When Dr. Peter Klimley, AKA Dr. Hammerhead, was studying the scalloped hammerheads of El Bajo seamount near La Paz in the late 1970s, he attached little compass sensors to some of the sharks and made an amazing discovery. “The sharks were swimming like we would drive a car down the highway, directly from one point to another.”
The sharks would leave El Bajo seamount, go out for 10 miles or more in the middle of the night, and return in the morning with no problem at all. How could they do that? Two things. Firstly, the Gulf of California is filled with magnetic fields of lava flows around seamounts, and the sharks use the magnetic fields to navigate, like following neon signs along the highway. Secondly, the whacky shape of the hammerhead’s head means that the shark’s sensors, known as ampullae of Lorenzini, are spaced widely apart over a larger surface so the sharks can better detect variations in the magnetic field, reading the lava flows as clearly as a white line down the highway.
The result, demonstrated by Klimley and published by National Geographic, is that hammerheads are using seamounts alike El Bajo as hook-up joints along established migration routes. Interestingly, the vast majority of the sharks gathering at the seamounts are female, and Klimley found that they are fighting each other to establish dominance as the males prefer to mate with the strongest females. 400 million years of evolution at your service ma’am!
One of the Jesuits’ prime motivations in establishing themselves in Baja California in 1697 was to pursue their dream of a theocracy, a society completely devoted to God, with all productive activity in the service of the missions as they worked to convert the native peoples. While there was some grumbling about the Jesuit lock on the economy, for the first 50 years of Jesuit rule no one came along with the entrepreneurial drive, financial backing, or political support to challenge it. But then the heavens opened and the Jesuit sands shifted. As recorded by missionary Miguel del Barco:
Because of an unusual storm…the sea cast up a great multitude of pearl oysters, mounding them on certain beaches from the 28th parallel on to the north. This area, to that time, had not been worked by pearl hunters. The Indians of that coast, recent Christians, knowing that soldiers desired and bought pearls, began to bring them in abundance to the men of the escort at Misión de San Ignacio, then the heathen frontier.
And so it happened that an act of God brought riches to the Jesuits’ earthly defenders and thereby created the first direct threat to their Baja California theocracy. The soldier who wrangled the majority of the profits from the great pearl bonanza was Manuel de Ocio, the Spanish son-in-law of the captain, who capitalized on his connections to broker the pearls and make the beginning of his fortune. In short order he resigned as a soldier, invested in pearling equipment and bought goods to trade with the Indians who were still collecting the pearls. Baja California’s first entrepreneur was launched, and he soon found he was not the only one eager to break the Jesuit monopoly. In 1743 the pearl-rich de Ocio went to Guadalajara where he found businessmen keen to push for a civil colony in Jesuit territory, and by 1748 he had laid claim to Santa Ana, site of an abandoned Jesuit chapel where a Spanish soldier had spotted silver ore in 1722. de Ocio created his home and cattle ranch there, and began mining silver near present day San Antonio. Real Santa Ana was the first secular settlement in Baja California, and San Antonio today is considered the oldest continuously settled town in the peninsula. The Jesuits were expelled from Baja California in 1767, but a thriving secular economy launched by de Ocio and built around mining continued for another 150 years.
Stories like de Ocio’s are the highlight and backbone of the Museo Ruta de Plata, the Silver Route Museum, which opened in the Baja Sur town of El Triunfo November 17, 2018. The brainchild of Christy Walton, Richard Kiy, John Reynolds, and Juan Jose Cabuto, the museum reflects the remarkable research the team conducted to resurrect and celebrate the mining heritage and societal changes wrought by de Ocio and others who came to the area to pursue their dreams. Troves of documents were recovered in the public archives of La Paz, descendants of key players in the town’s mining industry were tracked down and interviewed, and oral histories were gathered from families in the area who are direct descendants of the Mexican, French, German, Polish, Chinese, American, and English miners, entrepreneurs, teachers, tradesmen, artists, shop owners and others who created what was once the largest town in the Baja peninsula with one of its most diverse and fascinating communities.
