The stars dimmed over Puerto Vallarta last week as Vallarta’s best friend left earth.
Everyone who knew Maria O’Connor – and almost every expat in Puerto Vallarta did – became her friend. Compassionate, passionate, out-spoken and smart as hell, she was the one person everyone wanted to sit next to at dinner.
I met Maria 16 years ago when I needed a lawyer to handle a litigation matter. I walked into her office as a client and left as a friend. She had that effect on everyone and anyone she met.
Born and raised in Chicago as Mary Beth O’Connor, she graduated from the University of Illinois at Champaign/Urbana and then went to work at a Chicago law firm as a law clerk and paralegal and attended law school at night, graduating in 1990.
She told me, “I really hated Chicago weather, and as trite as it sounds, it was the impetus for my relocation to Puerto Vallarta.”
She loved Vallarta and Vallarta loved her back. The always inquisitive Maria was well-traveled but never gave a thought to living anywhere else.
“I tell people that there are beautiful places all over the world, but none more beautiful than Puerto Vallarta,” she said over a glass of wine at Daiquiri Dick’s on a perfect Vallarta moonlight-streaked evening.
Mary Beth O’Connor became Maria O’Connor who reveled in the rhythm of life in Puerto Vallarta. Her first years were spent doing a lot of different jobs, mostly connected with the local real estate industry. She had a natural affinity for languages and became fluent in Spanish through immersion, which she said is really the only way to truly learn a language. And did she immerse!
“I would go to nightclubs and just listen to people speak so my ear could get accustomed to the language,” she said. “I really knew I ‘got it’ when someone told a joke in Spanish at a nightclub and I laughed.”
She laughed a lot and had a great appetite for tasting wine, new foods, interesting new people and especially Vallarta life.
Maria lived in a three-walled casita high above the Cuale River with her dozen cats. The open-air casita suited her just fine with its view of the Bay of Banderas and the river. A film buff, she also like it because it was part of the house that film director John Huston rented when he filmed “Night of the Iguana” in the ‘60s.
She made a good living helping new expats become homeowners as a real estate attorney for Tropicasa Realty and other firms. But her love of food and wine led her in recent years to open a Spanish tapas restaurant in Zona Romantica, just a block from the pier on Playa Los Muertos. Her partners in Gernika Pintxos were seasoned chefs from the Basque country of Spain, a country she loved and visited often.
But perhaps Maria’s greatest legacy is the legions of friends she has left behind after 30 years of living an extraordinary life in Vallarta. Maria was just 56-years-old. Felice and I were so fortunate to know her and call her our friend. She was one for the ages.