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. 

A Pericue Named Fabian: The Making of a Todos Santos Rebel

A Pericue Named Fabian: The Making of a Todos Santos Rebel

By Bryan Jáuregui based on research by Dr. Shane Macfarlan. This article first appeared in Janice Kinne’s Journal del Pacifico.

He really was just a good Catholic boy trying to make the padres proud, but suspicion and cruelty transformed him into something they foolishly feared he was all along, the vicious leader of a rebellion. 

It was 1734 in Baja California Sur and the indigenous Pericue and Guaycura peoples had dropped their grievances with each other to join forces against their common enemy, the Jesuits. Promises of eternal salvation did nothing to alter the Indians’ view that the byproducts of Jesuit rule – physical decimation by measles and smallpox and cultural devastation by Christianity and monogamy – were assaults that demanded a resolution in the here and now. But the Jesuits, who had been the ruling arm of the Spanish crown in Baja since 1697, did have some faithful converts among the native peoples. Among them was a young Pericue named Fabian, a member of the Todos Santos mission. Dr. Shane Macfarlan, professor of Anthropology at the University of Utah, has painstakingly pieced together some key elements of Fabian’s life and this account is based on his research. 

When the Indigenous Rebellion broke over the Jesuits with the bludgeoning deaths of Padre Tamaral in San Jose del Cabo and Padre Carranco in Santiago in October 1734, Fabian firmly sided with the Jesuits against the rebels, many of whom were Pericue like himself. He left behind his family and traveled with the founder of the Todos Santos mission, Padre Taraval, throughout the southern part of the peninsula to understand the full nature and extent of the rebellion. He worked with the Spanish military in 1735 during the retaking of La Paz and the reconnaissance of the south, and again in 1736 to locate rebels and gather more intelligence. The Indian rebels were stunned by Fabian’s fealty to the Jesuits. They attempted to lure him to the rebel side with promises of earthly gifts and rewards. When that failed they threatened to kill his family. Nothing worked and Fabian remained steadfast in his loyalty to the Jesuits. Noted Padre Taraval, “Nothing could move him; nor did all of this prevent him from talking to them, entreating them, and even upbraiding them for their ungrateful apostasy and misconduct.” (Wilbur, 1931) 

By 1734 the indigenous rebels weren’t the only ones taking an unkind view of the Jesuits in Baja. The Spanish rulers of the rest of Mexico, and by extension the crown, strongly suspected that the Jesuits were harboring hordes of gold, silver and pearls in Baja that they were not sharing with the king. When the anti-Jesuit Spanish viceroy of Mexico sent the governor of Sinaloa, Huidobro, to quell the indigenous revolt, he urged leniency. Jesuit historian Father Peter Dunne notes, “For the tranquility and pacification of the uprising there was given to the governor of Sinaloa a commission to proceed against the rebels with propriety…but without offensive warfare.” Accordingly, Huidobro sought to pacify the rebels with gifts of food, clothing, tobacco and full pardons. For their part, the native groups who remained loyal to the Jesuits and the Spanish crown couldn’t win for losing. They were despised by their own people, yet their allegiance to the Jesuits and to the crown, which they were forced to demonstrate by working to the point of exhaustion each day, was regarded with great suspicion by both the Jesuits and the Spanish soldiers who considered many of them rebel spies. 

By Padre Taraval’s own account, Fabian proved himself loyal to the Jesuits at every turn, even attempting to convert the rebels who threatened his family. But this allegiance did not afford him sufficient protection and Spanish soldiers attacked his wife. While the record is not clear, this attack likely involved sexual assault and when Fabian tried to intervene, he was forcibly restrained by the soldiers. It was this extreme provocation that caused Fabian, the most devoted of indigenous converts at the Todos Santos mission, to become the thing the soldiers had suspected he was all along – a rebel leader. Even though the Jesuits had already retaken the Cape region and reoccupied the Todos Santos mission by this time, Fabian put together a small contingent and planned an attack. But the plot was soon discovered and Fabian gave himself up so his compatriots could escape. While he had lived most of his life as a loyal friend to the Jesuits, his brief stint as a rebel lead rapidly to his trial, conviction and execution. Padre Taraval noted with some satisfaction that, like the true Catholic he was trained to be, Fabian repented on his way to the gallows. 

