Sustainable Ranching and the Cowboy Museum in El Triunfo
The new Museo de Vaqueros del las Californias in El Triunfo – The Cowboy Museum – is an intimate, yet gorgeously expansive look at the 300 years of families, traditions, skills and tools that bind the Californias of Mexico and the United States in ways that no war or border can erase. It is a celebration of the great vaquero / cowboy culture that was born in Baja California, moved north with the cattle to Alta California, and still thrives today throughout the western United States.
The museum exhibits are punctuated with the fantastically beautiful paintings of La Paz artist Carlos César Diaz Castro, who created ten paintings and two murals to help tell the vaquero’s story, as well as stunning photos of present-day vaquero life by renowned Baja California Sur photographer Miguel Angel de la Cueva. As with its sister museum in El Triunfo, Museo Ruta de la Plata / the Silver Route Museum, one of the museum’s most compelling exhibits is the oral history section, in which members of local ranching families share their stories, histories and anecdotes.
But perhaps one of the most interesting themes running throughout the museum in small plaques and chalk drawing prints is that of sustainability. Interwoven with exhibits of criollo pigs and cattle brought from the Iberian Peninsula, is the explanation of Transhumance, livestock practices with minimal environmental impact that the Spanish brought with them to the New World that involved the environmentally sustainable practice of seasonal livestock migration. This practice is now a cornerstone of regenerative cattle ranching, and you don’t have to go far from the museum to see it in action. Christy Walton’s innovacionesAlumbra, an alliance of sustainable businesses in Baja California Sur, is the owner not only of the Cowboy Museum, but also of Rancho Cacachilas – about an hour’s drive from the Cowboy Museum – where modern day cowboys are fast at work restoring the land.
Florent Gomis, a Frenchman who came to Baja to study the Ecology of Desert Climates, is the Director of Sustainability at Rancho Cacachilas, and Transhumance is at the heart of his efforts. “In Baja California Sur as elsewhere in the ranching world, livestock has been blamed for the destruction of the land. In reality, the cattle aren’t the problem, it’s the management of the cattle.” Florent explains further. “Before there were vaqueros, herds of herbivores were motivated by predators to keep moving from place to place and that movement kept the land from being overgrazed. What we are working to achieve here at Rancho Cacachilas is the restoration of the impact that wild herds of herbivores once had on the land. These wild herds would continually move location, giving lands time to recover from their impact before their return. Here at Rancho Cacachilas we manage animals in groups and keep them moving, letting the land they had previously occupied rest for at least a year.”
While cattle are typically decried as destructive, Florent sees them as part of a restorative, creative process. “We really view the cattle as gardeners. When they move to a new grazing area, their hooves break the hard-packed dirt, allowing water and minerals to infiltrate the land. The cattle’s dung and urine are full soil-revitalizing carbon and nutrients, and as the cattle graze they trample these riches into the ground, resulting in the regeneration of the land. In a relatively short period of time we have seen these eroded, barren lands become covered in vegetation.”
The benefits of Transhumance don’t stop there. “One of the really cool things about this process of regenerating the soil is that it also regenerates the rain cycle” explains Florent. “Lots of vegetation on the land has a cooling effect on the atmosphere, causing clouds to precipitate on the land. So from what was once this vast cycle of death – overgrazing, monoculture, fertilizers and pesticides – you get this great cycle of life. The cows create nutritious soil so chemicals are not needed, the soil retains water and supports vegetation, the vegetation improves the soil, attracts more rain and feeds the cows, and the rain replenishes the whole, holistic system.” Florent notes that at Rancho Cacachilas, the same amount of land that could previously support only one cow, will soon support four. Moreover, with the increased vegetation for the cattle to eat, the ranch’s need for nutritional supplements for the cattle has dropped dramatically, resulting in substantial savings.
Rancho Cacachilas aims to be its own kind of Cowboy Museum. They’ve taken the lessons from the past, applied them to the present, and plan to share what they’re learning about managing cattle in the specific conditions of Baja California Sur with ranchers throughout the peninsula. The past comes alive at the beautiful new Cowboy Museum in El Triunfo. The past is alive down the road at Rancho Cacachilas.
