My mother and I are talking about how much life has changed in the 47 years since she moved to Yucatán. “I’ve come a long way since North Vancouver,” she says. “My city is a cosmopolitan hub now, but in the 1970s, North Van was a pretty small place.”
In 1976, Joanna van der Gracht worked for CP Air. She could speak Spanish and was asked to accompany a familiarization tour to the Mexican Caribbean and Cuba.
“Travel to a warm place — it was January, and was I ever excited — Cuba was an eye-opener, but more was to come,” she smiles. “On our first day in Yucatán, I met your dad, and as they say, the rest is history.” The trip was a resounding promotional success for the airline, and Joanna got assigned six more trips back-to-back. When her contract was up, she sold her car in Canada, kissed her loved ones goodbye, and moved to Yucatán.
“I enjoyed Mérida, but I missed my family and friends. Making international phone calls was prohibitively expensive, so I resorted to writing letters. So many letters. I wrote pages and pages about my visits to the market, the colorful buildings, the fragrances, foods, flowers, and spices. I also wrote about my frustrations with learning new Spanish nuances, my confusion with some of the local customs, and bugs and the heat. My family passed the letters on to friends who also liked reading about my adventures abroad.”
Her audience grew when she began writing for The Mexico City News, which in the day was the top English-language daily in Latin America. “My editor was the legendary Joe Nash,” she says with pride.
But writing took a back seat from 1990 until 2008. My brother and I were little kids who needed her. As well, she and Dad had opened a tourism and language college, Tecnología Turística Total (TTT). Being immersed in family, her friends, and her work, she had no time for much else.
But she hadn’t lost her love of storytelling. One day when she was telling a group of international colleagues about her life in Yucatán, one of them said, “you should write a book.” And that got Mom thinking.
She was starting to pull back from her work at TTT.
“Yucatán had changed a lot from when I first moved there, and I was ready to tell the story of those changes — both Mérida’s and my own,” she says.
Independently printed, Tomando Agua de Pozo was a local success and was reprinted just three years later by Mazatlan Books as Magic Made in Mexico. Although Joanna has published other projects, she has now come back to her own story.
“I want to address how people live, how COVID impacted our lives, and how it still continues to affect our lifestyle. Traffic in Mérida is definitely big-city aggressive. Entire families have moved from other states in Mexico to live in Mérida, and international resident numbers are off the charts. I want to give newcomers a more up-to-date perspective on what living in southeastern Mexico is really like.”
When I ask her how she’s changed in the time she’s lived here, she looks reflective.
“I think that when I first moved here, I always wanted to be busy and moving fast from one activity to another. I still have lots of energy, but I’ve come to appreciate many aspects of life here that I once took for granted. Yucatán won’t ever be like Ajijic or San Miguel de Allende; it has a unique culture and traditions. I hope those contemplating a move here will learn about the customs and respect the Yucatecan way of life.”
Joanna says her years in Mérida have brought her a great deal of personal satisfaction.
“Raising two bilingual and bicultural children is an achievement that fills your Dad and me with gratitude. I feel the work I did at TTT was important to our community, as was my role with the International Women’s Club. The friendships I have made have also taught me a lot.”
Mom and Dad do a lot together but also have separate interests. Hers are writing and painting. These days, Mom seems satisfied, what we Yucatecans call una vida tranquila. But then she turns and opens her eyes wide.
“I’ve lived almost 70 years and have lived them well. I hope I’ll have a good many more.”
Obviously, Joanna van der Gracht de Rosado still has a few surprises in store.