Thursday, July 20th 2023

Five Extraordinary Expats in Mexico

Written by

Tim Baldwin

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Gabriel Garcia Marquez

(Colombia, 6 March 1927 – Mexico City, 17 April 2014)


Gabriel García Marquez is the father of the Magical Realism literary style.


One of the greats of literature worldwide, Gabriel Garcia Marquez was an expat from a young age. He first emigrated from his native Colombia at the age of 30. Living and working in neighboring Venezuela, the writer was subsequently sent to Europe by his publisher El Espectador after a controversial article, The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor, exposed a coverup by the Colombian military. His account, related by the sole survivor of the tragedy, showed that a Navy vessel sank due to “badly stowed cargo of contraband goods that broke loose on the deck." The military had said a storm caused the shipwreck.

His Time in Mexico

Returning to the Americas after working as the foreign correspondent for El Espectador, García Marquez, his wife, and their young son traveled throughout the American South on a sort of pilgrimage to the homeland of WIlliam Faulkner—who had a profound effect on García and his writings. After this, the family settled in Mexico City, where his second son and third child (a daughter by another woman) were born.

García Marquez would live in Mexico City for 14 years. During that time, he would establish strong ties with the Mexican intellectual and artistic community. On a family trip to Acapulco, García Marquez abruptly turned the car around and drove home. Inspiration had struck, and the writer locked himself away for a year and a half, writing feverishly until he had completed One Hundred Years of Solitude. It was published in 1967 and went on to sell 50 million copies. It would also win the Nobel Prize for fiction in 1982.

Though he would return to Colombia in 1975, he frequently came back to Mexico, resettling in Mexico City a decade later. There, he attended literary events, such as the Guadalajara Book Fair, and continued writing nearly to the end of his life. He would eventually succumb to dementia and other health problems. In April of 2014, García Marquez was hospitalized and died of pneumonia.

His Legacy

Gabriel García Marquez was cremated. His family held a small, private ceremony in his home before a larger celebration of his life and procession to the Palacio de Bellas Artes, a prominent, ornate palace and museum in Mexico City. The writer’s legacy is significant and far-reaching. He’s widely regarded as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century and one of the most important figures in Latin American literature.

Gabriel García Márquez had used his fame and his international voice to advance ideals dear to him and shed light on injustices and important social issues. He even worked as a moderator between warring factions in Colombia and elsewhere in Latin America.

Garcia Marquez's legacy lies in his innovative storytelling, his impact on the literary world, including his invention of a new and important style known as magical realism, which would shape the writings of other literary greats such as Milan Kundera (may he rest in peace), Salman Rushdie, and Haruki Murakami. Garcia Marquez is also recognized for his political engagement, and his contribution to Latin American culture and identity. His works continue to inspire and captivate readers, and his influence can be felt in literature and beyond. His popularity and influence continue to grow even after his passing, ensuring that his legacy lives on.

Chavela Vargas

(Costa Rica, 1919 - Cuernavaca, 2012)



La Chavela, one of Mexico’s most beloved singers of all time, was born in Costa Rica in 1919. With a difficult childhood and few career opportunities for a singer, Isabela Vargas Lizano moved to Mexico at the age of 17. An ardent opponent of heteronormativity, Chavela often dressed like a man, smoked cigars, drank excessively, and even carried a gun!

She also sang cancíones rancheras—a style of music that is almost always from the male perspective—and gained a loyal following and critical acclaim for her rich, suggestive voice and musical style. By injecting her own style, she is widely seen as having revitalized and redefined an entire genre of music.

Defying custom, she sang songs with the pronouns as they were written, ie. not changing she to he. This was a daring stand in a homophobic and fundamentalist country as Mexico was in the height of her career (and continues to be to this day).

