Across the Border, Under the Table

Caroline Cassard

Written by  April 24, 2017

As a U.S. citizen working without papers in Mexico, nothing is short of ironic.

My “paid volunteer” contract, which arrived in the form a haphazard Google Doc, was to conclude after four months. It’s a short semester. As in many Latin American countries, a tourist visa in Mexico allows visitors to stay for six months. So a teacher can enter the country as a tourist, theoretically receive enough cash to leave his or her savings account untouched, and depart before the tourist status expires, no questions asked.

Now that I’ve been invited to stay for the following semester, I’ve had to “border hop” to renew my tourist visa status.

Is it illegal? Well, technically. . .

Yes. Small language academies are often willing to bend the rules. The “paid volunteer” title feels contradictory in of itself. Volunteering seems to infer that at the receiving end of the transaction is at-risk or in-need community. But where I’m teaching, that’s not the case. Most of my students are middle, if not upper-class; one of my high school students has her own Mini Cooper; another travelled to Italy over spring vacation, and an entire high school class visited Disney World last year.

To justify my unofficial status, I could argue that in Central Mexico, instruction from a native speaker is invaluable. Although students in my evening classes receive English education in public and private schools, the average comprehension level is far below their own, and many speak better English than the teacher. After-school classes allow them to advance and reach fluency, something that is nearly impossible from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m., where class sizes exceed 50 students.

The irony of being a white American woman receiving under-the-table payment in Mexico isn’t lost on me.

The irony of a white American woman receiving under-the-table payment in Mexico isn’t lost on me. I’m aware that this privileged “paid volunteer” status wouldn’t fly in the U.S. While the U.S. government is (and has been, under previous administrations) deporting immigrants, forcing many Mexicans across the southern border, I’m able to arrive by plane as a tourist and earn enough cash to stay in country and break even. Am I rationalizing my “undocumented worker” status by suggesting that the pros outweigh the cons? Yes, I suppose so. I wish that U.S. citizens who are so in favor of a wall would see it from this southern side of the continent. Does work only benefit the worker?

Surely Mexico doesn’t sound like the first choice for a gringa these days. My country’s president has called Mexico’s people “bad,” labelled them with accusations of rape and murder, demanded that they pay for a wall, and broken NAFTA ties. It doesn’t take a political scientist to gather that diplomatically, things aren’t going well. Perhaps there are more than a handful of reasons to avoid interacting with a gringa.

But when it comes down to everyday life in Mexico, diplomacy doesn’t seem to effect individuals’ openness—not directly, at least. I knew I’d have to answer for Donald Trump: What is his administration doing? Why did he say that? Is he mentally ill? But as it turns out, locals just want to know what I think. No one’s chasing me out of the country. Nobody’s shouting comments from their car windows—not political ones, at least. And as soon as I express my disapproval (not to mention distress), any anxiety dissipates. Mostly, passersby just want to practice their English. It’s cool. Glad we’re on the same page.

I’m here to teach, and no one seems to be opposed to that. When comparing a paid employee and volunteer, are both not contributing to the community in some way? Money and visa status aside, people seem much more curious about a cultural exchange than anything monetary. After all, cross-cultural conversations feel fuller and more satisfying than any watery beer I’m about to buy on payday.

Certainly, working without papers isn’t part of my end goal in the TEFL market. I won't bring any savings home with me, either. But for now, while schools will bend the rules, I’m playing into the game. I gain valuable work experience and my students improve their language skills. It’s ok, right? Does anyone really care? Borders are manmade—totally arbitrary, I'd argue. Like playing connect-the-dots.

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Published in Work Abroad Blogs
Caroline Cassard

Caroline Cassard is a travel and food-enthused English language teacher from the U.S. Excited to explore Latin America and beyond, she scavenges for vegetarian meals and attempts to pick up the local language between classes.


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