This brief account of Fabian’s life is one of the few stories of an individual indigenous person on the Baja peninsula that is part of the written historical record. The few others mentioned by name in connection with the native uprising – Domingo Botón, Chicori, and Bruno – were all described as being of mixed race, a fate of birth that the Jesuits saw as a factor in the rebellion. Notes Jesuit Father Peter Dunne in his 1952 book, Black Robes in Lower California, “There was a mixture of breeds in the south: mulattoes, the offspring of Negroes dropped off here by the Manila galleons, and mixtures of white blood from the English and Dutch freebooters who had long known these coasts….A mixture of bloods probably explains the aggressive malice of some of the (natives), especially…of the leaders of the revolt.” Climate was also considered a factor. Continues Dunne, “Doubtless climate had something to do with the disparity in the quality of the southerners…A climate with no prolonged cold or vigorous winter often seems to dissipate the energies of men and sometimes even their virtue.” In other words, the Jesuits grasped at straws when trying to explain the revolt when in fact the reasons were remarkably clear. At the time the rebellion started, raging epidemics of measles and smallpox had decimated the Guaycura and Pericue populations, reducing their populations by half in a single generation. Moreover, just a year before the rebellion started the Jesuits had launched a campaign to eradicate polygamy among the native population. In all the Indian groups of the Baja peninsula women were the chief procurers of food, so the more wives a man had the higher his status, and important men like chiefs and shamans had several. In a direct challenge to local leaders, the Jesuits made explicit efforts to recruit young women as neophytes. It was these twin assaults upon health and culture that united the once warring factions of the southern Baja Indians against the Jesuits. It was a fight in which both sides won some battles and both sides lost the war. The Spanish crown expelled the Jesuits from the Baja peninsula in 1768, but by the time their enemies were vanquished, the Guaycura and Pericue Indians were essentially living ghosts, by and large culturally extinct. No more padres, no one left to convert. But the peninsula did retain its sense of independence, and the ranchero culture that followed that of the indigenous people definitely retains some of that spirit of rebellion that was sparked, however belatedly, in a Todos Santos Pericue name Fabian. 

A Pirate, A Priest, A Partera: Three Powerful Characters Who Shaped the Spirit of Todos Santos

A Pirate, A Priest, A Partera: Three Powerful Characters Who Shaped the Spirit of Todos Santos

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

Baja California has always been something of a world apart, an isolated place with a culture and mindset not much tied to the passions and politics of mainland Mexico. It is therefore not so surprising to learn that even though Mexico won independence from Spain in September 1821, in February 1822 the mission villages of southern Baja were still unaware of the fact.  British Lord Thomas Cochrane, hired by Chile to be an admiral of its navy, decided to break the news in his own way. In Chile ostensibly to help the newly liberated nations of the Americas squash pockets of Spanish resistance, Cochrane was really just a profiteer, a pirate, and the crews of his seven ships were comprised mainly of European mercenaries on the

Thomas Cochrane, Image courtesy of Wikipedia

hunt for Spanish treasure. Although Mexican president de Iturbide had declined Cochrane’s offer of “help”, in February 1822 Cochrane nonetheless ordered his ship the Independenica into San Jose del Cabo where the Spanish flag was flying in the port. That flag was all the legal cover he needed to declare his pirates a liberation force tasked with removing all evidence of Spanish rule. The crew attacked San Jose del Cabo, looting everything that it could, including valuables from the mission church. 

Encouraged by their success in “liberating” San Jose del Cabo, 9 pirates from the Independencia decided to head north and “free” Todos Santos. As the mercenaries sacked their mission the townspeople of Todos Santos stood calmly by. Perhaps mistaking this inaction for a general passivity of character, the pirates began groping the local women. Five of them lost their lives for this misjudgment when the men of Todos Santos demonstrated what they found worth defending in their town. Four of the pirates who didn’t die in the uprising were hauled off to prison in San Antonio. It was only when the Independencia’s captain threatened to blow up both Todos Santos and San Antonio that the Todos Santeños consented to return his crew. 

The story of Pirate Thomas Cochrane is the first in Dr. Shane Macfarlan’s wonderful introduction to the “Cultures & Characters of Todos Santos: A Pirate, A Padre, & A Partera”. A professor of anthropology at the University of Utah, Dr. Macfarlan has conducted extensive research into the culture and societies that have shaped Todos Santos over the centuries. Padre Gabriel González, a Spanish-born Dominican priest who became a caudillo, is the second of Dr. Macfarlan’s trilogy.

Caudillos were strongmen who sprang up across Latin America in the 1800s in the aftermath of independence from Spanish rule. As Dr. Macfarlan notes, “It was a time when newly-minted nations were unstable and governmental institutions were weak, a situation ripe for the emergence of charismatic leaders with political ambitions and military acumen. The caudillos provided wealth and security to their followers, demanding loyalty in return.” Priests were not usually among their ranks but then, Padre Gabriel González was not your usual priest.

