The Heart of the Matter: Ranchero Culture in Baja California Sur

The Heart of the Matter: Ranchero Culture in Baja California Sur

By Bryan Jáuregui, Todos Santos Eco Adventures

This article first appeared in Janice Kinne’s Journal del Pacfico.

It takes a fair degree of faith in the goodness of your fellow man to hitchhike… with a mule. But that is exactly what Trudi Angell and her daughter Olivia did as part of La Mula Mil, their 1,000 mile mule trip up the Baja Peninsula. One of their mules had taken a respite with friends along the way, and when it came time for him to rejoin the rest of the expedition – now many miles away – Trudi and Olivia just set out along the road with him. Women and mule were picked up by a rancher with a partially empty horse trailer in a matter of minutes, and safely delivered to their camp. Says Trudi, “This was indicative of the type of reception we got from ranch families throughout the entire expedition. They were above and beyond hospitable and helpful. Wonderful meals for us, care for the mules, information on trails – they were generous to a fault with all these things.”

Doña Luz and Don Cata

Fermín Reygadas, a professor of Alternative Tourism at the Autonomous University of Baja California Sur (UABCS) who has worked with Baja California  rancheros for over 30 years, is not at all surprised. “The Baja ranchero culture of hospitality is directly connected to the old Bedouin custom that demanded the utmost in hospitality, requiring you to give aid and succor to anyone who asked for it for at least 3 days, even if that someone was your mortal enemy. Of course, you were free to kill him after that, but for those 3 days he was an honored guest in your home.” Bedouins?

Fermín explains. “When Padre Kino first arrived with the Jesuits in Baja California in 1683, pirates were a menace to this new territory of Spain. Padre Kino sold the Spanish king on the idea of Jesuits settling the land and using their own money and means to keep it free of pirates. In return, the Jesuits would have the right to rule without interference from a Spanish-run civil government. The king agreed and the Jesuits set about recruiting soldiers that bore little resemblance to their European counterparts. They didn’t choose people based on their fighting or weaponry skills, but rather people who knew how to raise cattle and plant crops. They didn’t choose typical soldiers looking for new world get-rich-quick schemes, but people seeking a living from the land with a focus on family. The Jesuits chose people whom they considered honorable, trustworthy and capable to protect and settle Baja California Sur.” In short, they chose the people whose descendants make it possible for women to successfully hitchhike around the peninsula with a mule. We’re getting to the Bedouins.

Miguel Martinez. Photo by McKenzie Campbell, Living Roots

Fermín continued, “When the Jesuits arrived in Baja California the indigenous peoples here were hunter-gatherers, skills not suited to building a permanent society. So the Jesuits looked for people who had the ranching and farming skills that could support their missions. These people came from two main sources: 1) people from the agricultural province of Andalusia in Spain, which had been heavily settled by Moors, Arabs and Middle Easterners during the Moorish conquest of Spain in the 8th to 15th centuries, and 2) descendants of the Moors, Arabs and Jews who had been kicked out of Spain during the 15th century Christian reconquest of the country, and had settled in the new world. Not only did these “soldiers” carry the Bedouin tradition of hospitality and honor, they brought Middle Eastern foods to the Baja Peninsula that still flourish to this day including olives, grapes, lentils, date palms and alfalfa.” Teddi Montes, a member of La Mula Mil expedition, took DNA samples from rancheros throughout the trip and her preliminary results show that these middle eastern bloodlines are still found throughout the peninsula, i.e., the Bedouins – along with their hospitality – are alive and well in Baja California!

Ranchero Rule in BCS

The Jesuits ended up being entirely too successful for their own good with their BCS economic model, and they were unceremoniously kicked out of Baja in 1768. The king sent a new administrator who gave the Jesuit mission lands to the “soldiers” who had been working the land under the Jesuits. By this administrative fiat a whole new class of fairly egalitarian land ownership arrived in BCS, and a system of ranches owned and operated by people with excellent skills, a strong work ethic, and a tradition of honor flourished. This was in stark contrast to mainland Mexico, which was heavily settled by Spanish hidalgos, the 2nd, 3rd and 4th sons of wealthy marquis who could not inherit the ancestral lands back home, but who could help themselves to substantial holdings in the new world. “Work ethic” was not a phrase commonly used when speaking of the privileged hidalgos.

By the late 1800s the Baja economy had become centered around mining, with major gold, silver and copper mines flourishing in towns like Santa Rosalia

Chema. Photo by McKenzie Campbell, Living Roots

and El Triunfo. As mining prospered, so did the ranches that supplied them with food, leather goods, horses, mules, and coffee. Mainland Mexico, focused on its own affairs – including wars with the US and France – paid very little attention to Baja for the next 100 years. The result was that the BCS character cultivated by the Jesuits and strengthened by land ownership was left intact, and continued to develop almost completely independently of the rest of Mexico. While mainland Mexico society became highly stratified, Baja California remained a much more egalitarian, independent-minded place, with ranchero families a key and integral part of the peninsula’s economy.

Then mining collapsed in the 1950s, and the ranchero economy went into a tailspin. But the deathblow really came in 1975 when the Mexican government opened its previously closed economy to the outside world. Two territories were declared free ports open to foreign trade: Quintana Roo and BCS. Almost overnight the market for ranch meats, cheeses and leather goods dried up; imported goods could be bought more cheaply and easily in the cities.  Ranchero culture was in peril, and made all the more precarious by a school system that requires ranch children to leave home for 9 years and live in boarding houses in towns like Todos Santos, where they steadily lose touch with their culture. As Fermín says, “They watch a lot of TV in the boarding houses, and if their culture doesn’t appear on TV, then they assume it’s not important.” Fermín, Trudi, Olivia and others are trying very hard to change that perception.

