Raquel Ramírez is the host of the podcast CDMX Expats, on which she talks to international residents of Mexico City. When she asked a recent guest about his favorite memory of living in Mexico’s capital, he was quick to answer. “We went to one of the secret parties, as COVID was quite a bit worse at that point. I met some random people, and then I just followed them the entire night as we hop from club or party to party, maybe four to six, maybe seven different places,” he said. (In the same interview, he also talked about “taking some acid” while touring the Teotihuacan pyramids.)
It was just another example of one of Mexico City’s new international guests misbehaving during the pandemic. Others have ignored guidelines for indoor capacity restrictions, or even failed to wear masks where required. “Dear guests, we are genuinely happy you’re vaccinated. Please consider many of us are not,” reads an English-language poster hanging near the park Parque México in Condesa, a well-visited neighborhood in Mexico City. Another sign shows a lucha libre–style encounter between a face mask and a maskless person. These and other creative posters, some written in English and some in Spanish, are made by the Good Guest Collective, an organization composed of local and foreign residents of the city. The collective was a response to the uptick in international visitors, many of whom have been disrespectful of local norms—a phenomenon the pandemic didn’t cause but has certainly exacerbated.
The Good Guest Collective was started over the summer by Ben K., a Phoenix native who moved full time to Mexico City with his Canadian partner in January 2019. Ben, a self-described “guest” of the city, and his partner are among a fortunate class of people who were able to work from (almost) anywhere in the world, even prior to the pandemic-driven remote worker boom. They started considering moving abroad because his partner’s U.S. visa was set to expire, and eventually opted for the Mexican capital.
Compared with other places, moving to Mexico City as a remote worker is fairly easy. Mexico allows citizens of more than 70 countries (including the U.S.) to stay up to six months without a visa. If they wish to extend their stay, visitors just need to exit the country and re enter, even if just for a few hours. These types of “visa runs” are perfectly legal, according to Elan González, an immigration lawyer with specialized knowledge of these kinds of travelers. As long as travelers do not earn income from sources in Mexico, they are allowed to re enter the country. (However, González told me that each entry is subject to the discretion of an immigration officer and that it’s common for citizens of certain countries, particularly Central and South American nations, to be granted a shorter stay or have their entry refused entirely.)
Raquel Ramírez, a U.S.-Mexico dual citizen who came to Mexico City from California in November 2020 for a visit and never left, started CDMX Expats after realizing that the city has become more international during the pandemic. Two key factors are responsible for this growth: the country’s travel policy and the emergence of COVID-19 expats.
While many countries introduced travel bans and restrictions due to COVID-19, Mexico kept those to a minimum. It partially shut down its land borders with the U.S., Guatemala, and Belize, but otherwise, the country kept its airports open to all travelers and opted against requesting proof of negative tests or vaccination. This paid off for the tourism industry: In 2020, Mexico became the third-most-visited country in the world, just after Italy and France; in 2019, it was seventh. As the pandemic spread, traditional corporate workers gained the freedom to work from remote locations—and Mexico was one of the few viable options.
“Because of COVID, because of technology, so many people have this opportunity for the first time,” Ramírez said. Now, in addition to those who worked jobs that were remote even before the pandemic, like doing web design or teaching English, the city hosts workers in finance, HR, tech, and other fields. And because these new guests don’t intend to travel the world like digital nomads do, they might opt to stay for a longer period of time in one place—particularly because it’s so much more affordable for many. As an example, Ramírez told me about her roommate, a systems engineer originally from San Francisco. She can travel back for work when necessary, while living at half or even one-third of the cost in Mexico City.
But the allure of Mexico City for long-term temporary residents starts to raise questions about the implications of their arrival and stay.
Ramírez tells me that when she arrived to Mexico in late 2020, prior to the start of the second coronavirus wave, she and her friends saw a “big void of events and community” and created a WhatsApp group offering recommendations for foreigners. She now manages more than 10 groups on different topics, hosts the podcast, and organizes four gatherings each week—including business lunches that, in the absence of offices and co-workers, serve as a way for remote workers to meet up. While Mexico City is a metropolis larger than New York City, most remote workers concentrate in a few neighborhoods, namely Roma, Condesa, and Polanco, making it easy to connect with one another.
What about their relationship with the local community? It’s complicated.
One upside that both locals and foreign temporary residents brought up in our interviews was diversity—an influx of people from different countries and backgrounds would seem beneficial to the city. Ramírez said that as Mexico City becomes more attractive to individuals in the tech and cryptocurrency scene, local businesses could benefit from further investments. In just over a year, Mexico has seen the birth of its first five unicorns, privately held startup companies valued at more than $1 billion, thanks in part to international funding.
