“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!
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.
One of the Jesuits’ prime motivations in establishing themselves in Baja California in 1697 was to pursue their dream of a theocracy, a society completely devoted to God, with all productive activity in the service of the missions as they worked to convert the native peoples. While there was some grumbling about the Jesuit lock on the economy, for the first 50 years of Jesuit rule no one came along with the entrepreneurial drive, financial backing, or political support to challenge it. But then the heavens opened and the Jesuit sands shifted. As recorded by missionary Miguel del Barco:
Because of an unusual storm…the sea cast up a great multitude of pearl oysters, mounding them on certain beaches from the 28th parallel on to the north. This area, to that time, had not been worked by pearl hunters. The Indians of that coast, recent Christians, knowing that soldiers desired and bought pearls, began to bring them in abundance to the men of the escort at Misión de San Ignacio, then the heathen frontier.
And so it happened that an act of God brought riches to the Jesuits’ earthly defenders and thereby created the first direct threat to their Baja California theocracy. The soldier who wrangled the majority of the profits from the great pearl bonanza was Manuel de Ocio, the Spanish son-in-law of the captain, who capitalized on his connections to broker the pearls and make the beginning of his fortune. In short order he resigned as a soldier, invested in pearling equipment and bought goods to trade with the Indians who were still collecting the pearls. Baja California’s first entrepreneur was launched, and he soon found he was not the only one eager to break the Jesuit monopoly. In 1743 the pearl-rich de Ocio went to Guadalajara where he found businessmen keen to push for a civil colony in Jesuit territory, and by 1748 he had laid claim to Santa Ana, site of an abandoned Jesuit chapel where a Spanish soldier had spotted silver ore in 1722. de Ocio created his home and cattle ranch there, and began mining silver near present day San Antonio. Real Santa Ana was the first secular settlement in Baja California, and San Antonio today is considered the oldest continuously settled town in the peninsula. The Jesuits were expelled from Baja California in 1767, but a thriving secular economy launched by de Ocio and built around mining continued for another 150 years.
Stories like de Ocio’s are the highlight and backbone of the Museo Ruta de Plata, the Silver Route Museum, which opened in the Baja Sur town of El Triunfo November 17, 2018. The brainchild of Christy Walton, Richard Kiy, John Reynolds, and Juan Jose Cabuto, the museum reflects the remarkable research the team conducted to resurrect and celebrate the mining heritage and societal changes wrought by de Ocio and others who came to the area to pursue their dreams. Troves of documents were recovered in the public archives of La Paz, descendants of key players in the town’s mining industry were tracked down and interviewed, and oral histories were gathered from families in the area who are direct descendants of the Mexican, French, German, Polish, Chinese, American, and English miners, entrepreneurs, teachers, tradesmen, artists, shop owners and others who created what was once the largest town in the Baja peninsula with one of its most diverse and fascinating communities.
Museo de Ruta Plata is part of a much larger project by Christy Walton, heir to a portion of the Walmart fortune, to create in the greater La Paz region of Baja Sur “a thriving economy and engaged social system that respects and nurtures our unique environment.” Her Baja-based Alumbra companies include: Rancho Cacachilas, a land management organization that engages in livestock management, gardening, honey and cheese production and ecotourism activities; Earth Ocean Farms, an offshore marine fish farming company; Sol Azul which engages in year-round oyster production, and Tenaja Holdings, a real estate development company that manages the silver museum. The integration of all these projects is readily found in the silver museum complex which includes Restaurant-Bar El Minero, a wonderful culinary destination built on the ruins of an old cantina, where on any given day you can enjoy traditionally-made cheese from Rancho Cacachilas, organic oysters from Sol Azul, and farm-bred totoaba (critically endangered in the wild) from Earth Ocean Farms. The museum itself was built on the site of some abandoned buildings that they believe once housed a tannery, all right next to the ruins of the silver mining and milling operations. In fact, it was when Walton saw some children playing in these ruins that she was inspired to create the museum as a way to help revitalize El Triunfo by promoting its cultural heritage, one that was perhaps already lost to its younger generations.
