Many of Mexico’s elite are leaving their fortressed villas — and nannies, gardeners and drivers — to build new lives in Dallas. Are they really the shallow, Americanized ‘strawberries’ mocked in their own culture? And have they come to the right place?
by ALFREDO CORCHADO
photographs by MAXINE HELFMAN and ELLIOTT SNEDDEN
The afternoon at NorthPark Center was reminiscent of their quiet walks in Mexico City when the young couple, David Calderon and Citlalli Valero Calderon, would stroll carefree with their children. But this was Dallas and there was one big difference when, as children will do, the kids turned unruly, running wild and screaming at the tops of their lungs. The Calderons didn’t have a nanny to help. Both Calderons cringed, instantly longing for their pampered lifestyle back in Mexico. Startled shoppers looked on as Citlalli bolted after her children. “Sometimes you just want to bang your head against the wall and scream out of frustration with the kids,” she says, huffing and puffing, wearing a blue dress with gray stripes, hair pulled up in a bun. “Life without the nanny is not very sexy.”
The move to Dallas in January has been anything but a smooth transition for the couple — David, 40, Citlalli, 35 — and that of many more newcomers, newbies who are part of a migration of the cultural elite known as fresas, the so-called Americanized preppy types. Fresas, literally, means strawberries. The original fresas were the spoiled, entitled sons and daughters of the country’s political elite, a powerful business class that over decades has proudly displayed wealth. Today, a fine but defining line separates them from the so-called juniors. Juniors are the real deal, the monied kids set up from birth, often raging party animals bailed from jail by Daddy. You can be a junior with a fresa attitude, but rare is a fresa with a junior’s deep pockets, inheritance and long blue-blood lineage. One of their commonalities? Worshipping fresa icon, the dolled-up singer Paulina Rubio.
Indeed, fresa encompasses more of an attitude. The term once defined a particular age group — usually people under 20 — but over the years the lifestyle has spread throughout age groups and to the lower and middle classes, those aspiring for more. The lifestyle is moving beyond the bluebloods and into the nouveau riche, including the sons and daughters of narcos, drug kingpins, wannabes and imitators. Fresas even have their own slang — no manches güey, no way dude — and are as much a reflection of the globalization process Mexico is undergoing as they are of the country’s inequalities. Less than 10 percent of the country’s powerful elites control the vast majority of resources and wealth. They have their own style preferences and brand consciousness, big on Ralph Lauren Polo or Hollister shirts, chinos, purposely faded designer jeans, boat shoes and — the dead giveaway — the crisp windbreaker. When the drug trafficker Edgar Valdez Villarreal, known as La Barbie, was arrested, the former Texas high-school linebacker appeared for his mug shot dressed in a green Ralph Lauren Polo shirt. Sales of the shirt — well, knock-off versions — skyrocketed among the poor, according, at the time, to several street vendors. Following La Barbie’s arrest, six other alleged members of other cartel organizations were also captured wearing Polo shirts.
These days, fresas appear more popular than ever, thanks to Mexico’s highest grossing movie of all time, Nosotros Los Nobles. The movie pokes fun at entitled brats who rely on their father’s fortune, good name and even credit card to breeze through life until the father, German Noble, a construction magnate, decides to teach his ungrateful children a lesson. He fools them with a tale of union troubles, embezzlement and government threats to freeze the family’s assets, or land them in jail — all believable in a country with a weak rule-of-law. The Nobles are forced to cut off all contact with family and friends, move into a downtrodden home and do the unthinkable: They get jobs. They experience what life is like for the vast majority, who struggle daily to make ends meet.
In some ways, the movie’s storyline reflects the experiences of some of those who moved to Dallas, particularly since the drug violence exploded in Mexico in the late 2000s. Many hightailed it to the U.S., especially Texas, turning the Interstate 35 corridor into a river of tears with newly arrived wealthy Mexican families populating cities such as Laredo, San Antonio, Austin and Dallas. Unlike unskilled workers who arrive for jobs in construction, restaurants and other service industries, the fresas are part of Mexico’s brain drain, the country’s crème de la crème.
