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A newly published book by UNC faculty details the results of research on the rapidly-increasing tendency of retirees to relocate to Latin America.  Entitled “Retirement Migration from the U.S. to Latin American Colonial Cities,” the book presents results of research conducted in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, and Cuenca, Ecuador, both UNESCO World Heritage sites internationally recognized for historical architecture and cultural roots.

Street scene in San Miguel de Allende
Street scene in San Miguel de Allende

Funded by the National Geographic Society and edited by Philip Sloane, MD, MPH, Sheryl Zimmerman MSW, PhD, and Johanna Silbersack, MSW, the book details the impact of growing American retiree populations on the economy, environment, and living experiences of natives in the two cities. The research team conducted nearly one hundred in-depth interviews with local residents, gathering further data from online surveys of retirees, geo-mapping, and local databases.

“I wondered about the impact of retirees on the culture and life of local residents who had been there for generations,” said Sloane, whose interest in the topic began after a home-stay in San Miguel de Allende, when he heard his host family debating whether to sell a home in the city center that had been in the family for generations because prices were rising and the neighborhood was changing. “They were talking about the effects of gentrification,” he said.

In a video documenting their key findings, the team highlights how the retirees contribute to economic growth by providing jobs and supporting social service programs, and that locals find them respectful of the environment and heritage.

Research interview with local
Research assistant Brenna McColl interviewing a local small business operator about their interactions with and perceptions of immigrant retirees

However, language and cultural barriers make it virtually impossible for retirees to become truly engrained in their new communities. “They have relationships with locals, but they’re largely transactional,” Sloane said, referring to retirees developing friendships with people they employ, such as a housekeeper or taxi driver. Beyond these interactions, expats tend to find true companionship among fellow migrants who speak English and share familiar customs and traditions. “There’s a big expat community, so they’re not isolated,” Sloane explained.

One of the greatest impacts American retirees have on their new Latin American communities is contributing to gentrification of wealthier neighborhoods, particularly in San Miguel de Allende, where expats comprise over 10 percent of the population and are concentrated around the city center. As a result, families with less money have been pushed to the periphery of town, where the cost of housing is lower but they face issues such as gang activity and water quality problems.

Sloane and his team dedicated a portion of their book to advising local governments and policymakers in popular retirement destinations on how to address issues such as cultural preservation and community safety for all.  They also provide strategies for communities that may wish to attract retirees – a long list ranging from assuring safety in the central areas, to developing and maintaining parks, promoting English language training, and promoting themselves as a tourism destination.

Group dinner
Research team having dinner together in Cuenca. Left to right: Luisa Cesar, Karla Jimenez, Dr. Sheryl Zimmerman, Dr. Philip Sloane, Brenna McColl. Not pictured: Erika Munshi

While a growing expat community does present certain challenges to destination retirement cities, the research team found the majority of local residents were happy with the retirees. “There are a few bad apples,” Sloane said, “but in general our interviewees reported that the expat retirees were polite, didn’t cause trouble, created employment, and respected the environment and culture.”

Dr. Sloane is the Elizabeth and Oscar Goodwin Professor of Family Medicine; Dr. Zimmerman is Kenan Distinguished Professor of Social Work; and Ms. Silbersack is a research associate and project coordinator.  All three work at the Cecil G. Sheps Center for Health Services Research at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.