Have you ever loved a place? I mean really loved a place? With the same intensity that you’ve loved a person? The other night, I was sitting in a palapa on a beach in Mexico talking to my friend Mary Ann. Is it strange to love a place as much as you love the people in your life, I wondered. Solar-powered Christmas lights twinkled along the fringe of the thatched roof and the air smelled like the pounding surf.
“But our love for this place–it is about people,” Mary Ann pointed out. “About everyone we’ve known here over the years, about the community.”
“Good point,” I said, rattling the ice in my tequila.
Fear is the shadow of love. When you love something or someone with any intensity you start to worry that the object of your devotion might be snatched from you. Living in the moment and loving selflessly is all very well in theory, but most of us don’t have that capacity. When we have something truly precious we see the shadows at the margins of our happiness. I’ve been worried about Tenacatita for as long as I can remember. Even as a kid, I knew it was too good to last. We watched the other great camping beaches get built up or taken over completely by resorts, and we worried. A perfect beach in a perfect bay, with rose-colored cliffs at one end and a reef at the other. Clean sand and clear water, sunsets through the palms, and then the starriest sky you’d ever seen.
But yeah, it was about the people too. Every year, the beach attracted a rotating cast of like-minded individuals, gringos who liked to get off the beaten path. Cheapskates, birdwatchers, fanatical fishermen, and idle drunks. We lived in huts facing the sea and spent a lot of time in hammocks, speculating about the waves, the weather, and the fishing. The people who could afford to return every year were either smugglers or the seasonally employed: commercial fishermen, cannery mechanics, loggers, contractors, and the occasional grower. Americans and Canadians, mostly. The two groups had a healthy rivalry, which erupted in the occasional Americans v. Canadians volleyball match, but mostly consisted of Americans trash talking Canadians for being bad tippers and having a poor grasp of Spanish, and Canadians bragging about their health care system.
Tenacatita was a haven for those of us who shied away from the crowd. And it was a haven for Jaliscans who couldn’t afford the big resort towns, who just wanted shade and seafood and reasonably safe surf. And it was a source of income and pride for the local people: fishermen and restaurant owners and waiters and storekeepers and palapa builders and the families who owned plots of land that they rented to campers. The beach supported the nearby village of Rebalsito and was governed by the local ejido, or land cooperative.
Unlike the typical resort, which tends to foster a tourist/servant relationship between visitors and locals, our communities were truly interlaced. We gathered to mark births and deaths and rights of passage. We celebrated every year at the annual fiesta and rodeo. We grew up and grew old together. We were bonded by our connection to the playa libre. On a coast where so many public beaches had been turned into exclusive playgrounds for the rich, we all knew that Tenacatita was different, and special, and important.
In 2010, when a development group illegally took control of the beach and barricaded the public access road, that love of place united us in a fight against the Rodenas Corporation and the powerful lawyer Andres Villalobos. The local ejido fought back hard and the gringo community supported that fight. The ejido hired lawyers and filed petitions, marched in protest, pressured the governor, attended endless meetings, and kept the story in the press. We held fundraisers. We gave food boxes to people who had lost their source of income. We paid legal fees, we paid for transportation so people could attend protests or file paperwork, and we documented and publicized the abuses perpetrated by the development group’s armed guards, which ranged from looting to intimidation to environmental destruction to physical violence.
After five-and-a-half years of fighting and countless setbacks, Playa Tenacatita is once again truly open to the public. On Sundays local families pull up in pick-ups and unload sun umbrellas, coolers, and pop-up shade tents. Kids play in the surf and couples walk hand-in-hand on the sand. Campers are free to drive the beach road, and to linger as the sun sets and then rises.
The fight is not over. Rodenas guards still occupy their disputed 42 hectare claim, which extends part way up the beach on the swamp side and into the coconut grove that fronts the ocean beach. The owners of the individual plots that make up this swathe are fighting for their parcels on a case-by-case basis. So far, the judge has ruled in favor of more than ten of the small property owners.
The state police patrol the beach to make sure that the guards don’t hassle visitors. Local custom requires that the police receive meals when they visit the area. Tenafund had been helping pay to feed the police, and local cooks have been preparing the food. We are grateful for the police presence: without it, the Rodenas guards would continue to harass visitors and campers.
As many of the plots of land are still in dispute and the future of the beach is up in the air, no new palapas may be constructed. When I visited this year, I felt lucky to inhabit the lone remaining shade structure, which somehow escaped the match when the Rodenas Corporation burnt down the rest of the palapas. The lone palapa has subsequently weathered two hurricanes, but is in remarkably good shape, all things considered. The other camps on the beach are making do with tarps and pop-ups for the time being. As they wait for the go-ahead to re-build their once-palatial hut, Mary Anne is replanting her garden.
I spent three weeks camping on the beach this year, and it felt like a benediction. As the lone palapa, we entertained a constant stream of visitors, who came to marvel at the view of the bay and our great good fortune. I sat in the shade with my old friends and we were amazed to be together again, eating ceviche, drinking cerveza, talking about the fishing, and listening to The Rolling Stones. We appreciated the waves, and the clarity and warmth of the water. We appraised the sunsets and sunrises. We marveled that a small underfunded community had managed to subvert the game plan of a well-financed corporation. We rejoiced to be back home. In this difficult and heartbreaking world, how often do you retrieve what you’ve lost? This year, we returned to a lost love to find it whole and perfect.