Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. That may be the fate of the mortal coil, but humans have never had much truck with letting flesh have the final word. “Rock, stone, mosaics, ceramics. These are the lasting materials of any civilization,” says Donna Billick, the founder of Billick Rock Art in Davis, California and Todos Artes in Todos Santos, Baja California Sur. “Rock art is the only uninterrupted communication throughout human history of who we are culturally. It is a statement of who we are in our time as well as the transmission of ourselves through time. When you look back across the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia, Greece, Rome, China, Mesoamerica, you will find ceramics and mosaics embedded in the culture, still informing us today in vibrant and dynamic detail about those ancient lives lived.”
In fact, ceramics – clay hardened by heat – are so durable that NASA incorporates the material into present-day spacecraft engineering. The space agency actually has a page on its website devoted to “Superhero Ceramics!” noting that ceramics are “stronger than aluminum, fireproof and able to withstand meteoroids.” Among many other uses, the entire lower surface of a space shuttle orbiter is covered with ceramic tiles as part of the spacecraft’s thermal protection system. But there is another material that is equally compelling to NASA and that is “pound-for-pound more effective for shielding against cosmic radiation than aluminum.” Plastic. In fact, the same material used to make household trash bags, polyethylene, can be chemically modified into a material that has three times the tensile strength of aluminum and is 2.6 times lighter.
That type of durability is highly desirable for space travel, particularly for any humans interested in traveling to Mars who would have to endure high levels of radiation for up to 30 months. But the very durability that makes your plastic trash bag seem like Superman’s cape in space, makes it a more of a Lex Luther-grade menace when it simply envelopes your trash in a landfill on earth. It can take up to 1,000 years to decompose, and in the process it can release toxic pollutants into the air, ground and water that threaten our very existence on the planet. It is probably safe to say that we would all rather have our first trip to Mars be by personal choice then by mandated evacuation order.
Donna, who has a degree in genetics in addition to art, started the Art & Science Fusion Program during her tenure as a professor at the University of California Davis. It is therefore not surprising that she and her Todos Artes “quaranteam” of artists, surfers and environmentalists Isabel “Issy” Von Zastrow and Will Worden, saw their two worlds happily collide around the durable properties of ceramics and plastic. It all started with the ecobrick. Explains Will, “An ecobrick is a plastic container like a Coke bottle or a garafon (large water container) stuffed to the brim with non-biodegradable plastic waste. This makes a very strong, reusable and long-lasting building material that can be used to make many things including furniture, garden walls, and sculptures. Issy and I were working on ecobricks for our new home, when we happened to observe Donna giving a ceramic mosaic workshop. The lightbulb kind of collectively went off for all of us, and we all saw a great way to mitigate the extremely negative impact of plastic waste’s durability, with the culturally positive impact of ceramic’s durability. When we take the ecobricks and encase them in concrete and ceramic mosaics, it makes a beautiful and enduring piece of art. From the basic building block of an ecobrick, you can make lamps, tables, chairs, really all kinds of beautiful, functional pieces.”
When Donna got out of graduate school in the mid-1970s, the governor of California at the time, Jerry Brown, mandated that 2% of the budget for all public buildings be devoted to art. For Donna, this was the answer to her father’s daily question during her childhood, “so what is your big idea?”, and she’s spent the last 42 years producing large scale art for public spaces. But having her art enjoyed by everyone, not just a few private collectors or gallery owners, is only part of Donna’s Big Idea. “Community build is really where it’s at. Jerry Brown saw public art as a key component of an enlightened, vibrant and thriving society. And when the community itself participates in making a piece of art, it creates a sense of collective ownership and pride in the art that is simply not possible any other way.” Donna, a founding member of the Community Built Association, brought community build to Todos Santos through Todos Artes and her annual Heaven on Earth workshop. Two of her ceramic mosaic pieces built by Todos Santos community members, the Aztec Calendar just off the Todos Santos town plaza, and the Los Todos Santeños wall along the well-traveled route of lower Topete, are now some of the most-photographed, most-loved, and iconic images of the town.