Her Time in Mexico

Chavela lived in Mexico for over 70 years, eventually obtaining Mexican citizenship; she was an immensely popular and influential artist who made more than 80 recordings throughout her life. Understandably, for a queer, hard-living rock 'n' roll artist, her life was not without its challenges. She wrote frankly about her alcoholism and intense lifestyle in her 2002 autobiography (in which she unsurprisingly came out of the closet) at the age of 81.

Maintaining the concept that she had been born in Mexico, when challenged she responded in what has now become a famous (though profane) witticism: “We Mexicans are born wherever the “#$% we feel like it.”

Her Legacy

It’s difficult to overstate the influence of this artist. A groundbreaking musician throughout the greater part of the 20th century, La Chavela Vargas forever changed the Mexican music landscape, especially for female, LGBTQ, and gender-nonconforming artists. Nearly all latina artists who have come after her have cited her outsized influence in shaping their music and that of their contemporaries.

Chavela Vargas’s deep, raspy voice and raw, passionate interpretations redefined traditional ranchera music. She became an emblematic figure of Mexican music, captivating audiences with her soulful renditions.

She collaborated with prominent Mexican artists such as Pedro Almódovar and Frida Kahlo, allegedly having slept with the latter. Her impact on Mexican music, gender norms, and societal attitudes has made her an enduring and influential figure, admired for her authenticity, talent, and the doors she kicked open for herself and others.

Stirling Dickinson

(22 December 1909 – 27 October, 1998)



Many people reading this article are likely aware of the city of San Miguel de Allende in the central Mexican state of Guanajuato and its thriving expat community. By estimates, the population of San Miguel (around 70,000 in the city itself) comprises roughly 10-20% expats, the large majority of which hail from the United States. So how did this rather small, unassuming town become such a magnet for international residents? Well, it’s in large part due to the influence of one American painter, Stirling Dickinson. There is even a street named after him in the heart of the city.

Grandson of a stock-market millionaire and son of a Harvard-educated lawyer, Dickinson attended Princeton University and the Art Institute of Chicago. As a graduate student, he attended the Schools of American Art, located in the Medieval Castle of Fontainebleau (world renowned as a Mecca for bouldering enthusiasts), some 55 kilometers south of Paris. There, he eventually accepted his limitations as a painter and returned to the United States.

His Time in Mexico

In 1934, Stirling Dickinson and a friend from Princeton embarked on a sixth-month tour of Mexico by car. Afterwards, they wrote a book called Mexican Odyssey, chronicling their travels, which Dickinson illustrated. The book earned a modest amount of commercial success, and they followed up with another chronicle, this time set in South America. The two then decided to write a novel based in Mexico, and relocated to the town of San Miguel de Allende, where they bought a property on the site of an abandoned tannery for $90 and built a simple house called Los Pocitos (The Little Wells). After publishing the book, Dickinson bought his companion’s share of the property and continued to live there, relatively simply despite his large inheritance.

The low price of the land that the two had purchased speaks to the poverty into which the city had slid during the decline of industry there in the 1930’s. When Dickinson was appointed head of the Escuela Universitaria de Bellas Artes, located in an immense colonial stone building in the center of the city, he worked hard to improve the school and appeal to college-aged Americans and wealthier Mexicans. Nonetheless, the school taught cultural traditions such as pottery and basket-weaving and offered inexpensive workshops to local students.

However, internal struggle between the foreign teachers and the Mexican director led to Dickinson and several of his colleagues being deported! This would not last long however, as Dickinson was able to return only a few years later and resume his teaching and educational administrative duties, not only in Bellas Artes, but also in the newly formed Instituto Allende.

His Legacy

Instrumental in opening the doors of Mexico's art schools to American veterans on the GI bill, specifically those in San Miguel de Allende, Dickinson's legacy lies in the vibrant artistic scene in San Miguel de Allende and elsewhere, as well as the large, thriving expat community in San Miguel Allende to this day.

Though his paintings never achieved the level of success and acclaim that he’d originally hoped for, Sterling Dickinson was a pioneer in the art scene of San Miguel de Allende, which has helped resuscitate the town from an economically depressed city to the vibrant tourist attraction that it is today, and his influence can still be felt.