When Christian Liñan decided to open his third restaurant in La Paz in 2017, he resolved to work only with 100% traceable, sustainably-caught local seafood. That made his seafood supply chain logistics pretty simple: he bought totoaba from Earth Ocean Farms in La Paz and oysters from Sol Azul in San Ignacio. That was it. “I have at least 15 different recipes for totoaba” he notes.
A combination of the pandemic and interminable neighborhood renovation forced the closure of that restaurant, but Christian’s commitment to traceable, sustainably-caught seafood has spanned decades and was not snuffed by a mere change of circumstance. His talent was recognized by COMEPESCA, the Mexican Council for the Promotion of Fisheries and Aquaculture Products, and as of January 2023 Christian is the Baja representative of COMEPESCA’s wildly successful program Pesca Con Futuro / Fishing with a Future. Explains Christian, “Pesca Con Futuro started in the Yucatan peninsula in 2017 and became a highly successful, high profile coalition of chefs, fishermen, producers, marketers and distributors, all committed to responsible, sustainable, in-season consumption. They all agreed to abide by the rules that promote biodiversity of species in Mexico and avoid overexploitation, thereby guaranteeing the future of fishing and aquaculture in Mexico. The 120 eminent Mexican chefs in the Yucatan peninsula who committed to Pesca Con Futuro have had such a huge impact as they are able to transmit the concept of responsible consumption and sustainable fishing and aquaculture directly to consumers via their menus and cuisine. It is truly impressive to see what they have achieved.”
COMEPESCA didn’t tap Christian to be the Baja representative of Pesca Con Futuro just because he’s a chef with an interest in sustainability. Nor did they choose him just because of his degree in Marine Sciences from CIBNOR in La Paz. One of the key reasons they chose him is because he has witnessed firsthand the importance of engaging the full chain of players in protecting marine species. In 2009, fresh out of CIBNOR, Christian joined Noroeste Sustentable (NOS) in the upper Gulf of California (Sea of Cortez). At that time the fisheries of the upper Gulf had thousands of pangas, each of which was catching roughly three tons of fish daily, mainly with gillnets. There was no management system or operating agreement among the fisheries or with the distributors, with the result that all those thousands of tons of fish were just being dumped on the market and collapsing prices. Fishers were taking home only 6 to 10 pesos per kilo of fish and fish stocks were being rapidly depleted. It is therefore not surprising that some fishers were tempted to traffic in the highly lucrative totoaba swim bladder trade. The totoaba is an iconic, endemic marine fish species of the upper Gulf. Its swim bladder is highly prized in some parts of Asia for both its purported medicinal properties and as a status symbol. As totoaba swim bladders can sell for as much as USD 80,000 per kilo, they became known as the “cocaine of the sea” and attracted the same cartels in Mexico and China that traffic in such illicit substances.
Violence came to the upper Gulf, and to say that it was a complex and dangerous work environment is a severe understatement. And humans were not the only mammals that suffered from the totoaba swim bladder trade. The totoaba shares its habitat with the Vaquita porpoise, the smallest dolphin in the world. The illegal gillnets used to trap the totoaba caught and killed huge numbers of Vaquita, which rapidly became critically endangered.
It was in this environment that Christian and NOS started the Fish Less and Gain More campaign. Through incredibly hard work in the communities they were able to create an agreement among the fisheries to catch and sell fewer tons of fish, with the result that prices rose from 6-10 pesos per kilo to 20 pesos per kilo. To protect the Vaquita, they also enforced the ban on gillnets, as well as the ban on fishing in the Vaquita’s habitat. It was all going extremely well, until it wasn’t. “Unfortunately there was really no way to enforce the agreement across all the fishing communities of the upper Gulf, with the result that some areas simply ignored the agreement and ultimately after two years prices collapsed again. Gillnetting in the Vaquita habitat resumed. The NGO and donors that had supported the program decided to close it. I was so sad and frustrated.”