Issy outlines how the ecobricks can fit into a long-term community build program for our tourism-driven area. “There is a difference between impact and influence. One way that the communities of Baja California Sur can influence the impact of tourism on our towns is to invite all travelers to contribute to the ecobricks. Each hotel, restaurant and Airbnb rental can have an old garafon in a central area and invite travelers to stuff it with their plastic waste. When the garafon is full, either we at Todos Artes will come pick it up to turn it into functional art, or we can share with the proprietors how to do it themselves. We invite visitors into our communities to experience the area’s great natural beauty, and this is a great way for them to help ensure that the place will be just as beautiful the next time they visit. They can influence the impact they have on the community in a lasting, beautiful way.”
There is a group called The Long Now Foundation that is in the process of building the 10,000 Year Clock – a clock it expects to keep time for 10,000 years – with the help of ceramic bearings of course. The clock is a monument to long-term thinking and Alexander Rose, the executive director of the project notes, “It is not the engineering [of the clock] but the civilization around it which we hope to shape as one that cares for both the present and the future. We hope that by building such things…they challenge us to become better ancestors.” The Todos Artes team sees ecobricks in much the same light. Says Donna, “The ecobricks are a great way to increase the environmental literacy of our community, to engage the current generation in a completely fun way in the preservation of the stunning nature all around us for future generations.”
Perhaps when the 10,000 Year Clock strikes its last hour all those centuries into the future, and the archaeologists are writing their books on the ancient artifacts of the 2020s in Baja California Sur, they’ll be struck by the care that society took to turn one of its most enduring problems – plastic waste – into some of its most enduring works of art. Rock, stone, mosaics, ceramics. With ecobricks we’ll be transmitting who we were culturally to all the generations to come. We’ll be proving ourselves good ancestors. And, if all goes according to plan, those receiving the message will still have the option to live on a vibrant, thriving and enlightened Earth.
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:
Like many of the best things in life, Mar Libre was born over drinks by friends kvetching about the state of things. “When you get biologists together, the conversation invariably veers to how bad things are in the natural world” says Pablo Ahuja, one of the founders of Mar Libre. “On this particular night we were all complaining about how we couldn’t enjoy diving at San Rafaelito in the Sea of Cortez anymore because every time we went, we’d have to spend all of our time and air picking fishing line off the coral. This is painstaking work that must be done very carefully so the coral doesn’t get damaged.” Pablo continues, “Right then and there we decided that instead of cleaning up areas incidentally when we were out diving, we’d start diving with the purposeful intent of cleaning these natural areas.”
Pablo and his friends decided to set a date right then and there. “On the night of July 3, 2015 we posted on Facebook about a clean-up dive for July 21, 2015, and by the next morning we had over 20 divers and dive companies saying they wanted to participate. By the time July 21 rolled around, there were 8 boats and 70 people volunteering to help. That day we cleaned the reef not only San Rafaelito, but La Gaviota as well.” That was a little over 6 years ago and Mar Libre has done a monthly reef or mangrove clean up dive every month since then. Says Pablo, “There are so many rents that we pay on a monthly basis like housing, electricity, and telephone, so we decided that we would also pay our monthly rent to Mother Nature.”
The Mar Libre crew understood from the beginning that conservation without education is not productive or sustainable, so in October 2015 they started going into the schools to educate students and staff on the issues, using the photos and data they had from the July, August, and September clean up dives. Pablo, a marine biologist with a background in science education, lead the charge. “The school directors in Baja California Sur have been great to work with. They will give us 45 minutes per classroom to discuss the problems and the solutions. Very often after a visit an entire school will go on a cleanup. Cleaning a mangrove or reef really changes their views. They simply cannot believe the amount of trash that there is, and they realize that only they can really be the agents of change. So far we’ve engaged with over 24,000 students in BCS.”
