© LEARNING FROM MEXICO 2019 by Laure Nashed

 Die Beiträge von «learningfrommexico» entstehen in Zusammenarbeit mit der Schweizer Architekturzeitschrift werk, bauen + wohnen.

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Important tips for living and working as an architect in Mexico

Motivation

First of all, you should be aware of the personal and professional experiences you are looking for. The second step is to talk about it with the people that know you the best. They will question or confirm you. My previously well thought-out motivation was something I could hold on to during the difficult months. In the moments when I forgot about it, my friends and family reminded me again and again of it and I noticed that I hadn’t come here without reason, and/or it helped me to examine whether I would like to venture the experiment Mexico further. From my point of view, the search for the following personal and professional experiences in Mexico City can serve as motivation:

  • The search for friendly and collaborative cooperation with the work colleagues

  • The search for a very dynamic and diverse architectural scene

  • The search for serenity: Mexicans always find a solution

  • The search for a lively exchange with craftsmen. Industrial products are often more expensive than developing the detail with a craftsman.

  • The search for the “country of the unlimited possibilities” - so Mexico is often described by entrepreneurs. In the architecture indeed very much is possible, due to the fact that there are less regulations than in European countries. Often however the budget is missing.

  • The search for cultural richness and a fascinating history of thousands of years

  • The search for a social environment that welcomes you quickly and without a judgmental attitude. Mexicans always try to help every foreigner feel at home.

  • The search for smiles and friendliness: Wherever one goes - even in the big city Mexico city - people welcome one with a warm smile. Never before have I experienced a country like this, which meets even begging homeless people with friendliness.

  • The search for life-changing experiences: you not only get to know a new country and a new culture, you also get to know yourself better. Far away from everything, which one knew so far, one is on one's own.


You enter in an unknown world. However, you must never forget that you can return to your home country at any time. I have asked myself again and again: "What do I have to lose / What do I have to win?”


Application

The digital age and Skype in particular make it possible to apply at a distance. Technically, it generally works well (if the Internet works). But you don't give your intuition much room within this circumstance. You don't get a feeling for the office space and the general atmosphere in the office. But due to the distance and the flight costs, it hardly makes sense to only fly to Mexico for the application. To come to Mexico to apply directly on site and to wait here for an answer or the start of work and the visa makes sense. But in my case the waiting has turned out to be very difficult.

I have heard from many that they have applied while being in Mexico and the first months until the visa arrived they were allowed to support the office and got paid (without visa - illegally). In Mexico you get a tourist visa for 6 months. For us Europeans, working without permission feels completely illegal and not right, which is also absolutely the case. But the Mexican authorities make it so difficult for the employee and the employer that this attitude is appropriate in my opinion. I will explain more about this under "Visa".


It is also important to know that a lot of things in Mexico happen through contacts. From my own experience, I can say that the probability of a response to an application increases considerably if a contact is involved. That sounds disappointing for a foreigner without contacts. But the big advantage is that Mexicans are enormously helpful. This might sound funny but it's true: if you indirectly know a Mexican, he or she will most likely help.


Mexican architects usually know the Swiss universities. I am not sure about European universities in general. The work experience in the curriculum vitae is a bit more abstract for them unless you have worked in a world-famous Swiss/European office. It is therefore important to have a convincing portfolio and to state the exact work experience in your CV.


Where to apply?

Here I share my personal list of architecture firms in Mexico City. The list is completely without evaluation of the working conditions and satisfaction of the employees. I only estimate the size of the offices at this moment.

  • Small architecture firms with a maximum of 10 employees: LANZA Atelier, Max von Werz, Zeller Moye, Frida Escobedo, Hector Barroso, Pedro y Juana, ANTNA, APRDELESP

  • Medium-size architectural offices with 10-25 employees: Dellekamp Schleich, MMX, Productora, Alberto Kalach, CCA, Ambrosi Etchegaray, Perez Palacios

  • Large architectural offices with 30 or more employees: Tatiana Bilbao Estudio, Rozana Montiel, Mauricio Rocha + Gabriela Carrillo, Javier Sánchez (JSA)

From my point of view it is important to try to learn as much as possible about the working conditions and especially about the satisfaction of the employees before you accept a job. Satisfaction is of course an emotional evaluation and depends on many factors. For example, a difficult financial situation can temporarily put the situation within an office to the test. But employee satisfaction is essential. Particularly important if this is a new start in a foreign country. Intuition plays an important role here. For me, if more than 4-5 people experienced something similar, there is usually something to it.


