Part 1: From City To Farmland
According to the Mexican Embassy in Denmark, there are currently 50 Mexicans living in Iceland. That’s enough people to fill a decent party. Maybe. Indeed, those 50 Mexicans only amount to roughly .00004% of Mexico’s population, and a mere .01% of the admittedly sparser Icelandic populace. However, considering how far removed Iceland is from Mexico—geographically and culturally—that number becomes a little more impressive. 50 Mexicans. In Iceland. Who are they? How did they get here? What inspired them to seek their fortune on a remote rock on the outskirts of the North Atlantic? And, most importantly, how are they adapting to life in a culture that is so different from the one they were born into?
As a proud Mexican and avid Iceland enthusiast, these questions intrigued me enough to send me looking for some answers. Over the next few issues, I will be profiling a small part of Iceland’s Mexican population, documenting their hopes and dreams and the manifold challenges they face.
Vopnafjörður: Arlette Moreno
Vopnafjörður, Northeast Iceland, 621 km from Reykjavík.
At 7am, the night still lingers, darkness still reigns. Arlette Moreno opens her eyes and slowly realises she can snooze another fifteen minutes before it’s time to start the day. From her bedroom window, she can see her garden and the majestic ocean view that lies beyond. It’s early March and the air is bitter cold, but at least it stopped snowing. For now.
Vopnafjörður, which Arlette Moreno calls home—along with 668 other inhabitants—is a tiny village comfortably nestled in a fjord on the outskirts of Iceland. When she first conversed with her now-husband Svanur over the Internet, she told him that she was from a very small town in Mexico. He kept insisting he came from a much smaller place. But never could she have imagined…
Arlette hails from Saltillo, the capital of the Mexican state of Coahuila, about 400 km south of Texas (pop. 823,000). Obviously, relocating to a tiny hamlet on the edge of the Arctic Circle took some serious adjustment. “Before I came to Iceland, I had never lived on a farm. And now, I’m here. My daughter and I are the only Latinas in town. Everything in our lives changed.” She continues, remarking that the experience of moving to Vopnafjörður was “not unlike joining a large family; one where everyone always says ‘hi’ and is happy to lend a hand. That sensation, of every person you meet knowing your name, it’s quite something.”
She talks about her husband, Svanur, and reminisces about their courtship. “He visited me in Saltillo in 2008; that was the first time we met in person. He didn’t say much. Icelanders are very quiet. They don’t tend to express their feelings as much as we Mexicans do,” she says, smiling. As the couple’s romance grew, Arlette decided to leave Mexico and move to Iceland, bringing along her daughter, who was ten years old at the time. “First I told my parents. Then I told my daughter’s dad, who lives in the US—he agreed this was the best for us. So I left everything, and moved to Iceland in February of 2009.” Once Arlette and Svanur settled in, the couple decided to expand the family and now have a son of their own, Christopher Francis, who is four-years old.
During those initial months in Iceland, Arlette became familiar with the luxury of slowing down. “Everyone here is very relaxed. In Mexico, when you go to work, you don’t stop,” she admits. She says she had no prior idea what being a farmer’s wife entailed, having spent her entire life in big cities. “That first day he took me to the farm, I kept thinking: ‘OK, let’s do this! What do I do, what do I do?’ But instead of rushing to get things done, he sat me down and gave me some coffee,” she says. In Vopnafjörður—far removed from the hustle and bustle of big cities—there is no need to hurry, she learned.
Arlette says that Iceland is very different from any place she has inhabited. “There are no high schools in my town,” she says. “My daughter is fifteen years-old by now, and she will have to relocate elsewhere to get an education beyond grade school [in Iceland, teenagers aged 16–20 attend ‘menntaskóli,’ a non-mandatory amalgam of high school and college] And, as most Icelanders know, those who leave usually don’t come back. “Teenagers nowadays are not very interested in becoming farmers,” she says. Arlette’s daughter is already thinking of leaving the nest and moving to a bigger city, perhaps even in a bigger country. “The thing with my daughter,” Arlette says, “is that she arrived here when she was 10 years-old; she remembers life in America. She knows what’s out there, and that’s what she longs for after she’s done with school in Iceland.”