Which is exactly why the Pesca Con Futuro program excites him so much – all the key players in the seafood supply chain are engaged, not just the fishermen. With chefs on the front line creating demand among consumers for eco-friendly caught, traceable seafood, the fishers, distributors and marketers realize that they have to get in line with market expectations. But, notes Christian, “It is almost impossible for fisheries to get sustainable certification.” That is why Pesca Con Futuro is a champion of the Fishery Improvement Project, FIP. “The FIP is a group of organizations and people who work collaboratively to achieve the sustainability of a fishery in the shortest possible time” notes Christian. “It is a clear and simple way to share good practices and teach about traceability. Organizations that participate in credible FIPs are considered reliable sources of supply and allies of sustainable products.” The list of FIP projects in Mexico can be found at: https://fisheryprogress.org/
Christian continues, “Sustainability is the responsibility of each of us who make up the consumption, production and supply chain, a task that must be permanent. At Pesca Con Futuro we link the different actors in the value chain, making various support tools available to them to achieve informed and responsible purchases of sustainable seafood.”
Christian believes that sustainability’s time has come for the seafood market. “In the 1990s consumers were all demanding “light” products. In the 2000s it was organic produce, and now in the 2020s the public is really turning its focus to sustainability. Pesca Con Futuro is here to both increase that awareness, and to make sure that in Mexico in general and Baja California in particular that sustainable seafood practices are widespread and sustainably-caught, 100% traceable seafood is widely available to the public.”
What about that totoaba he was cooking with at his restaurant in 2017? It represents the future he hopes to see for all of Baja. Pablo Konietzko, vice president of COMEPESCA and the founder of Earth Ocean Farms, a state-of-the-art facility in La Paz which raises the totoaba explains. “In 2012 we got special permits from SEMARNAT, the agency in charge of protecting marine species, to fish for totoaba breeding stock in the upper Gulf of California. Since we brought in those first fish we have kept meticulous records such that we can fully trace the bloodline of every fish from the hatchery to the table. It is impossible for someone to imitate our fish or pass off wild totoaba as EOF-raised.” Not only is Pablo raising totoaba for the seafood market, he is helping the totoaba to recover in the wild. Notes Pablo, “For the past 7 years we have held totoaba restocking events in Bahia Concepcion in the Gulf of California, near Mulege. We have successfully released over 175,000 juveniles into the sea, and we will continue the program each year.”
Christian could not be more thrilled to be working with Pesca Con Futuro in Baja. “It is truly an honor and a privilege to do this” he says. But the work falls to each of us. Next time you order seafood at a restaurant, ask if it was sustainably caught, and if it can be traced. Only in this way can you be sure that your favorite seafood will continue to be on the menu not only for you, but for the generations to come.
A tumultuous, exhilarating, infuriating and irrevocable shift of population, outlook, culture and vision is sweeping the lower part of the Baja peninsula. Some residents who have been here for a time are eagerly embracing the evolution, spreading the new concepts one joyous Instagram post after another. Others remain faithful to the old days and ways, testily resisting the transformers one grumpy Todos Santos Newsfeed post after another. Who is really a Todos Santeño? Paraphrasing Colson Whitehead’s beautiful tribute to New York, “No matter how long you have been here, you are a Todos Santeño the first time you say, ”That used to be Café Santa Fe” or ”That used to be Santana’s.” … You are a Todos Santeño when what was there before is more real and solid than what is here now….You start building your own private Todos Santos the first time you lay eyes on it.”
For Greg Schredder the first time he laid eyes on Todos Santos was in 1961 from the sea, but he’d been driving down the Baja peninsula for a couple of years by then. “A bunch of us southern California surfers started coming to Baja in 1959” recalls Greg. “Because there was barely a road and certainly no gas stations at that time, we retrofitted our old truck with a custom-built 55-gallon gas tank and brought what we called our Tijuana credit card, a one-inch tube that we’d use for siphoning the gas we bought at the ranches. The ranchers were always incredibly welcoming and ready to help us with gas and anything else we needed. Of course, we didn’t always find them in time and we were often stranded for days. We didn’t care, we were just always looking for waves.”
