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A BETTER LIFE ABROAD?

A chaotic but welcoming option: Mexico

More than 8,000 Spaniards have moved to the country in the past four years

Guillermo Almeida, who moved to Mexico in 2010, visits a market in the capital.
Guillermo Almeida, who moved to Mexico in 2010, visits a market in the capital.

The plane circles down like a bird over the blue of the Mexican Caribbean and the green of the Yucatan peninsula. After it lands at Cancún airport, small groups of Spaniards pick their way out into the brilliant sunshine; most of them already wearing beachwear, ready to be bussed off to nearby resort hotels.

But not all the passengers are looking for two weeks of lying flat out on a beach punctuated by the occasional visit to a Mayan ruin.

Look carefully and there are thirtysomethings coming to open a business on the coast. Others are going to make their way up to Mexico City "to work doing whatever." A group of at least 20 are dressed in shabby cast-offs, their hair tied up in dreadlocks.

"Now I've seen it all," sighs Laura, a Spanish actress who has lived in Spain for five years. "Even the dope heads are trying their luck in Mexico."

It turns out that the "dope heads" all know each other. "We live in Chiapas, we work with indigenous communities there, in holistic schools," says Sara, a 29-year-old from Madrid.

"San Cristóbal de las Casas is full of hippies — we all know each other, and we know when the cheap flights are available," adds Jaime, a 32-year-old from Cádiz. The other tourists and migrants look at each other in puzzlement, some whispering: "You get the strangest people coming here lately."

Mexico is a lovely place, but it is not for anyone with a nervous disposition"

Spaniards have been trying their luck in Mexico since the days of Hernán Cortés, latterly attracted by its spirit of adventure, culture, and tequila. But over the last five years, rising youth unemployment in Spain is prompting young professionals to seek a new life here.

On one hand, artists, painters and actors say that they are finding opportunities here denied to them in Spain. One the other, former executives with multinationals say that it was either the street or Mexico, while those looking for an alternative lifestyle find the pace of life in small provincial towns to their liking.

There are even those who have come here to help locals, working with Mexican NGOs.

Alarmed by the growing numbers of would-be-migrants, the Mexican authorities have toughened the country's immigration rules, while Spaniards who have been here for a few years hold out warnings that this can still be a difficult country in which to make a go of things.

"Mexico is a lovely place, and very welcoming, but it's not for anybody who is easily put off or likely to get nervous," says one veteran.

Spaniards now make up 4.8 percent of foreigners living here, making them the third-largest group after Americans and Guatemalans. Most Spaniards enter on tourist visas, and do not bother to register with the authorities, making it difficult to gauge numbers. But around 8,000 have been given work permits in the last five years; the total number registered here is more than 87,000: more than at any time since the Spanish Civil War, when tens of thousands of Republicans were offered shelter from Franco's victorious fascist side.

People are so warm and kind. All I was doing in Madrid was to survive"

Having the right papers is now essential, says Guillermo Almeida, a 35-year-old who came here from Menorca University to finish his history degree at Mexico City's UNAM. He spent six months in the capital, caught up, he says, in its "dizzying rhythm, its chaos, and its addictive freedom."

Almeida feels that the appeal of Mexico for many people lies in its chaos, but he says that he has found it hard to deal with inequality and poverty. He returned to Madrid, but came back to Mexico in January after applying for another grant to continue his studies. He is now looking for work as a teacher, but has come up against the country's legendary bureaucracy.

"They can't be bothered to just process my request for a work permit."

Ana Luisa Rodríguez, who works at the Mexican Embassy in Madrid, concurs: "I wouldn't recommend [going to Mexico] unless you have things organized — unless you have a work permit."

But Itahisa Machado, an actress from the Canary Islands, was one who came here with without a work permit and says that she found work in her first month, filming a series of advertisements, and later appearing in soap operas. She is currently the star of Rosario, which is shown throughout Latin America.

"In two years I have achieved more than I did in seven years in Madrid. I just found that I fitted into things here; the vibe is different to Spain. People are warmer, kinder. All I was doing was surviving in Madrid; it was so depressing."

Jorge Cuendias, a 35-year-old from Oviedo, had no work permit when he came here, after what he describes as "a hippie attack, fleeing from a terrible job that was stressing me out." He has worked in sales for several companies, and is currently employed by a pharmaceutical business.

"There is a lot more potential here; a lot more energy," Cuendias argues, adding that what he likes most is being so close to the "best beaches in the world," and that what he least likes is the traffic in Mexico City. "But hell, this is still the best place in the world."

Spanish actor Óscar Jaenada, who in August finished filming a biopic of Mexico's legendary comic actor Cantinflas, says that he was surprised at the amount of Spaniards he came across during his stay.

"In many ways it is like the 1930s, when there were thousands of Spaniards arriving here, fleeing from Franco. It's another exile, but this time not forced by war, but by the mafia that runs Spain now," he says.

Carlos Triviño, a 34-year-old mechanic from Mallorca, came here with his girlfriend, who he has since married. "It took a long time to get my papers sorted out, and nobody would hire me without them," he says. Triviño is the only Spaniard EL PAÍS talked to who says he has come up against discrimination: "Sometimes people say things on the subway."

The flight from Cancún is now making its entry into Mexico City airport. A sea of lights spreads out below, scaling up into the shanty towns that ring the capital, the narrow streets and poorly built houses coming into view as we descend. The monster that is the Federal District sprawls off in every direction, as far as the eye can see. After the doors open, the Spaniards coming here in search of opportunity breathe in the polluted air, looking around them into the darkening night.

"Don't worry, it's always the same at the beginning," says Laura to a young woman standing next to her with a look of terror on her face.

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