Living Roots

In 2008 a documentary titled Corazon Vaquero – Heart of the Cowboy – won the Paso Robles Film Festival California Roots award. Created by Garry and Cody McClintock and Eve Ewing with Trudi, Fermín and others to showcase the beauty of BCS ranchero culture, the film is centered largely around a family at Rancho San Gregorio in the Sierra de la Giganta above Loreto. In the spring of 2008 a young NOLS instructor named McKenzie Campbell found herself at that same ranch. “I learned how to do leatherwork, make cheese, all kinds of things. I was completely enamored. I then did a week-long scouting trip through the Sierra de la Giganta walking ranch to ranch, and I was completely blown away by the hospitality of the people and their values. They are focused on family, their land and working hard for themselves. They don’t need a lot to be happy. They inspired me to go back to school to get the tools to aid them in the transition to the modern world, to participate in the larger market around them.”

Carlos Ignacio (Nacho) Chiapa with La Mula Mil in Todos Santos

Two years and one MBA later, McKenzie returned to BCS and founded Living Roots, a non-profit with the mission of “Helping an endangered culture adapt and thrive in the modern world.” Focusing on San Javier, the site of one of the Jesuits’ very first missions in BCS, McKenzie set about walking the delicate line between protecting ranchero values and traditions, while connecting ranchero families directly to the marketplace. “They grasped immediately that they had a brand-able concept, but they didn’t see that some of their every day items like ropes and jackets had market value, and we were able to help them see and capture some of that value.” In 2013 Living Roots helped the rancheros establish a cultural center in San Javier that connects them directly with their public. Not only does this place serve as a market for ranch products, but it’s now the base station for many young rancheros who are being trained as guides in order to lead interpretive hikes around the area.  In 2014 Living Roots and its ranchero partners also started a farmer’s and artisan’s market in Loreto that sells organic produce, fish and handicrafts. Says McKenzie, “The US and Canadian communities who live in Loreto are hungry for local produce so it’s been quite successful. It is wonderful to see it all progressing so well.”

McKenzie’s next goal for Living Roots is to start a school for young rancheros aged 15-25 where they can learn the old technologies and merge them with the new. Courses are already underway in some schools, with living legends like Dario Higuera, featured prominently in Corazon Vaquero, teaching traditional leatherwork to kids in the local schools. The most popular items to make are wallets and cell phone covers.

Into the Future

35 year-old Rogelio Rosas knows the value of learning traditional skills from his ranching elders. As a child he lived with his grandparents on the family ranch in San Dionisio in the Sierra de la Laguna mountains. Every day he would work alongside his grandfather, learning how to identify and use the 80 edible wild

Don Claudio teaching leatherwork. Photo by Eduardo Boné

plants that grow in BCS, including those with medicinal properties. By the time he was 10 he was helping his grandfather deliver babies and heal the sick throughout the area. When his grandfather died at the age of 116 (leaving 35 children fathered with 5 wives) Rogelio felt compelled to enroll at a seminary in Tijuana.  But he didn’t find the answers he expected there, so he joined up with some missionaries and spent the next 6 years traveling throughout Baja, using the healing arts learned from his grandfather to help children around the peninsula.

Rogelio found this work rewarding, but he still wasn’t finding the answers he was seeking. So at the age of 28 he moved to La Paz to study philosophy at UABCS, the first member of his family to attend college. While there, he met McKenzie and Fermín who were in the alternative tourism arena, so he added tourism to his list of degrees. By this time Rogelio’s parents, the now-legendary Don Catarino and Doña Luz, had been living at the family ranch for many years, making a very nice living with their organic produce, leather work and other traditional skills. When Doña Luz suffered a snake bite that paralyzed half her body, Rogelio returned to the ranch where he had grown up to help her. By the time he graduated with his double degree from UABCS, he could have joined the majority of his ranching peers and gone off to seek employment in a shinier part of the economy. But he found the pull of the ranch impossible to resist, and is now working with his parents to develop their ranch as a tourist destination where visitors can learn about traditional crafts like leatherworking and cheese-making, hike to see waterfalls and rock art, learn about traditional medicinal herbs, make tortillas from scratch, and enjoy the

Don Claudio and Rogelio

history and culture of the area. This is the future that he sees that will sustain not only his family’s ranch, but those of other families throughout the region.

But like Fermín, Trudi and McKenzie, Rogelio’s real passion is to preserve the heart and soul of ranchero culture.  To that end he has created a document that sets forth the principals and values of ranchero life. Working with seven other sons of ranchers who, like him, left home for a while but then returned, he is in the process of creating an association that will keep the rancheros of the Sierra de la Laguna mountains united and focused, adapting to a changing world economy as necessary to thrive, but doing so while maintaining the values and ethics of their forebears, handpicked by the Jesuits. The goal is to remain true to their Bedouin roots. You can count on their hospitality.

The Octopus’s Garden

The Octopus’s Garden

by Bryan Jáuregui, Todos Santos Eco Adventures

This article was originally published in Janice Kinne’s Journal del Pacifico

There was a thief in the aquarium and no one knew what to do. The institution had just recently purchased 10 Australian Pineapplefish at a price per head

jdp-octopus-5-lo-res

California Two-Spot Octopus, The Pacific Ocean. Photo by Kaia Thomson

that brought tears to the financial officer’s eyes, and now these expensive beauties were
disappearing – eerily, quietly, and exactly one fish per night. Management’s initial hypothesis was that night-time employees were seeking to boost their fortunes by selling the fish on the black market, so they set up monitoring stations at employee exits to inspect bags and purses. No pilfered fish were found, and they kept disappearing, one fish each evening. Puzzled, and anxious to protect what remained of their investment, aquarium officials finally decided to set up a camera monitoring system at the Pineapplefish tank to try and catch the thief in the act. Turns out, it was the perfect inside job.

Three tanks away the giant Pacific octopus planned and executed the crime. He figured out how to undo the lock on his tank, walk past the (obviously less delectable) Barrier Reef Anemonefish and Bicolor Parrotfish, open the tank of the Australian Pineapplefish, and leisurely enjoy his midnight snack. He then carefully replaced the top of the Pineapplefish tank, walked back to his own tank, and put the lid back in place.

