Saturday, April 29, 2017

Speaking Spanish with a Native Speaker...the Ricardo Montalbán effect!

Last night we had the pleasure of meeting Juan Manuel at one of the local cantinas. We had chatted briefly with him before, but tonight the bar was pretty full and recognizing him, we invited him to sit at our table. The conversation that ensued was such a delight it inspired me to write about the importance of getting to know the locals and learning to speak Spanish. 

Juan Manuel, or just Manuel as he goes by, is a dapper, soft-spoken man in his mid-fifties. He speaks English very well, but from the beginning of our conversation did not hesitate to switch back and forth to Spanish and test the limits of my skills. We have been doing fairly intensive Spanish study lately, and I can say that I have improved significantly in the last month. With that said however, my Spanish still sucks, and having an opportunity to sit and talk with a bilingual Mexican showed me there is no substitute for real conversation, in a real life situation.

The worst part about speaking a little Spanish is that once you do, the person you are speaking with will often assume you speak a lot of Spanish. This will frequently trigger a rapid-fire burst of Spanish dialog that unfortunately sounds a lot like blaho-blaho-blaho to me. This overwhelming stream of words is impossible to comprehend and usually ends up with me just shaking my head and muttering “Si” no matter what it is they actually said. This can cause some real problems when you suddenly have ordered 50 kilos of some strange looking fruit, or have 100 live chickens delivered to your door. To avoid this, you can either say “despacio por favor” (slowly please), or admit “mi español no es muy bueno” (my Spanish sucks). Either way your conversations will be somewhat limited.

But by speaking directly with a bilingual speaker, I was able to ask questions, get corrections, and blunder my way through a real conversation. This experience was invaluable, as many of the lessons we have taken where you learn how to say something like “the elephant wants more grapes on the cake” (an actual phrase from a lesson) have for some reason just not proved to be that valuable. In the short time that we spoke, while I sucked down a beer and a couple of shots of Tequila, and Manuel drank Brandy and Coke (a strange drink for a Mexican!), my confidence in speaking grew stronger by the minute.   

What’s weird, for me at least, is the rather strange effect that speaking in English with a Spanish speaker has on you. For some reason, I just can’t seem to help myself from speaking English with a Spanish accent. Like some bad actor in a B-grade Mexican Western, my voice sounds like either the “we don’t need no stinking badges” guy from Sierra Madre, or the smooth tones of what I call the Ricardo Montalbán effect. The really weird thing is though, it seems to work, and the Mexicans I have spoken with either don’t seem to notice, or are too polite to laugh. I sometimes think about what it must be like for the Mexicans to try and talk with us gringos. It might be comparable to trying to have an adult conversation with a three year old, only our grammar and pronunciation are probably worse! What was nice was Manuel saying I spoke very good Spanish. I have had a few other native speakers say this, and what I have realized is my pronunciation of the limited words I have mastered is apparently pretty good. This is encouraging! Speaking Spanish here will not only make your life easier, it will enrich your experience in many, many ways.


One tip I can share with those of you who are currently learning Spanish and struggle to keep up in conversations is to focus hard on hearing the words you do know, and not try to figure out every word. I first applied this to understanding how much money I was being asked for. By listening carefully to the first part of what they are saying, I could figure out what I needed to cover what was being asked for. If they say “trescientos…blah blah blah” I know they are asking for more than three hundred, but less than four. I simply hand them four hundred and get my change. Previously I had tried to listen to the whole thing, got lost, and just shook my head while sticking out a large pile of cash. I then learned to apply this to full sentences. If I hear three or four words that I understand, I can usually extrapolate the rest of the sentence.

As we left the cantina, we bid farewell to Manuel and invited him to a “Bridges not Walls” party we are throwing at another of our favorite watering holes on Cinco de Mayo. He graciously accepted and I sincerely hope we will see our new friend again soon!

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Teaching Deaf Students...I learn a thing or two!

My new students all have two things in common, a desire to learn and a disability with their hearing. I knew going in teaching them woodworking would be a challenge, but what I didn’t know was how rewarding it would be. Although they can’t hear, they can smile, and the smiles I see everyday at the school make it all worthwhile!

Woodworking is inherently dangerous, and one of the challenges the school faces is how to minimize or eliminate as many dangers as possible. Those of us with hearing automatically rely on that sense to understand a number of things going on in the woodshop. Is the machine running? Am I feeding the wood through to fast? Is the drill bit bogging down? Is there a piece of wood stuck somewhere in the machine? All of these things we take for granted are not available to these students. With some of their other heightened senses, they can sometimes detect changes in the vibration of a machine, but it is still limited feedback. When the shop first opened, teachers soon discovered some of the machines were still running after the students were finished. This problem was solved by installing flashing yellow lights on some of the machines and now students can tell at a glance if a machine is running and potentially dangerous. Along with these and other safeguards, all the students are instructed and fully checked out on a machine before they are allowed to operate it alone.