“Cool, cunning and intelligent” was how U.S. lieutenant Henry Halleck summarized Padre Gabriel, adding that he was also “destitute alike of principal and honor.” The dominant figure in Baja California from his arrival in 1825 to 1850, Padre Gabriel had at least one family with multiple children, probably two, and lived with them at Rancho San Jacinto, a large holding south of Todos Santos that ostensibly belonged to the mission. There he amassed huge wealth producing tobacco, rum, sugar, corn, cattle, horses and mules. When the Mexican congress voted to secularize mission lands in Baja California, Padre Gabriel successfully negotiated to ensure that Dominican lands in Todos Santos and San Jose del Cabo remained in the hands of the church, unlike those of the Franciscans in Alta California who were forced to relinquish all of their lands and assets. 

But the Mexican government kept up the pressure and in 1833 declared that all church lands had to be secularized. This time the governor of Baja California, José María Mata, set out to personally enforce the law, a fact which lead Padre Gabriel to instigate an uprising against him in La Paz. In a sign of how powerful Padre Gabriel and his forces had become, Governor Mata was captured and expelled from the peninsula. But Mata rallied and in 1837 returned to Baja, overthrew the new government in La Paz, and had his enemies arrested and sent to Mazatlán, Padre Gabriel among them. Padre Gabriel used this time to go to Mexico City and shore up political capital at the highest levels. He ingratiated himself so successfully with President Santa Ana that his mission lands were restored and he was able to return safely to Todos Santos.  Mata was “retired” from the Peninsula by Mexico City in 1840, the same year that Padre Gabriel was made president of the Dominican missions throughout Baja California. The padre’s power was growing.

This cycle repeated itself in 1842 when Mexico appointed Luis de Castillo Negrete as Jefe Politico in Baja California, again with the mandate to secularize mission lands. Again Padre Gabriel took decisive action, threatening to excommunicate the governor and raising an armed force against him in Todos Santos. Soldiers in the garrison at La Paz loyal to the padre kidnapped Castillo Negrete and his brother, but the two men managed to escape and make their way to Todos Santos where a pitched battle between the padre’s rebels and the government’s forces ensued. The padre’s forces lost, so he was once again arrested and sent to Mazatlán. Padre Gabriel must have once again employed his powerful negotiating skills as once again Santa Ana pardoned him and once again his enemy was “retired” from the Baja peninsula. Padre Gabriel was now the richest man in Baja California and his hold over the evangelical, secular, commercial and military affairs of Todos Santos and the surrounding areas seemed replete. In short, he was in a perfect position to engage in espionage and guerilla warfare against US troops occupying La Paz and San Jose del Cabo during the Mexican-American war of 1846-1848.

Most accounts by members of the American forces in Baja California reference Padre Gabriel. According to Peter Gerhard writing in the Pacific Historical Review, Captain Dupont of the US Navy called Padre Gabriel the “master spirit” of the insurgents. Lieutenant Henry Halleck had a more earthy assessment. “He was living at this time in La Paz for the purposes of medical advice for the numerous diseases contracted in some of his scenes of debauchery…He manifested the most friendly feelings towards the officers of the American garrison although….he was engaged in procuring arms for the insurgents.” Indeed, Padre Gabriel would often invite American officers to his home in La Paz, serve them wine and while away pleasant hours with them playing cards. Mexican historian Pablo L. Martinez later justified Halleck’s suspicions that the padre used his parties with the Americans to gain intelligence stating that Padre Gabriel “at this time was one of the two political and military commanders of Baja California and had two sons serving as officers in the Mexican forces.” (Peter Gerhard, Pacific Historical Review) But this episode in Padre Gabriel’s life ended much like the previous two: a fierce battle in Todos Santos, the capture and arrest of Padre Gabriel and other guerrilla leaders, and the Padre’s exile to Mazatlán. 

But this exile did not last long. The US-Mexico peace treaty returned Baja California to México  and Padre Gabriel was allowed to return to Todos Santos in 1849. In 1851 secularization of the mission lands was finally achieved, although by this time Padre Gabriel’s family had clear title to the ranch in San Jacinto so secularization was only a professional, not personal blow to the padre. But the Dominican governance was changing and in 1855 Padre Gabriel, who had arrived from Spain 30 years before, left Baja for mainland Mexico while a titular bishop was installed in his stead. But apparently he received permission to return to Baja as an ordinary curate as the burial register of Todos Santos notes that he died there on June 1, 1868. He is reputed to have fathered 22 children, and their descendants may still visit Padre Gabriel at the family mausoleum in the Todos Santos cemetery today. 

