Reclaiming the Soil: Regenerative Farming in Baja California Sur
50-year old Felipe Fisher is a successful Baja California Sur farmer who still works the 1.5 hectare-ranch in San Jose Viejo that his great grandparents established in 1901. He started working with his father on the ranch when he was 15 and they, together with the 132 farmers that comprise Productores Organicos del Cabo cooperative, have built a successful business exporting organic basil and cherry tomatoes to places as far-flung as Singapore, Japan, the United States and United Arab Emirates. “But it’s not just the organic farmers who are exporting,” explains Felipe about a startling Baja reality, “Most of the fruit and vegetables that you buy in Costco, WalMart and the large grocery chains in Baja Sur actually come from Sinaloa or other parts of Mexico.”
This head-spinning fact caught the attention of Alianza Para la Seguridad Alimentaria (ASA) when it conducted an assessment of agriculture and the local food system during the pandemic. Conducted in collaboration with the International Community Foundation, the survey confirmed what Felipe and the rest of the Baja Sur farming community long knew to be true: almost all of the fruit and vegetables grown in Baja California Sur are exported, and almost all the produce we buy locally in Baja Sur is imported from Guadalajara, Tijuana and Sinaloa.
“Why is the global food system the way it is?” queries Kelsey Bearden, ASA’s Coordinator for Agroecology and Local Economy. “At one point it made economic sense to grow things here and ship them elsewhere, but the pandemic demonstrated in harsh terms that these distribution and supply chains are not as stable as was once thought. In fact, our assessment showed that Baja is extremely vulnerable from a food security perspective. We find ourselves with a rapidly growing population right when our food supply system is being vastly disrupted.”
Kelsey and her team are making haste slowly to diffuse this ticking timebomb. Their goal is to facilitate changes in the way farming has been done in Baja Sur since the 1950s, to realign a system that is reliant not only on exports, but also on imported chemicals for soil productivity. To foster change, they are building a network of support for farmers who are interested both in selling locally and improving the health of their soil to obviate the need for agrochemicals. A pilot project was conducted in La Paz municipality in 2021-2022 which revealed that not only is there a lot of interest from the farmers, but also from those whom they serve including food distributors and chefs. They are encouraged, but there are challenges.
“Baja land is as bad as it gets anywhere” observes Jan Federico William Loeffler Bird, a Mexican-American regenerative farming expert who was born and raised on the Baja peninsula, and is part of ASA’s support network for local farmers seeking change. “So much of the land here has been stripped of all nutrients by full-on chemical, industrial, monoculture farming. Our local soil needs to be rebuilt, regenerated to regain fertility. Soil fertility is the critical foundation of everything: water, biodiversity, community health and well-being.”
Jan recently completed a two-year regenerative farming pilot project on 4,000 square meters of land in Pescadero. One measure of soil fertility is the percentage of organic matter that it contains, and most of the world’s productive agricultural soils have between 3% and 6% organic matter. When the level is below 3% it is much more difficult to have good yields without using fertilizers and pesticides. Farming regeneratively for just two years between February 2020 and July 2022, Jan and his team were able to double the organic matter in the soil from 0.74% to 1.48%, a dramatic improvement. And since 50% of soil organic matter is organic carbon, it turns out that by improving the soil quality Jan’s project also sequestered 18.33 metric tons of CO2, “which is the emissions equivalent of burning 2,062 gallons of gasoline” he notes.
Community health is a key goal in regenerative farming. Dr. Andrei Aguilar is a pathologist who sees a lot of cancer among community members in Baja Sur, much of which he believes is closely tied to the widespread use of agrochemicals throughout Mexico. He wants to stop that cycle in Baja. “Here in Baja we really need to be a part of producing what we are eating” says Andrei. Andrei always loved the ranch owned and operated by his grandfather, then father, and now owns 10 hectares of it near the airport of La Paz. He and his wife Gabriela Huerta have fully embraced the regenerative farming techniques taught by Jan and other members of the ASA network. Says Gabriela, “It is amazing that we cannot find good quality, chemical-free produce in a place like La Paz. Our vision for our family and friends is a wholly self-sufficient ranch where we can grow our own food.”