Museo de Ruta Plata is part of a much larger project by Christy Walton, heir to a portion of the Walmart fortune, to create in the greater La Paz region of Baja Sur “a thriving economy and engaged social system that respects and nurtures our unique environment.” Her Baja-based Alumbra companies include: Rancho Cacachilas, a land management organization that engages in livestock management, gardening, honey and cheese production and ecotourism activities; Earth Ocean Farms, an offshore marine fish farming company; Sol Azul which engages in year-round oyster production, and Tenaja Holdings, a real estate development company that manages the silver museum. The integration of all these projects is readily found in the silver museum complex which includes Restaurant-Bar El Minero, a wonderful culinary destination built on the ruins of an old cantina, where on any given day you can enjoy traditionally-made cheese from Rancho Cacachilas, organic oysters from Sol Azul, and farm-bred totoaba (critically endangered in the wild) from Earth Ocean Farms. The museum itself was built on the site of some abandoned buildings that they believe once housed a tannery, all right next to the ruins of the silver mining and milling operations. In fact, it was when Walton saw some children playing in these ruins that she was inspired to create the museum as a way to help revitalize El Triunfo by promoting its cultural heritage, one that was perhaps already lost to its younger generations.
El Triunfo in its heyday. Photo courtesy of Museo Ruta de Plata
de Ocio started a major mining boom in the area and from 1862 to 1926 the network of gold and silver mining operations completely transformed the area, making El Triunfo and San Antonio the wealthiest towns in Baja California in the process. El Triunfo had been a sleepy little village of 175 souls in 1857, but by 1890 had grown to a vibrant hub of over 4,000 as people flocked to the area to make their fortunes. Money flowed and the residents invested in the good life; a huge number of pianos were imported from Europe, and classical music concerts and artistic performances were a regular feature of town life. Gourmands imported apples from San Francisco and the cantinas imported American beer from St. Louis and Milwaukee. It was even rumored that Gustav Eiffel, he of the Paris tower, designed the still-standing La Ramona smokestack in 1890 for the Progreso Mining Company. While the museum states there is no evidence that Eiffel designed the tower, for Eiffel fans it should be noted that there is no evidence that he didn’t either.
1890 was an important year for El Triunfo on another front as well. The United States enacted a federal law called the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, which effectively made the US government the second-largest buyer of silver in the world, second only to the British Crown in India. Under the terms of the act the government was required to purchase an additional 4.5 million ounces of silver bullion every month, in addition to the US$2 to $4 million required previously. Silver mining around El Triunfo surged. But the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, initially conceived of as a way to boost the economy and create sufficient inflation to allow farmers and miners to pay off debts that had become untenable due to deflation, was unsustainable. It contributed to a major economic depression in the US, and in 1893 was repealed. The US moved to the gold standard and the price of silver plummeted.
It was the beginning of the end for the mining towns of BCS. The mines struggled and the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1917 exacerbated their challenges. Ultimately, the silver boom ended as it began, with a monumental storm. This time however, instead of riches being tossed upon the shore, the hurricane of 1918 washed them away, destroying much of the town and rushing arsenic from shattered mines downstream, devastating local livestock along the way. 25 human deaths were recorded, and all ships in La Paz were reportedly damaged, sunk or run aground. The last mine in El Triunfo closed in 1926, and the town shrank back down to the sleepy little town of a few hundred folks that it is today.
Today Mexico is the largest producer of silver in the world, producing 5,600 metric tons in 2017. But no one in El Triunfo seems to be clamoring for a return to the old mining days. Turns out the quality of the silver in the area wasn’t that great anyway. A 1906 US Consular report on display in the museum notes that the ore of the area “is not high grade and is very rebellious.” But the high price of gold in the global market today has created persistent efforts from companies outside of BCS to establish open pit gold mining in the area once again. For its part, Museo Ruta de Plata makes it clear that although mining for minerals drove the settlement of the area, mining for knowledge is the long-term economic path forward for the region. Exhibits in the silver museum laud the extraordinary biodiversity and natural beauty of the area, alongside the scientific research and distinct ecotourism opportunities they represent. As with places like the Galapagos that have a similarly unique and biologically diverse environment, jobs based in sustainable tourism, conservation and research seem to be the hope for the resurgence of El Triunfo and the surrounding towns of BCS. Even the Jesuits would have been happy about that economic plan.
Sources for this article include: Harry W. Crosby, Antigua California: Mission and Colony on the Peninsular Frontier, 1697-1768; Juan Jose Cabuto of Museo Ruta de Plata; and the displays and websites of Museo Ruta de Plata. www.museorutadeplata.com.