Padre Gabriel’s rebel spirit lives on in at least some of his descendents, one of whom was Dionsia Villarino Espinoza, popularly known as La Corónela. A granddaughter of Padre Gabriel, La Corónela was born in Todos Santos in 1865, and had a remarkable career that included spying for Pancho Villa’s troops during the Mexican Revolution, caring for political dissidents when she was imprisoned for her efforts, and in 1932 becoming the first woman in Baja California to legally drive a car. While her career took her to other parts of the Baja peninsula, she ended her days as a licensed partera, or midwife, in Todos Santos, where she died in 1957 at the age of 92. In 2005 the government of BCS issued a medallion in her honor, acknowledging her outstanding contributions to the state.

Dr. Macfarlan wants the current residents of Todos Santos who have historical roots in the town to be able to connect with their ancestors. Using the birth, death and baptismal records from The Guia Familiar de Baja California 1700-1900, Dr. Macfarlan has created a database of Todos Santeños and he is happy to give a copy to anyone who requests it. Moreover, he would love for families to share with him any information they have about individuals in the database to expand the knowledge available to everyone. You can reach out to him at 

The Cabalgatas of Baja California Sur: Friendship, Pride and a Parade of Horsemen

The Cabalgatas of Baja California Sur: Friendship, Pride and a Parade of Horsemen

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

Cabalgata photo by Kaia Thomson

“After God, we owed our victory to the horses.” When Hernan Cortez arrived on the eastern coast of Mexico in 1519 and defeated the Mayan people there, horses had not been seen on the North American continent in over 10,000 years. Their sudden appearance with men on their backs terrorized the local population nearly as much as the noise and deadly impact of the musketry, and victory came readily to Cortez. 

Photo by Kaia Thomson

From that first triumph the horses continued their conquest of the Americas, with men defeating one culture from their backs while creating others centered around their skills. Spanish settlers arrived from Cuba and Hispaniola bringing livestock and horses with them and great ranching haciendas built on horse prowess spread across Mexico and points north. The haciendas began competing among themselves to display their horse and animal husbandry skills and the tradition of Charrería, similar to rodeo, was born. Descendants of the 16 horses that Cortez brought with him as well as those brought by other settlers spread out across the continent in feral bands, becoming the progenitors of the Mexican Galiceño, the American Indian Horse and the great Mustang herds of the American west. Two of the great horse cultures of the world arose on the North American continent – cowboys and Indians by any other name – and the once terrorized indigenous peoples who survived the onslaught of the Spanish later became formidable horsemen. 

In Baja California Sur (BCS), when the European Jesuits were expelled from the peninsula in the late 1700s, many of their lands went to the ranchero horsemen who had helped the padres develop their missions, and their independent ranching culture built around horses and mules became the defining culture of the state. For festivals or fiestas they would often ride their horses for days across the mountains, picking up more riders as they went, and having parties each night along the way. This was the ranchero version of the Spanish cabalgata, or parade of horsemen. In many ways, after God, Mexican culture in general and Baja California culture in particular, owed its victory to the horses.  

Photo by Kaia Thomson

But, as it does, the world changed. As modern generations of Mexicans and Baja Californians became more urbanized, they came to think of “horsepower” mainly as a term to define engine output and the great horse-based traditions of Charrería and cabalgata began to fade. “When I first came to BCS 43 years ago, there were no cabalgatas and very few Charrería events. That part of the culture was almost dead” recalls Fermín Reygadas, a professor of Alternative Tourism at the Autonomous University of BCS. “Then, about 30 years ago, ranchers in the Sierra de la Gigante in the northern part of the state began making a concerted effort to keep their culture alive and restarted the traditional San Javier cabalgata. This cabalgata is reminiscent of the cabalgatas that originated as early as the 1500s in Spain.  These were ostensibly religious events in which villagers would ride horses and walk from place to place carrying the image of the Virgin of Rosario. When they stopped at night to rest there would be music, singing, dancing and of course lots of drinking. This fundamental aspect of the cabalgata is also a big feature of the resurgent cabalgatas in Baja.”

In the southern part of the state of BCS, the cabalgatas only returned 15 years ago and for a distinctly secular event – a birthday party. Recalls Arturo Geraldo, president of the BCS Association of Riders (Asociacion SudCaliforniana de Jinetes AC), “In 2005 a horse lover in Cabo decided he wanted a cabalgata for his birthday, so we put together about 36 riders and made a parade from Santa Anita to Cadueño, about a 4-hour ride. Based on the success of that cabalgata we formed the Association of Riders and we have been organizing cabalgatas across the state ever since. Now, on any given weekend in BCS there are at least two cabalgatas taking place, many of them for birthday celebrations, some for funerals and some just because it’s fun.”