El Triunfo in its heyday. Photo courtesy of Museo Ruta de Plata
de Ocio started a major mining boom in the area and from 1862 to 1926 the network of gold and silver mining operations completely transformed the area, making El Triunfo and San Antonio the wealthiest towns in Baja California in the process. El Triunfo had been a sleepy little village of 175 souls in 1857, but by 1890 had grown to a vibrant hub of over 4,000 as people flocked to the area to make their fortunes. Money flowed and the residents invested in the good life; a huge number of pianos were imported from Europe, and classical music concerts and artistic performances were a regular feature of town life. Gourmands imported apples from San Francisco and the cantinas imported American beer from St. Louis and Milwaukee. It was even rumored that Gustav Eiffel, he of the Paris tower, designed the still-standing La Ramona smokestack in 1890 for the Progreso Mining Company. While the museum states there is no evidence that Eiffel designed the tower, for Eiffel fans it should be noted that there is no evidence that he didn’t either.
1890 was an important year for El Triunfo on another front as well. The United States enacted a federal law called the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, which effectively made the US government the second-largest buyer of silver in the world, second only to the British Crown in India. Under the terms of the act the government was required to purchase an additional 4.5 million ounces of silver bullion every month, in addition to the US$2 to $4 million required previously. Silver mining around El Triunfo surged. But the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, initially conceived of as a way to boost the economy and create sufficient inflation to allow farmers and miners to pay off debts that had become untenable due to deflation, was unsustainable. It contributed to a major economic depression in the US, and in 1893 was repealed. The US moved to the gold standard and the price of silver plummeted.
It was the beginning of the end for the mining towns of BCS. The mines struggled and the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1917 exacerbated their challenges. Ultimately, the silver boom ended as it began, with a monumental storm. This time however, instead of riches being tossed upon the shore, the hurricane of 1918 washed them away, destroying much of the town and rushing arsenic from shattered mines downstream, devastating local livestock along the way. 25 human deaths were recorded, and all ships in La Paz were reportedly damaged, sunk or run aground. The last mine in El Triunfo closed in 1926, and the town shrank back down to the sleepy little town of a few hundred folks that it is today.
Today Mexico is the largest producer of silver in the world, producing 5,600 metric tons in 2017. But no one in El Triunfo seems to be clamoring for a return to the old mining days. Turns out the quality of the silver in the area wasn’t that great anyway. A 1906 US Consular report on display in the museum notes that the ore of the area “is not high grade and is very rebellious.” But the high price of gold in the global market today has created persistent efforts from companies outside of BCS to establish open pit gold mining in the area once again. For its part, Museo Ruta de Plata makes it clear that although mining for minerals drove the settlement of the area, mining for knowledge is the long-term economic path forward for the region. Exhibits in the silver museum laud the extraordinary biodiversity and natural beauty of the area, alongside the scientific research and distinct ecotourism opportunities they represent. As with places like the Galapagos that have a similarly unique and biologically diverse environment, jobs based in sustainable tourism, conservation and research seem to be the hope for the resurgence of El Triunfo and the surrounding towns of BCS. Even the Jesuits would have been happy about that economic plan.
Sources for this article include: Harry W. Crosby, Antigua California: Mission and Colony on the Peninsular Frontier, 1697-1768; Juan Jose Cabuto of Museo Ruta de Plata; and the displays and websites of Museo Ruta de Plata. www.museorutadeplata.com.
Only a limited number of reasons come to mind when considering why someone would willingly allow themselves to be bitten by a venomous snake. There is, of course, suicide by snake, popularized by Cleopatra who reputedly smuggled an asp (cobra) into her chambers to kill herself and her hand maidens as Egypt fell to the Romans. Closely related is spirituality by snake, in which believers handle venomous snakes as a testament to their faith. The snakes snuff out the posers. And then there is science by snake, in which investigators inject themselves with venom to build up immunity, then test that immunity with actual snake bites (see suicide by snake).
So when Catarino Rosas Espinosa, widely known as Don Cata, said that his father deliberately provoked a rattlesnake to bite him, it’s initially difficult to make sense of the story. Don Cata’s father, Hipólito Rosas, was a renowned curandero, or healer, in the Sierra La Laguna mountains of Baja California Sur (BCS). Born in 1890, Hipólito was growing up at the height of the mining frenzy in BCS, a time when many Europeans were moving to Baja and bringing more “advanced” notions of medicine and civilized society. It was a time that saw a huge influx of grand pianos into the state as a reflection of increasing wealth, and a rapid decline in the number of people experienced in the traditional healing arts. People wanted to purchase their cures over the counter.