The fishermen were equally welcoming. “We would travel with 10-pack cartons of unfiltered, Delegado cigarettes, and one carton would get us up to 50 pounds of lobster. Everything was so abundant then. We’d actually get tired of eating lobster and so we’d use it as bait to go fishing. It was not uncommon to see 600-pound groupers in the Pacific lagoons in those days, and the fishermen would actually catch these giants with their hand lines. We loved staying in the fishing villages on these trips. We would surf, dive, fish, and learn incredible stories of these people living in the most remote locations. You could hear your heartbeat for a quarter mile it was so quiet and still. We would always bring baseballs, gloves and Playboy magazines, and we made friends and had a great time everywhere we went.”
Greg’s introduction to Todos Santos was rooted in much more glamorous transportation than the type that required a Tijuana credit card. “In the 1950s and 60s, most of us surfer kids in Newport, California worked on the yachts of famous people like André Previn, Julie Andrews, and Humphrey Bogart to make money, and they really treated us like family. In 1965 I came to Cabo on Ralph Larrabee’s yacht, Goodwill, and stayed for about a month. At that time Cabo was really just a small village with no electricity. Larrabee’s friends like Donald Douglas (of Douglas Aircraft fame) and John Wayne would fly in to spend a few days partying and fishing, then fly back home. It was during these downtimes that I first explored the Pacific Coast between Cabo and Todos Santos. It was a surfer’s paradise.”
Greg’s friendship with the likes of Douglas and Wayne ended up lasting decades and inspired many of his business ventures across Mexico and Costa Rica. “I would often travel with them over the years, and they are the ones who motivated me to get a real job. As a surfer and diver I decided to set up factories in La Paz and Tijuana to make rubber products related to those activities. We expanded that business into setting up factories for many Fortune 500 companies who needed inexpensive, repetitive labor. We were the largest employer in La Paz and Ensenada for over 20 years. Of course, before the highway came in, it could take up to 2 days to drive to Todos Santos for some surfing.”
“I have always loved the Pacific side of Baja, and in 1979 I bought Rancho Gaspareño, 50 acres of remote land along a quarter mile of the Pacific coastline, not too far from Todos Santos. One of the people who drew me to the area was Carmen Salgado Agramont. She had a little cantina with a hitching post out front for horses where she’d serve up warm beer and hot food. She was quite savvy, and bought the first gas refrigerator in the area. She almost couldn’t keep up with ranchero demand for cold beer after that, and there were always dozens of horses around her cantina. I loved that place, and it was Carmen’s son who set me on the path to buying the ranch, which actually has the name and signature of Benito Juarez on the original land grand title. Since then I’ve been growing coco palms on the ranch, and have also been experimenting with growing plants from Hawaii like breadfruit that have excellent potential in Mexico.”
Greg loves the history of the area. “Rancho Gaspareño was named after a Spanish galleon that went aground on the point, the Gaspareño. It was one of the so-called Manila galleons, Spanish ships that sailed between the Philippines and Acapulco for 250 years, bringing spices, silks and other luxuries from the far east to New Spain. All these galleons sailed the Pacific coast of Baja on their way to Acapulco, so naturally enough the area became riddled with pirates, many of them English and Dutch. There are many tales of buried pirate treasure in the area, and local school groups still come to explore the cave at Rancho Gaspareño each year to tap into the lore. Treasure hunters have reason for optimism; in 1974 when the road from La Paz to the ferry terminal at Pichilingue was being built, a pirate chest of plundered loot was discovered by road workers.”