The fact that the younger generations are choosing to move to bigger cities, even outside of the country, must be a national cause for concern. What the future holds for those farming and fishing practices that have been passed from generation to generation, sustaining the country’s economy, remains to be seen.
“Mexicans are all about being with other people,” Arlette says. “Iceland is a very beautiful country, but if you’re used to partying, having a lot of friends or living a fast-paced life, this place might not be for you.”
For Arlette, who is familiar with the luxuries that come with living in big cities in the US and Mexico, having the nearest entertainment spots—restaurants, movie theatres, and shopping centres—a staggering three hours away was quite the novelty. “If we want to enjoy a nice outing or do something different, we go to the gas station. It’s the only place that’s open on Saturdays. You can get a burger or ice cream,” Arlette says, matter-of-factly. As far as entertainment options go, Arlette had to say goodbye to catching the latest movies at the cinema and access to hundreds of international channels. “We don’t have Netflix. Our options are limited to the six channels we get on the TV—and we only have so many because we have cable!”
People are strange
By U.S. standards, Arlette is quite nondescript, likely to get lost in a crowd. However, when transported to a remote island, surrounded by people of an entirely different genetic makeup, she admittedly stands out. One can’t help but wonder what it feels like to be so phenotypically different from the rest of the population.
“People sometimes stare at you,” she says, when the subject of her skin colour comes up. “My daughter and I are considered peculiar here.” While her neighbours have grown used to her presence, and that of her daughter, occupying the role of obvious outsider obviously wasn’t an easy task for Arlette in the beginning.
The land of no tacos
Food is a favourite subject for most Mexicans. They are proud of the marriage of indigenous and Spanish flavours that have converged to create one of the most iconic cuisines of today. In Iceland, miles away from her favourite dishes, Arlette has mostly adjusted to local fare.
“Food here is really different. We eat a lot of lamb and salmon.” Indeed, enjoying a plate of tacos seems almost impossible given the location. “You can’t really find any stores that sell Mexican staples around here. I remember going to a Mexican restaurant in Reykjavík years ago and the chef was Chinese! Can you imagine that?”
“Helvítis, I don’t speak Icelandic!”
Another big pill to swallow was the Icelandic language, and the barrier it presented. “In the beginning everyone speaks to you in English when they sense you’re an outsider. But as soon as they see you’re staying for good, they switch to Icelandic.” Living in a remote town like Vopnafjörður made the necessity of learning the language even more pressing. “Everything here is in Icelandic. Fortunately, I can still speak Spanish with my older daughter,” she continues.
At home, however, their language dynamic is a bit more complex than that and is the haven for a communication style that would make a linguistic anthropologist blush. “While my husband speaks to me in English, he speaks to the children in Icelandic. With my children, I speak in Spanish, English and a bit of Icelandic.” Convinced that she needs to learn the language spoken by her husband and children, Arlette strives to become fluent in Icelandic. “It’s hard, but I’m trying. I can take online classes, but they are ultimately very limited.”
“Oh the weather outside is frightful!”
Five winters in Iceland have hardened Arlette to the often-harsh climate. “It’s not easy. If you’re not used to it, you can’t just take the car and drive off in the middle of a snowstorm,” she confides. “But it gets better over time.”
The weather also affects the way they handle their sheep. Everything has to be planned to perfection in order to sustain the family business. “Since it’s so cold where we live, we have to shear half of the sheep’s wool at the beginning of the year, and the other half later in the year, when it’s warmer.” During the summer months, Arlette and her husband let the sheep roam free, as is customary with Icelandic sheep farmers. And, also in line with tradition, they fetch them from the wild just before the temperatures begin to drop anew.
The day was long. Arlette took the kids to school, she browsed the internet for news from home, did some volunteer work, attended Icelandic lessons, got groceries from the local shop, prepared dinner for the family and, finally, put the little one to sleep.
It’s time to call it a day.
Arlette looks out the window once more and sees the Northern Lights glowing above. She takes joy in the blues and the greens flickering in the night sky, as if dancing to the beat of a song.
Finally, Arlette closes her eyes, thanking God for one more day in this country.
No Mexicans were harmed in the writing of this article.
Thank you, Montserrat Arlette Moreno for your valuable time. ¡Muchas gracias!
And special thanks to the Mexican Embassy in Denmark for helping me spread the word and begin my research.