As I mentioned in my previous post, perhaps the biggest challenge is that I do not sign. I have learned, and will continue to learn some of the basics of the language, but as I am studying Spanish as well, it would take more time then I can currently give to become proficient. In the meantime, I have to get by with simple intuitive hand signals, and just like the locals I speak to in my broken Spanish, the students do their best to understand me and try not to laugh!

Right now, I am working primarily with Max. At 39 years old, Max is not a “kid”, but the challenges he has faced have made it difficult for him to obtain employment. With his enthusiasm for the program and his ability to learn new skills, the school has made Max a “lead” in the shop, and he is being trained to not only operate the equipment, but pass on those skills to future students. With this he is also being given an opportunity to earn some income through the sales of items being built by the students. 

Currently, the shop is cranking out furniture for several groups including Casita Linda, and also builds a variety of craft projects such as puzzles, coat racks, and other saleable knick-knacks.

Max is a quick learner, and prides himself on the quality of his work. Unfortunately, this slows him down a bit, but we have been working with him to get into more of a production mode without sacrificing quality. Recently we managed to get the assembly time down on a bench from a high of about 4 hours to a low of about 30 minutes. Max was very proud of his accomplishment, and the smile and two thumbs up that I received made my day as well. Even in this setting, time is money, and the more we can produce means more funding for the school and more pocket money for the students.

Life in Mexico can be challenging enough for many students. Add in a disability like being deaf, and it is a hundred times more so. Life has been good to me, and I am humbled to be able to mentor and offer some of my skills to these charming and delightful students.

Click on any picture to view the gallery!

Friday, March 17, 2017

My new students...Teaching at the Escuela de Educación Especial de San Miguel de Allende!

Through my work with Casita Linda, I met John and Max with the Escuela de Educación Especial de San Miguel de Allende. The school primarily focuses on Deaf Children, and provides an essential service in an area where there are few resources available to children with special needs. They were delivering furniture to an
Housewarming Party at one of the Casita Linda homes, and I started up a chat with John. In his charming Scottish lilt, John explained that one of the skills the school teaches is woodworking and the students had built the furniture they were delivering. As I have a fair bit of experience in that area, he invited me to drop by the school, check out the program, and see if I would be interested in volunteering as a teacher.

We arrived just as lunch was being served, and were invited to join the students and faculty for lunch in their small but well equipped cafeteria. The students, all of whom are deaf to one degree or another, welcomed us with big smiles and a variety of hand signs, none of which I understood. I do not know sign language, and found out later that while the sign language used in Mexico is similar in many respects to that used in the US, it is indeed its own dialect with its own unique signs. In spite of that, it was easy to understand they were joking, laughing, and flirting with each other throughout the meal and I quickly began to feel more comfortable being with these delightful students.

It is hard for us to understand how difficult it is to be deaf, let alone deaf in a country that is not as well equipped to deal with it. The school system here is largely unprepared to teach deaf children, and for the families it can be just another burden to an already difficult life. The school was established to give students a far greater chance at becoming productive and happy adults, and offers training in not only a variety of skills such as jewelry, sewing, and woodworking, but sign language, general education, and computers as well. John tells me that when many of the students first arrive at the school they are often shy, withdrawn, unhappy, and socially inept. The school has had a great deal of success at bringing them out of their shell, improving their interaction with other people, and teaching them a variety of skills to help them in the outside world. In addition, the school offers parents and family members training in Mexican Sign Language to help them interact with their deaf children and siblings.

After lunch, we were given a tour of the school, and I was impressed with the quality of the equipment, the cleanliness of the classrooms, and the high level of activity going on. The wood shop itself was extremely well-equipped, and the small group of boys gathered there welcomed me with the “San Miguel Bump”, a common style of greeting here in the city. I also got to meet a few of the teachers who were on staff that day, and felt instantly welcome to join their ranks. It was easy to make a decision to help the school and to hopefully improve the lives of the students. I told John I would let him know my schedule and be back to teach next week!

Click on any picture to view the gallery! 

Next- Teaching students to run dangerous power equipment is challenging. Teaching DEAF students is a whole new ball game!

Monday, February 6, 2017

Moving to Mexico…The Immigration process made easy!

