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New land of opportunity

by ALFREDO CORCHADO Monday, Aug. 27, 2007 at 12:23 PM
acorchado@dallasnew s.com

Los Cabos rises as place to realize the Mexican dream

12:00 AM CDT on Saturday, August 25, 2007

By ALFREDO CORCHADO / The Dallas Morning News

acorchado@dallasnew s.com

CABO SAN LUCAS, Mexico – This seaside jewel is the stuff of

immigrant dreams.

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

country.

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

Paz.

"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

ambitious, continues.

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

gradually improves.

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

creation."

About 90 percent of the initial investment in Los Cabos came from

Americans, Mr. Snell said, although Mexican investors are now

catching up.

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

smuggler.

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?"

Growing pains

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

California.

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

Armando Diaz.

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

fair."

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.

The lesson?

He mulls the question as he slaps cement, then adds, "Prosperity

knows no borders."

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