Swimming with the sea lion puppies at Los Islotes, the southernmost rookery of the California Sea Lion, Zalophus californianus, is truly one of life’s great joys. The puppies are often playful and naughty, nibbling on the flippers and fingers of human visitors, while their teenage siblings like to sidle up to humans for a good belly rub or game of chase. Their mothers may be found sunning themselves on the rocks, enjoying a snooze, while the males who rule the 20 territories of Los Islotes indefatigably patrol the waters to ensure everyone’s safety. It is a scene of utter Baja bliss, and humans can’t help but feel a magical glow from this most wondrous of wildlife encounters.
All of which begs the obvious question: Why are the males working so hard when everyone else is just having a good time?
Claudia J. Hernandez-Camacho, a professor of biology at CICIMAR in La Paz, has been studying the sea lions of Los Islotes and the Sea of Cortez since 1990. In particular, she has studied the entire lifespan of 190 sea lion individuals (94 females, 96 males) who were hot-branded by her professor between 1980 and 1984. Her findings, based on these specific sea lions and others, tell a complicated tale for our pinniped friends.
“Sea lions are polygynous, meaning that one male mates with several females in the territory that he defends on land and sea. It takes an enormous amount of energy to defend this territory, and in the breeding season a territorial male, who is so focused on his job that he barely eats or sleeps, can lose up to 30% of his impressive body weight (400 to 500 kilos, or about a ton) in just a few weeks.”
Photo by Colin Ruggiero for Todos Santos Eco Adventures
One would assume, of course, that the males are spending this incredible amount of energy to defend their harems and offspring, to ensure the survival of their genes. “But this is not exactly the case” says Claudia, “they are defending the territory, not the females.” The science proves this out. “Genetic studies show that just 15% of territorial males are the fathers of the newborns the next breeding season. It is not just that the females hook up with and get impregnated by wandering, opportunistic males when they slip off for their 4-5 day feeding trips, which they do, but in some cases the territorial males are not even copulating with the females in their territory.” All that work and no sex?
“It’s a little more complicated than that,” says Claudia. “There are 600 individual sea lions at Los Islotes, and every year around 170 pups are born. Almost 30% of the pups die in the first two years, either from disease or because they or their mothers have fallen prey to predators. But that means that 70% are surviving. With this type of situation, many of the sea lions are, by definition, related. It could be argued that the Los Islotes males work so hard not just for their own offspring, but because they are protecting their extended families. This would also explain why they do not copulate with all the females in their territory. They are avoiding inbreeding.” This is an approach to collective living that we generally only associate with high intelligence mammals like primates, elephants and dolphins.
The Los Islotes territorial males are so successful in their defense of the colony, and have made conditions so conducive to survival, that Los Islotes is actually full to capacity now. In fact, two new satellite colonies have been created nearby in recent years by all the young males who are no longer welcome at Los Islotes, but who are still too young and slight to fight older, larger males for territory. Sea lions are philopatric, meaning that they stay in or habitually return to the area of their birth, so it is possible that these satellite colonies will only continue to grow.
What makes this all the more remarkable is that it is happening at a time when the overall population of California Sea Lions in the Sea of Cortez is dropping dramatically. Between 2000 and 2018, 40% of the population of other colonies disappeared. Are those males falling down on the job? Not likely says Claudia. “We are analyzing a lot of
Photo by Colin Ruggiero for Todos Santos Eco Adventures
environmental variables right now to determine the main factor causing the decline of these colonies, but one of the most likely culprits is the food supply” she observes. “It is not that the fish populations in the other parts of the Sea of Cortez are declining, they are not. It is that the fish are moving further south. While the sea lions of Los Islotes, the southernmost California Sea Lion rookery, are benefitting from this trend, it is proving lethal to others. Healthy females will travel up to 60 kilometers away from their colonies to find food, but further than that is not feasible. They need to conserve energy to produce milk for their pups. And even in those more northern locations where there are still fish, there are a very limited number of fish species, and this relatively poor-quality diet means that the females are not gaining enough energy from their food to productively nurse their pups. On the opposite side of the coin, the sea lions of Los Islotes are getting an increasing number of fish species in their diet, with the result that population density has reached an all-time high.”
Female sea lions are not only philopatric, i.e., prone to stay in the area where they were born, they are attached to very specific real estate in that area, with many staking one specific rocky outcropping for their own. So with the increasing density of the population at Los Islotes, it is not surprising to learn that sea lion attitudes are becoming a bit more aggressive. Add to that the fact that the entire colony of females either a) goes into estrus, or b) has newborn pups to defend at exactly the same time and breeding season, which generally takes place June 1 to August 31, becomes a time when human body parts might best be kept at a distance from the sea lions of Los Islotes. In fact, Los Islotes is now closed to snorkelers and scuba divers during this period.
