FOUR THINGS YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT LIVING IN SAN MIGUEL WITH A TEENAGER by Kim Slote
Well, we’ve been gone from San Miguel for nearly a year now. Although we’re really happy in our new lives in France, we miss so much about SMA – the amazing people, both expat and Mexican, the gorgeous restaurants, the culture and cultural opportunities, the friendly and welcoming vibe, the “je ne sais quoi” of magical-ness that makes SMA so unique and special.
My husband and I moved to SMA from the U.S. when our kids were 10 and 12, a girl and boy respectively. When we left, our son was 17 and on his way to college back in the U.S. and our daughter was 15 and had just finished middle school (9th grade in Mexico). Living in Mexico benefitted my kids in a myriad of ways that we’re still happily discovering (and it definitely helped my son stand out on his college applications). That said, life in SMA as an expat with teens wasn’t always easy. We experienced first-hand the challenges and joys of adolescence there. Since these joys and challenges were, for the most part, inextricably connected, I’ll describe them here in pairs. Disclaimer: of course, this was just our experience; I realize that our reality was only one of many possibilities.
Expat teens in SMA are not exposed to the same degree of college-related stress and competition that you see in the U.S. My son was at the only English language high school in SMA, the very small and intimate Victoria Robbins School (Vic’s), where he took half of his coursework online at the International Connections Academy so that he could graduate with a U.S. high school diploma (Vic’s isn’t accredited). He was the only 11th grader taking standardized tests, and then the only senior at Vic’s. Although he felt stress and anxiety over the SATs and APs, his GPA, and college applications, it was nothing compared to the cutthroat world of college admissions that he would certainly have been exposed to had we stayed in Florida.
SMA has a kind of hippie, laid-back vibe, and the expat teens there are often pretty relaxed and carefree, and have an openness to alternative choices for their lives where they’re seeking to be true to themselves and not just follow some mold, like so many in the U.S. Actually, many expat parents left the U.S. or Canada and moved to SMA for the express purpose of escaping the “rat race” and the pressure on their kids – whether athletic or academic – so it’s no surprise that most of my kids’ friends and peers had the same attitude as their parents.
So, pretty much everything I just said has an alternate, negative side. For one, my son didn’t have a single friend in SMA applying to college when he was, which was tough – either his friends were younger or in lower grades, had left high school midstream, or had decided to work after high school rather than attend college right away. Whatever the reason, it had the effect of making him feel isolated, alone, and at times unmotivated to do the hard work that it takes to get into college back in the U.S. College seemed far away and mysterious, like some mirage in the desert that you want to reach but aren’t sure it’s really attainable. Not having anyone to commiserate with about the whole process – from SATs to the actual college application – made it seem remote and even pointless to him at times.
Probably due to that spontaneous, relaxed atmosphere that I mentioned above, expat teens living in SMA are generally extremely free and independent. They roam around the city in rotating nomadic bands, searching for people, places, and things to engage with and to entertain them. Whether they were hanging in the Charco del Ingenio (SMA’s botanical garden), playing pool at Bola Ocho, dancing at El Tupinamba, or eating tacos at Brasilia, there was a freestyling kind of vibe in SMA that encouraged adventurousness and exploration.
The converse of that is that I was worried about my kids’ safety much of the time, and also just missed their company. SMA somehow provides this irresistible pull on teens to be almost too independent, sometimes to the detriment of family life. Family dinners started becoming sparse due to our kids being out with their friends all the time (cheap tacos didn’t help), and it just became harder and harder to keep track of their whereabouts. And this caused many of us parents to worry – a lot! Looking back to last year, I keep hearing the Eagles refrain in my head, “life in the fast lane, surely make you lose your mind…”
Readers may say, well, all parents everywhere worry about their teens’ safety. Yes, that’s true, but I can say that not every place is the same in this way as SMA. For example, now we’re raising our 16-year-old daughter in Provence, and the night life is safer and more innocent by comparison. For one, underage girls here aren’t pressured or expected to put on tons of makeup and dress up in high heels and tight dresses so that they look like 25-year-olds (not that it never happens, but it’s just not the norm). Life for teens in SMA is just faster, sexier, and riskier.
Schools are often the central focal point for kids in SMA – it’s where they make lifelong friends, open their minds, and – for most expat kids – learn Spanish. Both of my kids started out, at age 10 and 12, at the Academia Internacional. This was where they achieved all of the above – and where we parents made our first friends in our new lives as SMA expats. Although the Academia has had its share of administrative and academic struggles, we’ll always be grateful to it as our first landing point in SMA.
My son graduated from middle school at the Academia (9th grade) and then switched to Vic’s. As I mentioned above, he stayed there until his high school graduation last year, after dividing his time between Vic’s and online school. Doing half of his schoolwork online definitely wasn’t ideal, but we felt that it was the best option for him at the time since it was important to him to stay in SMA, and we wanted him to leave high school with an official transcript and diploma. Other families at Vic’s have handled things differently – ultimately, parents need to make the choices that feel right for their child. Many expat parents of teens in SMA, who don’t want their kids to go to Vic’s or a Mexican high school in SMA, often end up sending them to boarding school in the U.S., Canada, or Europe, while others have their kids commute to Queretaro (one hour away from SMA) where there are many international schools (French, German, U.S., Swiss, etc.), as well as the well-known Tec de Monterrey. In our case, it worked out well in the end for our son to finish high school in SMA; he got into several excellent universities in the U.S. and just finished his freshman year with a strong GPA.
