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Paul Crist, owner of Hotel Mercurio and Mercurio Swimwear, has made Puerto Vallarta his home since June 2002, but he’s been visiting since 1993. Paul is a native of Washington D.C. in the United States, where he lived until moving to Vallarta.
O&APV asked him to reflect on Vallarta’s rich gay history, and the changes he’s seen over the past 20 years.
By Paul Crist
In 1993, there were three gay bars. It was a sleepy little town with a small-town gay vibe – if you looked for it! (I always knew how to find these things.) There were no publications to tell visitors where to find entertainment and community. You had to ask around if you were new in town.
I would say that the profile of gay visitors has evolved a lot since my early years here. I think that the gay men who visited in the 1990s and 2000s weren’t coming for big club nightlife and Instagramable points to take selfies. To be fair, selfies and Instagram didn’t exist then. But in US cities there was a huge club scene. In Washington DC and New York, I had been having fun in big nightclubs and bars since the late 1970s.
But the gay visitors to Vallarta were looking for a relaxing, quiet beach vacation. Nobody came to PV expecting or looking for a club scene like what exists now. The establishment of big clubs that really got going in the mid-2000s helped bring younger, and more party-oriented gay visitors. I would say that the change is that Vallarta now has something for everyone. Whether they’re looking for a quiet and relaxing time, or parties and strippers and drag shows every night, or great food and shopping the art galleries, or a vacation “romance” (how’s that for a euphemism?), Vallarta has it all.
Gay Culture in Vallarta Evolved
It was an evolution that picked up pace and still continues.
By the early 2000s, Paco Paco (now Paco’s Ranch) had become quite the club. They had moved a couple of times since my first visits in the early 1990s, and by the early 2000s had built a four-floor club on the site where CO-DE is now.
Then came other entrants into the bar and club scene. Paco’s survived, albeit with different owners and lot’s of changes and drama.
There was NYPV, there was Club Mañana, there were event organizers who came to capitalize on the growing party scene, with annual events like Latin Fever. And now we have party scene beach clubs like Mantamar, and world-class club and nightlife at places like Industry and La Noche and amazing cabaret and show venues like The Palm, Incanto, Catrina Cantina, Act2 and others. There will continue to be evolution, affected by many factors including the changing demographics and tastes of our own LGBTQ+ global community.
I love looking around at my adopted hometown and seeing so much more diversity in our community than I saw in the 1990s and early 2000s.
Mayor Arturo Davalos Acknowledges Gay Community
So, this is a rather personal story, but I think it says a lot about our impact on the local social and political landscape.
I’m sure I am not the only person in Vallarta who has known that we’ve had a few gay mayors over the years, but always deeply closeted.
My husband, born and raised in Vallarta and an attorney, had been the subdirector of Padron y Licencias – the business licensing and city permitting department – for three years in 2015. The post is a political position, appointed by the mayor.
In 2015, Arturo Davalos (Movement Ciudadano Party) was running to be mayor. And as he was (and is) a good friend, we did an event for him at my home. Not a fundraiser, it was an invitation only garden dinner party for business owners in the tourism sector to meet and get to know Arturo. (I reiterate, no funds went to the candidates). It was not a gay business owners event. Only a few gay business owners were in attendance.
At the last minute, I was asked to introduce Arturo (thank god I’m fluent enough in Spanish to speak impromptu in front of a crowd). So I introduced him and he took the podium. And immediately thanked me… AND MY HUSBAND… for the hosting event. He didn’t even blink. He said “Paul and his husband Luis.” In front of a heterosexual crowd of local business owners. I have never forgotten that moment. Arturo is not gay. But we finally had a mayoral candidate (and later, mayor for six years) who was completely unafraid to acknowledge our community and our relationships without skipping a beat. T
hat was a moment that surprised me, and although it happened in a private event with about 100 business leaders, it was important.
Mayor Davalos walked in every Gay Pride March during his tenure. He actively worked to promote LGBTQ+ recognition and supported our community. Prior mayors, some of them gay themselves, could never bring themselves to be so supportive. No mayoral administration now can afford to ignore us.
First Pride Events
I was involved in the planning of the first pride festival and march.
Of course, compared to the mammoth Pride March and Pride Week events of 2023, it was quite small. (yes, I prefer to call it a march, rather than a parade. There’s a qualitative difference and I believe we should be MARCHING.).
It was just a march and a party in Lázaro Cárdenas Park after. Businesses sponsored floats or decorated cars or trucks to participate. Maybe there were a dozen or so cars and floats.
We didn’t have much in the way of gay or LGBTQ+ groups… I think the Colectivo Gay might have participated and marched as a group. There was no organized Trans community. And even getting a gay business owners association organized was complicated and difficult (although it was a previous iteration of the current gay business association that pulled the event together originally).
Gay Bars an Important Part of Culture
Gay bars have always provided a place where members of our community could gather, feel camaraderie and fellowship without feeling stigma and fear. And of course, alcohol is the greatest social lubricant ever invented. Well, almost. There are poppers. (LOL!)
Living in Gay Vallarta
I live and socialize in a welcoming and accepting environment. My world is LGBTQ+ and many, many allies. I don’t have the time or the space for those who don’t have an open, accepting and loving way of being.
I have for 20 years been part of a very large and very Catholic family through my husband. They weren’t always so open and understanding, but they have adapted and expanded their understanding by finding that there are multiple family members who are LGBTQ+.
I think that this family that I became a part of is emblematic of what has happened in the larger society across the city. People get to know gay neighbors, gay family members, gay coworkers, and the ability to hate, judge, blame, and stigmatize us melts away over time.
I find that the haters are mostly hiding behind social media platforms where they can hurl insults and hatred with anonymity. I don’t know who they are and don’t care to know. But I do believe they’re unhappy and dangerous people who ought to be watched because words – even anonymous words on social media – have the power to motivate sick people to do heinous things.
Thankful for Those Who Came Before Us
I think that we owe a huge debt of gratitude to a few people who came before us. But two people in particular stand out, Paco Ruiz and David Lansley. Paco and David were the original owners of Paco Paco (now Paco’s Ranch).
They were the pioneers who built the foundations of what has become the most vibrant and popular gay destination in Latin America.
The club Paco Paco was just the lynchpin of what they built. They ran a gay hotel, Descanso del Sol. They had a gay nude beach south of Vallarta called Paco’s Paradise. For a short time, they had a small after-hours club.
But most important was that Paco was probably the first gay activist or business owner who stood up to corrupt and homophobic police and city officials. He was a force to be reckoned with. He often accompanied drag and trans people to the local jail when they were rounded up on invented (or planted) charges.
He simply said “NO!” when city officials tried to shake down his and other small gay owned businesses. For all they did, they both died in relative poverty and obscurity. There are many reasons for that and blame to go around. But they should be recognized for the tremendous contributions they made.