My last post dealt with determining what type of Mexican visa or permit you should apply for. Now that you have made that decision, this post will help you with the process of applying for and getting that visa or permit. If you have not read my other post, please visit “Moving to Mexico…WhichVisa is right for you?” before you begin.

The Residency Visa process starts at a Mexican Consulate in the US. While the process is very similar wherever you apply, each office seems to have some leeway as to what they require for documentation and financial requirements. To begin the process, first call or email the office you will be using to make an appointment and to verify what you need to bring. We worked with the Consulate in Sacramento. We called and got voice mail, left a message and also sent an email. They promptly called us back and politely answered all our questions. Your actual experience may vary depending on the office and the individual you are dealing with!

As of this writing, to apply for either a Temporary or Permanent Residency you will need the following:

  • A valid passport and copy of the main page.
  • 1 color photo passport size, front view, no eyeglasses on white background
  • $36 in cash for filing regardless if you are approved or not
  • Visa application form (can be printed from the web and filled out ahead of time, or done at the consulate office)
  • Any other documents required by the type of visa you are applying for. (Be sure to verify with the consulate where you are going since some may require slightly different  documents)

Upon arrival at the Mexican consulate they will conduct a short interview, and look over all your documents to make sure you have what they are requesting.  If all the documents are in order, they will begin to process them and you will have to wait during this time. Depending on your circumstances, it is possible you may be asked to conduct a second personal interview with the Consular as well (we did not).  Once all the documents have been approved, they will take your photo and fingerprints.  When this is done they will issue and attach the visa into your passport.  From what we have read, we were very fortunate and the entire process took a little over four hours and our passports were ready the same day. However we have read about people who had to go back another day to pick everything up, so be prepared for a return trip.

Once you receive the visa in your passport you have 180 days to enter Mexico. After   you enter Mexico you then need to start the final immigration process within 30 days. When you arrive in Mexico make sure that the immigration form you fill out is marked by the immigration official as valid for 30 days (residency). Please note: Once you have entered Mexico, and while they are processing the final paperwork for your “card” you can not leave Mexico without special permission which may be difficult to obtain. This usually takes 6-8 weeks so be sure to plan for it. 

The final immigration process will take place at the Immigration Office. Here you will pay the actual fee for the visa (check for current fees), however they will not accept the payment from you at the office. You (or your facilitator if you use one) will need to go to a nearby bank. As all the paperwork etc is in Spanish and the Immigration officials will most probably not speak English, the easiest way to complete this process is to hire a facilitator. If there is an expat community in your area you can usually find one easily. In San Miguel de Allende we hired Patty Garcia and she handled everything. We met her at an office across the street from Immigration, she asked some questions, filled out the forms, had us sign them, and took the additional photos needed.  We then paid her for her services (Approx $40 USD) and the payment for the visa which she took to the bank and deposited to immigration. She then presented everything to the immigration office on our behalf.  Once they had approved the applications (about 4 weeks) she contacted us to meet her at the Immigration office to sign the final documents and take fingerprints.  Approximately 2 weeks later we met with Patty again and picked up our cards. While you can do everything yourself, Patty made the entire process about as painless as possible, and unless you speak fluent Spanish, I highly recommend the use of a facilitator.

*Note:  If you are going in as a married couple and want to have them look at combined documents you will need to bring your certified marriage certificate.  You may need an apostille on the document from the Secretary of State in the state where you were married. 

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Moving to Mexico..Which Visa is right for you?

As we prepared for our move to Mexico, the first question to answer was what type of visa or permit to apply for. Having read numerous horror stories about the trials and tribulations associated with this process, we wanted to make sure we both made the right choice the first time, and made the process as painless as possible. Having now waded through the entire process from beginning to end, I will attempt to put together a guide to help simplify the process for those of you who may wish to follow us! I will start with the types of visas and permits that are available so that you may decide how to proceed.

There are two types of visas and one type of travel permit available to US Citizens who wish to either travel or reside in Mexico. The immigration process was significantly revised in 2013, so some of the information you will find online may be outdated. The information I am providing is current as of January 2017, but should be confirmed prior to making application, as requirements can vary from one Consulate office to another, and are sometimes subject to change without notice! No matter which type of visa or permit you apply for, you will need a current Passport or Passport Card.