Los Islotes is regularly listed as one of the top diving/snorkeling spots in the world, and Claudia and her students are launching a study to evaluate the effects of all these visitors on the sea lions. The tourism hiatus being imposed by the authorities during breeding season offers them the perfect opportunity for their research. “We have already collected fecal samples from the sea lions during the tourist season, and will now do so again when the colony is closed to tourists. We will then test the level of cortisol, a stress indicator, in both sets of fecal matter to determine if tourism increases stress in sea lions. We have already observed some differences in behavior in the sea lions at Los Islotes. While at other, more remote colonies, the sea lions will copulate during the day, at Los Islotes they only engage in this behavior at night. We hope to be able to determine if tourism is having an impact on the sea lions.”
Claudia at Los Islotes
Of course, liking your loving in the evening time is a common enough attribute of many healthy mammals, but if other colonies are also enjoying some afternoon delight, have the sea lions of Los Islotes gone too far in adapting to the presence of humans? Will the territorial males one day snap back to impose a more natural environment for their territories? Human males have certainly done battle over lesser issues.
Tourists have been visiting Los Islotes on a regular basis for roughly three decades, and sea lion males live an average of 19 years. There is therefore not yet a deep institutional knowledge about humans among the territorial males, and they could still be giving us the opportunity to demonstrate our worthiness as visitors to their home. Will we make the cut? We can’t be sure what the sea lions have learned about humans over the years, or what Claudia and her team will demonstrate, but the strong pull of Los Islotes on humans is easy enough to understand: it is a place where joy and spontaneity rule, and we thrill to that vibrancy. While the territorial males are likely not motivated by their roles as life coaches for humans, it is enticing to think that maybe just one of the reasons they work so hard is to protect such a joyful lifestyle for their families. Claudia and her team are working hard to do the same.
VISIT WITH CLAUDIA AND HER TEAM!
Todos Santos Eco Adventures is the leading eco adventure company in Baja California Sur. On Isla Espiritu Santo we operate Camp Cecil, a luxury tent camp, and Camp Colossus, a moveable glamping operation. Claudia and her students will be spending time with us at our camps throughout the season as they conduct their sea lion research, so you may find them at the dinner table if you spend time with us at the island!
The National Geographic Society, as venerable an institution as ever graced the shores of the North American continent, has an image problem. Since 1888 the NGS has been supporting adventurers and explorers of every stripe across all the corners of the globe, and such is their success that it is now safe to say that we know it all. Satellites and surveyors, exploring on the ground and from the air, have neatly filled in all the spaces on the old maps where there used to exist nothing but the terrifying admonition: Here be dragons! Does this mean that the Age of Exploration is dead? Is there no more geography left around which a society can coalesce for discovery? Is the NGS, as some naysayers opine, obsolete?
Dr. Jon Rebman in the Sierras
Not a chance. A glance at the interactive NGS global explorers map, which shows thousands of explorers engaged in equally numerous projects across our well-mapped continents, definitively lays that notion to rest. A zoom from the global view of the map down to our own Baja California Sur shows just how vibrant an era of discovery we inhabit. Here you’ll find a hiker symbol in the Sierra La Laguna mountains just outside of Todos Santos, which is the avatar for NGS explorer Dr. Jon P. Rebman, director of the San Diego Natural History Museum’s Botany Department, and author of the definitive Baja California Plant Field Guide. Dr. Rebman’s work demonstrates not only that the Age of Exploration is alive and well, but that we are always gaining a deeper knowledge of the areas depicted on our maps. Perhaps more importantly, we are conserving the existing knowledge of these areas that is in danger of slipping away.
Explains Dr. Rebman. “After 20 years of floristic research on the Baja California peninsula and adjacent islands, my colleagues and I created an annotated, voucher-based checklist of the vascular plants of Baja California. We published this in 2016, and when we compared it to the only floristic manual for the entire Baja California region published by Wiggins in 1980, we found that we had added more than 1,480 plant taxa to the area, including approximately 4,400 plants (3,900 vouchered taxa plus 540 reports), of which 26% are endemic to the region. As part of this process we identified several plants in Baja California that are very rare and only known from one to very few collections.”
