By Tom Swanson & Marianne Menditto ● January 2014
Well, my wife and I have landed in Puerto Vallarta and this time, finally, we think it’s for good. I think it will depend a lot upon how much the love of art in this wonderful place will continue to decline and how much Puerto Vallarta becomes a commercial port. The new customs warehouse and the four lane freeway being built between here and Guadalajara give us cause for some concern. Todays narco violence is all about transportation routes. My wife and I met up 16 years ago on Route 66, no less. We’ve had many a tuna melt at the original D’s diner in oldtown Kingman. I was building houses for empty nesters moving out of California, and she was a talented artist, tile designer and contractor. It worked. Within a couple of years we were partners building custom homes, business was great. Beale Street/Route 66 is where we started our Design center and artesanias gallery. Then it was Hummingbird Design, now it’s called Colibrí Design.
Our love of Mexico led us to stay down south on our buying trips for ever longer periods of time. Finally, in 1999, we bought a beach lot in Puerto Peñasco and built a house, with the idea of selling it, or so we thought…
Along came the 2000 housing slump, and then 9/11. After that no one was selling much of anything in Sonora or Arizona. That house on the Sea of Cortez just looked too good! We moved in. The chance to design and build in such a vibrant culture proved to be too much of a temptation. The first year or two were tough, but then that old bubble started to grow again. People with second mortgages and lines of credit up north started lining up at the border to get a piece of Sonoran sea, sand and sun.
Puerto Peñasco, or Rocky Point as it is known in the U.S., was a wonderful place. It was often touted as Arizona’s beach. A small fishing village and smuggler’s port dating back to the days of prohibition. Al Capone had a special room in the only hotel, hiding a tunnel that lead to a small dock where a speedboat awaited. More and more Americans were building vacation and retirement homes there, only a few hours drive from Phoenix and Tucson. A
new coastal highway brought it to within a half-day’s drive from Southern California. It was a continual party. Mariachi groups came from as far as Mexicali to serenade the revelling Gringos. Crossing the border was not much more than a wave and a happy greeting, you hardly needed to stop. Only on the big weekends did one need to plan to wait in line, and that was mostly to get in to Mexico. Our artesanias shop did great. We soon had a large following of steady customers.
Those were wild times. Everybody loved everybody, we all had work, all had money. Soon we were building houses and doing tilework carte blanche. We decided who to work with and who not. In 2005 we had over 100 employees and a dozen sub-contractors. Then two things happened and combined to create the perfect storm to unleash upon our little paradise.
First, México’s President Calderón declared the entrance of México in the U.S. drug war, then almost simultaeously the US housing bubble burst. The Great Recession was on and Puerto Peñasco was taking a double hit. Between trying to finish construction projects and liquidating our Mexican labor force, things got tight fast. Add to that the narco violence and Puerto Peñasco rapidly became a ghost town, a dangerous one. Our chief of police was shot, running gun battles in the streets became all too common and the local police were replaced by “halcones”, look-outs for the narcos. The only money in town is drug money. Building for the new narco elite can be very risky. We started losing friends, family and business associates, literally Life was no longer good and everyone was blaming it on the Americans. Gringos just stopped coming. Artesanias sales tanked. The Arizona economy had tanked too and most of them were blaming it on the Mexicans. It was time to move on… fast.
We had never been to Puerto Vallarta, though we had been traveling all over México for over a decade. But of course we knew about it in a sort of envious way and decided to visit in February 2011. What a wonderful place! Great, friendly people, safe streets and a widely shared love of all things artistic from food to fine art. No Arizona white supremacists either. That’s a funny thing, too. Bigots from all over the U.S. have been moving to Arizona
recently only to find that over 30% of the population isn’t white. Doh?
By mid-March we were here with our gallery (that’s a tale in itself), and now we’re going back into tile design and sales. We think it’s time to start getting colorful again, getting positive and creative, to start bringing more vibrancy into our daily lives. Nothing will ever be the way it was, but no-one knows what the future will bring, so let’s enjoy the present!