Some, like David Calderon, come for job growth, ambition. He was convinced he would gain the foreign experience needed to rise through the ranks of the global financial company where he was a vice president in Mexico. Many more trade lavish lifestyles for security, running away from the reach of criminals who target Mexico’s wealthy and their children for kidnappings, extortion and sometimes death. “Lack of opportunity in Mexico for the upper class and lack of security are the two factors pushing people away from Mexico,” explains Dr. G. Jesus Velasco, a Mexico expert at Tarleton State University in Stephenville, and a Mexico City native who came to North Texas in 2010 for similar reasons. The threat and fear remains so real that, even hundreds of miles away from Mexico, some of the people interviewed would only speak off the record. Two students changed their minds after their parents back in Mexico admonished them for speaking up, reminding them that in an age of social media, nothing is private anymore. Yet others detailed their experiences, in the hopes that those who follow will learn valuable lessons.
For example, gone are the posh weekend homes in Cuernavaca, San Miguel de Allende, Valle de Bravo and Malinalco. Ditto that swanky beach pad in Acapulco. Oh, and, yes, the nanny who also does housework. Maids in the Dallas area make about $90 for just a few hours’ work, compared to about $400 a month for a maid back in Mexico, who even lives in the house. Then there are the appearances. While seeing maids in uniforms walk behind la señora — the lady of the house — at grocery stores, bakeries and fruit markets is a routine part of life in Mexico, in Dallas that would generate one too many stares. “That’s just not something that goes well in Dallas, not the look you’re going for,” says Adriana Contreras, a business consultant and a self-described fresa buena onda (a cool fresa, not an annoying, stuck-up type). “Here in Dallas there is nowhere to hide, or it’s harder to hide.
None of the people interviewed for this story would necessarily admit they are bona fide fresas — but all admit the term and its characteristics have come to mind living in North Texas. And all agree that they are learning about something once thought of as foreign: humility. Part of the reason? Mexico’s elite is usually walled off from the rest of the world, living in fortresses with private drivers, gardeners and personal chalanes, gofers. They live in their own bubble, as did many relocated fresas. Consider Fernando Krasovsky, U.S. manager of Bestel USA, a telecommunication and technology information firm that is part of Mexico’s giant Televisa network. He and his family moved to North Texas two years ago after a brazen robbery in which a gunman walked up to his chauffeur-driven car during a standstill rush hour on the Periférico, (the main freeway) and demanded his watch, wallet and cuff links, which he promptly handed over. As he now chows down beef tacos at Taco Diner — the touches of silver around his temples giving him a distinguished, elegant look — Krasovsky embraces the sense of security in North Texas and relief for his family but admits life post-Mexico is an adjustment. He recalls one incident with his brother, visiting from Mexico City. As they drove the upscale neighborhood in Lewisville, where his family now lives, Krasovsky dared him: “Want to see something unusual?” “Sure,” the brother replied. They drove past a neighbor who was taking out his own garbage. The man, Krasovsky told his brother, owns 29 Ferraris. “We just stared, shocked,” Krasovsky recalls, brushing crumbs off his light-brown sports coat. “You don’t see that in Mexico. At least, not us.”
Some arrive with special investor visas, known as EB-5s, investing anywhere from $500,000 to $1 million as part of an incentive program that can eventually lead to green cards. Some have contributed to funds, including Dallas-based Civitas Capital Management, resulting in projects such as the NYLO Hotel, a multifamily development in Oak Cliff and reviving old institutions, including the Tex-Mex restaurant chain El Fenix. Others, like Rodrigo Bezanilla from Guadalajara, help form companies, such as Yellow Entertainment, which operates in Dallas and Mexico City, and sells plush suites at AT&T Stadium to wealthy Mexicans. Or Mario Letayf of Monterrey. He and his business partner opened La Lazaranda in Addison, a restaurant that has become a favorite among fresas and their weakness for long afternoon meals with flowing tequila. There is Francisco Lomelín, who created his own business, Access Business Centers, to provide ready-to-go-offices in Addison for clients from Spain, Sweden, Israel and Mexico. His family, fleeing threats from criminals, left their native central state of Aguascalientes in 2009 and moved to San Antonio. Lomelín later moved north to Dallas because he saw a city brimming with opportunities.
Culinary icon Michael Rodriguez, known as Mico, was one of the first believers in the fresa culture. Some 20 years ago, while living in Mexico City, he discovered restaurants that catered to the wealthy. He returned to Dallas and somehow convinced customers to pay virtually twice the going price for authentic tacos, first at Mi Cocina, followed by Taco Diner and now at his rapidly expanding Mesero restaurants. “I wanted to bring Polanco to Dallas,” Rodriguez says, “to show the city another side of Mexico, a more prosperous, colorful, culturally rich side. That’s where my inspiration comes from.