“We got focused on the need for conservation efforts to protect the region’s rare flora during a November 2013 expedition in the Cabo Pulmo area to document biodiversity in an area slated for development. My colleagues and I documented two plant species that had been lost, meaning not collected or scientifically documented, for decades. One of these rediscoveries was Stenotis peninsularis (Rubiaceae), a micro-endemic species that was last collected in 1902 by T.S. Brandegee. Yes, that means we had not seen this species in over 110 years!”
Inspired, Rebman continued his quest for the lost plants of Baja during a workplace re-assignment from San Diego to La Paz August 2015 to June 2016. Working with local Baja botanists, he rediscovered approximately 50 plant species in the Cape region that were known from just one, or a tiny number, of historical specimens. But there were more. Specifically, there were 15 more “lost” plants, all endemic to the Baja California peninsula, that had been collected between 1841 and 1985, but had not been seen since. Rebman was intent on finding them. “With the ever-increasing detrimental impacts to native plants and natural landscapes, I realized that the time was now to attempt to re-discover some of Baja California’s very rare, unique, and presently “lost” plants before they are gone forever.” The National Geographic Society agreed to fund the project, and Rebman got his Mexican colleagues – Dr. Jose Luis Leon de la Luz, Dr. Alfonso Medel Narvaez, Dr. Reymundo Dominguez Cadena and Dr. Jose Delgadillo – to join the effort. But how do you find a “lost” plant? It’s not for the faint of heart – spiritually, physically, or intellectually-speaking.
Astragalus piscinus: an image of the holotype specimen deposited in the united States national Herbarium (uS) at the Smithsonian.
Consider. In March 1889, self-taught British botanist Edward Palmer disembarked from a boat at a place on the Baja peninsula that he called “Lagoon Head”, found what he thought was a common weedy plant, and deposited it in an herbarium without further ado. Sometime later, renowned American botanist Marcus E. Jones found it in the herbarium, realized it was a very rare, endemic Baja California plant species, named it Astragalus piscinus, (common name Lagoon Milkvetch), and that was the last time anyone recorded it. In 1884 noted California naturalist Charles Orcutt was in a place he christened “Topo Canyon” when he chanced upon the very rare Physaria palmeri, took a sample, and recorded it with the fledgling San Diego Natural History Museum. No one has noted a sighting of it since. The entire list of the 15 lost plants Rebman and his colleagues set out to find reads like this, with very precise information about the plant, but incredibly imprecise information about the location. Therefore, the first thing the team had to do was pore over the papers, books and letters of the botanists who originally discovered the plants, and do their best to figure out where, exactly, in this 1,000 mile long peninsula, these botanists were when they took their samples. As a result, one of the cool byproducts of the expedition is a map put together by the NGS team that shows the place names used by these early botanists with the actual place names in use today. As every good cartographer knows, maps are an ever-evolving business.
The team narrowed down the possible locations for each plant (“Lagoon Head” turns out to be near Scammons Lagoon and “Topo Canyon” in the mountains of northern Baja), but then they had to actually find these very rare plants in an area that they had already demonstrated held over 4,400 different plants. It would seem almost impossible to make any progress while stopping to investigate all the different possibilities. Unless, of course, you are already so familiar with all the plants that you can immediately discern the one you don’t know, the one you’ve only seen as a specimen or a drawing. John Rebman and his Mexican botanical collaborators are quite possibly the only people alive today to stand a chance of finding any single one of these 15 lost plants. Yet so far, they have looked for ten and found seven. For the others, they need to wait for rain, in Baja, to find the blooms.
“It has not been easy” remarks Rebman. “We were in a desolate area in northern Baja where bandits are known to congregate, and I was looking for Orcutt’s
Astragalus piscinus flowers. Photo by Jon Rebman
Physaria palmeri. There were signs that the bandits were around, and alarm bells were going off in my head. But I had read Orcutt’s journals, had a firm sense of where he had been the day before he discovered the plant as well as the day after, and I really believed I was close. Yet I kept not finding the plant and kept getting more nervous. Finally, I decided that if I hadn’t found it by the time I reached the next tree, I would turn around. I got to the tree, got off my horse, looked down, and there it was. Orcutt, probably found it when he stopped to take a break in a shady spot all those years ago.”
