Lessons in ABCD from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

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By: racheldahlke
Posted in: Stories
Lessons in ABCD from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

Lessons in ABCD from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, by Rachel Cleaves Dahlke

In Asset-Based Community Development theory, “economy” and “physical environment” are two of the building blocks of communities.  Economies, depending on their structures, can build local wealth or exploit and impoverish workers. In a “local economy” community members themselves, not huge out-of-town corporations, own local businesses, and more dollars stay in the community resulting in greater benefit for the local populace. The physical environment can also encourage or hinder relationship building and local economies.

I experienced local economy and physical environment done right in Puerto Vallarta (PV), Mexico.  PV is an international tourist destination on the Pacific coast; it was a thriving Mexican village long before.  Now, 50% of PV’s economy is dependent on tourism mostly from Mexico, the US, and Canada, and 50% of income comes from industry and agriculture.

Puerto Vallarta provides a feast for the senses, as these photos show, including the wailing voices of musicians and their twanging guitars, the rainbow of colorful artwork hanging from vendors’ stalls, the rich taste of chocolate mole, salsas, and seafood in artisan food shops, the locally-distilled tequila, the smell of flowers that shop owners lovingly plant in front of their stores, and the feeling of peso bills in my hands as I spend my money enthusiastically.   How can one place be so filled with life, culture, and creativity?

PV's physical environment encourages asset-based community development because it fosters relationships across income levels.The beach area’s streets and sidewalks encourage face to face connection because it attracts people to walk (not drive), to explore, and to linger.  Along the entire beachfront of Puerto Vallarta, over one mile in length, is a malecón, or pedestrian boardwalk, attracting hordes of pedestrians to stroll and interact.  There is no cost for admission, no dress code, and no car required. People young and old, rich and poor, foreign and local, meet there.  In addition, there are three plazas along the malecón, each one host to various street festivals and carnivals – more opportunities for gathering and for vendors to sell their handmade foods and crafts.

Storefronts throughout the town are small; this allows new business owners to afford to start their business. The small storefronts are conducive to local economies because of the low cost of entry, discouraging mega corporations who would fill warehouses and put all local businesses out-of-business. The malecon, the plazas, and the small-scale storefronts are all reasons why PV’s local economy thrives.

In PV's relationship-centric physical environment, individual people's gifts, talents, and dreams are the building blocks for the local economy. Mexican culture is profoundly diverse and rich, and on the malecón, the 'asset' of Mexican cultural richness is regularly expressed through creative enterprises. Artists, sculptors, street performers, chefs, jewelers, and musicians make their living. A man sells purses he makes from the pull tabs on top of aluminum cans. Voladores perform by flinging themselves off a 40 foot pole and spinning upside down to re-enact an ancient ceremony. Two sand men play a chess game of sand pieces while pouring sand wine. Food is served in countless stalls. It is these locally created masterpieces that create an incredibly rich experience that continues to draw tourists to PV.

I cannot so romanticize the local economy in PV as to neglect to mention that global economic forces are inequitable to the detriment of developing nations like Mexico. The GDP per capita in Mexico is only $18,900 (Wikipedia).  Unfortunately wages in PV's tourism sector are low and seasonal.  While a local economy certainly helps create parity and wealth in communities, global economies must also be structured to benefit all people, not just the wealthy.