When Ana Jane* turned 60, she decided she wanted “a complete life change.” Approaching retirement, she was suddenly laid off from her job as an interior decorator in early 2009, during the peak of the financial crisis. Having endured cancer, job loss and an addiction problem, she was hoping to turn her life around. But the opportunities to do so in her home city of Houston, Texas, were limited.
“I don’t think I can live in Houston for what I had as far as monthly income,” she said. “I wanted out of the states.” So she left.
Over the last decade, thousands of Americans, most of them white, have left the United States to settle in communities in Latin America, where the cost of living is lower. International “lifestyle marketers,” such as International Living, with ties to real estate investors and developers in select destinations, often promote these communities online.
Ana Jane chose to live in Cuenca, Ecuador, a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage city of 330,000 people located high up in the Ecuadorian Andes, and where the average monthly household income is about $700, well below what most retirees say they live on in the US. About a third of Cuenca’s population work in the informal sector, where even the basic salary of $394 per month is not guaranteed. Though there are no official statistics keeping tab on how many Americans have relocated there, municipal officials estimate as many as 10,000 since the 2008 crisis.
Many of these expats have fled diminishing returns in the US, but often, that’s not the sole reason for relocation. Elise, 66, moved to Ecuador with her husband in 2011. “We knew that we were getting up in age, [and] that if we wanted to do something adventurous, we had to do it then.”
Cuenca is not the only community in Latin America to receive “lifestyle” and retirement migrants from Canada and the United States. In recent years, international lifestyle marketers have drawn attention to low-income communities in Mexico, Costa Rica and Panama as well. In some places, tens of thousands of North Americans — far more in numbers than the Central Americans in the “migrant caravans” coming to the United States — are relocating for a mix of lifestyle ideals, climate and lower cost-of-living.
Since 2011, I have documented the lives of people moving to Cuenca from Canada and the United States. I have spoken with them about their reasons for moving, their impressions of Ecuador and their aspirations for the future. I have also documented their impact on receiving communities in Ecuador.
Lifestyle Migration and Global Inequality
Americans said they hoped their impact on Cuenca was a good one, and they participated in charities and provided extra help to their domestic employees — which they could afford because of the lower cost of living. But they also participated in gentrification processes, raising prices of rent and real estate.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the historic El Centro neighborhood, where the city government is renovating plazas and streetscapes with the aim of increasing real estate values and attracting higher-income tourists and lifestyle migrants. The active social lives and shopping habits of American and Canadian retirees has helped support new boutique business and craft producers, replacing “mom-and-pop” shops in central neighborhoods. Cuenca’s UNESCO-designated downtown increasingly caters to transnationally mobile, global middle classes.
Jorge is a clothing vendor who worked 29 years at Plaza San Francisco, located in the heart of Cuenca’s historic center. But the city removed his stall, along with those of 133 other vendors, to make way for renovations that would reduce vending space, and open the plaza for cultural events and craft fairs. For him, El Centro was his community, the place that he worked. Since being moved to a temporary stall off the square, he said he was lucky if he could sell one or two $10 items per day. Like many other lower-income workers, he hoped to give his children a better life, and measured success by what his labor was about to bring home. “We have to maintain our families,” he said. To make ends meet, he and many of his colleagues had to work longer, find other jobs and reduce their expenses.
“The whole city is changing, and we have to change, too,” he said. “I am not young. I am used to this work.” Vendors’ livelihoods have been affected by the growth of middle-class malls and the decline of lower-income workers in El Centro as it becomes a leisure space for global middle classes.
Another clothing vendor, Dolores, was fighting for her right to work and to remain in place. She said that the mayor now wanted the plaza so North American retirees could stroll on it. Dolores, however, does not have a retirement to look forward to. “I have no pension,” she said. “I will continue to work until God decides I will work no more.”
Jorge, too, knows that the changes he faces are partly due to the arrival of wealthier North Americans. Everything is getting expensive now, he said, but he doesn’t harbor any great resentment against the retirees. “If there were a job in the United States, I would move there,” he said.
Jorge said before he dies, he would also like to see things he had never seen before. He mentioned Vilcabamba, a vacation town four hours south, which he had heard a lot about but had never been to.
While Jorge’s colleagues try to work their way back into the heart of the city they have fostered for generations, lifestyle migrants like Ana Jane and Elise are “discovering” Vilcabamba and other rural areas near Cuenca — with help from internet search engines and international lifestyle marketers. North Americans have bought land and built luxury retirement houses for what, to them, are affordable prices. They have transformed rural landscapes. There, as in Cuenca, they have increasingly pushed people off the land, and into lives where they must work more, longer and often at lower pay to make ends meet.
Lifestyle migration to Cuenca provides a window into the type of global society that is taking shape after a generation of economic globalization. It is tempting to blame lifestyle migrants for being greedy or rapacious. But the truth is more complex, and reveals global inequalities inherited from a colonial past. These shape all our lives no matter where we live. At this moment in history, however, failure to address them in any systematic way produces localized forms of global inequality, gentrification and dispossession, as transnationally mobile global middle classes rub shoulders with street vendors in the tourism cities of Latin America.
*All participants in my research agreed to share their stories on condition of maintaining their anonymity. Names are, therefore, pseudonyms.