Meet Judy King, author of Living at Lake Chapala, an excellent resource for those planning on making the move to Mexico.
I was born and raised in Iowa – part of the 5th generation of two lines of ancestors: great-great-grandparents with the surnames Thomsen and Chrestensen who emigrated from Denmark in the 1840s. I moved to Ajijic (isn’t that a fun word, with all those letters to dot?) in Jalisco, about 45 minutes from Guadalajara, from southern California in October of 1990. I’m here now because this is la Tierra de mi Corazon – the land of my heart.
I came to Mexico the year my youngest of three children entered college. All three of them were in universities in Iowa and Missouri, I was in California. It didn’t seem to make much difference if I was 1800 miles West of them or 1800 miles South of them. As a fairly recent resident of that town in California, I had just a few close friends – who were preparing to move to the east coast.
My children went through a series of changes, as college students and young adults are meant to do and came out the other end extremely independent, and well prepared to live in the world on their own. NOT having the ability to move back to live with mom really does make a difference. Plus they really enjoyed spending holidays in Jalisco.
By the way, I’m an only child. My mother died in 1972 when I was 29, my father remarried, to a much younger woman, so I didn’t have the obligation to remain in California to care for him…I really was on my own. I came alone. I was divorced, the man I’d met and become engaged to in California had died of cancer, and with the kids in college, I sure was at loose ends.
I’ve changed so much and learned so much in these 26 years that It’s hard to know where to start and how to explain. I was a “bit” of a control freak, I learned those skills along with some other frantic traits at my mother’s knee
I’ve learned to slow down, to not push and shove and force my way through things, that stuff happens on its own schedule, that MY logic is not the logic of this country, that MY country’s way of doing things is not the only way and certainly not the best way. I’ve learned to live one day at a time, a habit that drives some of my newer in Mexico friends wild. Where are we going to lunch tomorrow? I don’t know. I’m answering these questions today. When we get to tomorrow, I’ll let you know. Why would we need to know today?
I’ve learned that time can be fluid. I’ve learned that when appointments are not kept or people are late, it has NOTHING to do with me. It’s just the way it is. AND that Mexico and the US/Canada have different ways of doing things. One isn’t right and the other wrong, they are just different.
That means I’ve given up a good deal of judgment. Yes, some folks live in houses that others might consider hovels – they are just houses – and the people who come out of those houses every morning are spic and span, combed and coiffed, looking better than I do.
How my belief system has changed is worthy of a whole book—as “the chicken man on the road” said to me once, “Que lastima (what a shame) that extranjeros (expats) shop (and judge) with their eyes and not their hearts. He was killing chickens every morning, plucking and dressing them, and he didn’t refrigerate them, knowing that most people who bought the chickens would be cooking them for comida (meals) in the afternoon. I know from time spent at Great-Aunt Lulu’s farm and at Aunt Margaret and Aunt Betty’s places that fresh chicken is safe, doesn’t grow bacteria that is harmful to us in 4 or 5 hours, UNLESS it is refrigerated, allowed to warm up and then refrigerated again.
I’ve tried to look with my heart and not just my eyes while living here. I’ve learned that money certainly is not the basis of determining the value of people, or of deciding who has knowledge to share with me, or who is “worthy” of being my friend. Certainly a welcome change from the US, and especially Southern California where the pretense of wealth/upper class/ prestige is everything.
I’m angered, I get really HOT when expats, especially those who are new start in with “WHY DON’T THEY….pave over the cobblestones, make laws so it is quiet at night….and on and on and on….” Northerners Don’t have the right to decide what Mexicans do, with their money, with their lives, with their time, with their customs. It’s ok if it is different.
During these years I also converted to Catholicism. Ajijic’s parish church has had an English Mass every Sunday for over 50 years – fairly unusual in Mexico. I was born and raised Presbyterian – totally middle of the road, religion wise. I was a bit of a rebel and was attracted to the Catholic church in my teen years, but it was easier to give up what I wanted than to go face to face with my mother. SO, I waited until I was around 60. Mostly I did it because I was invited to so many weddings and baptisms and quinces that I really wanted to be fully part of the Mass, AND I had fallen in love with the Virgin of Guadalupe and had accepted her as my mother, as the Mexicans also do. Knowing her love and help in return had helped me heal from the leftover wounds inflicted by some born-again family members, and when I was able to accept that Her son really had nothing to do with what those people were doing and saying, I was ready to come back and be in a church again.