Arturo is extremely pleased but not surprised at the scale at which cabalgatas have returned to the state. “Here in BCS we come from horses, we come from the ranches. Even those of us who now live in the cities have our roots in the ranches and the cabalgatas are such a fun way to celebrate our heritage and keep our traditions alive.” Javier Pavel, a La Paz based horse trainer and farrier who is the veteran of dozens of cabalgatas around the state agrees. “The cabalgatas are a wonderful way to pass on our traditions to our children and I love taking my young son on as many cabalgatas as possible.”

Photo by Kaia Thomson

Miguel Angel León Amador is the president of Cabalagantes Unidos de Todos Santos-Pescadero and he loves how the cabalgatas have grown in popularity. “Todos Santos is the mother of all cabalgatas in BCS” says Miguel Angel.  “When we started it 14 years ago to celebrate Nuestra Senora de Pilar, the patron saint of Todos Santos, we had 50 riders on the trip from La Paz to Todos Santos. Last year we had 502 riders on 502 horses and mules. Then there were all the people to support the cabalgata including veterinarians, drivers, cooks, all pulling horse trailers, and bringing food, water and supplies for both riders and horses – it ended up being about 1,500 people!” Miguel Angel reckons that about 50% of the riders are from ranches and the other 50% from cities and towns. 

Photo by Kaia Thomson

While camaraderie and friendship are the main draws for most riders, there is sometimes also a formal entertainment component to the cabalgatas and very few things are as entertaining as the dazzling display of horsemanship put on by the women of the escaramuza. Kaia Thomson, a cabalgata veteran and student of Mexican horse culture explains. “The word escaramuza means skirmish in Spanish. During the revolution women on horseback would work to trick the enemy by riding off in the opposite direction of the army, cutting their horses back and forth to kick up dust and lure the enemy away from the soldiers. It is that daring horse-work that is the hallmark of escaramuza routines today, in which teams of 8 women riding sidesaddle in colorful flowing dresses ride at each other at a full gallop in uninterrupted succession, drill team style, executing heart-stopping movements that include crosses, quick turns, slide stops and passes in synchronized flashes of speed and color. They are incredibly skillful and it is thrilling to watch.” The women of the escaramuza are part and parcel of the Charrería tradition, which is officially the national sport of Mexico. Notes Fermin, “The stadium where the Charrería competitions are held near my university sat empty for many years. Now I see it regularly in use, often packed to capacity. It is another indication of the revitalization of and appreciation for the great horse culture of Mexico and Baja California Sur.”

The resurgence of the cabalgata tradition has had a powerful economic impact on the state as well. Notes Kaia. “When I first came to Todos Santos with my horses 15 years ago there was very little infrastructure in place to care for horses. I had to feed the horses rabbit pellets because there was no grain and the neighbors all wanted to borrow my pitchfork because they just weren’t available in stores. Now large feed and tool supply companies have a huge presence in the state.” Arturo agrees. “Before we started the cabalgatas saddle makers were almost extinct here and there was no place for leather repair. Now you can find them everywhere. Same goes for horse veterinarians. They were in very short supply 15 years ago and now there is excellent medical care available for horses.”

Fresian horse. Photo by Kaia Thomson

The horses have changed a lot too. “In the old days everyone in the cabalgatas just rode their regular working criollo (mixed blood) horses that they used on the ranches,” recalls Arturo. “Now it is like a beauty pageant for horses!” Don Rene Ruiz, a horse breeder and passionate cabalgata rider imported Tennessee Walkers in 2006 for the softer ride they offer. He notes the change in horses too. “Now ranchers like to keep a good, smaller criollo horse that is well-suited to ranch tasks, as well as a fancier horse like an Española or Fresian for cabalgatas.” 

While the horses may be getting fancier, everyone agrees that cabalgatas are fundamentally family-focused, friendly, egalitarian affairs and that absolutely everyone is welcome. Recalls Kaia, “I’ll never forget one year seeing a kid on a skinny horse who had made a saddle pad out of an old bathmat and tied it on with a car seat belt. He’d made his bridle out of hay twine and he’d clearly made an effort to straighten his clothes. This kid was up at the head of the cabalgata riding proudly right next to Arturo. In the cabalgatas everyone puts their best foot forward, no matter what that best is, and everyone is happy to have all the riders that want to join. It’s a wonderful thing.”

Arturo agrees. “This is why I don’t quit. The cabalgata is one big family that is taking pride in our ranchero culture. My motto for cabalgatas is ‘Let’s ride, let’s make friends.” Friendship, pride and a revitalization of the great egalitarian ranchero traditions in BCS. For this, we owe our victory to the horses. 