Finding each of the 7 plants they’ve recovered so far has required serious expeditionary skills and effort, with horses, burros, camping gear, local guides, packed water and food. It’s been hot, it’s been dusty and, as we have seen, sometimes it’s been scary. But, as happens with most NGS projects, the results have been quite tidy. Says Rebman, “For each “lost” species that we encountered, we scientifically documented each population using standard protocols to make an herbarium specimen, we recorded all necessary label data, took a census of the populations, and assessed any visible threats to the well-being of the plant populations. Primary herbarium specimens have been deposited in the SD Herbarium at the San Diego Natural History Museum, and duplicate specimens have been deposited in the HCIB Herbarium in La Paz, Baja California Sur, and the BCMEX Herbarium in Ensenada, Baja California. I photographed each re-discovered plant using a digital camera, and these images, along with the map depicting old and new place names together, can be found at bajaflora.org.”
Dr. Alfonso Medel Narváez with Bouchea flabelliformis (Verbenaceae). Photo by Jon Rebman
While looking for the “lost” plants of Baja, Rebman and his team actually made several new discoveries. “From the expeditions we have taken so far, we have already encountered 30 new species previously unknown to science, all sitting in my cabinet awaiting further investigation.”
The NGS likes to quote American explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson, who said you never should have an adventure if your planning is good and you pull off every detail; an adventure is when things go wrong. With multiple expeditions looking for 15 ultra-rare – or possibly even extinct – plant species in poorly-described locations, there is bound to be an abundance of adventure in the process for Rebman and his botanical collaborators. But that is the essence of discovery, the essence of exploration, and Rebman and his team are showing us that there is still a huge amount to be discovered, and re-discovered about the places where the dragons used to roam.
The American Cowboy is the quintessential symbol of what made America great: strong character, diverse skills, creative problem solving, resilient nature and beef on the table. The iconic cowboys loved their whiskey, played their harmonicas, and sported nicknames like Cactus Pete, Deadeye Jake and Kid Curry. But If you look under the buckskin a bit you’ll find that the original American cowboys likely preferred tequila, played bass fiddles, and had nicknames like El Coyote, Güero de las Canoas and Dos Santos Biel. And that’s exactly why Meg Glaser, Artistic Director of the Western Folklife Center in Elko, Nevada invited 5 Baja California Sur vaqueros (cowboys) to be the guests of honor at the 31st National Cowboy Poetry Gathering: they are the living link between the Spanish missionary soldiers that came to Baja California 300 years ago, and the American buckaroo. Yep, as surely as the Statue of Liberty came from France, and the melody of the Star-Spangled Banner came from England, the American Cowboy came from Mexico. Juan Wayne would have been a more apt screen name for the Duke.
Don Jose y La Pancha. Painting by Carlos Cesar Diaz Castro
The Western Folklife Center (WFC) focuses on making connections with other horse and ranching cultures from around the world. They have hosted cowboys from the far-flung corners of the earth, including Mongolia, Hungary and Brazil, but nothing they had ever done prepared them for the challenge of hosting the vaqueros of Baja California Sur. Says Meg, “The BCS vaqueros live almost completely off the grid so they didn’t have passports, US visas, or even email access. It was incredibly challenging to get these men who live on roadless ranches, some of whom must ride 6 hours on mules to get to the nearest highway, from Baja to Nevada, but together with the great Baja team we did it and it was one of our most successful programs ever. Many of our buckaroos in Nevada and other parts of the west are pretty well versed on the history and the connection between the American cowboy and the Mexican vaquero, but very few of us realized that it was such a vibrant living culture. It was a real eye opener for all of us.”
Of course back in the day both Nevada and Baja were part of the Spanish California Provinces (Nevada in Alta or Upper California and present day BCS in Baja or Lower California) and cowboys and cattle – imported from Spain to satisfy the conquerors’ demand for beef – flowed freely throughout the region. In fact, the regions were so integrated culturally and linguistically that it wasn’t until the 1960s that people from Baja California were required to have a passport and visa to travel to the USA. The lingua franca of cowboys demonstrates the cultural link between the two Californias: “buckaroo” is the Americanization of the word “vaquero”, “chaps” comes from the Spanish word chaparreras, or leather leggings, “rodeo” comes from the Spanish word rodear, to surround, and “mustang” comes from the Spanish word mostrenco. The modern livestock industry in the USA continues to thrive on early Mexican techniques for handling cattle including branding, saddle cinching and using a hand-braided lariat – from the Spanish la reata – to rope cattle.