“I think of this part of the Baja coastline as the forgotten area” continues Greg. “People drive past Rancho Gaspareño going a hundred miles an hour on the new 4-lane highway and have no idea of the history of the area.” The Guaycura and Pericue Indians were the original inhabitants before the Jesuit’s arrival in 1697, and they were essentially wiped out by the time the Jesuits left in 1768. The Jesuits built their theocracy based on a promise to the King of Spain to get rid of the pirates who were plundering his ships, and the pirates faded away with the demise of the Manila galleons in 1815. Dominican Padre Gabriel González had a ranch near Gaspareño from 1825 to 1850, and the tobacco, rum, sugar, corn, and livestock he produced there made him the richest man in Baja California. From his ranch the padre engaged in espionage and guerilla warfare during the Mexican-American war of 1846-1848, and – thanks in part to the Padre – Mexico won a major victory near Gaspareño (but lost the war). By 1855 the Padre had lost his political backing and left Baja for good. For the next one hundred years entrepreneurs made fortunes in the sugar cane industry with fields in areas like Gaspareño, but in the 1950s a severe drought and price drop lead to the demise of the industry; the last sugar processing plant closed in 1974. In that same year the trans peninsular highway made its way to Todos Santos, bringing new life to the town, and in 1985 renowned artist Charles Stewart arrived from Taos, planting the seed for Todos Santos’ current incarnation as an artists’ colony. It remains an agricultural center and surfing hotspot, only now it is firmly on the radar of major developers.
62 years after his first trip down the Baja peninsula, Greg is ready to carve out a little hacienda for himself and his art collection, but let someone else take over the bulk of the land that is Rancho Gaspareño. He has kept his 50 acres wild and free, but would love to see someone with vision and passion create a place of beauty that celebrates the area’s thrilling past, and embraces an artistic, sustainable future. Someone who started building their own private Todos Santos the first time they laid eyes on it.
Of course, letting go of a big piece of the ranch is bittersweet for Greg. Paraphrasing Colson Whitehead’s tribute to New York once more, “We can never make proper goodbyes… Maybe we become Todos Santeños the day we realize that Todos Santos will go on without us. …. Naturally we will cast a wary eye toward those new kids on the block, but let’s be patient and not judge too quickly. We were new here, too, once.” Yes indeed. A tumultuous, exhilarating, infuriating and irrevocable shift of population, outlook, culture and vision is sweeping the lower part of the Baja peninsula. It always has.
By Bryan Jáuregui based on research by Dr. Shane Macfarlan. This article first appeared in Janice Kinne’s Journal del Pacifico.
He really was just a good Catholic boy trying to make the padres proud, but suspicion and cruelty transformed him into something they foolishly feared he was all along, the vicious leader of a rebellion.
It was 1734 in Baja California Sur and the indigenous Pericue and Guaycura peoples had dropped their grievances with each other to join forces against their common enemy, the Jesuits. Promises of eternal salvation did nothing to alter the Indians’ view that the byproducts of Jesuit rule – physical decimation by measles and smallpox and cultural devastation by Christianity and monogamy – were assaults that demanded a resolution in the here and now. But the Jesuits, who had been the ruling arm of the Spanish crown in Baja since 1697, did have some faithful converts among the native peoples. Among them was a young Pericue named Fabian, a member of the Todos Santos mission. Dr. Shane Macfarlan, professor of Anthropology at the University of Utah, has painstakingly pieced together some key elements of Fabian’s life and this account is based on his research.
When the Indigenous Rebellion broke over the Jesuits with the bludgeoning deaths of Padre Tamaral in San Jose del Cabo and Padre Carranco in Santiago in October 1734, Fabian firmly sided with the Jesuits against the rebels, many of whom were Pericue like himself. He left behind his family and traveled with the founder of the Todos Santos mission, Padre Taraval, throughout the southern part of the peninsula to understand the full nature and extent of the rebellion. He worked with the Spanish military in 1735 during the retaking of La Paz and the reconnaissance of the south, and again in 1736 to locate rebels and gather more intelligence. The Indian rebels were stunned by Fabian’s fealty to the Jesuits. They attempted to lure him to the rebel side with promises of earthly gifts and rewards. When that failed they threatened to kill his family. Nothing worked and Fabian remained steadfast in his loyalty to the Jesuits. Noted Padre Taraval, “Nothing could move him; nor did all of this prevent him from talking to them, entreating them, and even upbraiding them for their ungrateful apostasy and misconduct.” (Wilbur, 1931)
By 1734 the indigenous rebels weren’t the only ones taking an unkind view of the Jesuits in Baja. The Spanish rulers of the rest of Mexico, and by extension the crown, strongly suspected that the Jesuits were harboring hordes of gold, silver and pearls in Baja that they were not sharing with the king. When the anti-Jesuit Spanish viceroy of Mexico sent the governor of Sinaloa, Huidobro, to quell the indigenous revolt, he urged leniency. Jesuit historian Father Peter Dunne notes, “For the tranquility and pacification of the uprising there was given to the governor of Sinaloa a commission to proceed against the rebels with propriety…but without offensive warfare.” Accordingly, Huidobro sought to pacify the rebels with gifts of food, clothing, tobacco and full pardons. For their part, the native groups who remained loyal to the Jesuits and the Spanish crown couldn’t win for losing. They were despised by their own people, yet their allegiance to the Jesuits and to the crown, which they were forced to demonstrate by working to the point of exhaustion each day, was regarded with great suspicion by both the Jesuits and the Spanish soldiers who considered many of them rebel spies.