Although he worked for the mines for a time, Hipólito did not embrace all the modernizations brought by the Europeans. In fact, the Europeanization of local culture prompted him to seek out those who had been practicing traditional medicine in Baja long before the arrival of even the first wave of Europeans almost 500 years ago – he sought out families in the Sierras who still have the blood of the now largely extinct native peoples of BCS – the Guaycura and the Pericu – running through their veins. Under their tutelage he became a great healer renowned throughout BCS, working with 81 plants in the area that have healing properties, and using them to treat everything from allergies and bug bites, to cancer and diabetes. But the most important lesson he learned, and the one he felt most critical to impart to his son Catarino, is the power of mind over matter.
Don Cata and Dona Luz
By the time he was a teenager Don Cata was already an accomplished healer himself, having worked alongside his father since he was a small child. He saw that with every single patient Hipólito would end the consultation with a pep talk, telling the patient that everything was going to be fine. Don Cata says his father was cueing his patients’ minds to help heal their bodies. When Don Cata turned 16, Hipólito decided it was time to make flesh this lesson of mind over matter, and so set the rattlesnake upon his son.
Today Don Cata is a very healthy and youthful 65 years old, but he can still remember vividly the painful, lethal venom coursing through his veins, and the intense struggle to dominate it with his mind, keeping it from reaching his heart. He says that power of positive thinking, of the mind dominating the body, is critical to good health, and one of the best ways we can help ourselves prevent and/or recover from illness and injury. But how does one get a mind that is so powerful it can stop rattlesnake venom from reaching the heart? Plants. Says Don Cata, “I like to look for plants that have very long lives, lives that are longer than ours, old plants that are full of sustainable, renewable energy. When I see a really large, obviously old tree, I hug that tree with my whole body and with lots of love, and that tree shares its energy with me. When I go up in the mountains, I prepare tea from the root of a long-lived fern that grows there, and every day I drink 3 cups of this tea just before bed. I consider problems I need to resolve or areas in which I need help, and after drinking this tea at night solutions and knowledge come to me. After 15 days in the mountains of drinking this tea every day and walking in a different altitude, I have great clarity of mind and feel like a young man when I return to my ranch.”
Omar Piña is a 39 year-old traditional Mexican medicine expert who has studied with native peoples, shamans, curanderos and rancheros throughout Mexico. Omar, who holds several certifications in holistic health, says that traditional medicine is “based on a harmonious relationship with all the elements of the earth with whom human beings coexist, but do not master. (Emphasis is the author’s.) Many diseases and natural phenomena that affect people’s health are associated with a poor relationship with the beings of nature.” Omar, whose father is an MD, notes that in Western medicine, if a process cannot be readily understood it is generally dismissed. But Omar, Don Cata and other practitioners believe that people can connect with the spirit of the plant, and that plants can both heal you and prevent disease, whether this is an explicable phenomenon or not. All these healers have their go-to plants for particular ailments and issues (see The Power of Plants in Your Baja Garden) but they all believe that how you deal with the plant has as big an impact on the results that you may get as any chemical properties inherent to the plant itself. Explains Don Cata, “You must transmit love to the plant and give thanks to the plant, as well as the land and the earth. Otherwise it will die. We never take the whole plant for a medicine, we just take what we need.” Omar agrees. “To reap the full benefits of the healing or restorative properties of the plant, you must ask the plant for help. When people have a physical symptom, they must ask for the help so that they can start looking deeper for the root of the problem in their souls.”
Omar says that the rancheros of BCS like Don Cata are fully responsible for their emotional and physical well-being in ways that many of us in the west are not. “In modern times we have such large egos we think we can solve everything but we cannot. We just want to take a pill for the problem, without digging deeper into its origins. The Baja Rancheros and the native peoples of Mexico have so much respect for the earth, the things we cannot see, and for being connected to everything around us.”