Chema with his guitar in the Sierras.Photo courtesy of Saddling South
But now there is most definitely a border, and crossing it was a tremendous experience for the whole team. Says vaquero Jose Maria Arce Arce, who goes by Chema, “Just imagine. I had to ride a mule for several hours out of the Sierras as part of the journey to the airport, then suddenly I was on a huge airplane and we flew over my ranch – I recognized it immediately and was amazed to see it from the air. This trip was my first time on an airplane and my first time in such a nice hotel. Imagine a horse that is accustomed to poor grazing areas then he’s put in a green pasture. That is what it felt like to me.” Trudi Angell has been Chema’s friend and business associate in the Sierra San Francisco since 2005, and she was the main organizer of the trip. The vaqueros nicknamed her “La Caponera” or “the bell-mare” of the trip: the one to follow. She sat next to Chema’s cousin, Bonifacio, or “Boni” on the first flight. “His eyes lit up like a kid as he turned around at lift-off and practically shouted “ ‘Chinga! The cars all look like ants!’ Forty minutes later when we flew over the Sierra San Francisco, Chema and Ricardo (Chema’s son who’s known as Teté) were pressed to the window pane and were practically beside themselves when they saw their ranch from the sky. It was a wonderful experience.”
Chema, Teté and Boni are Los Regionales de la Sierra, a musical group that plays traditional ranchero music from the northwest of Mexico, much of it resonant of eras long gone by. Chema plays accordion and guitar, Boni plays bajo sextoand accordion, and Tetéplays the northern ranchero bass fiddle. In Elko they performed often at schools, juvenile facilities and the Western Folklife Center itself, and were accompanied by singers Damiana and Duna Conde, daughters of the renowned Baja California Sur musician, comedian and political satirist Raul Conde. The crowds and other musicians simply couldn’t get enough of the group, and they were feted everywhere they went. Even Sourdough Slim, an acclaimed western singer who regularly plays the Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall Folk Festival circuit invited the vaqueros to jam with him at the historic Pioneer Bar one evening. Observes Meg, “They were a smash sensation.”
Carlos’ stand up paintings of Boni, Chema and Tete. Part of the BCS exhibit.
The great reception to their musical skills wasmatched only by the tremendous enthusiasm for their skills as ranchers and craftsmen. Chema, Dario Higuera Meza and the other vaqueros met with American cowboys and shared information on ranching lifestyles, including working and breeding donkeys and horses. Says Chema of his American counterparts, “They are the same people that I am. I completely identified with them… the only difference is in the way they dance!” Dario, who is one of the few artisans left in BCS who knows how to create traditional ranch crafts using the old Baja California methods (he received an honorary degree from the Autonomous University of Baja California Sur in recognition of his unparalleled skills and contribution to BCS culture), gave daily demonstrations on horsehair rope making and leather braiding, and in particular bonded with several native American families over different methods of tanning and spinning rope. They were so enthralled with Dario they invited him to a Navajo festival. Chema’s nephew, Juan Gabriel Arce Arce – nicknamed Biel – gave daily demonstrations on leatherworking and other traditional ranch skills. Biel consistently wins the top prize at state-wide leatherworking contests.A traditionally tanned leather trunk that he made with ornately woven edges and beautiful hand tooling was purchased by a Basque ranching family from Elko for US$5,000.
McKenzie Campbell, one of the people responsible for getting the vaqueros to Elko, is the founder of Living Roots, a non-profit which helps BCS ranch families capitalize on their skills. At the request of the WFC gift shop, she made sure that the group brought many leatherwork pieces made by Teté, Dario, Biel and other ranchers, includingpolainas (leather gators), miniature vaquero saddles, belts and teguas (riding shoes). McKenzie also brought other BCS ranchero crafts including embroidered purses and bags, as well as tepetes, rag rugs that women make with scraps of cloth. It allsold like hot cakes in the gift shop.
The vaqueros are direct descendants of soldiers imported by the Jesuit missionaries in the 1700s. Recruited as part of a deal with the king of Spain that gave the Jesuits administrative autonomy in Baja California in return for protecting the territory from pirates, these “soldiers” were in fact largely people from Moorish Spain who had the excellent ranching and agricultural skills the Jesuits needed to develop their missions. They became known as the “soldiers of leather” to distinguish them from fighting “soldiers of metal”. When the Jesuits were subsequently kicked out of Baja, the “soldiers of leather” who worked the missions were given the lands by administrative fiat and from that point on Baja ranchero culture flourished. Largely forgotten by the rest of Mexico for several
Fermin Building the Rancho Exhibit
generations and isolated by geography, the architecture, ranch tools, farm implements and cookware of BCS ranches remains to this day very similar to that developed by their Spanish forbears 300 years ago. “The BCS rancheros are a piece of the past that has survived until today” says Fermín Reygadas, a professor of Alternative Tourism at the Autonomous University of Baja California Sur who has worked with Baja Californiarancheros for over 30 years.