© Copyright Sergio and Bryan Jauregui, Casa Payaso S de RL de CV, 2020

Griselda Lorena Sotelo Amaya: A Family Saved Through Conservation

Griselda Lorena Sotelo Amaya: A Family Saved Through Conservation

by Bryan Jauregui, Todos Santos Eco Adventures. This article first appeared in the Journal del Pacifico.

In 1976 Hurricane Liza slammed La Paz so hard that Griselda’s entire neighborhood was washed out to sea when the dam burst. Her parents put her and her brothers in the family Plymouth and for three hours they watched as the bodies of people and animals rushed by in the churning waters, fearing the worst for themselves as the water crept up past their knees. The Plymouth began to float away and was about 30 meters from what had once been their yard when the soldiers came to their rescue. A fireman put her on his shoulders and carried her to safety. She knew then what she wanted to be when she grew up.

Hurricane Liza is still cited as the worst natural disaster in the recorded history of Baja California Sur and one of the deadliest recorded cyclones in the eastern Pacific. The official count was 1,263 fatalities and over $100 million 1976 US dollars in damage, but many thought it was more. Where the home of Griselda’s family had once stood there was now only sand so they, along with hundreds of other families, founded a new neighborhood constructed entirely of cardboard houses. They called it the 8th of October. The government later upgraded them to a sheet rock house with one bedroom, a living room, a kitchen and an outdoor bathroom. The 4 kids slept on the floor in the living room. Despite the sub-par housing and a father devastated by loss, Griselda thrived. She rescued animals at the nearby ranches (yes, there were ranches on the outskirts of La Paz in those days), adopted a falcon named Kila, and did all the dancing, art and writing she could in school. When she was 18 she was crowned queen of the 8th of October Festival and inaugurated the 8th of October Bridge with Mexican president Carlos Salinas de Gortari.  She worked ceaselessly to get baseball and soccer fields built in her neighborhood.  Griselda had emerged from her childhood disaster smart, popular and a resourceful force for community betterment. The world appeared to be her oyster.

Then, at 22, she got married. By 33 she was divorced.  She had 3 great kids but no job, no home, no source of income. It was 2001, her father was gone and her mother was living in a tiny trailer in Pescadero. As her family had done after Hurricane Liza, she built the only shelter she could for her family – a cardboard home – around her mother’s trailer. But she still had no money to feed her children so when she learned about the Internado, the boarding house for ranch kids in Todos Santos paid for by the state, she jumped at the chance to enroll them. Every Monday she would walk from Pescadero to Todos Santos to put the kids in the Internado, and every Friday she would walk to pick them up and walk them home.  She had no money for the bus. “All I asked from God was work, a paying job. One of my kids asked me for an apple and I didn’t have the money to buy even that. This was a huge sadness for me, not to be able to provide for my children.”

Now it is a known fact that if your God is prone to answering prayers, the delivery system can sometimes be a bit surprising. For Griselda, the answer came through a real estate agent operating out of an office near the gas station in Pescadero. He was looking for someone to paint his office, and even though she’d never held a paint brush in her life, she pressed him for the job. He was ultimately so impressed with the work she did that he gave her a hundred dollar bonus. That money changed everything; she was able to take her children out of the Internado and bring them home to live with her. 

Then the angel showed up. As she was minding the real estate office one day an American named Gary Falcon walked in. They struck up a conversation and he invited her to come work for him as a housekeeper at his rental casitas. From there, the world opened up. Her children learned English from Gary and through him she soon had connections throughout Todos Santos and Pescadero which lead to continuous work cleaning and painting houses. In this way she met Cathy Fleischman who was in the process of opening Spa Cielo and needed someone to help her do hair and nails. Even though Griselda had never done this type of work before in her life, she put on the kimono and soon was making enough in Spa Cielo tips, painting and cleaning income that she was able to buy some land and build her own house. A real home. And she could buy her children all the apples they wanted.

Before she completed her house, Griselda used to house sit on the beach in Pescadero. She loved to walk the beach at night, and one evening came upon a female leatherback who was missing a part of her back fin. “I saw the turtle working so hard to make her nest but she couldn’t dig well because of the injury to her fin so I got down and helped her. There were tears on her face. I felt such a great connection with this turtle, with her struggle, with her determination. It was truly magical. It was like God was telling me that helping turtles is part of your mission in life.”

The next day she met with a biologist, Professor Carlos Ramirez Cruz, who told her that the turtles in Pescadero were largely unprotected and suggested creating a group focused on defending them. So even though she had no experience in working with turtles, in 2004 she found herself the President, secretary and Treasurer of Tortugueros de Pescadero and by 2005 she was the president. The other person in the group gave her a lot of moral support. “In those days the people of Pescadero ate a lot of turtle eggs and there was a lot of hostility to the work we were trying to do, especially since I was not from the area. But once I started giving presentations in the schools and getting the kids involved with the hatchling liberations, the situation really changed. The kids educated their parents and now very few people in Pescadero eat turtle eggs.”