Omar is living testimony to the power of plants to heal one’s soul and maintain balance in life. In 2010 Omar’s brother was kidnapped in Monterrey N.L. and has never been seen or heard from again. The shock of such an almost unimaginable event caused Omar’s mother to suffer a stroke, and plunged Omar into a profound emotional crisis. But, says Omar, “In this most difficult moment of my life, traditional medicine and plants taught me so much about life and spirituality, and brought me back to emotional health. It is this inner process of healing myself, of healing my soul, of finding balance with the help of the plants that I want to share with others.” The kidnapping of your brother – that’s a lot of venom for your mind to keep away from your heart.
Carlos Casteneda, the famed author who wrote several books about the teachings of a Mexican shaman concluded, “The aim is to balance the terror of being alive with the wonder of being alive.” Omar has succeeded in doing just that, and sharing this knowledge is now his life’s work. “Traditional medicine is sacred, it comes from god, it’s related to god” says Omar. “It is of and for the community – it belongs to everyone.” Don Cata agrees. People throughout the Sierras seek him out for healing, but he feels that his main purpose is to teach them how to use the plants themselves. “When friends visit, or when I’m working on projects on ranches with others, I always try to give them the knowledge for themselves and their families, and encourage them to pass it on to others.”
The great Prussian naturalist Alexander von Humboldt wrote, “Nature everywhere speaks to man in a voice familiar to his soul.” Man just needs to open himself to hear that voice. Mind over matter.
The American Cowboy is the quintessential symbol of what made America great: strong character, diverse skills, creative problem solving, resilient nature and beef on the table. The iconic cowboys loved their whiskey, played their harmonicas, and sported nicknames like Cactus Pete, Deadeye Jake and Kid Curry. But If you look under the buckskin a bit you’ll find that the original American cowboys likely preferred tequila, played bass fiddles, and had nicknames like El Coyote, Güero de las Canoas and Dos Santos Biel. And that’s exactly why Meg Glaser, Artistic Director of the Western Folklife Center in Elko, Nevada invited 5 Baja California Sur vaqueros (cowboys) to be the guests of honor at the 31st National Cowboy Poetry Gathering: they are the living link between the Spanish missionary soldiers that came to Baja California 300 years ago, and the American buckaroo. Yep, as surely as the Statue of Liberty came from France, and the melody of the Star-Spangled Banner came from England, the American Cowboy came from Mexico. Juan Wayne would have been a more apt screen name for the Duke.
Don Jose y La Pancha. Painting by Carlos Cesar Diaz Castro
The Western Folklife Center (WFC) focuses on making connections with other horse and ranching cultures from around the world. They have hosted cowboys from the far-flung corners of the earth, including Mongolia, Hungary and Brazil, but nothing they had ever done prepared them for the challenge of hosting the vaqueros of Baja California Sur. Says Meg, “The BCS vaqueros live almost completely off the grid so they didn’t have passports, US visas, or even email access. It was incredibly challenging to get these men who live on roadless ranches, some of whom must ride 6 hours on mules to get to the nearest highway, from Baja to Nevada, but together with the great Baja team we did it and it was one of our most successful programs ever. Many of our buckaroos in Nevada and other parts of the west are pretty well versed on the history and the connection between the American cowboy and the Mexican vaquero, but very few of us realized that it was such a vibrant living culture. It was a real eye opener for all of us.”
Of course back in the day both Nevada and Baja were part of the Spanish California Provinces (Nevada in Alta or Upper California and present day BCS in Baja or Lower California) and cowboys and cattle – imported from Spain to satisfy the conquerors’ demand for beef – flowed freely throughout the region. In fact, the regions were so integrated culturally and linguistically that it wasn’t until the 1960s that people from Baja California were required to have a passport and visa to travel to the USA. The lingua franca of cowboys demonstrates the cultural link between the two Californias: “buckaroo” is the Americanization of the word “vaquero”, “chaps” comes from the Spanish word chaparreras, or leather leggings, “rodeo” comes from the Spanish word rodear, to surround, and “mustang” comes from the Spanish word mostrenco. The modern livestock industry in the USA continues to thrive on early Mexican techniques for handling cattle including branding, saddle cinching and using a hand-braided lariat – from the Spanish la reata – to rope cattle.