Just how much trash is there? Recalls Pablo, “We did a cleanup at El Magote in La Paz in March 2021 with 200 volunteers and 8 boats. We took that trash to the La Paz dump which has a scale. That is how we learned that we had collected 8.4 tons of trash on just that one day. We estimate that we’ve cleaned over 140 tons of trash from the reefs and mangroves since we started the project in 2015.” Some of the things that they find in a mangrove that has never been cleaned might seem surprising to the uninitiated. Recounts Pablo, “We’ve found fax machines, washing machines, electrodes, 50 year-old mason jars. We pulled 4 porcelain toilets out of one mangrove. We figured folks had gone camping and were just looking for a little privacy. It’s fun to date stuff that comes out of the cleanups. There is a brand of beer called Carta Blanca that used to make its bottles with a little indentation on the side. The idea was to use one bottle to take the cap off the next. They stopped making those bottles in 1970 so when we find them we know that trash is at least 50 years fold.”
Pablo takes the long view on his quest to clean the reefs and mangroves of Baja California Sur. “When we go to a new spot, literally no one in human history has ever cleaned that place before. It can seem overwhelming at the first cleaning, but subsequent visits are encouraging. Pargo Villa Reef near Isla Ceralvo is a good example. In September 2015 we cleaned that reef for the first time and took out 100 kilos of fishing line alone. In September of 2016 we cleaned again and took out 10 kilos of fishing line, and we think this was mainly because we didn’t get it all the first time. In September 2017 we cleaned again and there was only one kilo of fishing line. And with education, 100 kilos of fishing line will never build up in this spot again.”
Mar Libre exists only in the hearts and minds of the kayakers, surfers, divers, sailors, biologists, students and other ocean lovers who volunteer their time, energy and resources to cleaning our local reefs and mangroves. There is no office, no staff, no NGO status, no budget, no funds. Pablo’s goal is to wipe out even that reality. “We want to clean and educate ourselves out of existence.” But that moment is not yet at hand and much work remains to be done. Everyone is invited to join the Mar Libre movement and participate in the monthly reef and mangrove cleanups. Invite your friends, your family, your school group, your office mates to join you!
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.
These days when you visit the Baja peninsula and the Gulf of California things can seem slow, lazy, sometimes as if not even time is moving. It is the moment, it is Zen, it is calm. This is not how things started. Baja and the Gulf of California were born from crashing tectonic plates, erupting volcanoes and the violence of geology. They were created quickly, in the blink of an eye, and not very long ago. Geologically speaking.
Dr. Scott Bennett of the US Geological Survey has studied the geology and tectonics of Baja California for years and published numerous scientific research articles on the formation of the peninsula and the Gulf of California. He lays out the process of their short, intense creation, and where you can identify pieces of the birth story on your travels throughout Baja. “100 to 80 million years ago (Cretaceous period), a subduction zone existed along the western edge of North America, including Mexico. The Farallon and North American plates were moving towards each other, with the Farallon plate subducting underneath the North American plate, heading down to the east. This subduction motion (writer’s note: some might modify “motion” with adjectives like smashing, hurdling, crashing) formed ancient volcanoes at Earth’s surface, and large batholiths of granite in the magma chambers below. Then 50 to 40 million years ago, the angle of the down-going Farallon plate seemingly shallowed, causing mountains, such as the Rockies in the USA and the Sierra Madre Oriental in Mexico, to shoot up throughout Western North America. This uplift, and the related erosion (which erased the previously formed volcanoes) brought the older granite rocks to the surface. These are the rocks that you see today stretching for miles as you travel through the Valley of the Cirios (Valle de los Cirios) in the mid-section of the peninsula, on Highway 2 between Tijuana and Mexicali, and in the Sierra La Laguna mountains between Todos Santos and San Jose del Cabo.”
Now it may seem to our human mindset that this all took place an exceedingly long time ago. But to understand just how young the Baja peninsula really is, consider that those who know how to calculate such things say that Earth is 4.54 billion years old, give or take 50 million years. That is to say, most of the action that formed the land of the Baja peninsula took place in the period of time that correlates to a margin of error for the formation of Earth. And we’ve only gotten to the granite and the mountains. What is now the Baja peninsula was still firmly attached to mainland Mexico, and the Gulf of California was not even a twinkle in the Pacific Ocean’s eye.
