Friday, December 23, 2011

Living the Expatriate Dream…in the US

At one point in my life, I seriously thought I would live in another country. And I attempted it – first in Nicaragua (2006), and then in Argentina (2007). Neither worked out, although I still occasionally have pangs for Buenos Aires like the lover I never got over. (Happily, we are scheduled to reunite this spring for a weeklong affair.)

Instead, as fate would have it, I relocated to New Mexico at the end of 2009. Many, many people were baffled at this choice, and I’ve answered the question of “Why New Mexico?” more times than I can count in the last two years. Lots of things usually get thrown into the answer: the artsy people, the wide openness, the cost of living, the unique lifestyle, the space and tranquility, the cultural heritage.

But it wasn’t until I was reading the January 2012 issue of New Mexico Magazine that another very important - and very appealing - factor crystallized. It was put into words by author Hampton Sides (who wrote Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson) in his reflection on New Mexico’s 2012 centennial. (New Mexico became the 47th state in 1912.) He said:

“Yet even with statehood, I’m not sure New Mexico was ever fully conquered or assimilated, and that’s something I’ve always loved about this place. It’s still very much its own land, at the crossroads of myriad cultures, where the desert meets the mountains meets the plains. Living here is probably the closed one can come to an expat experience in the Lower 48. We’re in the United States, but we’re not entirely of it.”

Bells went off when I read this paragraph. I didn’t carry out my expatriate dream, technically, but I found something of an equivalent in my own country. To say that New Mexico is “a little different” than other states is an understatement. It feels like another country because for hundreds of years it was another country – it was part of Spain for more than 200 years, and then part of Mexico for a short while, before becoming a US territory.

For further proof of New Mexico “other-country-ness,” consider the following:

  • Many Americans do not know there's a state called New Mexico.
  • Those who do realize it’s a state are often confused about it.
  • The license plates say “New Mexico USA” to clarify things.
  • It’s the only state in the US with a bilingual constitution.
  • Along with CA, it’s one of two states with a Hispanic majority.
  • We have the first female Latina governor, Susana Martinez.
  • The state flag colors honor Isabella of Castilla.
  • The state flag symbol (the Zia sun symbol) is Native American.
  • Most city (“Santa Fe”), street and forest names are Spanish.
  • The Pueblo (“adobe”) style architecture is one of a kind.
  • The government tested the atomic bomb here. (Ahem.)

You get the point. It just took me a while to get it – that New Mexico is clearly an extension of my previous wanderings and the strong tug I felt to move to Latin America. Now, as I drive home on a dirt road looking at cows in the field, I realize it’s not unlike a scene I would see in rural Nicaragua (minus the desert terrain, of course). Without exactly realizing it, I got the best parts of what I liked about Nicaragua – including a slower pace, a Spanish-speaking culture, extreme friendliness and the ineffable feeling of being somewhere so completely different – and yet with all the conveniences that come with the good old USA, such as reliable mail and FedEx delivery. And around the holidays, you all know how important that is.

So I guess there's just one thing left to say: Feliz Navidad!

p.s. On January 6th, the US Postal Service will release New Mexico’s official Centennial Stamp, which is pictured above. Keep an eye out for it as it’s quite gorgeous.

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