An Octopus planning? Picking a lock? Walking? The aquarium theft story is one that is widely told in marine science circles, although no one seems to remember the name of the aquarium or exactly when it happened. Even Snopes.com is not entirely sure. Yet the story has such wide currency as those who study and work with octopuses (yes, it is “octopuses” as the greek-derived word octopus will not suffer a latin ending like “I”) know an octopus could easily plan and execute such a caper. In fact, the remarkable intelligence of octopuses, coupled with their other-worldly, alien-seeming bodies, has given rise to a spate of books in recent years that explore and celebrate these amazing creatures. In Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea and the Deep Origins of Consciousness, Peter Godfrey-Smith talks about engaging with octopuses as “probably the closest we will come to meeting an intelligent alien.” In The Soul of an Octopus Sy Montgomery tells wonderful stories about the octopus friends she made at the New England Aquarium, their personalities and their sophisticated cognitive skills of being able to imagine what is in another creature’s mind. And in Octopus! The Most Mysterious Creature in the Sea, Harmon Courage discusses how “the big-brained cephalopod can navigate through mazes, solve problems and remember solutions, and take things apart for fun.”

Mirror Minds

Octopuses and humans last shared a common ancestor (a wormlike critter) about half a billion years ago, so minds of the two groups developed into complex, sentient entities completely separately. As did their bodies, which seem to be almost the inverse of each other. Octopuses can shape-shift through cracks no larger than their eyes. Humans lack such fluidity. Vertebrates are structured around a central nervous system centered in the head, while the brains of an octopus – whose neuron numbers are comparable to those of mammals – are distributed, with two-thirds in their 8 arms and only one third in their heads. This means that the arms can engage in independent problem-solving behavior, like how to open the tank of the Australian Pineapplefish, while the owner can be checking to see if there is a similarly worthy object of its attention in another tank. As Godfrey-Smith notes, “An octopus is so suffused with its nervous system that is has no clear brain-body boundary.” Imagine.

And that’s just for starters. Vertebrates have just one heart, while octopuses have three.  Two of the hearts are engaged solely in the task of moving blood beyond the gills, while the third heart is tasked with keeping circulation flowing for the organs. When an octopus swims, the organ heart actually stops beating, which explains why in many cases an octopus would rather walk, or crawl, than swim, as swimming is exhausting for them. And walking does come in handy when getting out of the water for an aquarium hunting expedition.

jdp-octopus-1-lo-res

Common Octopus Juvenile, Sea of Cortez. Photo by Kaia Thomson

But perhaps of all the cool things that an octopus’s brain/body can do, the most amazing is its ability to disguise itself by almost instantaneously changing not only the color and pattern of its skin, but the very texture of its skin to everything from small bumps to tall spikes to match its surroundings such that even the most determined and observant predator or prey cannot distinguish it from nearby coral, algae-covered rocks, kelp fronds or the sandy seabed. And color also denotes mood. As Sy Montgomery wrote upon meeting an octopus named Athena, “As I stroke her with my fingertips, her skin goes white beneath my touch. Later, I learn this is the color of a relaxed octopus.” Alternatively, “An agitated giant Pacific octopus turns red, its skin gets pimply, and it erects two papillae over the eyes, which some divers say look like horns.”

It is tempting to chalk up the body-changing abilities of an octopus to instinct alone, but Dr. Jennifer Mather, a comparative psychologist who studies octopuses, has found that octopuses use specific disguises for specific species in specific conditions – both offensive and defensive. That is, it is another sign of the octopus’s intelligence. Dr. Mather believes that the octopus’s loss of the ancestral shell is what lead it to develop this intelligence. Being shell-free allows the octopus to be an active predator like a lion, rather than a passive muncher like a clam. But the dozens of different prey species that it hunts require different hunting strategies, just as different strategies are required for defending itself against different predators.  Dr. Mather has documented that octopuses will often use what is called the Passing Cloud display – flashing pulses of color that move across the octopus like passing clouds – to startle an immobile crab (one of its favorite foods) into moving and give itself away. To catch shrimp, octopuses have been seen to compress themselves, creep up to the shrimp, extend an arm up and over the shrimp, then touch it – an act which scares the shrimp right into the mouth of the octopus.

Common Octopus, The Pacific Ocean. Photo by Kaia Thomson

On the other side of the equation, if an octopus is being hunted by a hungry fish it might rapidly change color, pattern and shape; fish have strong visual memories for certain images, and if an octopus is rapidly changing from light to dark, from spots to stripes, the fish can’t place it and moves on to something it can identify to eat. But if that psychedelic display is not enough, octopuses have many more tricks in their bag – including the ability of some species to deploy a pseudomorph, a life-size self-portrait made from a cloud of ink and mucus. This essentially freaks out and disorients the predator, allowing the octopus to get away. It seems that octopuses actually enjoy messing with the (lesser) minds of would-be predators. The mimic octopus, rather than making itself look like something passive such as coral or rock to avoid detection, transforms itself to look and act like venomous creatures such as jellyfish, sea snakes and spiky lionfish to send its would-be predator running the other way.

Octopuses also employ tools for defense. Researchers in Indonesia have documented octopuses lugging half coconut shells across the ocean floor, assembling them into spheres, and climbing inside for protection. An octopus at the Middlebury octopus lab found that a sea urchin was hanging around too close to its den so she ventured out, found a piece of flat slate, and erected it in front of her den like a shield.

As Sy Montgomery notes, “…of all the creatures on the planet who imagine what is in another creature’s mind, the one that must do so best might well be the octopus – because without this ability, the octopus could not perpetrate its many self-preserving deceptions. An octopus must convince many species of predators and prey that it is really something else….(then) assess whether the other animal believes its ruse or not, and if not, try something different. “Writes Godfrey-Smith, “When surviving requires decision-making, brains have developed awareness. Sentience,” he notes, “has some point to it.”

