So Can You Raise A Family Here?

No, we mean a Gringo family. Can we do that or do we have to wait until the little blighters are grown up to move here?
BY: MARY CHRISTMAS

When my family and I made the monumental decision to sell our house in California and use the money to relocate to Pescadero, we always got one of two responses.  Response #1: You’re crazy! (The variations on this response included, “You’ve got great jobs, a great house, why would you want to uproot your kids?” to “Isn’t it dangerous down there?” Response #2 (which we actually received more often than Response #1) was: “We’ve always wanted to do that, too!” And then came the inevitable, “But...” and then fill in the blank.  “But...how would we support ourselves?” “But...the kids didn’t want to leave their friends.” ‘But...we worried about the kids‘ health care/education/safety.” The “buts” could go on forever.  And, yet, there is that look of longing on the parent’s face...a look that says, I want an adventure and I want it with and for my kids as well.  For the Gringo  parents who actually do come down to Baja and raise their families, that desire for adventure, for something different, is stronger than their fears or their worries.  

So, how did these families raising kids down here make it happen?  Christine raised her two sons, then age 12 and 13, in Pescadero for five years.  She was already homeschooling her boys in the U.S. and so when she and her then-husband bought a vacation property near the beach, she brought the boys down for “a few months,” she said.  “I thought they could learn some Spanish, and then we’d go back.” But her boys wanted to stay.  “They made friends, they were having a good time, and [later, at the schools in Todos Santos], everybody treated them like they were movie stars.”  This a common story: the “we came for vacation and never left” story.  Tammy Wolff, a wedding coordinator in Cabo who works with her daughter, Jessica Wolff, said the same thing.  They vacationed here, surfed and fished, and when her husband said he wanted to raise their kids in a foreign country, (he himself had been in raised in Liberia, Africa and loved it), they knew Cabo was the place. Many other families start with the, ‘Well, let’s try it for a year.’ Or part-time.  And then, end up staying with the kids for many years or permanently.

Life in Baja for kids can be really fun.  Reef Oldberg was raised in Pescadero from 6 months old to 16 years old and is now 19 and studying to be a film maker at Glendale Community College.  He stated, “Being raised in Baja was a wild experience.”  His memories of his childhood include, “driving an old golf cart down a dirt road to school shaded by a palapa roof. I would fish constantly, steal chillies from the fields surrounding my house, pick vegetables for my elementary school principal, walk the dirt roads with my friends.”

There are many positives that come from raising kids in Baja, or any other non-American culture.  “I think it helped my boys be less provincial in their philosophy; it gave them another perspective,” said Christine.  “They became much more internationally-minded.”  She was happy that her kids had been able to move past the “resort mentality” where what children see of another culture is from the pool at the resort. Oldberg agreed.  “For most of my life I grew up without hot water, electricity, and other resources that can be seen as mere conveniences to people from the U.S., which has made me more appreciative and accepting.  Growing up in Mexico also made me far more understanding and adaptable to foreign cultures from an early age, which is something that I will always cherish.”

Many families move to Baja because they want more family time.  In the States, kids are constantly busy, involved in (some would say over involved in), sports, activities, church, and sleep-overs; American kids seem to grow up so fast.  Families moving to Baja wanted to slow it down and simplify.  They really just wanted to spend more quality time with their kids.  And they get that.  Fewer scheduled kid activities usually equals more unscheduled family time. 

But at the same time, when raising kids here, you also don’t have to give up all the things you enjoyed in the US.  Gringo kids here in Baja still have big birthday parties with lots of kids, both Mexican and Gringo.  They go to the matinee, bowling, eat at McDonald’s, have camp-outs on the beach and pool parties with other kids. Kids here also, unlike in the States, get to hang out in bars and at one point, my 12 year old daughter was even serving cocktails at the Sand Bar in Pescadero one football Sunday.  She made tips and loved it.  The separation between young people and older people is never as distinct as it is in the U.S.  Kids hang out with adults, doing adult things in adult venues.  For some this is a negative, for others it’s a positive.

Parenting is different when raising kids in Baja, though.  The consensus seems to be that there is more worry about things like education.  Less worry about kids’ safety and morals.  This was the case for our family.  In the States, my husband and I had both worked full-time.  In Pescadero, I commuted to work in Cabo, while my husband was a stay-at-home dad.  He had almost complete supervision over our kids, 24/7.  They went to school mainly from 7:40-12:30 and after that, they were home or in the neighborhood all day.

