Charly Kimm was on a stepladder, arranging some clothes hangers, when I met her last Wednesday inside the jam-packed Red Cross thrift shop off of Benito Juarez Boulevard in Rosarito Beach.
A full time resident for the past 17 years, Kimm volunteers at the shop that helps fund the city’s Red Cross, a nonprofit supported by private donations that operates the city’s only ambulance service and a small hospital.
“We want it to be the best,” said Kimm, 79, past president of Red Cross Voluntarios, a 50-year-old group made up of U.S. expats. “If we’re going to live here, we want it to be right.”
By unofficial estimates, as many as 15,000 to 20,000 U.S. citizens are living in this beachside community of more than 125,000 residents located a half-hour’s drive from the U.S. border. It’s a varied population that runs the gamut – from retirees subsisting on social security payments to remote workers to weekenders and even a handful of business owners.
Their volunteer projects “have grown in leaps and bounds since I came here in 1994,” said Judy Westphal, 79, a board member and former president of the United Society of Baja California, founded in 1983 and one of the oldest expat groups in the region.
I met with Westphal and other U.S. expats when I drove down the coast last week after reading some news reports about a new generation of U.S. citizens moving to Mexico for the lower cost of living. The picture they paint is not entirely flattering.
A New York Times piece focused on the rising numbers of San Diegans moving to Tijuana for lower cost housing. The Los Angeles Times chronicled the rising resentment toward a flood of young U.S. expats moving to Mexico City, clustering in upscale neighborhoods and pushing up rents. A few days later, LA Times columnist Gustavo Arellano offered his take in a column entitled: “The new generation of smug expats in Mexico needs to face the truth.”
But in Rosarito Beach, I found another story to tell – of an older generation of U.S. citizens who have built strong ties to the community. Some keep busy operating spay and neutering clinics and rescue programs for dogs, cats, and even neglected horses. Others raise funds for orphanages and student scholarships. They join blanket drives and toy donations. One group promotes reading. When some local Mexican families saw their homes burned down in 2019, one expat formed a nonprofit and raised funds to rebuild five houses.
Rosarito’s U.S. population “has grown, it’s growing and it’s just going to keep growing,” said Arturo Hernandez, who until recently headed the Foreign Residents Attention Office, a small municipal office on the second floor of City Hall. “I think there’s a little bit of everything, but I’m familiar with a large percentage of people that always want to help.”
DeeDee Olson, 76, a retired military nurse from Minnesota, volunteers with the Flying Samaritans health clinic and delivers sandwiches to firefighters. Danielle Williams, 81, a retired language teacher who moved down from Marina del Rey, raises money to buy propane gas for the needy. Robin Mackenzie, 70, an owner of a Rosarito winery and tasting room, is a fundraising volunteer for Pretty Horses Rescue of Baja, a nonprofit that takes in neglected and abused animals on its ranch south of downtown.
Robin Gunther, 65, who moved to Rosarito Beach 15 years ago from Phoenix, founded the Baja California Spay Neuter Foundation after noticing the city’s large stray dog population. On Sunday, the group joined forces with Small Steps for Change, a San Clemente-based nonprofit to offer a spay and neuter clinic for residents of the low-income Ojo de Agua neighborhood in eastern Tijuana.
“Rosarito is basically a retirement community, but people can’t do nothing,” she told me. “When you can’t work, you need to do something. So people volunteer.”
Nora Bringas, a researcher at the Colegio de la Frontera Norte, a Tijuana-based think tank, has seen the expats grow increasingly involved with the surrounding community.
“They used to live in their own separate bubble, but not anymore,” she said.
She’s noticed greater interest in learning Spanish, and more willingness to shop in Mexico rather than go across the border. Also, “there is more involvement in terms of philanthropy, and they look for ways to improve conditions for the local population.”
Kimm and her husband began driving down on weekends. And when it came time to retire, the decision was easy.
“All of our friends were here, all of our activities were here, everything we were doing was here, more so than Orange County,” she said. “We knew we wouldn’t retire terribly wealthy, so that was another factor,” said Kimm, who worked for years in outside sales.
Though she struggles with Spanish, Kimm’s Mexican neighbors have been gracious. “People have been absolutely wonderful, for the most part,” she said.
Such efforts have not gone unnoticed. Sergio Hernandez Tovalin, president of Cruz Roja Rosarito, said the expats like Kimm have earned their place in the community.
“The Americans who live here, who have their houses here, they are now Rosaritenses,” he said.
In Other News
Violence at youth shelter: The Baja California Attorney General’s Office announced that it is investigating a breakout of violence at a temporary shelter for minors run by the state of Baja California in Tijuana following an article published Friday in the Tijuana newsweekly Zeta. The Zeta report includes a video allegedly shot by a surveillance camera showing a girl being beaten by two others while a staff member stands by. Zeta’s printed edition alleged the attack took place last month, but a state official said the video was from October 2021, and that three individuals involved are facing sanctions. Meanwhile, The Baja California Human Rights Commission is calling for improved security at the shelter. Zeta, El Sol, Esquina32
Friendship Park: Plans to raise 30-foot barriers at Friendship Park are on pause, U.S. Customs and Border Protection announced last week following outcry from community groups and local lawmakers. Though U.S. access has been closed since 2019, the small park at the western end of the U.S.-Mexico border has for years been an important bi-national symbol and meeting point. KPBS, Union-Tribune.
Remain in Mexico: A month after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Biden administration could end the Migrant Protection Protocols policy (also known as Remain in Mexico), asylum seekers continue to wait in Mexico. Union-Tribune, Time, WTTW.
Migrant fall from wall: Inewsource looked into the death of a 38-year-old Mexican man in U.S. Border Patrol custody following his fall from the border wall, and asked “whether authorities took appropriate steps to prevent his death.”
More Border Patrol agents: A bipartisan bill in Congress would create a Border Patrol reserve force of 2,500 agents. But even if it passed, the legislation would not bring additional U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers to process vehicles and pedestrians at San Diego’s congested ports of entry. KPBS.
Cross-border contamination: Beaches in Imperial Beach and Coronado were closed last week following sewage line breaks in Tijuana. Meanwhile, at least ten lifeguards in Tijuana and Rosarito Beach have developed skin ailments after coming into contact with contaminated water, reports Baja California’s health secretariat. NBC, VOSD, Sol de Tijuana.
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