Yet a key issue that came up in all my conversations was the salary disparity between remote workers and their local counterparts. Mexico City’s lower cost of living compared with cities in the U.S. and Western Europe makes it an attractive destination for foreigners—you can find a 1,000-square-foot apartment in the “hipster” Roma neighborhood for less than $900 a month. On the one hand, having an influx of dollars can certainly be beneficial in a pandemic, particularly for Mexico, the country that invested the least in its economic recovery among all OECD members.
On the other hand, this disparity is already affecting the local population, particularly through the housing market. As is common in popular tourist destinations around the world, the demand for Airbnbs and other short-term rentals has spurred the construction of new apartment buildings that cater to tourists and short-term residents. Despite costing more, long-term Airbnbs are particularly attractive to remote workers because they can pay with foreign bank accounts, don’t have to jump through bureaucratic hoops and paperwork, and arrive to furnished apartments with the utilities taken care of.
Real estate companies that buy historic buildings, refurbish them, and sell them for a profit “act like an executive arm of Airbnb,” said Sergio González, leader of the activist group and neighborhood association 06600 Plataforma Vecinal. He pointed out that an increase in the demand for short-term rentals—pushed largely by those groups—has prompted real estate companies to sell their properties by advertising rental management services to future owners.
06600 Plataforma Vecinal—which Sergio González said welcomes tourists and international guests but is concerned about the lack of a government policy to manage this influx—has collected data that suggests about 3,000 people were displaced between 2014 and 2020 from the centric Juárez neighborhood to more affordable but distant locations, including the neighboring state of México.
When I asked Carlos Mackinlay, Mexico City’s now-former tourism minister, about the surge in Airbnbs, he told me in late August that while the then occupancy rate for hotels in the city was less than 40 percent, the rate for Airbnbs was more than 80 percent—a clear benefit for landlords.
When it comes to potential regulation of short-term rentals like Airbnbs, Mackinlay told me new regulations would soon be proposed and would mostly focus on promoting safety measures, such as requiring water heaters with safe manual ignitions, in existing and future Airbnbs. We probably shouldn’t expect any larger regulation of corporations like Airbnb, a company he called “a strategic ally of the city.” Although a new minister has taken office since we spoke, Mackinlay will soon head the city’s new Institute for Democratic and Prospective Planning, a position that includes overseeing the execution of Mexico City’s General Development Plan, which will serve as a guideline for new housing constructions.
While Mexico City’s foreign guests can’t totally be blamed for the city’s increasing housing problems, too many of them seem to be oblivious to the fact that they are guests in another country. “[T]here definitely seems to be a type of foreigner that seems very thoughtful [and] that is really trying to be respectful,” Ben told me when asked about his fellow expats. He and others I interviewed admitted that there are expats who are condescending and don’t care about engaging with the local community or respecting their rules. At a gathering, I heard a remote worker from New York bragging about taking a ride in his neighborhood inside of a police car after he befriended the officer—very different to my last encounter with the police when I was stopped while walking in Condesa without an explanation and patted down. What personally strikes me the most about these stories is that they probably wouldn’t have done those things in the U.S. or bragged about them so publicly.
When faced with these situations, which are not exclusive to Mexico, we tend to focus on the foreigners and their careless attitudes. Yet, what about the locals who enable a system where some foreigners receive a preferential treatment?
Inevitably, this discussion would include Mexico’s malinchismo—showing preference to what is foreign while holding contempt for one’s own country. Valeria Ballesteros, a social anthropologist who studied the effects the rehabilitation of the city’s historic center had on its neighbors, pointed out that for some Mexicans, it’s important to live in a neighborhood recognized by foreigners.
Unfortunately, this preference for what is foreign is also mixed with racism. In 2017, a survey on social mobility found a correlation between the respondent’s skin color and their income. It was one of the first studies conducted by the government with such finding; still, some ignored the results and criticized the research for actually daring to ask people for their skin color.
Many locals still argue that Mexico doesn’t face a racism problem, just one of classism. But you don’t need to explore much of the city to see it unfold, from geographic segregation to internalized racism in our everyday Spanish.
I’m afraid that this dangerous combination, mixed with the arrival of international guests of different backgrounds, might add to the city’s already significant inequality problems. We might start seeing more preferential treatments given to some foreigners or even a weaker rule of law applied to them. At the same time, non-Hispanic and nonwhite international guests might themselves face racism in their new home.
Mexico City’s popularity among international remote workers provides a unique economic opportunity. But in order to truly benefit the local community, the city needs its new guests to be allies on our path to a more equal future.
Update, Nov. 3, 2021: This article has been updated since publication.