- The Washington Times - Monday, March 12, 2007

CHACALA, Mexico

Nine years ago, Aurora Hernandez Blancarte’s family lived in a dirt-floor shack, six miles from a paved road, and although her husband is a fisherman, the fam- ily sometimes went hungry.

“During the rainy season, when the fishing is no good, we didn’t even have enough money for tortillas,” said Mrs. Hernandez Blancarte. “Now, we eat well. I can send my girls to private school. I can take them to the doctor. And that is our first car,” she said, proudly, pointing to the family’s new Toyota pickup.

Mrs. Hernandez Blancarte owes her family’s bright orange home, adjacent guesthouse and fortune to a program called Techos de Mexico — Roofs Over Mexico — founded by Mexican social activists from the 1960s and modeled after Habitat for Humanity, but designed to meet the needs of Mexico’s poor.

Twenty-seven years ago, Laura del Valle, a medical doctor, and her brother Jose Enrique bought a piece of jungle property at the south end of the beach at Chacala, a small fishing village of about 300 people overlooking a scenic bay about 60 miles north of Puerto Vallarta. Dr. Laura, as she is universally known in Chacala, studied medicine in Mexico City during the turbulent 1960s. She lived with a Japanese Zen master who took his students to the rural poor in the mountains of Oaxaca. Influenced by the social consciousness at the medical school, she took her skills into the Mexico City slums.

After buying the property, Dr. del Valle invited Mexican and U.S. medical students to Chacala to spend their summers in palapa huts — covered with hand-woven fan-palm leaves — on the beach and volunteer in local clinics. The experience taught the students how to record health histories in Spanish, exposed them to primitive medicine and gave Chacala residents much-needed health care.

Volunteering in luxury

The palapa huts have evolved into a luxurious hotel, spa and conference center. At Dr. del Valle’s Mar de Jade, Birkenstocks, yoga pants and New Age patter among aging U.S. baby boomers is the norm — as is the tradition of volunteering in the community.

Dr. del Valle said Mar de Jade has brought in “easily over 1,000 medical students,” hundreds of volunteer builders from U.S. Rotary clubs, as well as New Agers who want to practice yoga, lie on the beach, and make a social contribution on their vacation.

Mary Ann Day, a retired merchant seaman from Alaska’s ferry system, began visiting Chacala 17 years ago.

“I started volunteering here before Mar de Jade was a spa. I did translation for the medical students. Laura and Jose are just the best people. They inspired me to come here and help,” Miss Day said.

She bought a home and now spends her retirement working the Internet, soliciting donations and corralling Canadian and American tourists to paint, or work in the sparkling new book-and-tools lending library, built by Rotarians, or teach local youngsters how to use a computer or pick up trash.

Miss Day’s efforts have evolved into a $40,000-a-year scholarship program called Cambiando Vidas (Changing Lives), for the children of Chacala. It now has 29 children in junior high, high school and college, including four of the first college graduates in Chacala’s history.

Housing and income

With Dr. del Valle addressing medical needs at the Mar de Jade clinic in nearby Las Varas and Miss Day supporting education, Jose Enrique was interested in local housing issues. Many of Chacala’s 300 residents lived in log huts, with dirt floors and palm-frond roofs. Many still do.

“I did my thesis is engineering, social psychology and housing. We live in a country that has many problems in housing,” said Mr. del Valle, Techos founder and the proprietor of the upscale Majahua bed, breakfast and spa, next door to Mar de Jade, in the jungle above the beach.

In 1995, Mr. del Valle was introduced to Habitat for Humanity, the U.S. charity that organizes volunteers and builds homes for the poor. It seemed a natural for Chacala.

Mexicans value land and housing, and there is a long tradition of stocking bricks and mortar, rather than putting money in the bank. When enough raw material has accumulated, Mexicans gather friends and neighbors to “self-build” their homes, but for Techos de Mexico he made a major change.

“Habitat for Humanity does not allow their houses to be used for commercial purposes. I believe that a house can be used for business,” he said.

His idea was to use microloans to build small homes, plus two or three budget-style rooms that could be rented to tourists, giving the family a home, as well as an income.

“Many countries have bed and breakfasts. France, Italy — why not Mexico?” asked Mr. del Valle. He called a meeting to outline his idea, and 35 Chacala families attended.

Points to the poor

“We formed a committee and developed criteria. We visited each family. It was all open and transparent. Basically, the worse your house, the more points you got,” he said, in determining the building order.

If the applicant had a dirt floor, the family was awarded five points, a cement floor, three points, and a tile floor, zero points. If the dwelling had a rough-hewn log walls, five points, brick walls, three points, plaster walls, zero points, and so on.

The family’s social condition also was evaluated. A woman with an absent husband — perhaps seeking work in the United States — and two or three children younger than 11, or with disabilities, would earn high points.

Newlyweds living with their parents were awarded big points.

“But this is a fishing village. Even if you were living in a shack, if your family had three boats and 1,000-horsepower engines, this would bring your points down,” Mr. del Valle said.

The fact that U.S. tourists in Mar de Jade financed the $4,000 to $9,000 Techos loans scared some families from the program.

“Because Americans were putting up the money, many were afraid Americans would come down and take their homes, so only five of the original 35 stayed in,” said Mrs. Hernandez Blancarte, whose Casa Aurora was the third Techos built.

Another of the five was Concha Velazquez, who had three youngsters and a husband in the United States.

All Techos rooms are tiled.

“It is like a home-stay. We have become part of Concha’s family,” said Cheryl Watts, of Kalispell, Mont., who has been spending winters at Casa Concha for the past few years.

Booming B&Bs;

The del Valles recruited volunteer labor from their guest registries, and Techos bed-and- breakfasts began springing up. In all, seven were built, and other families who did not participate in the Techos program, simply copied the idea and built on their own. Now, nearly 20 B&Bs; operate in Chacala.

Lodging originally cost about $10 per night, but now runs $25 to $50 a night for the larger rooms with private bath, kitchen and a view of the bay. By contrast, rooms at Mar de Jade and Majahua start at $100 a night and go beyond $300 a night.

“We had to put in our own labor. But I was lucky. American plumbers and electricians were volunteering when my Techos was built,” said Mrs. Hernandez Blancarte. “If it weren’t for Techos, we’d still be living in that shack,” she said, pointing at the one-room log hut with a dirt floor and tin roof where she and her family once lived.

She said her three guest rooms are filled almost all year, many with long-term rentals. She has repaid the $7,000 loan used to build her house. Because she is considered good with money and scrupulously honest, Mrs. Hernandez Blancarte has been drafted to act as accountant and treasurer for several of Chacala’s civic organizations.

“Our guests come back every year. We now have to turn people away. Even in the rainy season, I am full. I had a good September this year because we had good surf,” she added.

With Chacala transformed into a growing tourist destination, Mr. del Valle is in discussions with several Mexican and U.S. universities, hoping one will adopt the Chacala model and use university resources and students to reproduce the Habitat for Humanity and B&B; hybrid throughout rural Mexico.

“I am 50 years old and exhausted,” said Mr. del Valle, sitting on his shaded terrace overlooking the Pacific. “I want a university to take this over. To take it further.

“To make this work, you need lawyers, architects, social workers, volunteers.”


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