The first and most painless type of permit is issued to tourists entering the country for stays of 180 days or less. These tourist permits are usually included in the price of your airfare, and you simply fill out the form on the plane if available, or at Customs when you arrive. (If you are entering the country by automobile, you will need to get your tourist permit at the border crossing. I suggest you check online for the latest instructions). As this post will deal primarily with applying for residency visas, I will not elaborate on tourist permit, but needless to say they are easy to obtain but are only good for 180 days. However, many people who reside in Mexico part time, some of them who have been doing so for many years, rely on the tourist permit as a simple way to gain entry to the country. If they are not planning to stay more than 180 days anyway, this can work well for them. In addition, if you do wish to stay for longer periods but do not want to apply for a Temporary or Permanent visa, generally, all that is required to renew the tourist permit is to simply leave the country and then reenter on a new permit. This can be done at a border crossing or by flying back to the US and returning. As many people will be returning home periodically anyway, this is often not an inconvenience. Be aware however that this method is one that could be subject to restrictions at any time, so make sure you pay attention to the current rules and do not overstay your permit!

Next, you may wish to apply for a Temporary Residency Visa. This works well for people who are perhaps still testing the waters as to living full time in Mexico, or who may not qualify financially as a Permanent resident. Both types of visas have nearly the same application process, but different financial requirements. Temporary visas are issued for periods of one year, and can be renewed without leaving the country for up to four years. At that time, you must decide to either apply for a Permanent visa, or return to the US. The main disadvantage to this type of visa is you will have to reapply each year, and pay a higher fee over the four year period than you would for a Permanent visa. If you qualify, and believe that you will be living in Mexico on a full time basis permanently, you may wish to do as we did and apply for a Permanent visa immediately.

When applying for either Temporary Residency or Permanent Residency you will need the following:

The requirements for a Temporary Residency Visa as of this writing are as follows:

You will need to provide Proof of Solvency. There are two ways you can do this:

Investments (401K, Retirement accounts, etc.) or bank accounts equal to 5,000 times the current daily minimum wage in Mexico City.  Current 2017 rate is 80.04 MXN per day. This is adjusted annually by the Government. At the current exchange rate, this amounts to approximately $20,000 USD, but will fluctuate depending on the Government set minimum wage, current exchange rates and individual Consulate requirements.

You will need to provide two copies (one must be an original provided by your bank or investment company) showing a monthly balance equal to or greater than the requirements for the last 12 months.


One original and a copy of documents showing a Pension and/or Social Security income with a monthly amount free of liens amounting to 300 times the current daily minimum wage for the previous six months. At the 2017 rates this is approximately $1200 USD monthly.

*Note-Each consulate office has leeway and may have different requirements. Check with your local Consulate before you apply.
**Note-You are not allowed to work in Mexico on a Temporary Visa without a work permit.
***Note-You are allowed to drive a US licensed vehicle in Mexico on a Temporary Visa with the proper permits

Finally, if you can qualify, you may apply for a Permanent visa. Generally speaking, a Permanent Residency Visa is only available to applicants that qualify as retired or are making a substantial business investment in Mexico. The Consulate may require further documentation of your retirement status. This type of visa allows you to reside in Mexico full-time without major restrictions, and grants you most of the rights and benefits of a Mexican citizen other than the right to vote. These rights and benefits include access to low-cost health care and senior discounts on a variety of services.  This type of visa has the strictest financial requirements and is most frequently used by those who are retiring. It is relatively easy to figure out if you will qualify, and if you believe you will be moving to Mexico on a full-time basis permanently, this type of visa will probably make the most sense. Once you have received it, you will not need to deal with immigration again other then to notify them of your new address in the case of a move. You will also be issued a card that will allow you to enter the country without going through the more stringent customs and entry procedures a tourist will encounter. As most of you reading this are probably looking at retiring in Mexico, most of this information is related to retirement. For more information on other qualifying circumstances, please read this guide.

The requirements for a Permanent Residency Visa as of this writing are as follows:

You will need to provide Proof of Solvency. There are two ways you can do this.

Investments (401K, Retirement accounts, etc.) or bank accounts equal to 20,000 times the current daily minimum wage in Mexico City.  Current 2017 rate is 80.04 MXN per day. This is adjusted annually by the Government. At the current exchange rate, this amounts to approximately $80,000 USD, but will fluctuate depending on the Government set minimum wage, current exchange rates, and individual Consulate requirements.
You will need to provide two copies (one must be an original provided by your bank or investment company) showing a monthly balance equal to or greater than the requirements for the last 12 months.


One original and a copy of documents showing a Pension and/or Social Security income with a monthly amount free of liens amounting to 500 times the current daily minimum wage for the previous six months. At the 2017 rates this is approximately $2000 USD monthly.

*Note-Each consulate office has leeway and may have different requirements. Check with your local Consulate before you apply.
**Note-You are not allowed to drive a US licensed vehicle on a Permanent Visa without first nationalizing the car. This is costly, and not all vehicles will qualify.

