Lisa Law Built a Museum in Mexico

Celebrated Santa Fe photog refers to Yelapa, Mexico, like a second home

In 1961, Santa Fe-based photographer Lisa Law set sail on a gaff-rigged schooner from San Francisco with a group of friends (and one lover) to see the world. During that trip, she would photograph much of what she saw, including the small fishing village of Yelapa, Cabo Corrientes, Jalisco, Mexico. By 1966, she was living there with her then-husband Tom Law and, since then, she's spent most of her Marches and Aprils returning to engage with locals, provide artistic and architectural design work, conduct small-scale first aid, show her photos and, most recently, help build a museum out of the rubble of unfulfilled construction promises. El Museo de Historia, Arte y Cultura de Yelapa is open now, and it's the first of its kind in the area.

Yelapa is a short boat ride south of Puerto Vallarta and home to only about 1,500 people. In recent years, Law says, the town's central plaza fell into disrepair. Local government tore down a school and an oft-used basketball court with promises to resurrect them alongside a new sheriff's office, jail and an otherwise revitalized area (though how a jail translates to "revitalized" is anyone's guess). Construction began on some of the buildings, but much of the proposed changes never reached completion. Three years ago, Law set out to change that.

"I go in, and there's this long room, it's cruddy, it's been there for six years deteriorating. And people are pooping there, young people are making love, there's trash everywhere," she says. "But every time I went, I would say 'the History Museum of Yelapa' to myself."

First steps included enlisting the help of Yelapa-based businesswoman Tatiana Rodriguez-Anderson, a restauranteur and swimsuit business owner who helped Law deepen already meaningful local connections and attract contractor Fernando Garcia to the project. Garcia, a local who built a hotel in the area in recent years, took hometown pride and a knack for creative building to heart, hiring crews to help clean, renovate and complete the building.

Next came acquiring permission from the local government and the cultural department in nearby El Tuito, which Law says oversees such matters. With the municipality onboard and the locals excited, she turned to a local principal known as Maestro Pedro, with whom she'd interview some 13 elders from the area to help in piecing together the village's history. Law would also travel from door to door, garnering local support and in search of loans and donations of artifacts for display. The locals, she says, were more than happy to send them with items for the space. Maestro Pedro passed away during the project's early days, unfortunately, but Law says she completed it in his honor.

Local artifacts included pottery, oars, beads, bowls, hatchets and more; all dedicated to the agricultural and fishing history of Yelapa, and all working to complement a displauy of over 100 photographs Law has taken of the village, its people and the surrounding area over the last 50-plus years, which are also on display.

With minimal donations, Law's small group and Garcia's crews would complete the museum in roughly five months—and all for $62,000. It was back-breaking labor, however, and Law estimates that she and the crews put in 10 hours a day, seven days a week. The completed space, two rooms in an L shape, consists of a main area for the permanent exhibit, and a community room where kids can experiment with arts of their own. Law says Rodriguez-Anderson hopes to hold space for struggling addicts to seek help, pregnant women to access resources, workshops and whatever else might serve Yelapa's populace. The crews also helped to complete the nearby plaza where, Law says, vendors can set up shop and tourists will almost certainly visit thanks to a budding relationship with Puerto Vallarta's tourist boating industry.

Law has since returned to Santa Fe, but plans to visit Yelapa yearly to continue her involvement with the museum. Rodriguez-Anderson, meanwhile, will oversee its day-to-day along with a couple of young women from the area who were hired to facilitate while learning the ropes of curation and museum management.

"I expect them to ask me for advice forever," Law says, noting that she's happy to give it. "All of a sudden, there's all this energy coming toward [the museum]. And it's not just the stuff, it's the relationship to the whole village. I didn't want to leave, but … they're learning how to do it; they're learning how important this little piece of land in the middle of the jungle really is."

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