Love and Friendship

jdp-octopus-4-lo-res

Common Octopus. The Pacific Ocean. Photo by Kaia Thomson

Montgomery, Godrey-Smith and numerous others have documented that octopuses can readily distinguish different people, even if they are wearing identical uniforms, and that they have very particular feelings about those different people. With people that they like, they will touch them, hold their hands and arms, give them gentle squeezes, and allow themselves to be stroked. They are friendly and engaged and will readily come to the surface of their tank for interaction. People that they don’t like may be subjected to rude squirts of water and – if the visitor is too close – even a bite. But what about with each other? Every Valentine’s Day the Seattle Aquarium hosts the Octopus Blind Date, in which the partition between the tanks of a male and female giant Pacific octopus is lifted and nature is allowed to take its course – six hearts beating as three might be the romantic view. But in 2016 the blind date was cancelled due to fears that the 70-pound male, Kong, would simply find his 35-pound date a tasty snack, a decidedly unromantic outcome. While it was a loss for Seattle’s octopus sex voyeurs, it was a new lease on life for Kong. Mating, while ensuring the survival of the species, is a death knell for male octopuses, who die shortly thereafter. This close link between sex and death might account for some octopuses rather hands-off approach to sex – literally. The males and females of the Algae octopus will find houses next to one another so that the male only has to reach his hectocotylus (sex arm) out his front door and into her’s to get the job done. The Argonaut octopus doesn’t even get that intimate. Males simply detach their hectocotylus and send it off to mate with a passing female.

Female octopuses can lay up to 400,000 eggs, which they attach to the ceiling of their dwelling and lay in long strings like translucent ropes of pearls. They guard and tend their eggs diligently until they hatch. Sy Montgomery reports how her octopus friend Octavia in the New England Aquarium wove her egg chains and tended them with meaningful rituals, even though there was no male to fertilize them. Of course the eggs never hatched and Octavia succumbed to death a few months later, as do all female octopuses once their reproductive cycle is over.

The Octopus’s Garden

Octopuses are the blue bloods of the marine world. Truly. Octopuses evolved a copper rather than an iron-based blood, and it’s the copper that turns their blood blue. Copper is more efficient at transporting oxygen than hemoglobin in deep ocean environments, where water temperatures are low and there is not much oxygen. But this system also means that octopuses are very sensitive to changes in acidity, and when the ocean’s pH gets too low, octopuses can’t circulate enough oxygen. There is therefore a great deal of concern in the scientific community about what will happen to octopuses with the increasing ocean acidification being brought about by climate change.

Octopuses have existed on the earth for at least 296 million years, the age of the oldest known octopus fossil.  That’s over a thousand times longer than humans. “The sea is the original birth place of the mind. When you dive into the sea, you are diving in to the origin of us all’” writes Godfrey-Smith. It is perhaps for this reason that Godfrey-Smith dedicates his book to “all those who work to protect the oceans.” As Carl Safina notes, “As we change the world, let’s bear this in our minds: Other minds are living their own lives here with us on earth.”

In Baja California Sur our two oceans, the Pacific and the Sea of Cortez, are filled with many of the 300 species of octopus that inhabit the world, and it is possible to visit many octopus gardens and match wits with these amazing creatures when snorkeling and diving. Jacques Cousteau, who called the Sea of Cortez the Aquarium of the World, tells a charming story in his 1973 book Octopus and Squid: The Soft Intelligence. “Our friend Gilpatric … brought an octopus home and put it in an aquarium, which he then covered with a heavy lid. A short time later, the aquarium was empty, and Gilpatric found the octopus going through his library, book by book, turning the pages with its arms.” And that’s a true octopus story.

© Copyright Sergio and Bryan Jauregui, Casa Payaso S de RL de CV, 2017

El Pardito: A Fishing Family’s Conservation Transformation

El Pardito: A Fishing Family’s Conservation Transformation

by Bryan Jauregui, Todos Santos Eco Adventures. This article was originally published in Janice Kinne’s Journal del Pacifico

It was the days of the Mexican revolution and Juan Cuevas had had enough. La Paz had grown too big and too political for his tastes so he set out to find someplace with no government and no people. A Sea of Cortez fisherman by trade, Juan tried living on the beautiful and unpopulated islands of San Jose and San Francisco; these experiences prompted him to add no mosquitos and no noseeums to his list of requirements. After years of defining his search by what he didn’t want, in 1923 he finally found what he did: El Pardito, a 2.5 acre rock in the Sea of Cortez, 45 miles north of La Paz. There were no structures, no gardens, no electricity, no people, no government, no mosquitos. It was just a rock, and Juan was thrilled. He brought his wife Paula out to El Pardito and in short order they built a wooden house, brought in chickens and pigs and produced 9 children. From that day to this, a Juan Cuevas has lived, worked and loved on El Pardito. 

El Pardito. Photo by Carlos Gajon

When Juan found his dream location it was still almost two decades before Jacques Cousteau would declare the Sea of Cortez the Aquarium of World due to its great abundance of marine life. A fisherman living on a rock in the midst of such bounty smacked of genius, and Jacques Cousteau himself once paid Juan a visit on his rock. “Most fishing communities in the days of the original Juan focused on shark fishing as shark livers were the main source of Vitamin B around the world until other sources emerged during World War II. Demand was huge and the original Juan was a big part of this trade” notes Amy Hudson Weaver, a marine biologist with the conservation group Niparajá who lived on El Pardito for 8 months in 1995-1996 and continues to work closely with the family. “Juan was so successful that he was able to build a large house for the family on the Malecon in La Paz so they would have a place to stay during their periodic trips to the city.” 

Wealth was not all that the Cuevas family accumulated. Notes Amy, “To successfully hunt sharks you have to know a tremendous amount about them. For example, you have to know when they are pupping so you don’t accidentally interfere with reproduction. That knowledge was handed down among the generations in the Cuevas family, and many shark biologists spend time at El Pardito because the family’s knowledge of sharks is so deep.” 