Salary in Mexico as an architect and cost of living

The financial situation is the biggest challenge for me. As a young architect, you earn very little here compared to Switzerland. Compared to the majority of the Mexican population, you earn very well. According to Mexican statistics from INEGI, only 4.5% of the Mexican population earns more than 13,000 MXN (660 CHF/USD). According to Numbeo, the cost of living in Mexico City is the highest in the country.


Here I share my estimation of salaries in architectural offices that specialise in design (before tax deduction, incl. accident and medical emergency insurance - often without further health insurance, old-age provision, social insurance). The salary depends very much on the size and the general attitude of the office.

  • Junior architect with 0-2 years experience: 9'000 - 14'000 MXN (460-715 CHF/USD)

  • Architect with 2-5 years experience: 15'000 - 18'000 MXN (765-920 CHF/USD)

  • Senior architect 5-10 years experience: 19'000 - 24'000 MXN (970-1220 CHF/USD)

  • Project manager: 22'000 - 30'000 MXN (1120-1530 CHF/USD)

On the Numbeo page you can compare the cost of living of the respective countries. If you compare Zurich with Mexico City, I would have to earn 32,000 MXN to maintain the same standard of living that I had as a young architect in Zurich. Rents in Mexico City are disproportionately expensive compared to salaries.


The salary as a young architect in Mexico City is not enough for me to pay a plane ticket to Switzerland or to save money. If you limit your experience in Mexico to a certain period of time, it is easier to cope with the - in my understanding - low salary. Especially if you come from Switzerland, you inevitably renounce your (high) standard of living and security in many aspects. Without a further source of income, it is almost impossible for me to imagine a future in this context.


Working hours and holidays

This section refers to my experience and that of some friends:

Weekly working time in architecture offices is between 42.5 - 45.5 hours. In addition there are on average 3-5 overtime hours per week which are regulated differently. Only 6 holiday days per year are required by law. Most architecture firms agree 10-15 paid holiday days with their employees. In addition, a maximum of 5-10 unpaid holiday days can be taken.

In the OECD statistics, Mexico is shown as the country with the most hours worked.

Compared to Switzerland, I have noticed so far that more time is actually spent in the office. In my perception, however, working hours are more relaxed.


Language

The national language is Spanish. Due to the proximity to the USA and many American expats in Mexico City, many Mexicans speak some English. In architectural firms a lot of people speak English. In order to communicate with planners/engineers, external specialists and craftsmen, one cannot do without learning the national language, as in every country.


Verbal agreement or promises and patience

In the Swiss understanding, verbal job agreements are binding. Both sides usually take verbal agreements seriously. One does not feel taken seriously or even cheated if agreements or promises are not kept.


I have noticed with great disillusionment that in Mexico verbal agreements and promises are handled much more loosely. The word "ahorita" is representative of the Mexican mentality in this context. Translated it means "little now" and is a very vague statement. It can mean from "in a minute" to "never at all". Out of Mexican friendliness things are promised. Whether the promise will be kept later, is written in the stars. For us Europeans this is very difficult to estimate. Perhaps one should explain from the beginning in a friendly way that one has a different understanding for verbal agreements and promises and ask for a clarification so that conflicts can be avoided later.


Without patience and understanding for the Mexican mentality one climbs the walls here. From my point of view, this is where the greatest cultural collision occurs. It is one of the most challenging serenity exercises for me.


In general, Mexicans also have a different sense of time. Everything is slower here. Especially everything that has to do with authorities. Even if the official processing time is 4-6 weeks, it may well take 4-6 months. Fortunately, this does not apply to the planning and construction of buildings when everything goes well in the project progress/if the finances are not stopped. Planning and construction times don't seem to differ much from Switzerland from my point of view.