I’ve had my share of challenges too. I met an American man here and married him here. I didn’t realize he was an alcoholic and gambler. When my money was gone, he was gone, too. On to the next woman. Then when the divorce took longer than he wanted, he took her to Texas and married her too – I thought happily about putting him in jail in both countries for bigamy, but decided to sit down and shut up and wait until the 10th anniversary when I could collect my social security from his base, rather than mine. By that time the new wife had died of hepatitis, and he was living at the beach, I was here and never saw him, so it didn’t seem to make much difference. Hanging in was worth it. Now I’m collecting widow’s benefits.
It wasn’t quite that simple emotionally, however. It took a good long time for me to heal. If it hadn’t been for Al-anon, I don’t know if I would have. That’s one of the great benefits of living here at Lake Chapala – there is such a great support system of expats, and more than 100 organizations of all kinds meeting in English.
Any challenges these days are small, and usually self-inflicted if I’m honest. I’m almost 72, I’ve been here 26 years, Growing older has meant growing calmer, softer, easier, less stressed, less affected by what is happening out there. Living alone helps too!
There is a pair of accomplishments that make me the proudest. I’m delighted to be seen with respect by many of the Mexican community leaders. I’m not talking elected community officials, but the hometown guys who know who I am and how I believe and what I know about Mexican customs and traditions. They call me la media Mexicana.
The ONLY thing on my bucket list was to write and publish a book, to hold it in my hands and see my name on the front. I used to “write books” when I was 4 and 5. When I was 6 all I wanted for Christmas was a BIG pile of paper (that I could do with what I wanted), a BIG box of crayons (in 1950 that meant the box of 48) and a lot of pencils and a pencil sharpener. I just received my 4th printing of Living at Lake Chapala, which continues to sell well on amazon.com, too.
I hope to write another book this year – The working title is FIESTAS! Celebrations of Families, Fireworks, and Faith. In it, I’ll talk about the civic and religious holidays, the customs of celebrations, and the family events, baptisms, first communion, quinceaneras, weddings, anniversaries, deaths, funerals, etc. What I need is to put myself in the chair and stay there until I compile and edit the articles I’ve already written and rewritten over the years and collate them into book format. Thankfully we have a great German/Mexican printer in Guadalajara who will print as many as we want at very reasonable prices.
I have an immigration book ½ finished but I became so angry with the power and antics of the US government – ICE and Homeland Security that I quit about 18 months ago and put it back on the shelf. The name of that was Coming Home: Real Stories of Mexican Migrants. It was a series of interviews with local guys and women who have been to the states, some back as far as the braceros, who worked there and then returned home to live. The alternate chapters would explore issues at the center of the interview – applying for visas, detention, The wall (the original wall, not the newly planned wall) etc.
Things I miss about my life before Mexico include shopping and time with my kids, but in my head, it’s my kids when they were younger, not now when they all in their mid-to-late 40s! Two of them were here for my last birthday. One will be coming this year.
I sold real estate here at Lake Chapala for 11 years, I managed B&Bs for owners, I designed interior decorator accessories for local production to be shipped to the US, Canada, and Europe, I started, edited and maintained a subscription-based online magazine, Living at Lake Chapala for 12 years, I edited a monthly print magazine, the Lake Chapala Review for 8.5 years, and I was a columnist and reporter for the Guadalajara Reporter for 2 years before I retired January 1, 2016. (NOTE: that adds up to more than 26 years! Some of those jobs overlapped, I was multitasking frequently) Now I have social security from the US.
In my free time, I sew, quilt, play the ukulele, attend church, belong to a quilt guild, to a women’s writers group, to a book club, and sharing breakfast or lunch with groups of friends. The expats here are more prone to earlier activities – I hesitate to say we’re old, exactly, but I’m actually excited about the New Year’s Eve party I’m invited to – it is scheduled from 3 to 6 p.m. PERFECT…then I can come home and put on sweats and spend the evening with my dog – she doesn’t like fireworks. Besides English Mass is at 9 a.m. on New Year’s Day.
I learned a lot of the skills I needed for daily life growing up in the 50s in Iowa and then being an Iowa farmwife in the 60s and 70s. I was well used to phone, water, and electric outages, even running out of gas. I also read the book Don’t sweat the Small Stuff….PS It’s ALL Small Stuff. This year I want to continue quilting. I’m making TV couch quilts for my great-grandchildren. I have 2 done, 3 to go. I’ve done quilts for my daughter and one son. Need to do one for my older son this year, too, to keep things even. (smile). Then maybe I can do one for me to use for my siestas.
