a block or two of cheese here, it's a lot of cheese and stuff. These are items you can't get in the U.S. and are intrinsic to true Mexican cooking. The buyers are selling it off in small chunks for a profit or else they run restaurants. And believe me, you can taste the difference in some of these ingredients.

Everything in life has a price and a sacrifice. I have lived as a single 60-something female in Mexico (Tijuana and Rosarito) for the past 2 years and I definitely have more $$ in my pocket than when living in the U.S. (I have never lived in the San Diego area due to low paying jobs and high rent). I don't have Sentri and I have adjusted my mental state to accept the fact that it might take me 3 hours to cross at times. Because the San Diego area continues to have continuing low employment opportunities my job prospects have actually been worse this year 2012 than the past 4 years. Due to the fact that I am paying only $300/month for rent at a Rosarito beachfront property apartment, I have been able to survive on the occasional temporary job; I would not be able to survive anywhere in the U.S. much less San Diego. I have 3 small dogs in my apartment without paying a pet deposit and dogs can walk on any beach here in Mexico; that would never happen in the U.S. I feel I have more freedom here in Mexico without the excessive rules and regulations and laws that plague the U.S. And we don't know everything about this couple's lifestyle in terms of how much they spend on things other than rent. Most Americans I know who have adjusted to life here don't attempt to maintain their American lifestyle here in Mexico and shop at Mexican stores rather than stores such as Walmart (which is expensive in terms of Mexican prices). And the younger Americans seem to have the most difficult in adjusting compared with those age 50+ perhaps because they are too impatient. Also the border area has always been the most expensive part of Mexico to live due to proximity. Once I start Social Security in a year I definitely am moving on the Mexican mainland where it is cheaper and not so Americanized. All the retired Americans have caused the Baja peninsula to be more expensive and for me Baja is comparable to Florida in terms of the elderly population.

The U.S. is in a world of hurt. We don’t seem to be able to employ the good people who want an honest & decent job, who then have to go to extremes to keep their family from going on the street. Then, after some creative thinking manages its way up, Immigration throws the holy s**t scare into ya. Don’t we live in the greatest country in the world, LOLOLOL.

I don’t know about the rest of you, but this ain’t a country I can be proud to say I'm from.

I wouldn't quite go that far. I mean, the country is going to hell in a handbasket, but in a very peculiar way. I think there is reason to believe things can get better. I'm more interested in hearing more from anyone living south of the border.

Maryellen52, I take it you are fluent in Spanish?

And Refried, I know you are down there. Is it really worth the savings? Don't you get tired waiting to cross? Are there things you miss?

a very touching article. how something so earnest: just trying to make some money smuggling legal things in order to feed the kids, can be warped into something illegal and wrong is stupefying to me. those dastardly border patrol agents. i deal with them frequently. many of them have inflated egos the size of a bloated burrrito! no pun intended. my heart goes out to you, family. hope you can find your way.

Regarding living in the Baja area and the mainland, I'd like to know what Gringos do about water...Do they all stick to drinking bottled water or using filter systems? And what about cooking with water and eating in the restaurants? Are there any problems?

Back in the 1970s, I did a road trip into interior Mexico and ate some cereal with leche (milk). I got really sick (probably the infamous Montezuma's Revenge). Don't know if anything has changed in the way of sanitation since then...

I believe the water in mainland Mexico is dangerous for the uninitiated, but Baja is supposedly safe. I have not heard of any cases of intestinal problems for anyone eating or drinking (with ice) down there.

Log in to comment

Skip Ad

SD Reader Newsletters

Join our newsletter list and enter to win $25 at Broken Yolk Cafe!

Each subscription means another chance to win!

Close