Fermín, who counts ranchers as some of his best friends in Baja, envisioned and happily executed the task of recreating a typical ranch dwelling with an hoja (palm-frond) roof and palo d’arco walls for the exhibit at the WFC. Working with La Paz artist Carlos César Diaz Castro in Elko a full month before the vaqueros arrived, Fermíncreated a truly astounding exhibit which everyone agrees captures the heart and soul of BCS ranchero life. Says Trudi, “The BCS exhibit was left up for 8 months and a woman from the WFC sent me a special note to say that the local folks from Elko came again and again to see the exhibit, bringing visiting friends and family. They had never seen this type of reaction to an exhibit before.”
Carlos Painting Tete. Photo by Karla Fernanda Amao
The whole project got started when Rick Knight, a professor from Colorado State University and board member of the WFC, went on a mule trip with Trudi’scompany,Saddling South, in the Sierras. Chema was their guide at the Sierra San Francisco rock art sites, and he and his family entertained the group around the campfire at night. Rick informed Meg Glaser of the incredible experience he had had and in 2012 Meg came down to see it for herself. She knew right away she had to get the vaqueros to Elko.Three years later – which included intensive months of effort by Trudi in the quest for Mexican passports and US visas for 5 people who live almost completely outside the system (letters to the US Consulate from Nevada Senator Harry Reid, the BCS State Board of Tourism, the Western Folklife Center and several others all had to be obtained) – the group was in Elko. The connections made between people and cultures moved them all. Says Chema, “The best part is that we went so far and met people we had become friends with at the caves in the Sierras.” Says Meg, “The best part is that the social connections extend far beyond Elko and many people have already gone to Baja Sur to visit the Sierras and learn more about the vaquero culture.” Says Fermín, “The best part was watching the vaqueros bond with the US ranchers discussing knots and ropes, sharing ideas and experiences. It really showed how connected we all are.”For his part, Dario, who is not one of the musicians, had so much fun that he wrote a song about the whole experience.
Elko Group Portrait Back Row, Left to Right: Karla Fernanda Amao (Carlos’s wife), Carlos Cesar Diaz Castro, Dune Conde, Fermin Reygadas Dahl, McKenzie Campbell, Chema (Jose Maria Arce Arce), Damiana Conde, Ricardo Arce Arce (Tete), Juan Gabrial Arce Arce (Biel), Bonifacio Arce Arce (Boni). Seated Front Row: Trudi Angell, Dario Higuera Meza, Teodora Montes Botham, Meg Glaser. Photo courtesy of Western Folklife Center.
Concludes Chema, “I never had a childhood because I’ve worked since I was a little boy. I now feel very proud that people know me and our life here at the ranch, both through the movie Corazon Vaquero and our trip to Elko. We represented the Baja California vaqueros to the cowboys of the US, and they really respect all the things we can do. It was a beautiful experience. But I’m still the same humble
Chema and his grandaughter Azu. Photo courtesy of Saddling South
rancher I have always been and I haven’t changed my way of life. All of my grandchildren are becoming ranchers and I’m very pleased about that.” Fermín calls the vaqueros of BCS “an oasis of common sense humans.” Maybe Chema’s grandkids will be the next generation of Cowboy Ambassadors, connecting US cowboys to their living roots in Baja California Sur. Could there be another ride for the bell-mare? Possibly. Trudi says her first thought when she woke up after the trip to Elko was, “We have to take this show on the road!”
If they had a World Championship for Insult Hurling, China’s entry of “Son of a Turtle!” may not seem like obvious prize material. But a review of sea turtle reproductive habits reveals why the insult might be a contender: A female sea turtle will mate with several males prior to nesting season, storing the sperm of all her paramours in oviducts separate from her eggs for extended periods of time – sometimes years. When the time is right for nesting, her body will allow the sperm to fertilize the eggs, resulting in what scientists like to call “multiple paternity” for her offspring. In other words, little baby sea turtles have no idea who their daddies are. Get it?