Chema with his guitar in the Sierras.Photo courtesy of Saddling South
But now there is most definitely a border, and crossing it was a tremendous experience for the whole team. Says vaquero Jose Maria Arce Arce, who goes by Chema, “Just imagine. I had to ride a mule for several hours out of the Sierras as part of the journey to the airport, then suddenly I was on a huge airplane and we flew over my ranch – I recognized it immediately and was amazed to see it from the air. This trip was my first time on an airplane and my first time in such a nice hotel. Imagine a horse that is accustomed to poor grazing areas then he’s put in a green pasture. That is what it felt like to me.” Trudi Angell has been Chema’s friend and business associate in the Sierra San Francisco since 2005, and she was the main organizer of the trip. The vaqueros nicknamed her “La Caponera” or “the bell-mare” of the trip: the one to follow. She sat next to Chema’s cousin, Bonifacio, or “Boni” on the first flight. “His eyes lit up like a kid as he turned around at lift-off and practically shouted “ ‘Chinga! The cars all look like ants!’ Forty minutes later when we flew over the Sierra San Francisco, Chema and Ricardo (Chema’s son who’s known as Teté) were pressed to the window pane and were practically beside themselves when they saw their ranch from the sky. It was a wonderful experience.”
Chema, Teté and Boni are Los Regionales de la Sierra, a musical group that plays traditional ranchero music from the northwest of Mexico, much of it resonant of eras long gone by. Chema plays accordion and guitar, Boni plays bajo sextoand accordion, and Tetéplays the northern ranchero bass fiddle. In Elko they performed often at schools, juvenile facilities and the Western Folklife Center itself, and were accompanied by singers Damiana and Duna Conde, daughters of the renowned Baja California Sur musician, comedian and political satirist Raul Conde. The crowds and other musicians simply couldn’t get enough of the group, and they were feted everywhere they went. Even Sourdough Slim, an acclaimed western singer who regularly plays the Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall Folk Festival circuit invited the vaqueros to jam with him at the historic Pioneer Bar one evening. Observes Meg, “They were a smash sensation.”
Carlos’ stand up paintings of Boni, Chema and Tete. Part of the BCS exhibit.
The great reception to their musical skills wasmatched only by the tremendous enthusiasm for their skills as ranchers and craftsmen. Chema, Dario Higuera Meza and the other vaqueros met with American cowboys and shared information on ranching lifestyles, including working and breeding donkeys and horses. Says Chema of his American counterparts, “They are the same people that I am. I completely identified with them… the only difference is in the way they dance!” Dario, who is one of the few artisans left in BCS who knows how to create traditional ranch crafts using the old Baja California methods (he received an honorary degree from the Autonomous University of Baja California Sur in recognition of his unparalleled skills and contribution to BCS culture), gave daily demonstrations on horsehair rope making and leather braiding, and in particular bonded with several native American families over different methods of tanning and spinning rope. They were so enthralled with Dario they invited him to a Navajo festival. Chema’s nephew, Juan Gabriel Arce Arce – nicknamed Biel – gave daily demonstrations on leatherworking and other traditional ranch skills. Biel consistently wins the top prize at state-wide leatherworking contests.A traditionally tanned leather trunk that he made with ornately woven edges and beautiful hand tooling was purchased by a Basque ranching family from Elko for US$5,000.
McKenzie Campbell, one of the people responsible for getting the vaqueros to Elko, is the founder of Living Roots, a non-profit which helps BCS ranch families capitalize on their skills. At the request of the WFC gift shop, she made sure that the group brought many leatherwork pieces made by Teté, Dario, Biel and other ranchers, includingpolainas (leather gators), miniature vaquero saddles, belts and teguas (riding shoes). McKenzie also brought other BCS ranchero crafts including embroidered purses and bags, as well as tepetes, rag rugs that women make with scraps of cloth. It allsold like hot cakes in the gift shop.
