12:00 AM CDT on Saturday, August 25, 2007
By ALFREDO CORCHADO / The Dallas Morning News
CABO SAN LUCAS, Mexico – This seaside jewel is the stuff of
After working in the U.S. for five years, Rigoberto Rodriguez Ruelas
returned to Mexico for a chance to work - and play - at a golf
course in Los Cabos. Maribel Uribe, 38, still can't get over her
first glimpse of beauty: a paycheck "three times what I made in my
hometown," says the single mother of two. "Opportunities are
everywhere." Humberto Lozada Balderas, a waiter, is just as
effusive: "The demand is insatiable."
While this may sound like Mexicans waxing poetic about the American
dream, this dreamscape is actually hundreds of miles south of the
U.S. border with Mexico – in the state of Baja California Sur.
Developers in Los Cabos often pay workers 0 a week - much more
than in the rest of Mexico -to build residential projects,
Construction here is booming. U.S. tourists and residents arrive in
droves – buying million-dollar homes or paying hundreds for
luxurious overnight hotels. The economy is growing at an average
rate of 15 percent, compared with 3 percent for the rest of the
The result: fierce competition for Mexican workers by both U.S. and
Mexican employers in Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo – a resort
community commonly known as Los Cabos.
In many ways, this area represents the kind of prosperity that
Mexico wants to duplicate in other parts of the country to keep its
workers at home. And much of that investment – in the billions of
dollars – comes from Americans, particularly Texans, seeking a
second home and a different lifestyle.
Juan Mucino, a developer at La Vista, a posh residential project
with a stunning view of the Gulf of California, recalls greeting
workers from the interior of Mexico as the ships landed in nearby La
"I'd tell them, 'Welcome to Baja California,' " he recalls. "And the
workers would totally ignore the word 'Baja' and think they were
actually in California.
"Overnight, they'd hightail it out looking for Los Angeles," he
said. "It took a while for them to realize that we are hours away
from the border, and that we would pay them good money, sometimes as
much as a U.S. employer."
Mr. Mucino and other employers often pay up to 0 a week – three
to four times the going rate in the rest of Mexico – for workers to
build half million- and million-dollar homes.
The result is rare opulence in a largely impoverished country.
Tourism is Mexico's new oil – "a powerful engine to create jobs" –
President Felipe Calderón has said and others have echoed.
"For every worker who finds a job in Los Cabos, that's one less
worker heading to the United States," said Arturo Treviño, state
tourism minister for Baja California Sur. "You never know. With more
Cabos, the United States may actually miss our countrymen someday."
Chris Snell, owner of Snell Real Estate in Los Cabos, sees the
influx of dollars as "an immigration stopgap" and jobs engine.
"Not only are workers employed, but we're talking about good-paying
jobs," said Mr. Snell, who was born in San Antonio. He pays bonuses
and other perks to his employees after every sale. "We're talking
about jobs that offer Mexicans the kind of quality of life that they
seek across the border."
Mexico's bright spot
Los Cabos is far from typical.
Mexico is at least decades away from repeating the Ireland
experience, immigration experts say. The booming economy in that
once-impoverished European nation continues to draw thousands of
Irishmen back home – so many that some employers in New York City
and Boston are beginning to feel their loss.
Similarly, if Mexico manages to attract more immigrants back, their
loss would be felt north of the border, experts say.
"Mexican laborers have been a part of our economy and society for
over 100 years," said Hilary Dick, a specialist on Mexican migration
at Pennsylvania' s Bryn Mawr College. "It would be a tremendous loss
to the U.S. if we were to drive out this dedicated labor force."
For the most part, Mexicans today still scrape for a living, as the
exodus of their countrymen, including some of the brightest and most
But Los Cabos represents a bright spot for Mexico – a peek at what
could be ahead as the country's birthrate falls and the economy
Private investment has increased from billion in 2000 to .85
billion in 2006. Much of that investment was earmarked for
communities along the Pacific Coast and Gulf of California,
particularly the Baja California Sur region, said Bertha Villalobos,
spokeswoman for the Secretary of Tourism department.
Los Cabos, in particular, continues to be "a very strong market for
foreign investment," Ms. Villalobos said, "and a magnet for job
About 90 percent of the initial investment in Los Cabos came from
Americans, Mr. Snell said, although Mexican investors are now
Personal stories underscore the hope that Los Cabos has come to
represent for many Mexicans.
José Antonio Mendoza Sarabia was a college graduate going nowhere.
He thought of heading to the United States to work, make some money,
return to Mexico, buy a home and get married. And he thought Los
Cabos would be an ideal place to make enough money to pay a
Instead, Mr. Sarabia met Mr. Mucino, the developer, who hired him as
his personal driver.
After a few months of work and witnessing the economic explosion
around him, Mr. Sarabia saw his own future. And it was bright.
He quit his job, started his own coconut business and found the
woman of his dreams, Gilda.
He now owns Cocorchata, one of two fresh coconut shops here in Los
Cabos. He and his wife have a 4-month-old son, Amado Rodrigo, and
own their first home. Thoughts of heading to the United States have
evaporated. Instead, he plans to expand into a shopping mall
crawling with Americans.
"I have everything I need here, job security, a home, a family and
plans to expand," Mr. Sarabia said. "I know it sounds strange, but
this is the Mexican dream made right here in Mexico."
Rigoberto Rodriguez Ruelas, 32, from a small town in Sinaloa, moved
here after working in California for five years. He began working at
a golf course, manicuring the greens and caddying.
He has since learned to play.
"Everything I have, I owe to American investment," he said. "Why
would I think of going back to the U.S. and risking my life? I'm
doing things I never thought of, like playing golf. How many Mexican
immigrants to the U.S. can say that?"
With the growth in the economy have come the growing pains. Los
Cabos is experiencing a dilemma reminiscent of several U.S. cities,
particularly Farmers Branch, where an immigration debate is raging.
Of the estimated 200,000 residents, about 12,000 are Americans –
some legal, some not.
The region has English language newspapers, including The Gringo
Gazette, and daily hourlong English-language radio programming.
Prices are usually in dollars.
Most Americans came here legally to work in the hospitality
industry. But others overstayed tourism visas and now work
illegally, just like their Mexican counterparts in the United States.
At a surf shop just outside San Jose del Cabo, a tall, wiry American
from San Diego is getting a massage after surfing in the Gulf of
Asked for his name, the 25-year-old with a deep tan and long blond
hair says, "Are you crazy? I'll get booted out of here. Just say I'm
Dick Cheney in an undisclosed location."
He hops into his Toyota 4Runner with California plates, surfboard on
top and music blaring, and disappears.
For the most part, Mexicans shrug off the influx of U.S. citizens.
"We have no problems with anyone who wants to contribute positively
to our growth and the betterment of this community," said Mayor Luis
But others aren't pleased.
"I don't like that they take the best jobs in town," said Judith
Valencia, a 22-year-old hotel hostess from Querétaro. "I speak
English, and yet the company picked an American over me. That's not
Andrés Rivera, 40, a chef, says the Mexican dream is being ruined by
too many outsiders, including Americans.
"I hear Puerto Peñasco is the next big thing," he said, referring to
a seaside community in the state of Sonora.
Victorio Angel Asdodillo, 41, originally from the southern state of
Guerrero, said he's found in Los Cabos what he could not in
California, Arizona or Texas.
He was deported by the U.S. Border Patrol five years ago and works
in construction here. While the pay is less than what he'd generally
make in the U.S., "it is money I make without the insults and
risks," he said.
He's now building a home for his family of four.
He mulls the question as he slaps cement, then adds, "Prosperity
knows no borders."