Determining how many fresas live in North Texas is difficult, say officials at the Mexican Consulate office and Velasco, the political scientist at Tarleton State and former professor at CIDE in Mexico City. He understands the flight of Mexico’s high-end citizens — and their plight — firsthand. In 2008, his former wife was kidnapped by criminals and released. By 2010, he had moved to North Texas with his 14-year-old son, too scared of the future back home for his family. Velasco estimates as many as 500,000 college-educated Mexicans have moved to the United States, many of them to North Texas. The growing number of Mexican conglomerates — producers of everything from tortillas, ceramics, appliances, milk, bread and wines — Mexico-themed cultural event programs and Mexicans’ involvement in the local arts and symphonies are signs of their arrival, says Mexican consul José Octavio Tripp. These new residents have even formed their own chamber-like organization, the Association of Mexican Entrepreneurs. Tripp recently hosted the newly formed Red de Talentos, a network of Mexican talent abroad that aids the country’s efforts to organize and keep tabs on its high-end diaspora. Among those attending the opening ceremony were Velasco and the aforementioned Adriana Contreras, originally a lawyer in Mexico and now a business consultant in Dallas. Scanning the room, Contreras whispered that preliminary plans are underway for a radio program aimed at fresas and the nostalgia they harbor. Contreras grew up a fresa in Tampico, mingling with the wealthy, jetting off to Texas or Mexico City for weekend shopping sprees, or weeks-long vacations in Europe. Then one night, she was threatened by a caller identifying himself as Z-40, the nickname of one of the most feared killers in Mexico, demanding she pay a weekly extortion fee to operate her law firm. Initially she refused until one evening a man pulled up in a car and reminded her of the fee, opening his jacket to show her his gun. Yes, he was serious. A day later she fled to Dallas — where she realized most of her clients had left for Texas, too. She now makes a living as a business consultant, helping fresas adjust to new lives. “It’s not until you leave Mexico that you really begin to really understand what’s wrong with Mexico,” she says. “The inequalities, impunity, lack of rule-of-law. Mexico is really a country of two, three, maybe more countries, because of those disparities. That cannot be healthy. Dallas provides you that ‘aha moment.’”
Calderon concedes that, until Dallas, he never lifted a plate, never helped out in the kitchen and couldn’t be bothered by the screams of his children. He had the opportunity to move to Amsterdam or England, but chose North Texas, lured by its geographic proximity to his homeland, with more than 20 daily direct flights to Mexico, and by what he and others call the area’s growing sophistication and quality of life. The Calderons are new to the area, but have a history of civic engagement in Mexico and hope to do the same in North Texas. For instance, like Contreras, they plan to join the Dallas Museum of Art. For now, the couple remains shell-shocked with having left all privileges behind: their walled-off, four-bedroom, three-bath Colonial home in the historic, cobblestone-street neighborhood of Coyoacán; their pruned, striking jacaranda trees and bugambilia flowers that decorated their idyll with red, orange and purple colors. Calderon, regional manager of Plano-based Atradius, a trade-credit insurer, commutes 10 minutes from his home in Frisco, a cookie-cutter duplex made of stucco. He has plenty of doubts about their decision to leave, especially on weekends, when the couple misses their getaway home in Cuernavaca, their friends, the long nights. He questions whether they did the right thing. But he also looks at the benefits: that short commute to work, a more family oriented environment, more time with his kids and his wife — and no worries about extortions or kidnappings. “I’m sure many will question what we did, and I know because I have my own doubts from time to time, but you sacrifice to get ahead.” As he sips Earl Grey tea at NorthPark Center, and watches his wife frantically give chase to their kids, he smiles. “I am not entitled, that’s for sure. But yes, you can say we live a fresa life — fresa in the best sense of the word, a comfortable life.” He thinks some more. “Sometimes I just smile to myself. We have it so good — a great life.”
ALFREDO CORCHADO is the Mexico bureau chief for The Dallas Morning News and a 2009 Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. His 2013 memoir, now in paperback, Midnight in Mexico: A Reporter’s Journey Through a Country’s Descent into Darkness, has been optioned by Mexico and LA–based Canana Films.