Being Black And Living Abroad In Mexico: Stories from Expats Who Say They Found Peace In An Unexpected Place

After taking a trip to Mexico's Yucatan peninsula, I discovered a group of people who fell in love with life in the tropics.

The music was hypnotic on a Wednesday night, the day before Thanksgiving at the club, Mistico. The temperature was still about 80 degrees. Drinks were flowing, patrons took puffs of hookah, everyone around me was young, beautiful and carefree in an electric atmosphere that seemed infinite. But this wasn’t the latest hotspot nightclub in Los Angeles or Miami. It wasn’t on the set of a reality show, either, although this scene could have easily been a part of one as nearly everybody here made sure they were Instagram-ready.

This is Tulum, a growing beach resort town on the Caribbean coast of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, about two hours drive south of Cancun, which itself is a two-hour flight from Miami. Once an ancient trading city built by the Mayans, but later left to ruin after Spanish conquistadors invaded, Tulum has become one of the world’s most popular tourist attractions.

In between beachcombing, swimming in natural underground fresh water pools called cenotes and eating my weight in ceviche, barbacoa, and tacos al pastor, I noticed something that I didn’t really expect. Months before coming here, friends and associates had told me about Tulum and so, it was no surprise to see a number of brothers and sisters there. It turns out many of them weren’t tourists, but rather expatriates: people who decided to leave their native countries and set up residence here.

Upon further query, I found that Tulum wasn’t the only locale popular with Black expats. In addition, a growing community exists (albeit not yet enumerated by the Mexican government) in Playa Del Carmen, about an hour north; Puerto Morelos, about 90 minutes north; Mérida, roughly three hours northwest; and the long sought-after vacation spot, Cancun, which has served as a gateway to the Yucatan peninsula.

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At a beach event one evening, I met Zahara Rene, who made the decision to transition to Tulum from Orlando, Fla., after visiting on vacation last May. A friend of hers had already made the expat move and told her there was a growing Black community and lots of opportunity.

That friend was working with a travel interest group called Black In Tulum, which serves as a support for Black people who wish to explore the area, answering questions and even connecting them to tours and events. Its Facebook group has more than 23,000 members, some of whom are first-timers and others who are well-experienced with travel in the area. They offer advice on everything from lodging to how to avoid getting hustled by cab drivers.

Rene, 30, said that her friend was transitioning out of her work for Black In Tulum and asked her if she would like to inherit the job. She did just that, completing administrative tasks, concierge duties, social media posts, and arranging tours and transportation. As a wedding and event planner in the U.S. Rene already had a wealth of experience in this area.

“I’m one of those people who decided to create a life,” Rene explained to me. “After a month I said I had no plans of moving back to the States. Number one it’s the cost of living. We know how expensive it can be in the States. But here, you can make U.S. money, but not spend U.S. dollars. The food is much healthier, it’s obviously beautiful and there is a lot of opportunity.

“There has been an economic cohesion between Mexicans and Blacks,” she continued, explaining that her business attracting visitors also benefits the local population. “There’s a cohesion because they understand that tourists come and spend money. The change in zoning laws didn’t affect us, so we’re allowed to continue doing our business.”

There’s more to the Yucatan peninsula than entrepreneurial opportunities, although expats insist it exists in droves. For some, the transition into a different climate meant reinvention as well as economic opportunities.

“To achieve career and personal development, it seemed like the right step,” said Ani Simon-Hart, 37, who moved to Playa Del Carmen about a year ago after the coronavirus pandemic kept her locked down in the U.K. She has been working remotely in various countries since 2010. “On the tail end of that I was ready to hit the road again and there are a lot of people who are doing inner work. It can be a highly spiritual environment, that was the draw for me – I wanted to be around resources that could support me spiritually.”

Simon-Hart, who was born in Nigeria, works in software development, but spends her evenings as a deejay specializing in Afrobeats and Caribbean music. I met her at Mistico, which is located in Tulum’s Centro district. She had just finished a run behind the turntables when she began describing the area to me. While many of the people who come to party to her music are vacationers, a growing number are setting up house in Mexico.