By reviewing the types of visas and their requirements, you should be able to determine the visa that will work best for you. Once you have decided on what you will apply for, it is time to begin the application process. In my next post, I will discuss the entire process and how to avoid the pitfalls and delays that some people have experienced.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

A Housewarming Party for the Guerrero Family, and the Special Gift of La Mesa!

We have been doing some volunteer work for Casita Linda, a non-profit organization that builds homes for local families. We were recently invited to attend a housewarming party for the Guerrero family hosted by the organization at a new bright blue house situated on a hill overlooking San Miguel. Along with a number of members of the board and a few other volunteers, we arrived by carpool and were greeted by the matriarch of the family, a shy smiling woman named Guadalupe and her three beautiful children, Caren, Ariana, and Juan Diego. 

A number of other children, dogs, and adults from the neighborhood joined the festivities as well. Jose, the man of the house and a deeply religious man who I had met on a previous visit, was not able to attend as he was involved with an important religious event taking place that weekend.

Upon arrival, the first order of business was to unload some furniture that had been made for the house by the students at the San Miguel School for Special Education. The school works primarily with the deaf, but also assists students with other disabilities. The students have been building furniture for the Casita Linda homes and it is a special relationship that gives the students’ purpose and the families a better life. Today we were delivering a table and two benches, along with a small bookcase. It is hard to imagine the joy that a table and a place to sit can bring until you see it with your own eyes. As we carried the table in and set up the benches, the family quickly gathered around and smiles broke out everywhere. It is easy to take for granted that your family has a place to gather and a place to sit. Family and food are very important to the Mexican people and the table or la mesa is an important place to celebrate it.

Along with desserts that some of us had brought, the neighbors soon arrived bearing exquisite bowls of a delicious chicken and rice dish, and we were all treated to the first meal at the new table. 

The children (and some of the adults!) seemed more interested in the cake that we brought, but hey, it’s a fiesta! 

After a cute ribbon cutting ceremony, we bid the family farewell and let them go back to their lives in a safe, dry, and comfortable new house. Thanks to everyone at Casita Linda and the San Miguel School for Special Education for their tireless work and the opportunity to share this special occasion with the Guerrero family!

Click on any picture to view the gallery!

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Buying Real Estate in Mexico...Our New Home in Mineral de Pozos!

After over a little more than a month and a half, we finally signed the papers on what will be our new home in the town of Mineral de Pozos! Buying real estate in Mexico is a bit different than in the US, and needless to say, it has been a learning experience. We were lucky in a number of ways however, and even though there have been delays, overall things went fairly smoothly. First, the realtors we worked with (I use this term loosely, pretty much anybody can sell real estate in Mexico, and there is no real licensing or training involved, although there is some organizations springing up that are attempting to bring some order to the chaos!) turned out to be a real gem, and we felt comfortable and safe with them throughout the entire transaction. Hector and his daughter Rebeca work as a team as Hector does not speak English while Rebeca does. Hector has a strong background in banking and business, and is very good at navigating the paperwork and government bureaucracy one must deal with here. Rebeca acted as our translator and she is a cheerful and delightful person to work with.

When we originally started shopping for a house, we were looking at homes in San Miguel, but after a couple of trips to Pozos, we fell in love with the town and changed our focus to homes there. Once a mighty mining town with nearly 90,000 residents, Pozos is now a small town of around 4000 people, of which only a handful are gringos. At any given time, there are only a small number of homes available, and we were only able to look at a handful of properties as we began our search. Weirdly enough, the first house we looked at, and ultimately made an offer on, turned out to be owned by a very close friend of a very close friend! Although the two of us shared a number of mutual friends, we never got to know each other, but getting a strong thumbs up on his character from several of my friends gave us a lot of confidence in working with him. As it turns out, he is a pleasure to know, and we too have now become friends.

 Although the final closing is still being delayed by some technical difficulties that I will not bother to get into here, we hope to begin doing some needed repairs, clean-up, and a fresh coat of paint to the house in preparation for moving in later this summer. Long-term plans call for the addition of a second living quarters for us that will allow us to use the original casita as an Airbnb or guest quarters.

The house itself sits on a large half-acre lot dotted with cactus and other high desert vegetation, and has a commanding view of the nearby mountains. In addition to the casita, there is a walled compound that is just waiting for a large garden area and the addition of the new living quarters. Although the pictures make the house appear to be out of town, it is right on the edge, and the main square and shops are just a short walk away. The town of Pozos has been named a “Pueblo Magico”, a designation that brings both private and government funds to the area, and is helping to revive the town while preserving its historic character. As Kate put it, "San Miguel captured our heart, but Mineral de Pozos captured our soul". We are very excited about the move and hope we will see you here!