“Then 25 to 12 million years ago (Miocene period), the Farallon Plate in the Pacific Ocean started subducting east at a much steeper angle again, like a curtain whipping downwards” says Scott. “This steepening angle created more volcanoes, but their location shifted back to the west, tracking with the ever-steepening, subducting Farallon plate. The volcanic rocks from this period make up a lot of the flat top mesas that you see in Baja California today in areas like Cataviña and La Purisima, as well as the massive piles of volcanic rock in the high peaks of Sierra Madre Occidental in Sonora, Sinaloa and Nayarit. The Tres Virgenes Volcanoes, in the midsection of the Baja peninsula, were formed at the end of this period. Isla Espiritu Santo, off the coast of La Paz in the Gulf of California, gets its striking beauty from the wonderfully layered volcanic rock, mostly tuff (rocks made of compressed volcanic ash), that has been gently tilted along normal faults. Brian Hausback, a geology professor at California State University, Sacramento, has dated some of the volcanic rocks of Isla Espiritu Santo to 16-21 million years old, making them older than the formation of the Gulf of California seaway.”
Which means that, at this point in our story, the Baja peninsula is still stubbornly connected to the mainland. But we’re getting to the good part now!
“Then, 12 million years ago, the conveyor belt of subduction stopped” say Scott. Plates stopped colliding and the volcanoes slowly waned. There was calm. But then, thanks to a complex reorganization of tectonic plate motions, a new phenomenon emerged: oblique rifting. The plates began pulling apart, but at an oblique angle. Scott continues. “This oblique rift is called the Gulf of California Shear Zone. It became connected with the southern end of the San Andreas fault near the Salton Sea, which now made its way to Mexico. This resulted in right lateral fault motion in northwestern Mexico, and everything to the west of it began ripping away from the mainland, moving to the northwest, including the sliver of California that is to the west of the San Andreas fault – San Diego, Los Angeles, Big Sur, Santa Cruz. The area that is now San Jose del Cabo wrenched away from the area that is now Puerta Vallarta, and the formation of the Baja peninsula was in motion.” At last!
The rest of it didn’t take long. By 8 million years ago the rate of ripping (oblique rifting) increased and the Gulf of California seaway (finally!) started to form, with the waters of the Pacific Ocean trickling up to somewhere around La Paz. By 7 million years ago the Gulf of California seaway had trickled up to Guayamas, and by 6.3 million years ago the gulf waters had gone all the way up to the Salton Sea region, forming an extremely long and skinny Gulf of California seaway from Cabo to southern California that was probably no more than 10 to 50 kilometers wide and well over 1,000 kilometers long.
Of course, no current map shows the Gulf of California connected to the Salton Sea, and for that we can thank the Colorado River. About 5.5 million years ago it started flowing into the low-lying areas at the northern end of the Gulf of California (which was rapidly rifting apart) and forming large tectonic valleys that are similar to Death Valley today. The Colorado brought with it an enormous amount of sand and silt that essentially filled up the tectonic valleys across the entire area from the Salton Sea to the current Gulf of California, forming an agricultural river delta between Mexicali and Yuma. When you look at Google Map imagery of the Gulf of California today, you can clearly see the smooth, sandy bottom that characterizes the seafloor in the northern part of the gulf where the Colorado River deposited sand and silt, in contrast to the jagged and faulted continental remnants that characterize the seafloor in the central and southern Gulf, from about Bahia Los Angeles on down. The whole story is written right there on the seabed.
And the story is not over yet. The Gulf of California is still rifting apart, and the Baja peninsula continues its journey to the northwest, moving away from mainland Mexico at about 45 millimeters per year, although sometimes much faster. Observes Scott, “We are constantly reminded of the active tectonic plates in the Gulf of California by large earthquakes of Magnitudes 4 to 6 that occur in the Gulf every year. The most recent large earthquake (M7.2) occurred in northeastern Baja California on Easter Sunday 2010, tearing a 120-kilometer gash across Earth’s surface, and moving the Baja peninsula several feet towards the northwest in less than a minute.”
Baja’s journey will continue. Along with the southern parts of the US state of California that are to the west of the San Andreas fault, Baja will continue to travel roughly 50 kilometers every million years, eventually sliding past Vancouver and Juneau and colliding with Anchorage in 50 million years or so. Which, remember, is just the margin of error for the age of Earth. We are practically there.