Home Articles Expat Entrepreneurs in Mexico: The Pearl of Lake Chapala

Expat Entrepreneurs in Mexico: The Pearl of Lake Chapala

Artist Diane Pearl in Ajijic
Credit: Diane Pearl

After years of working as an artist in San Francisco, New York and Santa Fe, the Pearl of Lake Chapala finally found bliss in a fountain of youth along the shore of Mexico’s largest lake.

Now the owner of a successful gallery steps away from the main plaza in Ajijic, Diane Pearl’s story began 65 years ago in the small town of Stratford, Connecticut.

Pearl’s dad worked in tool and die manufacturing and her mother – a refugee from Hitler’s Germany- was a Hebrew teacher until late in life. Always interested in art, Pearl attended the nearby University of New Haven and graduated from the Hartford Art School with a B.A. in Art. Following graduation, she headed west to San Francisco in 1972.

“As soon as I finished school,” Pearl said, “I went to California when I heard about the Renaissance Faire near San Francisco. My first job was working in a hashish pipe factory. It was a wonderful time to grown up as a liberal, and art was the perfect vehicle of expression.”

But the California adventure ended three years later when she moved to New York City to be with a boyfriend, married, divorced and stayed for fourteen years. In New York, she apprenticed in many different art forms. She was a scenic designer, a furniture maker, a cabinet-maker, silk-screen artist and also had art galleries in New York and the Tacoma, Washington-area for a while.

“When I started apprenticing I had an opportunity to move in 1992 to Santa Fe, New Mexico, which is the third largest art market in the U.S.,” she said. “I became a silversmith because silver was a big thing in Santa Fe. I was able to take all of my art techniques and translate them into jewelry very easily.”

While in Santa Fe, she met a man that soon changed the arc of her life.

“He wanted to move to Mexico but I didn’t really know that much about it,” she said. “We moved to the Lake Chapala-area in 2002, and found a place to rent in San Juan Cosala, one of the small towns on the northwestern shore of the lake. I didn’t know anything about Mexico, so everything was new for me, including having to learn a new language. I did, though, love the weather. Of all the places I have lived, this is perfect. What could be more ideal?”

During her first year lakeside, her insurance lady, who had an office in Ajijic, offered her space for a gallery in the front of the office she rented.

Ajijic, Mexico artist Diane Pearl
Diane Pearl

“I didn’t have much money at the time, so I put together nine other people to form a cooperative,” Pearl said. “The cooperative only lasted about a year before I started my own gallery, Diane Pearl Colecciones in 2003.”

By this time, she and her partner had split and Diane focused her energies exclusively on growing her new business.

“First, it was very helpful that I paid only US$200 a month for the same size space I paid US$2,000 for in Santa Fe,” she said. “My knowledge of what type of art Americans were looking for also was a big help in getting started.”

She has owned her gallery for about 13 years now and sells a wide range of art, including jewelry, arts and crafts and sculpture that sell for as little as 10 pesos to as much as 50,000 pesos.

“When I first opened, it was a cooperative so we sold just what the people who lived there made,” Pearl said. “Since then I have expanded our offering substantially to include Mexican antiques, carved icons, straw paintings from Uruapan and, of course, lots of arts and crafts from Jalisco and other areas within Mexico.”

Diane Pearl Collecciones in Ajijic, Mexico
Diane Pearl Colecciones

You can see many of her artworks at dianepearl.com. She also recently began a new creative project called  Creatively Mindful Art, which invites artists to become members of a Creatively Mindful Artists community, where they can upload and share their colored drawings, useful tips, experiences and comments.

“Because I can now speak some Spanish, I’m getting more Mexicanos shopping at my gallery, particularly the weekenders from Guadalajara,” she explained. “My business has been growing and so I reinvest to continually improve the quality of my artwork. I have one guy who makes incredible Virgins out of clay. I get and keep many of the quality artisans because I can help some of them out financially from time to time if they are in need.”

For the tenth anniversary of her gallery, she staged a pumpkin festival around Halloween and the Day of the Dead and had participants carve the pumpkins and take them home. “Parents said, ‘What lovely pumpkins you have’ and had the kids bring them home to cook. It was just a phenomenal day.”

Pearl keeps her operating expenses low to remain in the black. She operates her business as a sole proprietor, her business license costs just 180 pesos (less than US$10 with today’s exchange rate) annually and the rent for her space is just US$630 a month.

She now lives in a two-bedroom apartment with her two cats. It is just a block from Lake Chapala and an easy walk to her gallery. She also recently purchased a car so she can visit more arts and craft centers within Mexico to source new artwork for her gallery.

Pearl has found her slice of paradise and loves to tell people about living along the lake.

“This area is really great and the people are phenomenal,” she said.” There are bridge clubs, a writer’s club and clubs for just about every interest. Since there are so many retired expats living here, there is a unique opportunity to get to know people and spend quality time with them. One of the other things I love about living here is the compassion of the local doctors. They actually want to know who you are and spend time with you. It’s that kind of community.”

Her major culture shocks when she first moved to Mexico were language and adjusting from New York’s “hurry up” to Mexico’s mañana culture, which she said was very difficult for a New Yorker. But now she thinks Mexico is a very easy place to be.

Lake Chapala
Lake Chapala

“This place is really ideal,” she said. “It’s perfect for people looking to have a quiet life. I’m just as busy as when I was living in New York, but there is a quality of life here that really enriches you. A lot has to do with who you are. If you are moving to Mexico simply because it’s cheaper, you’re probably not going to be happy. When you move here, you have to bring something to the table or it’s not worth it.”

She also loves that she and others of her age and older are not invisible, as she believes many 65+ people are north of the border.

“When you get to be older and you actually become a part of a community and are noticed, it’s a pretty remarkable thing,” she said. “It keeps a youthful feeling, a feeling of vitality in everyone. It’s just kind of a different, more secure feeling, like you’re not over the hill. The happiest thing about living in Mexico is that I feel vital. This place feels more like the fountain of youth than anything else.”