Sharks are just one of myriad species for which the Cuevas family has profound knowledge. Don Croll, the former director of the School for Field Studies and current professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz, has been going to El Pardito for 30 years, and has known the current Juan Cuevas, the 40-year old great great grandson of the original since he was 10 years old. “Juan and his brother Felipe didn’t have much formal education on El Pardito, but their knowledge is astounding. Lots of people can identify a turtle or fish species when they’re holding it in their hands, but Juan and Felipe can identify a species from the boat from really far away, and I rely on them for this. Their marine life capture skills are equally remarkable. When the Monterrey Bay Aquarium needed someone to help them live capture manta rays for their Sea of Cortez display, I didn’t hesitate to recommend Juan and Felipe.” 

Luli Martinez with Juan and Felipe Cuevas. Photo by Luli Martinez

By the time Don’s doctoral student, Luli Martinez, started field work for her Ph.D. on El Pardito in 2014, the great abundance of the Sea of Cortez was a thing of the past. Notes Luli, “The 1970s to 1990s saw the highest use of resources, and sea turtle, shark and other marine life populations began collapsing. When I first started hiring Juan and Felipe to assist me with my conservation research, they were very passionate about marine species but conservation was not where their hearts were at. Then something happened that really changed their perspective. They were helping Don research a manta ray nursery in the mangroves of Isla San Jose when they discovered a population of hawksbill turtles. The Eastern Pacific population of hawksbills is the most endangered hawksbill population in the world, so this was really an important discovery. Hawksbills are not killed for their meat – they’re really not that tasty – but rather for their shells, which are used to make jewelry, and their skin, which is used to make leather goods. In the course of our research on this population Juan and Felipe really took note of the individual turtles, naming them and getting inside their personalities. They developed a sense of belonging to the hawksbill turtles. Now they are not just working for me for a paycheck, we are a team together. They now physically protect the estuary and mangroves of Isla San Jose. They quit fishing in the estuary to recover the population of commercial fish species, and they are proud because the fishing ban protects the turtles too.”

Juan Cuevas tagging and releasing a Hawksbill turtle. Photo by Luli Martinez

Says Juan, “All of us on El Pardito used to be the enemies of conservation.  But now years of working with Don, Amy, and Luli has really changed our perspective. We no longer have the luxury of the previous generations of fishermen to catch everything without a thought. We now need to give back to the ocean. We don’t use nets anymore and we’re trying to spread artisanal, hook and line fishing throughout the community. Change requires a lot of patience, diligence and effort, and we’re committed to that. Now 70% of our income comes from conservation work and only 30% from fishing.” Now, rather than catching and killing sharks for the market as the original Juan did, Juan and Felipe use their deep knowledge of sharks and mad freediving skills to tag sharks for researchers like Dr. James Ketchum of Pelagios Kakunjá who is working to protect and recover shark species in the Sea of Cortez. 

Estuary of Isla San Jose. Photo by Miguel Angel Aguilar Juarez of Rutafilms

Stephanie Rousso, a marine ecologist who works with Juan and Felipe notes just how far the El Pardito community has come in its relationship to the sea. “El Pardito forms part of the first ever multi-species Fisheries Improvement Project (FIP) initiated by Niparajá and ProNatura to create a system of fish refuge zones for monitoring improvements in fish populations. This FIP was started in 2017 to monitor 33 main species. Participating fishers harvest these species using the more traditional, more sustainable method of hook and line. It is wonderful to see the current generation of fishers in their 30s to 40’s working to replenish the fish stocks and help revive populations overfished by previous generations.” 

Says Luli, “The success of my hawksbill project is due to the El Pardito community. When I’m invited to give talks in Mexico City by groups like the WWF I take Juan and Felipe with me, and of course the audience loves them much more than me! They are now so well respected by other conservation researchers and they are increasingly in demand.” 

Juan and Felipe Cuevas speaking at a WWF event in Mexico City with Luli Martinez.
Photo by Alianza WWF Fundación Telmex Telcel 

“In demand” seems to be a theme for the Cuevas family. The original Juan might have wanted to get away from crowds, but it seems he was still a social guy. Family lore posits that he had several “wives” in different ports, all of whom produced a good number of offspring. He also developed a strong connection with the community of Las Animas in the mountains of Baja Sur. Amy shares some of the family history she picked up during her 8 months of living on El Pardito. “The Cuevas family needed these large steel hooks for hunting sharks, so they would trade shark, fish and turtle meat with the blacksmith artisans of Las Animas who produced them. When the Las Animas guys were ready to trade, they’d go to the beach closest to El Pardito, light a bonfire to signal the family, then the whole community would sail over. Great parties would ensue on the beach, and this is how El Partido got not only steel hooks, but fresh fruit, vegetables and meats. The ranches in the Sierras were also where the younger generations of Cuevas men would go to find wives. They would sail across to the mainland from El Pardito, hike into the Sierras, then stay for a couple of weeks on the ranches while they courted their sweethearts. This was a very successful strategy.”

El Pardito. Photo by Miguel Angel Aguilar Juarez of Rutafilms

Living on a small rock with the Cuevas family might not seem compelling to all but it appears to be irresistable to most who get the opportunity. Recalls Don, “An American couple, Jaime and Heidi Schultz, were boating near El Pardito in 1976 when they got into trouble. The Cuevas family rescued them and sheltered them on the island. The Schultz’s loved the family and El Pardito so much that they built their own house on the island, and would come down for extended periods every year.” Don, Amy and Luli all understand the pull.  “The Cuevas family is my family. My kids have grown up with their kids,” says Don who still brings groups of students to the island every year. “Juan and Felipe are like my brothers” says Luli. “They are my family.” Amy is all in too. “El Pardito is one of my favorite places in the world. I love this family.” 

Juan is open to seeing you too. “We are available to anyone who wants to know how to survive in the world. Today so many people live in their phones, not in the world. We have a lot of things to teach people about how to survive outside a city, so please leave your phone at home and come visit us.” The original crowd-shunning, people-embracing Juan couldn’t have issued a better invitation himself. 

New Whale Species Discovered in Baja Waters (Probably)

New Whale Species Discovered in Baja Waters (Probably)

The global pandemic achieved something that no political movement, no world religion and no pharmaceutical product has ever achieved before: global agreement from the people of all nations, all regions and all walks of life on a single, inherent truth. The year 2020 sucked. 

