The Power of Community
The Power of Community
By Christina Kastely
One of the things that I value most about working with the Vermilion Sea Institute (VSI) is getting to be a part of the relationship between the American people in VSI and the Mexican people in the town of Bahía de Los Angeles (Bahía). This relationship is built on shared values, long-lasting engagement, and trust. This is different from other ways I’ve seen Americans interacting with Mexicans. In the U.S., too many critical and demeaning things are said about our Mexican neighbors. We are told that Mexicans want to steal American jobs, or that they are all drug dealers and rapists, most famously from former President Trump. Although these insults have no basis in truth, they feed an attitude of bias against Mexican and Mexican American people. This bias results in mistreatment at a personal level in a variety of ways including disparaging comments all the way up to murderous hate crimes. And the mistreatment can occur within business relationships. Take, for example, the tourist industry in Los Cabos (between San Jose del Cabo and Cabo San Lucas in the southernmost tip of Baja California Sur). Much of the wealth generated by the tourist industry goes to foreign investors (1,2) , and is not shared with the local community but rather the local community is used as cheap labor (5) and the ecosystems are thoughtlessly depleted or destroyed (6).
The relationship between VSI and Bahía is different. VSI’s Executive Director, Meghann McDonald, grew up around Bahía as she accompanied her father, VSI’s founder Lane McDonald, on trips and classes he led to explore the Gulf of California. Lane made an effort to connect to the people of Bahía, and his daughter does as well. One of my favorite stories is of Meghann getting bored of playing with her younger brothers so she ditched them and started hanging out with some of her Bahía neighbors. Those relationships grew and continue today. Most students and VSI visitors know that Efren loves sharing the beautiful sights and animals of BDLA with visitors, but they may not realize that his friendship with Meghann was kindled over games of ochos locos and tag. By hiring local boat captains to work for the VSI community science vacation programs like Stars to Sea (S2S), VSI is inviting the Bahía community to participate in their tourist business endeavors, rather than competing with them for profit. VSI goes further by inviting local people to join the VSI crew on excursions, both scientific and educational. On my last S2S trip, we were joined by a woman from Bahía who was interested in learning to snorkel. This invitation to share VSI’s resources and knowledge with the community was formalized in VSI’s Adventeruros Program, in which Bahía kids work with VSI staff to gain the skills needed to learn about the bay and to explore how to balance human and ecosystem needs.
As inspired as I am by VSI’s work to foster good relationships, I am also inspired by the conservation values and the collaboration efforts made by the community of Bahía. I learned that whale shark conservation efforts in this area were initiated by a local group of tour operators after there was a proposal to set up a marina in Bahía (7). This local group worked with the Autonomous University of Baja California and the Reserve of the Island of the Gulf Coast to study whale shark natural history and develop a sustainable ecotourism industry. I’ve witnessed this community’s care and commitment to their ecosystem as the boat captains tell stories of the animals that visit the bay or as they stop to pick up trash floating around. I’ve always felt welcomed by the people of Bahía and I want to learn more from them about how they have approached caring for their town and their ecosystem. Now I admit that my Spanish is only so-so or as I say when asked if I speak Spanish — “más o menos” but I have always been rewarded when I’ve stepped outside of my comfort zone in Bahía and chatted with the patient and welcoming people of this strong community. I invite everyone to take a lesson from the VSI/Bahía relationship and go out of their comfort zone to explore the shared values and joys we have with the people who host us on our travels.
1. Gerber, J. (2007). A Comparative Analysis of Two Poles of Tourism Development: Loreto and Los Cabos. Loreto, 235.
2. Porter, M. E., & Ketelhöhn, N. Microeconomics of Competitiveness the Baja California Sus Tourism Cluster in Mexico.
3. Gámez, A., & Angeles, M. (2010). Borders within. Tourism growth, migration and regional polarization in Baja California Sur (Mexico). Journal of Borderlands Studies, 25(1), 1-18.
4. Alcérreca-Huerta, J. C., Montiel-Hernández, J. R., Callejas-Jiménez, M. E., Hernández-Avilés, D. A., Anfuso, G., & Silva, R. (2021). Vulnerability of Subaerial and Submarine Landscapes: The Sand Falls in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. Land, 10(1), 27.
5. Cárdenas-Torres, N., Enríquez-Andrade, R., & Rodríguez-Dowdell, N. (2007). Community-based management through ecotourism in Bahia de los Angeles, Mexico. Fisheries Research, 84(1), 114-118., 2007)