AJIJIC, Mexico — Nan Gorman sat down for a midday lunch in a near-empty indoor restaurant on a recent October afternoon with a like-minded friend and they immediately took off their masks. The two American women became friends in Ajijic, a small town in the western Mexican state of Jalisco known for its bohemian way of life for expat retirees. Gorman, an artist and former middle school art teacher in Washington State, reflected on how she felt at home when she first moved to the lakeside community and developed a vast network of expat artists that she considered friends until, she said, they found out "that I love Trump."
She claimed that she was ostracised from the group, was no longer invited to their meetups, and even fell into a depression for a couple of months before meeting other more conservative members of the foreign community.
"Ajijic tends to be more left, so people on the right are more guarded and hidden because they've had these experiences," said Gorman. "We get a lot of hate, and it's sad. Because it used to be that you could have a debate, but now if you're a part of a certain political party or belief, there's no debate about it, you're just a racist, an evil person, and you're the scum of the Earth."
Gorman's beliefs, though, are admittedly not mainstream - at least, not here in Ajijic. She referred to herself as a "researcher" and touched on topics like the recent New York Post allegations against Hunter and Joe Biden ("swept under the rug by the mainstream media"), the coronavirus pandemic ("a scam-demic, a plan-demic" related to "the election, a way to control people worldwide, and a way to issue their little new world order control"), and the use of masks ("bullshit").
But although Gorman may represent a smaller group of retirees in Ajijic, the coronavirus pandemic and the upcoming U.S. election is exacerbating the divide between conservatives and liberals, and the quaint Mexican town is suffering.
As the retired teacher enjoyed her meal on Ajijic's main strip, a block away a weathered piñata of Donald Trump hung on a telephone pole outside of a smoke and sex shop called Wilde's Dildoria. A masked, elderly expat walked in and asked questions about the right type of vibrator and lubricant for someone her age, before leaving with a bag of goodies.
Although the owner, a liberal Canadian named Robert Giacobbi, initially moved to Ajijic to retire from his 30 years in the sex shop business back home, he soon realized that his particular area of expertise could fit the community and decided to open "a store that basically represented what the town was all about."
Since opening six years ago, it's become the go-to spot for anti-Trump paraphernalia, like a Trump toilet brush with rough orange hair bristles, as well as selling typical fare like bongs and cock rings.
During Trump's initial campaign, Giacobbi called it a "no-brainer" to start selling T-shirts or coffee mugs denouncing the businessman turned politician as he geared up his border wall rhetoric prior to the 2016 elections, even though the store has since drawn the ire of the local Republican expat community.
Giacobbi claimed that he's been threatened by Trump supporters roughly 20 times in the past four years. One day, a woman came in holding a number of his anti-Trump t-shirts that he had hanging out front and he thought she was going to buy them. He was wrong.
"She said that she was going to burn down my store," he said, chuckling that she didn't actually do it.
Since the coronavirus pandemic began, Giacobbi’s business has luckily remained stable - due mostly to the fact that weed paraphernalia and sex toys are predominantly at-home accessories anyways - but that hasn’t been the case for much of the local population’s businesses.
"We don't have a big cushion like the expats. In our case, it's like survive, survive, survive," said Héctor España, a restaurant owner born and raised in Ajijic who also works as the local government's expat liaison. A number of locally run restaurants and other businesses have shuttered since the pandemic began, according to España.
He recalled how Saint Patrick's Day on March 17, usually a popular night for expats to booze in Ajijic, was his last good day of business. Soon after, his phone wouldn't stop ringing with cancelations for reservations, parties, and catering events.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel Lopéz Obrador urged restraint in overreacting to the few coronavirus cases in the country in the early months of 2020. But Jalisco became the public face of the pandemic in March when a significant uptick in cases was linked to some of Mexico's wealthiest families who arrived at the local Guadalajara airport from Colorado after a ski trip in the Rocky Mountains, even though COVID-19 cases north of the border had been spiking.
On March 20, Jalisco State Governor Enrique Alfaro broke from the president and implemented coronavirus quarantines, first for five days, then two weeks, and eventually two months. Soon after, the rest of the country followed.
But still, the response by the Mexican government to coronavirus has been widely criticized and left the country with the fourth most deaths globally, passing 85,000 in mid-October. Even that grim statistic is widely believed to be undercounted.
Over the summer, López Obrador instituted a system of reopening with precautions while simultaneously continuing to downplay the pandemic. The president also refuses to wear a mask in most public settings and the actual enforcement of coronavirus protocols in much of the country is questionable.
Walking through Ajijic and along its lakeside promenade, there's a noticeable lack of mask-wearing, especially on weekends when local tourism booms with day-trippers from nearby cities like Guadalajara and Colima.
España understood why many expats had reservations about going out in public since the majority are senior citizens that could be considered high risk, especially considering that in his opinion, "a big percentage of the (Mexican) population don't take the precautions."
Kathy Knight, a staunch Democrat from the New England region, admitted that she and her husband hardly left their house beyond an occasional lunch in off-hours at only open-air restaurants, and to volunteer one day a week for a non-partisan group that helps expats vote from abroad. The couple tried to support local businesses as much as possible by ordering in because they knew that the community was struggling. But without more stringent coronavirus safety measures, they didn't feel safe going out.
She claimed that they have had numerous occasions where they've had to complain about non-compliance at local establishments like their bank. But while she doubted that the local population did it with any malicious intent, she did believe that within the expat population mask-wearing had become a political statement in Ajijic but, she said, "the same people would be doing it in the United States too."
And because of the rising tensions in the community, Knight said that they were keeping their distance from the few Republican friends they did have in Mexico.
"We probably won't talk to them until after the election," she said.
But while the Knights stay home because of their fear of the coronavirus, Ronni Coppola, a Republican and retired lobbyist from New York who's worked for industries like casinos, oil, and fast food, stayed home for a different reason.
"I carry the same mask with me all the time, put it on when I have to, but I don't shop as much as I want to because I don't want to be bothered with the mask routine," said Coppola. "So I think it's affecting businesses and it's affecting relationships."
While she agreed those with serious health conditions should be careful, Coppola said she was "resentful" because "most of us here are older and that means we also have less life in front of us. So when I give up six or eight months of that life, it's a big percentage of what I have left."
Like the Knights, Coppola tried to support local businesses as much as possible and has been donating food to the local community because "I think a lot of them are going hungry."
"The lowest people on the rungs are the people being most hurt," said Coppola.
Héctor España noted how the actual size of the expat population in Ajijic is unknown, ironically, because of the amount of Americans living there without proper immigration papers. By his most conservative estimate, 30% of the properties in Ajijic are owned by foreigners.
“We all know the economy is good in the area because of them,” said España, claiming that Ajijic is known as having a higher quality of living for locals than other towns in the region because of the expat residents. He repeatedly mentioned that he didn’t take a side when it came to the U.S. political debate and the expat community’s schism because he had friends on both sides of the aisle.
But for España and the local population, the coronavirus blade is two-sided. On the one hand, they need the foreign community’s business but on the other, the only expats willing to frequent their establishments are the ones least willing to take coronavirus precautions.
"I'm going to take care of (the health of) my family, but I have to work, so we take temperatures, we wear masks," he said, but his main fear wasn’t catching the virus.
If the pandemic gets worse before it gets better, the government could reinstitute closures, predicted España. If they did that, regardless of catching CV-19, “no one would survive. It would be a nightmare."