Lake Chapala itself is Mexico’s largest body of fresh water. The lake is located just 30 miles south of the city of Guadalajara, in the state of Jalisco. After Mexico City, Guadalajara is Mexico’s second largest city, with an area […]
Lake Chapala itself is Mexico’s largest body of fresh water. The lake is located just 30 miles south of the city of Guadalajara, in the state of Jalisco. After Mexico City, Guadalajara is Mexico’s second largest city, with an area population of about 5.5 million persons. Lake Chapala came to international attention in the late 19th century. President Diaz conceptualized Lake Chapala as Mexico’s international tourist destination (Truly 2002:266). The arrival of the rail lines quickly filled the lake region with North American and European visitors. But in 1910 the Mexican Revolution burst Lake Chapala’s first tourism bubble (Burton 2008). The area would not see a significant return of tourists until the 1940s. During Lake Chapala’s revival the area became a haven for writers, painters, poets, and photographers. It received some of the world’s must renowned authors. In addition to it’s international visitors, Lake Chapala remained the weekend getaway spot for the middle and upper-class residents of the City of Guadalajara.
The Lake Chapala region currently consists of three main villages including Jocotepec on the northwest corner of the lake and Ajijic and Chapala further east. The year round permanent population is approximately 40,000 residents. Of this 40,000 between 5,000 to 6,000 are English speaking expatriates. Seasonal winter influxes elevate this number to approximately 12,000. In 1996 the American Consulate reported this number was as high as 40,000, though local residents believe this number is a bit exaggerated (Truly 2002:262).
The Lake Chapala Society was formed on January 15, 1955 with thirty-one members and a mission of helping out expatriates new to the area. Two of the most prominent founding members were Brig. General John Paul Ratay and a woman named Neill James.
Ratay believed a society was needed to assists both the locals and the influx of military personal arriving on the GI bill. During my visit to the LCS, I was told my some memmbers that GI’s enrolled in local universities because they were far cheaper than U.S. universities and that the excess money from the GI bill provided a comfortable living for soldiers that was not available in the United States.
Neill James was a contemporary of Amelia Earhart and considered a pioneering woman of travel and journalism. James was born in Grenada, Mississippi in 1885, and it has been said that no one could ever keep her quiet (LCS 2009). She loved to travel. At one point she lived with and documented the lives of the Ainu people of northern Japan. In 1941 she was climbing the Volcano Paricutin when it erupted, badly injuring her. She was taken to the village Ajijic on the Lake Chapala shore to rest and recover. During a year long period of recovery she fell in love with the people and the geography of the region (LCS 2009). As her desire to travel subsided, she established Ajijic as her permanent address and transformed the area into “an art center of international focus.” Neill founded the first library in Chapala. She taught cooking, developed water purification systems, and installed electricity and telephone lines. Neill was always considered kind and caring. In fact she used a large inheritance from her father to send the most talented local children on through the university system.
During the 1970’s, Lake Chapala faced a serious threat to its tourism in the form of industrial pollution. Lake Chapala Society members banded together in multiple efforts to clean the lake up. Lake Chapala is the main water source for both Mexico City and Guadlajara. The main influx of water to the lake comes from the Rio Lerma River. Large industrial and agricultural complexes up stream dumped many pollutants and toxins into the Rio Lerma, including mercury, fertilizers, and lead. These toxins eventually settled in the water and shores of Lake Chapala. By 2002 Mexico’s National Water Commission (CNA) reported that only 8% of the water in Lake Chapala was considered “acceptable” for drinking. The remaining 92% was either moderately or highly polluted (Amigos del Lago 2009). In 2008 the Governor of Jalisco said he would finally be able to equip the area to sanitize 97 percent of the wastewater flowing into the lake by the end of 2009 (Chapala Club 2008). Local expatriate organizations have been prominent in working toward a solution to the pollution problems. Groups such as Amigos del Lago and the Chapala Club have organized local and international interests to put pressure on the Mexican government to clean up this national treasure. Amigos del Lago (2009) writes that their mission is to strengthen relationships among the lake communities to promote and preserve the ecology of Lake Chapala and its surroundings and to cultivate the ecological awareness of the residents through education and environmentally sustainable projects.
Over the years the society continued to grow and Neill’s savings dwindled. Eventually she struck a deal with the growing society’s members, agreeing to let them use her property and buildings as long as they cared for her needs and allowed her stay in her home until she died. Additionally, she promised to turn over her home (the remaining piece of the estate) to the society upon her death. The society agreed and when she died in 1994 Neill made good on her promise – turning over the entire property to the Lake Chapala Society (LCSW 2009).
Today the Lake Chapala Society has over known 3700 members (LCS 2009). According to the Lake Chapala Society’s website, the society has three current missions. The first is to help the local community with an emphasis on children and education. Second, the society assists expatriates as they transition to Mexican living. Third, the society provides social, health, and educational services for expatriates (LCSW 2009).According to their membership directory (2009), the Lake Chapala Society offers or sponsors over 40 monthly programs. Some of them include the Lakeside Theater which has been bringing english language performances to the area for over 45 years. There is also the Music Appreciation Society which has been bringing international entertainment to the area for over 21 years. Other groups include the Culinary Art Society of Ajijic, the Masons, the Shriners, an Organic Farm Club, Spanish language group, a writing group, and yoga. Glancing at the Saturday schedule you will see a children’s art program, an Art Fundraiser, Qi Gong, and pottery class.
Travis Scott Luther is the best selling Author of The Fun Side of the Wall: Baby Boomer Retirement in Mexico. Luther is also a former Adjunct Professor of Entrepreneurship at MSU Denver. He received his Masters Degree in Sociology from the University of Colorado Denver where he later served as Entrepreneur in Residence.
Luther first became interested in Baby Boomers retiring in Mexico during graduate school. His Masters Thesis research contributed to the content of this book. He continues to be interested in U.S. expatriates retiring all over the world and continues to monitor those who have retired in Mexico.
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