“Raising kids was easier in Baja,” said Christine.  “I didn’t have the thing where they are gone all the time and you worry all the time.  They would go to the beach and have a bonfire and I didn’t care when they’d come home.  When they started to drive, I didn’t worry because they drove very little and when they did, they drove on dirt roads.”  However, as kids get older, they do want to explore “the big cities” of Cabo and La Paz call to them, and letting your teenaged daughter drive from Pescadero to Cabo to “meet friends” is definitely unnerving, just as it would be in the U.S.  “Here all you would have to worry about with your teenagers is beer and marijuana,” said Christine.  “In Newport Beach, California where my sister lives, they have a huge problem with heroin.”

Education for young Gringos, however, is an issue.  Many of the parents interviewed expressed this and worries about health care as their main concerns. Lack of quality education was more of a concern for those parents sending their students to public schools in the pueblos, like Pescadero and Todos Santos than for those parents sending their students to private schools in La Paz, Cabo or San Jose. While some kids, like Christine’s, are considered “special” because they are Gringos in a Mexican school, other Gringo kids did talk about being bullied because they were Gringos.  Noelle has a five year old daughter, who she sent to the public kindergarten in Pescadero.  “I was bullied by the school directors, and she was bullied by the other students,” said Noelle.  Her daughter is currently attending kindergarten at a Montessori school in Todos Santos.  “I wish I had more options,” said Noelle.  For high school opportunities, Gringo students from Pescadero and Todos Santos, like their Mexican counterparts, commute, move, or even live in a student apartment in the “big cities” to attend CECYT (similar to U.S. high school), after secundaria (like U.S. middle school.)

Christine thought the biggest difference for her kids was that they never experienced the traditional American high school. “But”, she stated, “they [her boys] never even mention it because they didn’t know what that was.  They never went to junior high school either, because I had home schooled them.” For our family, because my husband and I had both worked for years in American high schools, our children did know what a traditional American high school experience was like and they wanted it.  They wanted to play football, ( not soccer), and be a cheerleader, and go to the prom.  We moved back, temporarily, so they could have this.   Students like Jessica Wolff, who started Mexican school at age four and never went to school in the States says she is more Mexican than American.  “The only thing I ever regretted about not living in the States,” she said, “was not having access to the unlimited resources there, being able to get anything I needed or wanted.”   Cabo is and has been her home.  “I go on vacation to the States,” she said. 

Most Baja-raised kids eventually end up back in the States.  Most go to college, with former Baja-students attending Glendale Community College, CSU Long Beach, Ole Miss, Wesleyan, University of Kansas, and more.  After several starts and stops, trying to make it in the U.S., coming back to Baja, and then trying in the States again, Wolff’s son, Robert, is now completing his last year in electrical engineering at UCSD.   Some go to college in Mexico, like Lane Cope, raised in Todos Santos, who now attends ITESO, University Western Institute of Technology and Higher Education in Guadalajara  and Jessica Wolf, who earned a law degree in Mexico after attending Universidad Mundial in San Jose.  Some kids continue to live and work in Cabo, often at resorts, some on yachts where jobs are contracted at the Cabo marina, and some work for their parents’ business, as is the case of Jessica Wolf, who now coordinates weddings with her mom. 

Some parents look back and think maybe it wasn’t the best decision to raise their kids down here, especially in the smaller towns.  “I think this a great place to retire, to start a business,” said Christine.  “But I don’t think it’s the best place to raise kids.  I think they need more structure than they can get in a little Mexican vacation pueblo.  I think it would be different if you were raising your kids in a big city, like Guadalajara or Mexico City, where they could get an outstanding education.”

Wolff, on the other hand, admits that  it was hard in the beginning, especially before Walmart and the Costco and the other stores found their way to Cabo, but she feels their family has really benefitted from raising their kids here.  “It was difficult not speaking the language, putting two kids in an all Spanish school where no one spoke English. But I wanted to not be afraid and learn all the culture myself, because it is such a beautiful culture and language. It has benefited our family being bilingual and knowing that there is another side of other people in the world.”

She also recalls some of her earlier fears, when Cabo was less built-up. “This is a great place to raise kids,” she said, “but I would also say that I wasn’t used to some of the things around here.  I was worried about my kids going to bed at night with scorpions and tarantulas - I had only seen those in the zoo -  but you get used to that.” 

Would Gringo kids raised in Baja raise their own kids in Baja?  It’s already happening for some.  For others, like Oldberg, he fears that it just wouldn’t be the same for his kids.  “It would be great if they could see how I lived when I was a kid because I think it is really eye opening,” he said,  “but with all the tourism and urbanization, sadly, I think those days are over.”