While the real estate agent and Gary Falcon were the emissaries who answered the financial how of caring for her children, the crippled turtle just may have been the spiritual one. “I love turtles because they helped me keep my family together, integrated. I didn’t have the money to give my kids a great education, but I could give them experience to make them good people. They grew up with the ethos of conservation and the desire to help others.”

The turtles also lead Griselda to realize her childhood dream. “When my children and I patrolled the beaches together at night helping the turtles, we would sometimes find people drowning or in accidents on the highway. We would help them all as there were no first responders in Pescadero in those days.”

In 2007 Griselda, with the assistance of her children and a group of young volunteers, established Patrol 64 Preservation and Rescue (her house is at KM 64). She petitioned the governor for an ambulance, and two months later a very old one with no gear arrived. It wasn’t much, but it was something. In the early days of responding to emergencies, Griselda and her volunteers would call a local Pescadero doctor, Dr. Idelfonso Green, and ask him how to help the injured people in their care. But once they got to the point where they were answering four or more emergency calls per day, they knew they needed more intensive training to continue. Therefore in 2009 Griselda and her son Fernando, along with 6 other volunteers, took a one-year course at the Academy of Firefighters in La Paz. At her graduation Griselda became the first female commander (comandante) in Latin America, and remains the only one in Baja California Sur. Now all 3 of her older children are firefighters, first responders and paramedics, and Rescue 64 is now Bomberos Voluntarios de Pescadero, the official, all volunteer firefighting unit of Pescadero. Their logo depicts a turtle on a fireman’s hat.

Turtles remain Griselda’s passion. She still works with them every season, protecting their eggs from predators, and continues her educational campaigns and hatchling releases with local children. “The turtles give me strength and energy. We now have 15 firefighters, 8 of whom have attended the Academy of Firefighters, and they all eat, sleep and shower at my house. The turtles give me the peace and serenity I need to keep doing Patrol 64. I’m not alone – many of our firefighters are also tortugueros. Developing an empathy with nature and animals is such a key part of creating good human beings.”

The firefighter who once lifted Griselda up on his shoulders and carried her to safety would surely be pleased to know that that little girl has carried her own family to safety by doing exactly what he inspired in her that day – helping others in need. Could helping turtles and/or firefighters bring unexpected treasure to your family? It’s certainly worth finding out. You can contact Griselda at  or 612-154-2044 to learn more, and also check out their Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/AmgiosBomberos. A new firetruck, more gear, turtle volunteers and more all needed. Being part of the answered-prayer delivery system is surely a worthy endeavor! 

© Copyright Sergio and Bryan Jauregui, Casa Payaso S de RL de CV, 2020

The Last Fishermen of Isla Espiritu Santo

The Last Fishermen of Isla Espiritu Santo

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

This is not a fish tale. It’s an immigrant story any American could tell. “In 1860 my great grandfather Esteban Puppo arrived in Cabo San Lucas from Genoa, Italy. He brought money and a son with him and purchased a hacienda in Caduaño, near Miraflores. He raised cattle and built a good life. His son Santiago grew up, married a beautiful woman from the coast and had my father, Pedro Puppo, in 1889. But it was a troubled time in Mexico and the government took away the hacienda, so Pedro went to La Ribera where he opened a general store. There he met and married a young shop attendant, Seferina Marrón. They moved to La Paz in 1910 where my brother Santiago was born in 1929 and I was born in 1939. My father became a fisherman, as did my brother and I. Santiago has been fishing the waters of Isla Espiritu Santo and La Paz for 80 years.  My father would be sad to know that we are the last independent fishermen of Isla Espiritu Santo.”

Mario Puppo Marrón, the younger of the two famed Puppo brothers, tells his family story with humor, passion and a keen understanding that his family history is the history of Isla Espiritu Santo and the fishing industry in La Paz. When his father Pedro became a fisherman in 1910, he and his colleagues would row or sail their boats – crafts that were more like canoes than pangas – to Espiritu Santo, often taking two days or more to reach their destination. That trip now takes less than an hour by motorboat. They would stay on the island for months, camping wherever they liked, salting the fish they caught to keep it from rotting. They could sell the salted fish for 1.5 pesos per kilo (4 pesos per kilo for shark) and in two months they could make 1,000 pesos. In those days the pesos were silver and living was cheap, so 1,000 pesos was a lot of money. It had to be to motivate the fishermen to endure months on the island. 