Visa

This subject has consumed a lot of nerves. For the visa procedure it is best to rely on the future office. They will help to compile the documents and fill in the first forms. Officially, the visa process should take four to six weeks. If an architecture office refers to this official duration of the visa process, it is important to ask for their honest estimation of how long it really takes. Because I don't know of anyone for whom this duration has been respected. Even before the change of government it was more like 3 months. After the change of government, people had to wait 4 to 5 months without having any idea how long they had to wait for. One must be prepared for the fact that the visa procedure is not calculable. It is enormously important to agree with the future office how the waiting time will be handled. Otherwise you are stuck in Mexico and have no idea when you can start working. This experience has cost me a lot of money.


After an indefinite period (approx. 1-5 months) you will receive a document with a permit number (NUT number), which allows you to make an appointment with a Mexican consulate (important: outside Mexico). You have 30 days to make this appointment. Depending on the country in which you go to the Mexican consulate, this is better or worse organized. In the best case, the provisional visa is obtained at the first appointment at the Mexican consulate. In the less organized consulate in Guatemala I had to visit the consulate three times and pay about 35 CHF/USD. With this provisional visa one (again) enters Mexico.


For the next steps you have to go to the migration office in Mexico City several times. Before that you have to fill out a lot of paperwork and pay an invoice of 4000 pesos (200 CHD/USD). It must be agreed beforehand with the architect's office who will bear the costs. This payment is equivalent to one year's work and residence permit. The migration office is impressively inefficient. You have to expect at least 2 hours of waiting time.


After 2-3 visits to the Migration Office, you have to wait again to receive the FM2 residence permit card. Only with this card can you register with the tax authorities and open a bank account. In the migration office I was told that I would receive my FM2 card in 2 weeks. Finally, I received the card 2.5 months later.


The first work and residence permit, called "Residente temporal", is valid for one year. It can then be extended to a total of four years.


Tax regulation and tax authority SAT

Basically, a distinction is made between two regulations: Employee "Asalariados" and freelancer "Honorarios". It costs more and is more complex for the company to employ architects as "employees". At the same time, it makes it much easier for the individual architect to have a contract as an employee. Under the "Asalariados" system, the company is obliged to provide social security for its employees and to let its employees benefit from bonuses. As a freelancer you have to file a tax return monthly and annually. The monthly taxes amount to about 20% of the salary if one does not declare as many invoices (purchases, restaurant, etc.) as possible that than reduce the amount of taxes. As the system is complex, especially for foreigners, you need the help of an accountant. These cost about 500 pesos per month. The only advantage I see in the regulation of the freelancer "Honorarios" is that you can work for different companies if you want.


In order to be able to reduce your taxes under the "Honorarios" regulation on the basis of declared invoices, as described above, you must have your FM2 card. Only with this card and the associated "RFC" number can you register with the tax authority SAT. If you already have your work permit and start to work before you receive this card, you should absolutely agree with the architect's office what it means for the taxes. This is very important because there is no way to reduce the 20% tax at this time. From the point of view of many of my architectural friends, a compromise has to be found between employer and employee. There are various options available to the company. If the office is not willing to find a compromise, then it is definitely not the right place for a foreign architect who has already invested a great amount of time and money.


Change of job

If it turns out that it is not the right job, you are not tied to this job. The work and residence permit is valid for one year. You have 90 days to notify the migration office of the change of job. I have been told from various people that it is extremely difficult to take the permit away from the foreigner.


Health

Let us not beat about the bush: No matter how well you prepare yourself, no matter how many probiotics you take, no matter how careful you are when choosing a restaurant: Montezuma's revenge will catch everyone sooner or later. The bacteria we are unaccustomed to are hiding everywhere. Reasons for this are for example low(er) hygiene standards and partly insufficient cooling of the food. The tap water in Mexico is also the bacteria's paradise. You have to get through this.


International or Swiss health insurance companies rarely cover visits to doctors.


Last but not least...

...I was often asked why a Swiss architect chooses to live in Mexico. I've often asked myself the same question in recent months. And the answer is simple: because of the infinitely warm, friendly and polite people and the dynamic architecture scene that simply fascinates me.