I have learned to emulate my Mexican neighbors and live in today. That’s so valuable. As soon as I start to think about the past or the future, I’m prone to worry and I’m out of today. I’m inspired by the ability of people here to just keep keeping on, no matter what. Christmas is a perfect example. I grew up with a mother, and I became a mother, who had to have every flat surface decorated, who had to bake dozens of cookies, and dozens of loaves of banana and date bread to give to folks, to decorated every gift, who fussed until every gift (and there were many, too many) was absolutely perfect, and the house was spotless and the food was fit for Julia Child and the table for Martha Stewart….and we were tired to the bone and so so crabby that no one had a good time. My Mexican friends just don’t worry about it until the last few days – and then a gift or two, sometimes with their sisters making tamales, bonfires, some strings of lights, speakers, and chairs in the street on Christmas eve, and everyone has a great time. It’s all about family and not all about appearances and pretenses. WHEW…I wish I’d known this sooner.
I’d sure like to be kinder and less judgemental more often. (Note: my flares of disgust and anger are aimed at stupid expat behavior, NOT at local customs, traditions or daily life.
I volunteer for a local orphanage – la Villa Infantil de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe y Sr San José. This children’s home houses between 35 and 40 children. Right now there are a dozen Little ones, age 2 and under and the other 25 are from 3 through 12. Some of these beautiful children are orphans, others have been abandoned in Guadalajara, others have been taken from their families due to abuse, drug use by the adults, etc. The home is run and the children cared for by three wonderful nuns – I have no idea how they manage to maintain their sanity, and they go so much farther and are calm, measured, sweet and loving to all of the calls of “Mami, Mami, Mami” (Nuns here are called Madre – so it’s automatic that they become Mami.) We do a monthly food and cleaning materials drive, we take turns providing and serving lunch for the kids when the older ones get home from school, we provide school uniforms, backpacks, and school supplies each fall. And we just provided clothes and a toy for each child for Christmas. “My” Christmas child was a 2-year-old girl. When she and her siblings arrived at the home they were so dirty and so infested with lice that their heads had to be shaved and it took multiple baths to get them clean. They are thriving now. Another little set of 4 siblings all had cigarette burns. The baby had burns on her temples. The older brother and sister had never been to school, the nine-year-old couldn’t write his own name and was addicted to the drugs his uncle had him selling and delivering and had to be in rehab for a few days to detox. Anyone wanting to help the home and the kids could call Father Basil (our English speaking priest who dedicates a good deal of his week and energy to making sure the children and nuns have what they need to keep the home running like a clock. His US VOIP number is 408-733-6042 and his Mexican Landline is (387) 763-0928
At the beginning of 2014, Our Club Ukulele de Laguna started an academy to teach local children to play the ukulele. There are 40 youngsters enrolled in the program. The adult group furnishes instruments for the kids, pays for the professional college-trained musical teacher to instruct them, and helps with all of their performances. Already some of these kids have moved beyond uke to guitar, violin, cello, and all will have the lifelong benefit in reading and math, and an advantage in life skills from the discipline and group experience of music.
Finally, I’m teaching a series of classes about Mexico for the Lake Chapala Society, a 60+-year-old expat organization here. All of my classes look at Mexico through literature and sometimes movies and music. The first class related to the Maya, Olmec, Aztec and the Conquest. The November 2016 class explored the winter holiday customs and traditions in Mexico. In January 2017 an eight-week class is titled Surviving the Revolution. We’ll look at the family in Mexico at the turn of the century and as the fervor built toward the Revolution which began in 1910. Then we’ll read and discuss the people and their experiences in several books including Rain of Gold by Victor Villasenor, and The Hummingbird’s Daughter by Luis Alberto Urrea. We’ll watch the movie, “Like Water for Chocolate” based on the book by Laura Esquivel, and possibly also “The Old Gringo” based on the book by Carlos Fuentes. A shorter book, written during the Revolution and included in the class is “The Underdogs” by Dr. Mariano Azuela.
If I had to do it all over again, I would move to Mexico earlier. I would not waste time living the first years in big gringo houses. I love my smaller rental house in the village. I really haven’t had a defining moment in my life here. But then I chose to come here, I choose to stay here because I love it here, because this is my home, where my heart is. I’ve lived here longer than anywhere else. I don’t experience fear. I live in faith that all will be well. I know that may sound way too simplistic, but if you haven’t tried it, don’t knock it. When tough times hit, if I went to fear that the sky would fall on my head, nothing got better. If I believed, really believed that all would be well, even if I couldn’t imagine HOW, somehow it was.
Living at Lake Chapala recounts one woman’s adventure in Mexico with an inclusive guide on moving to, building, renting or buying your dream house in Lake Chapala. Here you’ll find everything from the average cost of living to language and culture tips that will make your life at Lake Chapala successful. Find Judy on Twitter and Facebook.