Recalls Mario. “I was 10 years old when I started working with my father on Isla Espiritu Santo. There is very little fresh water on the island and the water from home was sent in cans so it rusted quickly. Therefore almost every day we would eat tortillas, fish machaca, and turtle. We would have vegetables for the first few days after arriving on the island, then nothing for the remaining weeks or months. We couldn’t make beans because there was no water to cook them. Our only “spices” were onions and chiles. It was exciting when we were able to catch one of the wild goats on the island for the pot.” 

When Mario’s father Pedro started fishing in 1910, an entrepreneur and local politician named Gaston Vives had a concession in San Gabriel Bay on Espiritu Santo for cultivating pearls. It was a substantial operation that included homes, offices and a 500-meter-long dike which turned the bay into a lagoon. There he created a massive system of 36 roofed canals through which he steered the waters of the Sea of Cortez to supply the necessary nutrients and oxygen to his oyster beds. He was wildly successful, selling his cultivated pearls throughout the US and Europe. Mario’s father, who sometimes dove for pearls, saw a different side of the operation. “The workers recruited for the pearl operation at San Gabriel Bay were all people from the bottom of society with no families, no one asking after them. They were forced to work naked so they couldn’t steal the pearls. But as they were only paid 20 pesos a month, the temptation was too great and many of them would swallow the pearls in an attempt to smuggle them out of the bay. These workers suffered a great deal and many of them died and were buried on the island. Until the 1960s and 1970s when Americans arrived and started taking away the bones, there were lots of crosses in the dunes of the island. Many of the beaches still have the shells from this operation, which was destroyed in 1914 by an enemy of Gaston Vives.” Today Isla Espiritu Santo is a national park with no permanent structures, and only the ruins of the dike remain of the Vives empire.

The Puppo brothers’ father fished with spears and handlines using hooks made by blacksmiths, as did Mario and Santiago when they were old enough to join him in the sea. The 1920s, 30s, 40s and 50s were bounteous years for fishermen in the Sea of Cortez. Recalls Mario. “There was so much great fishing. We would often spear 100-kilo groupers and of course they were too big to take into the boat so we would just keep them alive in the water next to the boat and take them straight to the Hotel Perla on the Malecon in La Paz where they always bought all we could catch. The owners there really valued the fishermen and not only would they pay us, but they always fed us well too. Of course, it’s been well over 20 years since I’ve seen a fish that big around Espiritu Santo.” 

Fishing techniques changed through the decades. “From 1945 to 1970 the fishermen of La Paz began using dynamite to fish, and of course that was extremely dangerous” says Mario. “The dynamite was unstable and many fishermen ended up blowing themselves up along with the fish.” That was not the only threat for the fishermen. In the old days the fishermen didn’t have a way to track the weather and many died in hurricanes. In 1976 Mario rode out Hurricane Lisa, the worst recorded storm in the history of Baja California Sur, in a cave on Isla Espiritu Santo with his wife, 3-year old daughter, and dozens of snakes who were also seeking refuge. While Mario laments many of the changes that have affected fishermen at Isla Espiritu Santo, accurate weather prediction technology is not one of them. 

In 1977 Isla Espiritu Santo and 897 other islands of the Sea of Cortez were designated a Flora and Fauna Protection Area (Zona de Reserva Natural y Refugio de Aves Migratorias y de la Fauna Silvestre) and in 2005 a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Conservation became the driving force and where once Mario and Santiago had camped wherever they liked on the island, in 2007 they were restricted to one piece of land on the back side of Gallo Bay where they keep their fishing shack and, at 81 and 91 years of age, continue to fish the waters of Isla Espiritu Santo. While nylon fishing nets have been in use around the island since the 1970s, Mario and Santiago command a premium for fish caught with hand lines so that is generally how they ply their trade. But they are the end of the line.

“Fishing at the island as we know it is over. Once Santiago and I are gone, there will be no more permits for fishermen like us. Now only cooperatives are able to get fishing permits. And that would be OK if the system was effective, but fishermen from outside of La Paz come in the night to fish our waters and nothing is done to stop it. We are sad to see this happen.”

Mario has been married to Rosa Maria Murillo Martinez for 56 years. Together they have 5 children, 9 grandchildren and 6 great grandchildren. One of their daughters married an Italian immigrant, and Mario loves that the family story has come full circle. While it is the end of the story for the independent fishermen of Isla Espiritu Santo, the American story of immigration, integration and intrepid determination continues to thrive in Baja California Sur. It’s a tale for the ages.  

© Copyright Sergio and Bryan Jauregui, Casa Payaso S de RL de CV, 2020

 

 

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