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Making Your Home Your Home in Mexico

A living room in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
Credit: Harriet Murray

One of my major callings in life is to make the physical spaces that we inhabit both beautiful and functional. It’s about making your home your home in Mexico. My most core belief on this point is that one should not have to be economically privileged to enjoy an environment that is comfortable, delightful and practical, and that inhabiting such places helps us to channel and become our higher selves.

A major difference I’ve noticed between Mexico and its (farther) North American neighbors is the importance placed on what needs the most beautification. In very general terms, Mexicans tend to place more value on personal appearance. Most people leave their homes dressed fairly well: freshly bathed, hair fixed, perfume, jewelry, and makeup applied. In contrast, you’re liable to see their U.S. counterparts grocery shopping in pajamas and flip-flops.

Other noticeable differences come upon entering people’s homes and businesses. We norteamericanos tend to treat our homes as a sanctuary, a space to be cared for and decorated with care: function and comfort are important. This is reflected in the way homes are built in everything from window placements to plentiful storage space. By contrast, many average homes for rent or sale in Mexico sport tiny kitchens – a mystery to me given Mexico’s rich culinary culture – little storage space to speak of, and questionably-absent safety features (really, why NOT put a railing on the stairs?).

Neither of these areas of emphasis (home or personhood) are inherently superior, and in today’s increasingly busy world, it can be difficult to treat both as priorities. But for me personally, the environment with which we surround ourselves and our families matters, a lot.

By now I’ve lived in every kind of home from two concrete rooms with an outside sink and no door on the bathroom to large and beautiful homes with actual closets and pantries. I prefer the fancier places, but over the years I have gotten quite good at making even the dankest places cozy and pleasant.

Below are my top tips for improving any space:

1. Lighting. The right combination of lamps, light bulbs and light fixtures can go a long way toward creating a warm and cozy environment. If you can do nothing else, get the right light bulbs. You DO NOT want “daylight” light bulbs; you want “luz cálida.” Next, try some lamps. While they’re quite expensive at department stores, you can usually find beautiful, unique pieces for good prices at artisans’ markets. Many places simply have a wire hanging down from the ceiling with a bulb in it, but things like paper lanterns can be tricky as they tend to darken a space. That said, they’re usually cheap enough to allow for some experimentation.

2. Paint. One of my favorite things about Mexico is the combination of vibrant colors everywhere you go. Paint is a cheap way to make a very dramatic difference, and it’s forgiving. if you don’t like something, you can simply paint over it. If you’re feeling really enthusiastic (and I am always feeling really enthusiastic), you can go for some murals. If, like me, you don’t have much “free-hand” talent, a projector will help you trace images on the wall so that you can fill in coloring book-style.

3. Plants. Natural green literally breathes life into any space. The workers at your local plant nursery will be able to tell you which plants do well in what kinds of spaces and how to care for them. It’s my opinion that you can really never have too many plants – go wild!

4. Shelving and storage. Skip Home Depot if you’re feeling adventurous and go directly to a maderería. Ask for specifically the cuts you want and then to a hardware store for, well, the hardware. You can also buy wood stain at Comex. The last time I went they had a whole booklet full of beautiful color options! Then, put shelves all over the place. Really. Kitchens and bathrooms are often especially lacking in storage spaces, and if you don’t have closets, you’ll want them in your room, too. Cute Target-style storage baskets are a dime a dozen in the US, but here can wind up being quite expensive. For a sturdier and cheaper option with a beautiful rustic look, check out the woven baskets in the markets.

Repairs for holes in the wall and paint messes are easy to do, and most landlords will be happy to have someone “make over” their home for free. That said, ask anyway. Happy decorating!