By Padre Taraval’s own account, Fabian proved himself loyal to the Jesuits at every turn, even attempting to convert the rebels who threatened his family. But this allegiance did not afford him sufficient protection and Spanish soldiers attacked his wife. While the record is not clear, this attack likely involved sexual assault and when Fabian tried to intervene, he was forcibly restrained by the soldiers. It was this extreme provocation that caused Fabian, the most devoted of indigenous converts at the Todos Santos mission, to become the thing the soldiers had suspected he was all along – a rebel leader. Even though the Jesuits had already retaken the Cape region and reoccupied the Todos Santos mission by this time, Fabian put together a small contingent and planned an attack. But the plot was soon discovered and Fabian gave himself up so his compatriots could escape. While he had lived most of his life as a loyal friend to the Jesuits, his brief stint as a rebel lead rapidly to his trial, conviction and execution. Padre Taraval noted with some satisfaction that, like the true Catholic he was trained to be, Fabian repented on his way to the gallows.
This brief account of Fabian’s life is one of the few stories of an individual indigenous person on the Baja peninsula that is part of the written historical record. The few others mentioned by name in connection with the native uprising – Domingo Botón, Chicori, and Bruno – were all described as being of mixed race, a fate of birth that the Jesuits saw as a factor in the rebellion. Notes Jesuit Father Peter Dunne in his 1952 book, Black Robes in Lower California, “There was a mixture of breeds in the south: mulattoes, the offspring of Negroes dropped off here by the Manila galleons, and mixtures of white blood from the English and Dutch freebooters who had long known these coasts….A mixture of bloods probably explains the aggressive malice of some of the (natives), especially…of the leaders of the revolt.” Climate was also considered a factor. Continues Dunne, “Doubtless climate had something to do with the disparity in the quality of the southerners…A climate with no prolonged cold or vigorous winter often seems to dissipate the energies of men and sometimes even their virtue.” In other words, the Jesuits grasped at straws when trying to explain the revolt when in fact the reasons were remarkably clear. At the time the rebellion started, raging epidemics of measles and smallpox had decimated the Guaycura and Pericue populations, reducing their populations by half in a single generation. Moreover, just a year before the rebellion started the Jesuits had launched a campaign to eradicate polygamy among the native population. In all the Indian groups of the Baja peninsula women were the chief procurers of food, so the more wives a man had the higher his status, and important men like chiefs and shamans had several. In a direct challenge to local leaders, the Jesuits made explicit efforts to recruit young women as neophytes. It was these twin assaults upon health and culture that united the once warring factions of the southern Baja Indians against the Jesuits. It was a fight in which both sides won some battles and both sides lost the war. The Spanish crown expelled the Jesuits from the Baja peninsula in 1768, but by the time their enemies were vanquished, the Guaycura and Pericue Indians were essentially living ghosts, by and large culturally extinct. No more padres, no one left to convert. But the peninsula did retain its sense of independence, and the ranchero culture that followed that of the indigenous people definitely retains some of that spirit of rebellion that was sparked, however belatedly, in a Todos Santos Pericue name Fabian.