Our daughter’s educational path in SMA was a bit less linear than our son’s. I think that she attended five different schools during our five years there! No school suited her particularly well, and so we hopped around seeking the best option for her. Five schools in five years sounds crazy, but believe me, we weren’t the only school-hopping family in SMA. It’s pretty common, actually, since no school there seems able to provide everything to every child, so parents keep looking around for the perfect solution, usually unsuccessfully. Ultimately, we decided to leave SMA so that our daughter could have an international high school experience in France (my kids are half-French). There’s no question that this was the right move for her.
I love SMA but the school situation there is pretty challenging since Vic’s is the only high school taught all in English. The teachers at Vic’s are wonderful and incredibly committed, but the reality is that it’s just too small to provide a complete high school experience. Most expat parents who keep their kids in SMA accept the educational limitations in SMA with the attitude that what their kids are gaining in life experiences outweighs their schooling concerns – and I generally agree with this outlook (it worked for our son).
For our daughter, though, the scale just didn’t balance out in this way and she needed a different kind of school environment that would enable her to blossom, which we found here in France. It just depends on your children and what they need. I would say that if you’re looking for a more “traditional” or “real” high school experience where the education is in English (and you’re not willing to have your child commute to Queretaro), SMA is probably not the place to be.
One of the most amazing aspects of life in SMA is your exposure and access to experts in their field who are willing to teach, guide, and mentor your teens. A few years ago, I attended a Carole King tribute concert in SMA and there was this incredible drummer in the band. He looked like a nice guy so I went up to him and asked if he would teach my son the drums; he said yes without hesitation. But the most remarkable part of the story is that, as we later discovered, he’s considered the best drummer and percussionist in SMA. Two years of lessons followed, and this teacher even helped my son with his college applications by helping him rehearse his drum solo and then record it for submission to their music schools.
My son also learned how to make electronic music by studying with a talented musician at El Sindicato Centro Cultural Comunitario in town and this became my son’s great passion – he is still a prolific music producer, and it all began with this teacher and mentor who encouraged and supported him. My daughter had an analogous experience studying voice with one of the most talented pianists and singers in SMA, and also studied hip hop for years with a young local dancer who was incredibly gifted and inspiring for her.
Similarly, there are so many incredible volunteer experiences for teens in SMA that are invaluable for teaching them empathy and the importance of giving back: both my kids helped build and paint many houses for the poor through Casita Linda, my daughter helped care for animals at the Sociedad Protectora de Animales, and my son was a volunteer teacher at a rural primary school through the Fundación Olas de Paz.
So, whether it’s music, art, dance, volunteerism, sports, or academics (there are also fantastic tutors in SMA), kids in SMA have no difficulty pursuing their interests by studying and working under wonderful teachers and mentors. It was one of the things about SMA that made it truly special.
The flip side of this is that sometimes those mentors and teachers move away for their careers, which can leave a gaping hole. This happened with our daughter’s dance teacher and our son’s electronic music teacher. It can be very hard on the kids when this happens: our daughter could never find another dance teacher that suited her and eventually stopped dancing altogether. On the other hand, of course you understand and support these mentors’ wanting to advance their own careers.
THE UPSHOT OF IT ALL
What can I say in conclusion except that it’s complicated! Raising teens in SMA definitely has its pros and cons. Academically-speaking, there’s no one path that’s right for every teen, but if you’re going to live there while your kids are high school age, you better be ready to be flexible, open-minded, creative, and non-traditional. And regarding safety and independence, you’ll need to keep an open dialogue with your teen and do your best to hold them close and keep them as safe as possible, while still giving them freedom. It’s not an easy balance to manage for any parent of a teen, no matter where they live, but the pull on teens in SMA to be independent and away from home is particularly strong in my experience. But despite this, SMA enriches and empowers its teens in so many profound ways – they learn to be bold and confident, creative and artistic, free and fun-loving, and tolerant and resilient. It’s a balance worth exploring without a doubt 😊.
Kim Slote has spent the majority of her career working in the non-profit field. After graduating from Harvard Law School in 1995, she co-founded the Women’s Rights Network, a human rights organization focusing on violence against women and children based at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, which she co-directed until 2003. From 2004 to 2010, Kim was the Director of Education and Advocacy for Planned Parenthood of Collier County in Florida where she directed the agency’s legislative, advocacy and public policy work, sex education policy and programs, and community organizing efforts. Since 2010 Kim has been the Director of HR & Communications at VUEMED, a healthcare technology company whose mission is to solve acute inventory management, supply chain, and product utilization documentation problems at hospitals. Kim lived in San Miguel de Allende with her husband and two children from 2013-2018, where she was (and continues to be) on the Boards of Directors for local NGOs Casita Linda and Mano Amiga. She now lives with her family in Provence, France.