Elena Poniatowska

Born May 19, 1932 Paris, France (age 91)



Born of a prince and expat, Elena Poniatowska was an incredibly accomplished and prolific writer who made her home in Mexico City. Her father was a prince from the prominent House of Poniatowska of Polish royalty and her mother, also of European nobility, had been born in France but was forced to flee from Mexico as Porfirio Diaz was forcibly removed from power (May 1911). Elena Poniatowska was born in Paris into the Parisian aristocracy. At the age of ten, after Hitler captured the Zona Libre in France, she herself had to flee, this time to Mexico City with her mother, while her father, a soldier, remained in France.

Her Time in Mexico

Her education ended after high school in a convent, at which point she went to work at Excelsior newspaper (which astute readers will no doubt recall from the section on Gabriel García Marquez). She never attended university. The daughter of aristocrats, she naturally began her career writing a social column, conducting interviews with prominent members of Mexico’s upper class, such as the ambassador to the United States, the subject of her first published piece.

It may come as a surprise then that, from the paradoxically humble aristocratic roots, she would come to champion women, the urban poor, and the disenfranchised throughout her long, distinguished career as a journalist and creative writer. Most of her writing consists of narrative testimonials, drawing from interviews of people in the situations she depicts. One of her best known books, La noche de Tlatelolco (Translated to Mexican Massacre in English) drew upon testimonies from some of the victims of the 1968 massacre of protesting students in Mexico City’s Plaza de las Tres Culturas by Mexican Armed Forces.

Other works include portrayals of young women coming of age before the feminist movement, and accounts of the struggles of the urban poor and disenfranchised. She also wrote biographies, including one of Tina Modotti, an Italian photographer and political activist, and Diego Rivera’s first wife, which, Poniatowska later said, aimed to “de-iconize” the giant of Mexican art. Her writing is characterized by its rich and empathetic portrayal of ordinary people, and she often explores themes of social inequality, injustice, and the human condition.

Despite a subtle yet pervasive patriarchy in the world of letters throughout her career, which continues to this day, Elena (nicknamed Elenita) persisted. As a writer, she is known for long, furious writing sessions where she often overlooks even some of her most pressing tasks. Nonetheless, she has had time to help found two successful publications, La Jornada, a Mexico City daily newspaper, and Fem, the first feminist magazine in Latin America. She also helped open a publishing house, and even the Cineteca Nacional México, translated as either the Mexican National Cinematheque or Film Archives.

Her Legacy

Several Latin American and international organizations have acknowledged her literary prowess and importance. She has also been recognized with the National Journalism Award in Mexico and the prestigious Miguel de Cervantes Prize for Literature.

Overall, Elena Poniatowska has had a profound impact on Mexican society. Her legacy rests on her commitment to social justice through her writing and advocacy as well as her literary achievements. Her work continues to inspire and provoke critical reflection on issues of inequality, human rights, and the power of storytelling. Poniatowska's contributions to Mexican literature, especially her focus on marginalized communities, make her an influential and respected figure in both literary and social circles.

Emperor Maximilian the First

(Austria, 6 July 1832 - Mexico City, 19 June 1867)



Few expats have had the dubious distinction of being as prominent as Maximiliano, the Austrian archduke who ruled the Second (and Final) Mexican Empire for three years until his execution by firing squad at the age of 34.

His time in Mexico

The Expat Insurance blog has an excellent article about Emperor Maximilian I. The article chronicles his early life and education, years before Mexico, residence in Chapultepec Castle, which was formerly a military academy and afterwards a museum. You can learn about his liberal reforms and (ultimately fruitless) attempts to win the favor of the Mexican people.

His Legacy

When Napoleon withdrew his troops from Mexico, Maximiliano’s die was cast. The Mexican monarchy would die with him and, with his last words, “Viva la independencia”, Mexico would be a free and sovereign state from 1867 to the present day.

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