That comes as no surprise to Amanda Bates, who founded The Black Expat, a multimedia platform that caters to Black people who are a part of the global community of individuals living in nations away from their places of origin. She says the Yucatan peninsula appeals to Black Americans and Black Britons because of its proximity to the United States.

“To Africa or Asia, it’s a hike, but if you have family or responsibility in the U.S., it’s a big thing,” Bates explained. “When you’re looking at Mexico and Central America, the dollar can go farther and there is a certain quality of life they can have that is better even than in the U.S.”

Currently, the Mexican Peso averages about 0.055 to the U.S. dollar, meaning American money will go farther when it comes to goods and services. And in terms of residences, entire homes in parts of the Yucatan can be rented for less than US$700 (although that varies by city), while an Atlanta three-bedroom apartment can be as much as $2,000.

Over the last couple of years, that appealed to many who sought more financial freedom and freedom in general when the pandemic was at its height. The rules around the pandemic weren’t as strict in Mexico, which only accelerated the total number of people traveling to the area.

When Blacks from America and Europe saw on social media that there was a place they didn’t have to be locked down, they joined the many who flocked here.

“Social media makes it easy to see a place, then want to go,” said Bates, who gave a strong warning about privileged people who can affect the existing socioeconomic climate of Mexicans who have been in the area for hundreds of years. “You change an environment when you have more money than the local population. That can drive the costs up and the next question is are we doing the same things that other people have done in other places?

“We do have to be aware of the communities we integrate into,” she continued. “As Black people coming from other communities, globally you have to be aware that you’re not becoming part of the system that people have come from home to avoid.”

Truth is, I first learned about Tulum when I met Nubia Younge last summer. In 2020, she founded Black In Tulum, bringing together a group of like-minded African Americans who were part of an emerging community of expatriates who slowly became aware of each other and the talents they could put to use collectively.


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“People were starting to say, ‘why can’t I work remotely from there?’ Their wheels started turning,” said Younge, 45, who called landing in Mexico a “sheer accident.”

A Boston native, she moved to Fairfax, Va., but fell into a community of people who traveled frequently. That spurred her to move to places like Thailand, Germany, Colombia and finally Mexico. Eventually, she grew uncomfortable with the fall weather in Mexico City and so, Younge and her partner decided to move south to the Mexican state of Quintana Roo, located within the Yucatan. It was there that she found a community of Black people from across the diaspora, who seemed stuck in their spaces during the early onset of the pandemic.

“Once pandemic restrictions were lifted, I went to Tulum and ended up creating Black In Tulum,” she explained. “I would see little sprinkles of us, with me just bringing people together. At first it was eight, then 20 people, then 50 something and it turned into this mass, Black travel movement.”

There were already similar communities in the area, like one in Playa Del Carmen, but Younge said they met infrequently. Her method was more targeted and intentional.

“I’d realize when I looked at my analytics that our top three demographics were from Atlanta, Houston and New York,” she said, noting that this opened a door to familiarity. “In our Facebook group we called people ‘fam,’ and people started responding ‘hey cousin,’ or ‘hey bro or sis.’ “

The week I stayed in Tulum turned out to be more about understanding why others come here and stay, rather than a vacation for myself. Meeting these people, either at social events or just on the street, reminded me that there are Black people who, for whatever reason, see living abroad as a way to create their own spaces without having to compromise their identities. It’s not all parties and beaches, and definitely not the “reality” people recreate on TikTok and in YouTube videos.

After walking a few kilometers away from where most tourists can be found, it reality hit me, as it should have: There is extreme poverty in parts of the Yucatan. I saw people in very poor living conditions, struggling to get by. It’s something I’ve become familiar with throughout my travels. Also, concerns about violent crime and corruption are omnipresent and the peninsula does get hit by hurricanes, just as any other place in the Caribbean, Central America or Gulf Coast. Plus, the more people find out about this area, no matter their racial background, the higher the risk of saturation (the U.S. government does not keep any figures on expatriates).

But those problems are not enough to sway the number of Black expats who are summoned by this ease of life and a place to begin again.

“I believe there are all kinds of possibilities for people of color to come here and create,” said Younge. “You only see so much on social media, but there are so many places people should see.”

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