Baja California has always been something of a world apart, an isolated place with a culture and mindset not much tied to the passions and politics of mainland Mexico. It is therefore not so surprising to learn that even though Mexico won independence from Spain in September 1821, in February 1822 the mission villages of southern Baja were still unaware of the fact. British Lord Thomas Cochrane, hired by Chile to be an admiral of its navy, decided to break the news in his own way. In Chile ostensibly to help the newly liberated nations of the Americas squash pockets of Spanish resistance, Cochrane was really just a profiteer, a pirate, and the crews of his seven ships were comprised mainly of European mercenaries on the
hunt for Spanish treasure. Although Mexican president de Iturbide had declined Cochrane’s offer of “help”, in February 1822 Cochrane nonetheless ordered his ship the Independenica into San Jose del Cabo where the Spanish flag was flying in the port. That flag was all the legal cover he needed to declare his pirates a liberation force tasked with removing all evidence of Spanish rule. The crew attacked San Jose del Cabo, looting everything that it could, including valuables from the mission church.
Encouraged by their success in “liberating” San Jose del Cabo, 9 pirates from the Independencia decided to head north and “free” Todos Santos. As the mercenaries sacked their mission the townspeople of Todos Santos stood calmly by. Perhaps mistaking this inaction for a general passivity of character, the pirates began groping the local women. Five of them lost their lives for this misjudgment when the men of Todos Santos demonstrated what they found worth defending in their town. Four of the pirates who didn’t die in the uprising were hauled off to prison in San Antonio. It was only when the Independencia’s captain threatened to blow up both Todos Santos and San Antonio that the Todos Santeños consented to return his crew.
The story of Pirate Thomas Cochrane is the first in Dr. Shane Macfarlan’s wonderful introduction to the “Cultures & Characters of Todos Santos: A Pirate, A Padre, & A Partera”. A professor of anthropology at the University of Utah, Dr. Macfarlan has conducted extensive research into the culture and societies that have shaped Todos Santos over the centuries. Padre Gabriel González, a Spanish-born Dominican priest who became a caudillo, is the second of Dr. Macfarlan’s trilogy.
Caudillos were strongmen who sprang up across Latin America in the 1800s in the aftermath of independence from Spanish rule. As Dr. Macfarlan notes, “It was a time when newly-minted nations were unstable and governmental institutions were weak, a situation ripe for the emergence of charismatic leaders with political ambitions and military acumen. The caudillos provided wealth and security to their followers, demanding loyalty in return.” Priests were not usually among their ranks but then, Padre Gabriel González was not your usual priest.
“Cool, cunning and intelligent” was how U.S. lieutenant Henry Halleck summarized Padre Gabriel, adding that he was also “destitute alike of principal and honor.” The dominant figure in Baja California from his arrival in 1825 to 1850, Padre Gabriel had at least one family with multiple children, probably two, and lived with them at Rancho San Jacinto, a large holding south of Todos Santos that ostensibly belonged to the mission. There he amassed huge wealth producing tobacco, rum, sugar, corn, cattle, horses and mules. When the Mexican congress voted to secularize mission lands in Baja California, Padre Gabriel successfully negotiated to ensure that Dominican lands in Todos Santos and San Jose del Cabo remained in the hands of the church, unlike those of the Franciscans in Alta California who were forced to relinquish all of their lands and assets.
But the Mexican government kept up the pressure and in 1833 declared that all church lands had to be secularized. This time the governor of Baja California, José María Mata, set out to personally enforce the law, a fact which lead Padre Gabriel to instigate an uprising against him in La Paz. In a sign of how powerful Padre Gabriel and his forces had become, Governor Mata was captured and expelled from the peninsula. But Mata rallied and in 1837 returned to Baja, overthrew the new government in La Paz, and had his enemies arrested and sent to Mazatlán, Padre Gabriel among them. Padre Gabriel used this time to go to Mexico City and shore up political capital at the highest levels. He ingratiated himself so successfully with President Santa Ana that his mission lands were restored and he was able to return safely to Todos Santos. Mata was “retired” from the Peninsula by Mexico City in 1840, the same year that Padre Gabriel was made president of the Dominican missions throughout Baja California. The padre’s power was growing.