And yet.

There were still moments of joy and revelation, and few can match those experienced by Gustavo Cárdenas Hinojosa, a native of the Baja California Sur town of Constitución and a graduate of the Autonomous University of Baja California Sur (UABCS) in La Paz, one of the best marine sciences schools in Mexico. “My master’s degree at UABCS was on the habitat of beaked, or toothed, whales in the La Paz-Los Cabos region. This is not as easy as it sounds. While 23 species of beaked whales have been documented, they are quite rare to see and we still know very little about them. Unlike the gregarious gray and humpback whales who love to come in close to shore in Baja and spend a lot of time at the surface, beaked whales tend to live really far offshore, in very deep waters, and spend about 90% of their time foraging underwater. When they are on the surface it’s only for a few minutes. All this combines to make them extremely difficult to study.” 

The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society’s vessel the Martin Sheen
Photo by Simon Ager of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society

In fact, the only reason scientists know about one species of beaked whale, Perrin’s beaked whale or Mesoplodon perrinni, is that several dead ones washed up on a beach in the US state of California. They were initially identified as Hector’s beaked whales or Mesoplodon hectori, and only genetic testing proved that they were an entirely new species previously unknown to man. They had never been seen in the wild. They had never been definitively heard either. One of the defining characteristics of beaked whales is that they communicate and hunt via echolocation clicks that are above the frequency of human hearing, and Perrin’s beaked whales are thought to produce a species-specific FM echolocation pulse of BW43. In 2013 BW43 pulses were recorded off the coast of Southern California, but in 2018 Gustavo’s colleagues recorded BW43 pulses from the US-Mexico border south to the mid part of the Baja Peninsula. They had no DNA or visual proof, but they thought this area might overlap with the limited geographic range of Perrin’s beaked whale. Had they stumbled upon the Mesoplodon perrinni in the wilds of Baja’s waters?

Mysterious Beaked Whale
Photo by Simon Ager of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society

Upon graduation from UABCS Gustavo started working with the Marine Mammal Research Group of the National Institute of Ecology, which became part of CONANP in 2018. He also began work on his Ph.D. at the Centro de Investigación Científica y de Educación Superior, CICESE. Through his work he connected with the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (SSCS), which has been working for the last several years to protect the critically endangered vaquita porpoise in the upper Gulf of California. In October 2020 Gustavo and his colleagues engineered a 5-year agreement between CONANP and SSCS in which SSCS would provide boat time, equipment and scientific manpower to help CONANP monitor whales in Mexico’s natural protected areas. They did two expeditions to Guadalupe Island to study Cuvier’s beaked whales, then in November 2020 started their third voyage as a team aboard Sea Shepherd’s vessel the Martin Sheen. Their goal was to see if they could finally get a visual and/or acoustic match for those BW43 signals recorded in 2018 to determine if they really did belong to Perrin’s beaked whales. 

Gustavo pulling in weighted line with microphone and recorder.
Photo courtesy of Sea Shepherd/CONANP.

“It was 6:15 AM on November 17, the third day of the expedition, and we were about 100 miles north of the San Benito islands off the coast of Baja when we started seeing marine mammals close to the boat” recalls Gustavo. “It was three individuals and because of their size and their apparent ease at being around the ship, at first we thought they were dolphins. But we started taking photos and deployed a specialized underwater microphone to record their acoustic signals.  It was then that we realized that they were beaked whales and it was really amazing because beaked whales almost never come close to ships, and these guys were actually investigating the boat with a great deal of curiosity. It was just incredible.” 

Beaked Whales Near the Martin Sheen
Photo courtesy of Sea Shepherd/CONANP

More incredible than he could have imagined in fact. “Of course, we all thought that we’d finally found the elusive Perrin’s beaked whale which was amazing enough as one has never been spotted alive. But then we started analyzing the photos and realized that the morphology of these whales was quite different from that of the Perrin’s. One of the beaked whales that we saw was a male, which means that it had teeth in the lower jaw that we could compare to other species. And its teeth were in an entirely different location from those of the Perrin’s. The Perrin’s beaked whale has teeth right at the end of its jaw, while this whale had teeth much further back. Moreover, the acoustic signal we recorded is not BW43. In fact, it is not a sound previously known to science. Add in the fact that there were differences in skin color and size and we realized that not only were these whales not Perrin’s, they were most likely an entirely new species!” 

Gustovo and the science team carefully storing the cable and removing the recorder from the array
Photo courtesy of Sea Shepherd/CONANP

“We didn’t see any other beaked whales for the remaining two weeks of that expedition” continues Gustavo, “but we did take water samples from the area where we saw the whales and our hope is that there will be some genetic material like sloughed skin that will allow us to analyze the whale’s DNA to determine if they are definitely a new species. But we feel pretty confident that it is.”  

So for Gustavo Cárdenas Hinojosa 2020 was definitely a banner year. Not only did he discover a potentially new whale species, he successfully defended his Ph.D. thesis less than a month later and is now, according to the Sea Shepherd web site, “renowned beaked whale researcher, Dr. Gustavo Cárdenas Hinojosa.” But it was still 2020 after all and the genetic testing lab at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA)  – which also had a scientist on the expedition – was closed due to the global pandemic. So Gustavo and his colleagues are just having to cool their heels until the pandemic releases its grip long enough to allow the lab to reopen and test the water samples to see if they have really discovered a new species. When will that be? It’s anybody’s guess, but the potential discovery of Gustavo and his team has given a weary world a happy reminder that the earth still has joyful mysteries to share, that local boys from small towns can still make huge contributions to science, and that in Baja, right when we need them the most, the whales can still be relied upon to appear to fill us with wonder and inspire us with their 50 million years of sustainably inhabiting the earth. It’s almost enough to make you consider 2020 in a new light. Almost. 

