Chito. In Baja California Sur, if you’re talking about Chito, it’s the same as if you were sitting in the offices of Rolling Stone talking about Sting or Bono. Surnames are simply superfluous. Chito is the owner of Rancho Santo Domingo, 2,500 hectares of spectacular land in the Sierra La Laguna mountains that has been in his family since the 1700s. Like most rancheros in Baja Sur, Chito (christened Alfredo Orozco Castro) has all the skills he needs to thrive in a remote area: he knows how to build houses, run a business, train horses, lasso cows, deal with snake bites, make cheese, handle poachers, distill plant-based medicines, fight forest fires, roast pigs and track missing hikers. And that’s just for starters. Ranching has been his way of life, all his life, and when he looks to the future he sees, well, something different.
“Around 35 years ago things started changing,” says Chito. “We used to have rains every January and February, sometimes three times a week, but now we really only have rain during the summer hurricane season. Water, of course, is life, and with this much longer dry season we can’t have as many cows, we can’t make as much cheese, we don’t grow as many vegetables – the impact on the ranching way of life is huge.” Right now selling cows is Chito’s main source of income but, at the age of 60, he’s ready to embrace a post-cow future. “I really see the future of Rancho Santo Domingo in ecotourism.”
In 2019 Chito started working with Todos Santos Eco Adventures (TOSEA) on a luxury tent camp in the avocado, grapefruit and mango orchard that his grandfather planted for his grandmother at the ranch. (Disclosure: the author is a co-owner of TOSEA). With his own hands he built a traditional ranch kitchen with a beautiful brick, wood-burning stove that is the heart of the camp, and this is complemented by walk-in tents throughout the orchard that feature locally made furniture, real beds, rugs, lamps, rocking chairs and other details that make staying on Chito’s ranch not only incredibly fun, but super comfortable. Chito often guides guests on hikes and mule rides throughout the mountains, and loves chatting with folks around the campfire at happy hour afterwards. His incredibly accomplished 7 year old grandson Alfredito often accompanies him, always making sure that there is enough wood for the stove and always ready to share a laugh with camp guests. Together they demonstrate a truth that has been known in the area for centuries: the ranchers of Baja California Sur are some of the most gracious and welcoming hosts on the planet.
They are also accomplished artists. Using the tools handed down from his father, Chito is a master leatherworker and his beautiful saddles, bridles and other leather items are highly sought after. He is also a natural teacher, and a leather working workshop with Chito is the highlight of many guests’ stay at Camp Cecil de la Sierra, the luxury tent camp on his property.
Chito inspires his fellow artists as well. Renowned ceramic mosaic artist Donna Billick, the founder of Todos Artes in Todos Santos, was so impressed by the time she spent with Chito that she created the BioSphere, a magnificent ceramic homage to Chito, his ranch, his cowboy roots and his ecotourism future. And she’s not stopping there. Todos Artes artists Isabel “Issy” Von Zastrow and Will Worden will be working with Donna to lead plein aire watercolor workshops at the camp, where visitors can seek inspiration and subject matter from the ranch and the fantastic natural beauty of the area. Alfredito took one of Issy’s first watercolor classes at the camp. He was so impressed that he came back the next day with his cousin Damian and demanded another one. Alfredito’s stated goal in life is to follow in Chito’s footsteps. With his natural gifts for people, ranching and art, we can all look forward to Rancho Santo Domingo’s continued success as a joyful place where visitors can seek respite and inspiration. In the generations to come, ranching ecotourism may well come to be encapsulated in just one name. Alfredito.
Mahi mahi straight from Agustin’s boat, strawberries with crème freche right out of Agricole, Nasturtium-adorned salads fresh from Jan’s farm, zillions of mangos, right from your own tree. This is the type of food security enjoyed by many residents of Baja California Sur (BCS). All fresh, all delicious, all healthy – and always obtainable in season.
BCS is the fastest growing state in Mexico, with vast sums of tourism-driven dollars flooding the state. This growth, rapid and seldom interrupted over the last few decades, has acted as a beacon to people across Mexico, drawing thousands of immigrants seeking economic opportunity. The Ministry of Economy reported a population increase in BCS of over 25% between 2010 and 2015, a rate which does not appear to have slackened. Yet BCS does not have the infrastructure or resources to adequately feed and house all the new arrivals, a fact that has given rise to a slew of informal settlements across the lower part of state, many without even the most basic of public services. Not coincidentally, the government agency CONEVEL states that in 2020 roughly 29% of the population in BCS was living in extreme poverty, with almost 35% of the population suffering from social deprivation, including deprivation of food access. In this land of plenty, accessing fresh, nutritious food is an extreme challenge for many.
“The International Community Foundation (ICF) founded the Alianza Para la Seguridad Alimentaria (ASA, or BCS Food Security Alliance) in 2014 as an alliance of nonprofits, business owners, government agencies and individuals committed to addressing food insecurity in southern BCS” notes McKenzie Campbell, a program officer with the ICF. “When the pandemic slammed into Mexico in March 2020, BCS was one of the hardest hit states because of its heavy reliance on tourism. Food assistance groups exploded across the state, and by December 2020 many of these groups were serving more than twice their pre-pandemic population.” Because BCS did not have a state foodbank, these groups were spending precious time and resources sourcing ingredients. ASA mobilized to effectively become a mobile food bank for these groups, supporting their efforts with the distribution of despensas (packages of donated food and hygiene essentials) to the informal communities. Continues McKenzie, “It was when we were actively distributing despensas that we realized that without a formal government safety net or a reliable food supply, these communities would be in a constant state of crisis. The pandemic really showed that we needed a permanent solution to addressing food security in BCS.”