The vaqueros are direct descendants of soldiers imported by the Jesuit missionaries in the 1700s. Recruited as part of a deal with the king of Spain that gave the Jesuits administrative autonomy in Baja California in return for protecting the territory from pirates, these “soldiers” were in fact largely people from Moorish Spain who had the excellent ranching and agricultural skills the Jesuits needed to develop their missions. They became known as the “soldiers of leather” to distinguish them from fighting “soldiers of metal”. When the Jesuits were subsequently kicked out of Baja, the “soldiers of leather” who worked the missions were given the lands by administrative fiat and from that point on Baja ranchero culture flourished. Largely forgotten by the rest of Mexico for several
Fermin Building the Rancho Exhibit
generations and isolated by geography, the architecture, ranch tools, farm implements and cookware of BCS ranches remains to this day very similar to that developed by their Spanish forbears 300 years ago. “The BCS rancheros are a piece of the past that has survived until today” says Fermín Reygadas, a professor of Alternative Tourism at the Autonomous University of Baja California Sur who has worked with Baja Californiarancheros for over 30 years.
Fermín, who counts ranchers as some of his best friends in Baja, envisioned and happily executed the task of recreating a typical ranch dwelling with an hoja (palm-frond) roof and palo d’arco walls for the exhibit at the WFC. Working with La Paz artist Carlos César Diaz Castro in Elko a full month before the vaqueros arrived, Fermíncreated a truly astounding exhibit which everyone agrees captures the heart and soul of BCS ranchero life. Says Trudi, “The BCS exhibit was left up for 8 months and a woman from the WFC sent me a special note to say that the local folks from Elko came again and again to see the exhibit, bringing visiting friends and family. They had never seen this type of reaction to an exhibit before.”
Carlos Painting Tete. Photo by Karla Fernanda Amao
The whole project got started when Rick Knight, a professor from Colorado State University and board member of the WFC, went on a mule trip with Trudi’scompany,Saddling South, in the Sierras. Chema was their guide at the Sierra San Francisco rock art sites, and he and his family entertained the group around the campfire at night. Rick informed Meg Glaser of the incredible experience he had had and in 2012 Meg came down to see it for herself. She knew right away she had to get the vaqueros to Elko.Three years later – which included intensive months of effort by Trudi in the quest for Mexican passports and US visas for 5 people who live almost completely outside the system (letters to the US Consulate from Nevada Senator Harry Reid, the BCS State Board of Tourism, the Western Folklife Center and several others all had to be obtained) – the group was in Elko. The connections made between people and cultures moved them all. Says Chema, “The best part is that we went so far and met people we had become friends with at the caves in the Sierras.” Says Meg, “The best part is that the social connections extend far beyond Elko and many people have already gone to Baja Sur to visit the Sierras and learn more about the vaquero culture.” Says Fermín, “The best part was watching the vaqueros bond with the US ranchers discussing knots and ropes, sharing ideas and experiences. It really showed how connected we all are.”For his part, Dario, who is not one of the musicians, had so much fun that he wrote a song about the whole experience.
Elko Group Portrait Back Row, Left to Right: Karla Fernanda Amao (Carlos’s wife), Carlos Cesar Diaz Castro, Dune Conde, Fermin Reygadas Dahl, McKenzie Campbell, Chema (Jose Maria Arce Arce), Damiana Conde, Ricardo Arce Arce (Tete), Juan Gabrial Arce Arce (Biel), Bonifacio Arce Arce (Boni). Seated Front Row: Trudi Angell, Dario Higuera Meza, Teodora Montes Botham, Meg Glaser. Photo courtesy of Western Folklife Center.
Concludes Chema, “I never had a childhood because I’ve worked since I was a little boy. I now feel very proud that people know me and our life here at the ranch, both through the movie Corazon Vaquero and our trip to Elko. We represented the Baja California vaqueros to the cowboys of the US, and they really respect all the things we can do. It was a beautiful experience. But I’m still the same humble
Chema and his grandaughter Azu. Photo courtesy of Saddling South
rancher I have always been and I haven’t changed my way of life. All of my grandchildren are becoming ranchers and I’m very pleased about that.” Fermín calls the vaqueros of BCS “an oasis of common sense humans.” Maybe Chema’s grandkids will be the next generation of Cowboy Ambassadors, connecting US cowboys to their living roots in Baja California Sur. Could there be another ride for the bell-mare? Possibly. Trudi says her first thought when she woke up after the trip to Elko was, “We have to take this show on the road!”