Gustavo looking for beaked whales on the Martin Sheen
Photo courtesy of Sea Shepherd/CONANP
The Geography of Hope: Jesuits, Indians and El Camino Real in Baja California Sur

The Geography of Hope: Jesuits, Indians and El Camino Real in Baja California Sur

by Bryan Jáuregui, Todos Santos Eco Adventures

In the 17th and 18th centuries the Jesuits were on a global roll. In China, the emperor prized them for their knowledge of astronomy, western science and mathematics; the Jesuits were trusted advisors to the court. In France, Spain and Germany the kings prized them for their supreme education and administrative acuity; the Jesuits monopolized the role of royal confessor. In Baja California Sur (BCS), the native Pericue and Guaycura Indians couldn’t quite figure out what to prize the padres for. Often, it was mutual.

Spain’s Ambitions and the Jesuit Theocracy

The Jesuits who established the first successful mission in Baja California in Loreto in 1697 were the latest in a long line of Europeans who had attempted to subdue and convert the peoples of the land they called California for the Spanish crown, starting with Hernan Cortez in 1535. Why such great effort with respect to Baja? The modern Jesuit historian Ernest J. Burrus puts it this way, “The extraordinary interest derived not so much from what Baja California was – an extensive and unproductive peninsula, almost completely uninhabited and uninhabitable – as for what it was believed to be – a land rich in pearls and precious metals, bordering on the straights of Anian…linking the Atlantic with the Pacific, shortening by thousands of miles the distance between Europe and the New World as well as the Far East.”

The Anian Straits were, it turns out, a mythical boundary between North America and Asia, and Baja was a peninsula, not an island as cartographers of the day held. But Spain’s interests were quite real, and one of the crown’s key drivers with respect to Baja was the desire to protect its Manila Galleon, a trading ship that traveled between Acapulco and the Philippines, bringing luxury goods from China and other parts of the East to Spain. The galleons were threatened by English and Dutch ships that were plying the waters of the Baja peninsula, using the harbors and bays of the southern tip of the peninsula as a base from which to plunder the Spanish ships as they attempted to transverse the Pacific. Moreover, the return voyage from Manila to Acapulco took 6 to 7 months, too long to maintain stores of potable water and fresh food. By the time the Manila Galleon was sailing past Baja, most of the crew and passengers were in the last stages of scurvy and beriberi; Acapulco was simply too far. They needed a place to go ashore to eat fresh food and recuperate. A safe harbor on the Baja peninsula was the only way to stave off death – and keep Spain supplied with the luxurious items from the Orient it coveted.

But Spain had no money to send a military force to secure the peninsula, and the Jesuits, keen to convert the Indians of California to Catholicism, saw an opportunity. Lead by the Italians Juan

Todos Santos Mission

María de Salvatierra and Eusebio Francisco Kino, the Jesuits struck a bargain: if the crown would give the Jesuits permission to settle in the peninsula and convert the Indians, they would pay for the whole thing themselves. In return for funding the enterprise, the Jesuits would manage all aspects of local government themselves, religious, military, civil and economic. The crown agreed, with the result that the group that was finally able to secure the Baja peninsula for Spain was, as Crosby notes, “the least impressive of armies.” When the Jesuit galley the Santa Elvira anchored off the coast in the Gulf of California on October 19, 1697, the crew it landed to conquer the shore included an Italian missionary, a Spanish soldier, a Portuguese ranch foreman, a Sicilian seaman, a creole muleteer, a Maltese artilleryman, a Peruvian sailor, a Yaqui warrior, a Mayo herder and an Indian boy. And with that multicultural force, the history of California was changed forever.

The Geography of Hope

The Baja peninsula is a piece of continental crust that was torn from mainland Mexico by violent, sustained, tectonic forces six million years ago. As naturalist Exequiel Ezcurra explains in The Camino Real and the Baja California Peninsula, “The folds and crests that have formed as a result of this intense tectonic activity are the principal cases for the uneven topography of Baja California, causes which in turn drive the local climate.” The Jesuits, despite their advanced level of education, were “Misled by their ignorance of the peninsula’s natural environment and their inexperience with peninsular people,” says Crosby. It was a steep learning curve.

From their base in Loreto the padres set out to establish a series of missions from which they could save souls, and initially chose areas where the Indians appeared to congregate. Their experiences in mainland Mexico had led the padres to believe that the California Indians would have strong emotional ties to certain locations, and they completely failed to grasp that the terrain of Baja meant that the Indians practiced their semi-nomadic, seasonal hunting and gathering regimen over a wide geographical area, with no particular attachment to any one place. The Indians depended for their survival on a deep knowledge of tinajas, or bedrock cachements, that held rain for a substantial period of time after a rainfall. The Jesuits were unaccustomed to operating in a land with no rivers and no consistent annual rainfall. They gradually gained a better understanding of the land and its peoples, but, as Crosby notes, “The Jesuits initially failed to realize that supporting a mission’s people on irrigated agriculture required many times the volume of water that the same group used in their traditional lifestyle. Their education was expensive. Of nine missions founded in the first 24 years of the conquest, one was abandoned and 5 had to be moved to better sites.” It was not a stellar start.

The business of saving souls proved equally complex. In the northerly central areas around Loreto, they found the Cochimi Indians somewhat welcoming.  But further south, the Guaycura and Pericue Indians were proving much tougher customers. In the early 1700s there were probably about 5,000 Guaycura in the area between Magdalena Bay and Todos Santos, and 3,000 Pericue in the area south of Todos Santos to the Cape.  They were not friendly, even with each other. The Guaycura roamed their territory in small groups who spoke different dialects and constantly battled with each other, the Cochimi and the Pericue. For their part, the Pericue spoke a common language and battled less among themselves, but they were accustomed to a great deal of independence, a character trait which did not square well with the Jesuit desire to lure them into mission life. Indian distrust of the padres was likely fueled by the English and Dutch pirates who stalked the Manila Galleons from their bases in BCS, and who, as Crosby notes, “had reasons to instill in the local people their own fear of any representative of Spanish authority.” And the Jesuits had made the bargain to be the sole representative of that authority in all matters

El Camino Real

Poor welcome notwithstanding, the Jesuits pressed on with their plans to build and maintain a camino real. The term “Camino Real” or “Royal Road” has its roots in medieval Spain and referred to roads that were built and maintained at the behest of the king. In colonial Mexico, the phrase was used to refer to roads that connected major settlements, and in California, the phrase came to mean the system of communication that facilitated the constant flow of people and provisions that were required for the colonization of the Baja peninsula. Generally, there was very little that seemed royal about the roads that the padres built with the labor of their Spanish soldiers and neophyte Indians. In many cases road building meant simply moving large obstacles out of the existing Indian footpaths that provided the most direct route from one site to another. But they did succeed in building impressively straight roads over tough terrain, and El Camino Real eventually connected the mission in San Jose del Cabo to the mission in San Francisco, California, covering almost 1,400 miles and over 50 missions built by Jesuits, Dominicans and Franciscans. More than any other, it is the route the ties together the histories of the United States and Mexico.