Luis Garduño, the director of ASA who was in charge of distributing despensas during the pandemic, says that the ICF doubled down on its commitment to food security during the pandemic. ASA had been formalized as an independent Mexican nonprofit in 2019, so it was the perfect platform from which to accelerate food security efforts in the region. Says Luis, “The first thing we did was conduct a series of diagnostic studies looking at all facets of the food system in BCS from producers, to distribution points, to consumers. Based on what we learned through these studies, ASA is focusing its efforts in three main areas: creating a Sudcaliforniano food bank, fostering community health and resilience, and piloting local foodsheds.”
The food bank program is a remarkable testimony to ASA’s focus. Says Luis, “We are really excited about the progress that’s been made with the Sudcaliforniano food bank, and we expect it to be fully functioning with a presence in La Paz and Los Cabos by the end of 2022. We have secured warehouse space in both locations, and we’re working hard to source necessary items like trucks and cold storage.” The core of the food bank program is food recovery and redistribution, salvaging food that is deemed unsellable or unusable by producers and getting it to vulnerable populations. Notes McKenzie, “Around the world 40% of all food produced in the world is wasted and all those inputs lost. In Mexico, 20 million tons of food are wasted every year, enough to feed 70% of the population living in poverty. One of ASA’s first efforts was to assess food waste hot spots in BCS, then implement recovery, redistribution and prevention strategies.” Continues Luis, “In 2021 ASA provided 34 tons of recovered food to 5,800 individuals. Our goal is to be providing recovered food to 12,000 people on a regular basis by the end of 2022.” The Sudcaliforniano food bank is now affiliated with BAMX, Mexico’s national food bank program, and partners with its prepared food donation program, Al Rescate. It also receives and distributes regular donations from several Walmart-affiliated stores, Carl’s Junior and Earth Ocean Farms.
“Another thing we found when distributing despensas to the informal communities during the pandemic was that women were taking leadership roles and doing what needed to be done to protect not just their own families, but also the most vulnerable in their communities” recalls McKenzie. ASA’s second key initiative, community health and resilience, is designed to amplify that leadership, and give these women the tools they need to be even more effective. Continues Luis, “This program is multifaceted. Not only do we work with these women on leadership skills like decision-making, negotiating, effective communication and teamwork, but also on personal finance skills and small business administration skills. We help develop their skills to determine what is the most nutritious food they can buy for their families with the money that they have.” The program also teaches hurricane and emergency preparedness and response, including basic first aid, fire management, hurricane alert and preparedness systems and control centers for emergency response.
One of the key focus areas of the community health and resilience platform is nutrition and healthy cooking. Local groups like SINADES in Pescadero are at the forefront of this effort. Under the leadership of founder Inés Melchor Pantoja, with assistance from her husband, Julio César Rivas García, SINADES has been working with women in the community for almost two decades on a Conscious Cooking program, making healthy foods affordable, desirable and an integral part of family life. So that they could procure organic produce at a reasonable price, SINADES and the 18 women of the Conscious Cooking program started building greenhouses at their homes a decade ago. The greenhouses have given these women and their families much greater food sovereignty and economic stability, and 3 of them are now expanding into raising chickens. They are currently looking to formalize a point of sale for their chickens, eggs and chicks, and to expand the program to other women in town. SINADES is attacking food insecurity at its source.
Raíz de Fondo is another community force based in La Paz. Founded by Erika Goetz 12 years ago as a community garden in a dirty, abandoned lot in downtown La Paz, Raíz de Fondo is now a driving force for nutrition, food security and sustainable living across the city. The group provides workshops to schools and communities on how start their own gardens, providing garden kits as well as on-going instruction on composting and nutrition. The program has been so successful that when the Secretary of Education (SEP) decided to launch a nutrition and wellness curriculum in elementary and preschools, Raíz de Fondo was tapped to train the teachers in their school garden program to deliver the curriculum.
Another key Raíz de Fondo program is “Cocianado para la Colonia”. Based at the outdoor kitchen of one of their community gardens, Jardin Guamuchil, chefs prepare meals made with ingredients from the garden, as well as rescued food, to support community kitchens with limited resources. Erika says they plan to support 3 groups this year with a total of 3,000 meals. The team is further using this platform to teach healthy recipes to cooks from participating institutional kitchens. To support these programs, Raíz de Fondo has created a network of vegetable farmers who often have perfectly edible food that they cannot sell. They are thrilled to have Raíz de Fondo redistribute this food to those in need, and even get a tax deduction for their donation. Because of their extensive experience with local producers, Raiz de Fondo is a key partner in ASA’s food recovery and distribution program in La Paz.
The third pilar of ASA’s food security platform in BCS is creating thriving local foodsheds by boosting the capacity of small and mid-sized farmers to produce healthy food for the local market. In June 2021 ASA started an “Agroecological Learning Collective” focused on the transition to a regenerative production model, employing farming techniques that improve soil quality. Currently 7 producers from 3 farms are participating in the pilot collective and have received 60 hours of technical assistance and 30 hours of regenerative management consulting. There is a great deal of excitement around this project, and local businesses like Sueno Tropical, Rancho Cacachiles and Baja Regenerative Farms are all pitching in with invaluable advice on production planning, crop selection and marketing. ASA’s Food Hub goal is to be the currently missing link of aggregation, distribution and marketing between local small and mid-sized producers and regional buyers and consumers.
How can you help ASA implement this comprehensive approach to food security in Baja California Sur? Connect with these programs and lend your time, money, expertise, and enthusiasm:
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.
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
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 .
“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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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!