This cycle repeated itself in 1842 when Mexico appointed Luis de Castillo Negrete as Jefe Politico in Baja California, again with the mandate to secularize mission lands. Again Padre Gabriel took decisive action, threatening to excommunicate the governor and raising an armed force against him in Todos Santos. Soldiers in the garrison at La Paz loyal to the padre kidnapped Castillo Negrete and his brother, but the two men managed to escape and make their way to Todos Santos where a pitched battle between the padre’s rebels and the government’s forces ensued. The padre’s forces lost, so he was once again arrested and sent to Mazatlán. Padre Gabriel must have once again employed his powerful negotiating skills as once again Santa Ana pardoned him and once again his enemy was “retired” from the Baja peninsula. Padre Gabriel was now the richest man in Baja California and his hold over the evangelical, secular, commercial and military affairs of Todos Santos and the surrounding areas seemed replete. In short, he was in a perfect position to engage in espionage and guerilla warfare against US troops occupying La Paz and San Jose del Cabo during the Mexican-American war of 1846-1848.
Most accounts by members of the American forces in Baja California reference Padre Gabriel. According to Peter Gerhard writing in the Pacific Historical Review, Captain Dupont of the US Navy called Padre Gabriel the “master spirit” of the insurgents. Lieutenant Henry Halleck had a more earthy assessment. “He was living at this time in La Paz for the purposes of medical advice for the numerous diseases contracted in some of his scenes of debauchery…He manifested the most friendly feelings towards the officers of the American garrison although….he was engaged in procuring arms for the insurgents.” Indeed, Padre Gabriel would often invite American officers to his home in La Paz, serve them wine and while away pleasant hours with them playing cards. Mexican historian Pablo L. Martinez later justified Halleck’s suspicions that the padre used his parties with the Americans to gain intelligence stating that Padre Gabriel “at this time was one of the two political and military commanders of Baja California and had two sons serving as officers in the Mexican forces.” (Peter Gerhard, Pacific Historical Review) But this episode in Padre Gabriel’s life ended much like the previous two: a fierce battle in Todos Santos, the capture and arrest of Padre Gabriel and other guerrilla leaders, and the Padre’s exile to Mazatlán.
But this exile did not last long. The US-Mexico peace treaty returned Baja California to México and Padre Gabriel was allowed to return to Todos Santos in 1849. In 1851 secularization of the mission lands was finally achieved, although by this time Padre Gabriel’s family had clear title to the ranch in San Jacinto so secularization was only a professional, not personal blow to the padre. But the Dominican governance was changing and in 1855 Padre Gabriel, who had arrived from Spain 30 years before, left Baja for mainland Mexico while a titular bishop was installed in his stead. But apparently he received permission to return to Baja as an ordinary curate as the burial register of Todos Santos notes that he died there on June 1, 1868. He is reputed to have fathered 22 children, and their descendants may still visit Padre Gabriel at the family mausoleum in the Todos Santos cemetery today.
Padre Gabriel’s rebel spirit lives on in at least some of his descendents, one of whom was Dionsia Villarino Espinoza, popularly known as La Corónela. A granddaughter of Padre Gabriel, La Corónela was born in Todos Santos in 1865, and had a remarkable career that included spying for Pancho Villa’s troops during the Mexican Revolution, caring for political dissidents when she was imprisoned for her efforts, and in 1932 becoming the first woman in Baja California to legally drive a car. While her career took her to other parts of the Baja peninsula, she ended her days as a licensed partera, or midwife, in Todos Santos, where she died in 1957 at the age of 92. In 2005 the government of BCS issued a medallion in her honor, acknowledging her outstanding contributions to the state.
Dr. Macfarlan wants the current residents of Todos Santos who have historical roots in the town to be able to connect with their ancestors. Using the birth, death and baptismal records from The Guia Familiar de Baja California 1700-1900, Dr. Macfarlan has created a database of Todos Santeños and he is happy to give a copy to anyone who requests it. Moreover, he would love for families to share with him any information they have about individuals in the database to expand the knowledge available to everyone. You can reach out to him at .