But at no time in their 71 years in the Baja peninsula did the actual number of European Jesuit padres on the ground total more than 17 men. It proved to be a dangerously low number. In the first third of the 1700s the Jesuits remained a most unimpressive army, and as they built their roads and missions in the hostile south to secure a safe port for the Manila Galleon, the Spanish crown refused to pay for more soldiers to protect them. And the natives were definitely restless. Raging epidemics of measles and smallpox had decimated the Guaycura and Pericue populations, reducing their populations by half in a single generation. Years passed in which the Jesuits and their converts did little more than tend the sick, bury the dead and attempt to procure food from the mainland; years of drought and plagues of locusts had severely limited their ability to support a settled community through agriculture on mission lands.

Against this backdrop, in 1733 the Jesuits of the southern missions, led by Padre Nicolás Tamaral, began an effort to eradicate polygamy amongst the Pericue. With their missionary zeal and Eurocentric outlook, the Jesuits had been working for years to quell the ancestral customs of the Indians, but the attack on polygamy appears to have been the tipping point for the Pericue. As Crosby states, “The subject of women was particularly sensitive among the Pericue at that time. Diseases, most notably syphilis, were disproportionately reducing the female population. Neophytes in the south were deeply disturbed by a growing lack of mates.” Amongst all the Indians of the Baja peninsula, women were the chief procurers of food, so the more wives a man had the higher his status; important men like chiefs and shamans had several. In a pointed challenge to local leaders, Padre Tamaral made explicit efforts to attract young women as neophytes. It was missionary vs medicine man, and the unprotected missionaries were vulnerable while the traumatized Pericue were deadly focused; they were able to unite the warring factions of the southern Baja Indians against what they saw as an alien invader who had unleashed ravaging disease against their people and wanton destruction against their culture. The pirates likely fueled their rage.

On October 1, 1734 the body of Padre Nicolás Tamaral of the San Jose del Cabo mission was found clubbed, mutilated and burned. The same thing happened to padres and their servants at the missions in La Paz and Santiago. The revolt grew, the Pericue consolidated their hold on the tip of the peninsula, and when the Manila Galleon landed at the Cabo port established by the Jesuits in January 1735, the Pericue killed all 13 men in the longboat that had been sent ahead to seek help from the mission.

It was the beginning of the end for both the Jesuits and the Indians in BCS. Salvatierra and Kino’s dream of a theocracy was lost, as was California’s isolation as others came in to settle the land.  By the time the Jesuits were expelled from California in 1768, the Guaycura and Pericue were linguistically and culturally extinct – perhaps their genes live on in the world and their souls reside in heaven. The Jesuits were suspected of harboring hordes of gold, silver and pearls that they were not sharing with the king, but when the inspector came from Spain after their expulsion, he was shocked at the poverty of the missions. The Jesuits had barely survived, and producing food to keep the missions and their neophytes alive in the harsh Baja landscape was almost all they hadharsh-landscape time for.

It was not an accident that the first people to come ashore with Padre Salvatierra at Loreto in 1697 included a ranch foreman, a muleteer, and a herder. These Jesuit recruits were chosen for their skills in building a community based around agriculture and ranching. When the Jesuits were expelled from California, many of these “soldiers” and their families stayed on and became the backbone of the vaquero, or cowboy culture that replaced that of the native Indians, a culture that – unshackled from the poorly chosen mission sites – still thrives in Baja to this day. In fact, this culture was exported north along El Camino Real, and the Baja vaqueros are now honored in the western USA as the cultural ancestors of the American cowboy. To celebrate El Camino Real and its role in the cultural connection of the peoples of the Baja peninsula and the US state of (Alta) California, several organizations are working to have the entire 1,400-mile corridor declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

What Ezcurra calls “the savage and seductive landscape of Baja California” has lured many to its shores, and changed the fates of all. The Pericue, who quite possibly sailed to Baja from Polynesia, survived on the peninsula for roughly 12,000 years. The Jesuits only 71. Human survival along El Camino Real can still prove tenuous, and it is perhaps for this reason that the writer and naturalist Wallace Stegner refers to the wild landscape of Baja as the “geography of hope.” Writes Ezcurra, “Baja California, more than any other place on earth, deserves this description: the peninsula is a vast corridor of hope, a world where untamed nature may still be able to survive in all its splendor. Or, as Octavio Paz wrote, it is a place where, “the world still has beaches, and a boat awaits you, always.” And that is a royal road indeed.

Sources: Interviews with Harry W. Crosby, David Richardson and Trudi Angell. Several books including Antigua California: Mission and Colony on the Peninsular Frontier, 1697-1768 by Harry W. Crosby; Jesuit Relations, Baja California 1716-1762 by Ernest J. Burrus, S.J.; The Camino Real and the Missions of the Baja California Peninsula/El Camino Real y Las Misiones de la Peninsula de Baja California by Miguel Leon-Portillo, California’s El Camino Real and its Historic Bells by Max Kurillo; and Californio Portraits: Baja California’s Vanishing Culture by Harry W. Crosby.

© Copyright Sergio and Bryan Jauregui, Casa Payaso S de RL de CV, 2018

Loading...