Expat If You’re an American in Latin America, Immigrant If You’re a Latino in the U.S.

Graphic design featuring people on a map of the American continent, symbolizing the diverse migrant population.
Luz Media

Recent data from the Consumer Price Index (CPI) revealed that prices increased by 3.2 percent between February 2023 and February 2024. In terms of inflation, that’s a notable decrease from the 9.1 percent increase recorded in June 2022. However, inflation being down doesn’t necessarily mean the cost of living is getting lower. Quite the contrary–factors like income stagnation, transportation expenses, housing costs, and debt burden, among others, make living in the U.S. very expensive. In fact, The U.S. is currently the 20th most expensive country to live in according to a report from CEOWORLD Magazine.

With this in mind, it’s not surprising that Americans seem to be flocking to Latin America to retire, work, enjoy a lower cost of living, and even invest. Looking at Mexico City alone, the number of Americans who applied for residency visas or renewed them rose by 70% between 2019 and 2022, as reported by CNBC. It’s worth noting that the influx of Americans, including digital nomads, has sparked gentrification concerns among locals.

The disparity in income between Americans and locals increases tensions, leading to rising rents and displacement of native residents. While Airbnb and the Mexican government promote the city as a remote work hub, locals demand regulation to preserve their communities.

Another thing worth noting is that while Americans who relocate to Latin America in search of a more comfortable life are called “expats” (short for expatriate), Latinos who do the same by relocating to the United States are called “immigrants.” But what makes one an expat and the other an immigrant? The basic definition of expat is a person who lives outside of their native country temporarily, usually referring to workers. With this definition, it follows that any person who leaves their country to work in another for a time would be an expat.

In reality, that’s not the case and expat is usually a term that’s reserved for western white people. For Latinos, Asians, Arabs, and Africans, the term tends to be immigrant, no matter the context.

Technically speaking, there is a difference between the terms expat and immigrant. The immigrant lives permanently in another country and may seek citizenship, while the expat lives and/or works in another country. They may or may not stay indefinitely. However, the distinction isn’t made based on whether the terms are used correctly or not, the distinction is made based on social class, economic status, country of origin, and education level. The terms have become hierarchical and implicit bias is the reason why Westerners are always expats, and everyone else is an immigrant.

You could be a highly educated Latino living in the U.S. because you were sent to work there in a multinational organization, and you wouldn’t be perceived as an expat - you would be perceived as an immigrant. At best, you would be perceived as a qualified immigrant. Were you a white person, whether you’re educated or not, whether you have a high-paying job or not, there’s no doubt you would be perceived as an expat across the board. That’s how race, education level, and income are used as indicators to distinguish between people.

At the end of the day, the fact is that expats are immigrants. The real difference is that they’re leaving their country because they can. Because they want to work abroad, want to take advantage of Latin America’s lower cost of living to take the most advantage of their dollars, or simply because they want a change of scenery. Most Latin Americans and other people of color who leave their countries do so out of necessity because the alternative of staying is unsustainable for them. Whether that’s because of poverty, food insecurity, violence, political persecution, or even war, the fact is that they leave to truly seek a better life.

As of 2024, there are 20.4 million Latino immigrants living in the U.S. As for international immigrants, the count was nearly 46.2 million in 2022. While the word immigrant may carry some negative connotations due to implicit bias and systemic racism may be reserved for people of color, being an immigrant is nothing to be ashamed of. People from all over the world and from all walks of life partake in immigration. Especially now that many are embracing a more nomadic lifestyle with the rise of remote work. As such, it’s important to recognize subtly racist distinctions and call them out to prevent the prevalence of the “them versus us” narrative.

an image of a girl in a first communion ceremony

I was inducted into the Catholic faith pretty much straight out of the womb, starting off at this Catholic primary school in Mexico when I was just six years old. I was pure Play-Doh back then, ready to be shaped and molded. There I was, learning the Holy Bible like it was basic arithmetic or the ABCs.

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