Revitalizing soil comes down to mimicking nature’s processes. “When left to its own devices, nature always covers soil with living plants to generate soil health” says Jan. Andrei and Gabriela, like Jan, therefore started their project with “cover crops” like sunflowers, mesquite trees and fruit-bearing trees like guayabas, bananas, and figs. (Jan also includes corn, sorghum, oats, mustard, mung beans and more). Cover crops, which are dispersed among cash crops, “contribute to soil fertility by improving soil structure with their root systems, recycling nutrients, and accumulating organic matter” says Jan. Just a few months after their cover crops were in place Andrei and Gabriela introduced other crops including lettuce, cucumbers, pumpkins and many others. A large variety of plant species helps defend against pests and diseases while improving the soil structure, which in turn improves the soil’s ability to retain water.
“The magic appears at the end when you have a pumpkin with no chemicals,” says Gabriela. “It appears when your cucumbers this year are so much better than the year before. But you have to have a vision and you have to be patient. You have to know that your goal is to be producing healthy, chemical-free food for your family and community and that it may take 2-3 years to get there. What we’re doing with Jan and the ASA is revolutionary for Baja.”
Revolutionary? Definitely. But is it profitable? “Yes, on many levels” states Jan. “The economics of regenerative farming are clear and compelling. You have greater output based on fewer inputs. Regenerative agriculture is roughly 2 to 4 times more productive than traditional agriculture, meaning that much more food can be grown per acre, and at a lower cost.” Forbes magazine agrees. In a January 2020 article, Forbes cited the results of a Ecdysis Foundation study on how regenerative systems affect yields, pests and profitability. “…farms with regenerative practices were 78% more profitable than conventional plots. This increase in profitability was the result of two main factors: input costs and end markets [as] regenerative farmers received higher premiums for their crops….But the benefits go beyond fertilizer costs. Increasing soil organic matter also increased the diversity of insects found in the soil. Insect diversity has been shown to decrease harmful pest abundance… leading to stronger crops.” Kelsey of ASA also points out that foregoing agrochemicals takes out the huge fossil fuel expenditures associated with mining, manufacturing and transporting the chemicals.
Kelsey outlines some of the challenges ahead, “It’s not just about the farmers and growing the food, it’s about where the food is going, how it gets there and how it’s prepared once it gets there. We are working hard to understand the local food system, who moves the food around, what consumer requirements are and what is the capacity of the local farmers to meet local demand.”
One of ASA’s goals is to generate and facilitate shorter and more equitable supply chains to connect local food to local buyers. ASA is exploring different models for the region, including more direct sales between farmers and buyers interested in local and regeneratively produced food, as well as models that strengthen the logistics of regional sales and distribution.
Ross Vail and his sons Logan and Diego are the owners and operators of Sueño Tropical, the first and largest organic producer in Baja Sur. Their deep experience and knowledge base is another strong link in the ASA farmer support network. “We’ve been working on a food hub concept with ASA over the last two years” notes Logan. “Here at Sueño Tropical we have the set up to pack, process, store and distribute under OSHA standards the products of local farmers using regenerative techniques.” Ross adds, “Our goal is to have enough local, regeneratively-farmed products to meet the demand of all the hotels, restaurants and grocery stores of Baja Sur so that we are truly a local farm to table economy. This will take quite an effort to achieve, but it’s a challenge we embrace.”
Felipe Fisher is totally onboard with the goals of the ASA. “While we built our business on exports, we would rather be producing and selling locally, and providing healthier produce for the people of Baja Sur. There are already several local high-end stores and restaurants interested in our products.”
“I am so proud and happy about what we achieved in Pescadero” adds Jan. “Of course, there is still so much to do, but I’m super excited about this next phase. I’m building out bigger farms and expanding my regenerative farming operation to feed more of the local community.”
The change in outlook and attitude is already taking root with the next generation. Andrei and Gabriela’s daughters, now 3 and 6 years old, both fervently want to be agronomists when they grow up. Andrei and Gabriela will just be happy if their children can live in a Baja Sur community where locally grown, chemical-free produce is the norm, not the exception.
If you would like more information on how to get involved with the ASA as a farmer, buyer, or other interested party, please email the organization at or contact them via WhatsApp a +52-624-125-3283. Be a part of the change!
It takes a fair degree of faith in the goodness of your fellow man to hitchhike… with a mule. But that is exactly what Trudi Angell and her daughter Olivia did as part of La Mula Mil, their 1,000 mile mule trip up the Baja Peninsula. One of their mules had taken a respite with friends along the way, and when it came time for him to rejoin the rest of the expedition – now many miles away – Trudi and Olivia just set out along the road with him. Women and mule were picked up by a rancher with a partially empty horse trailer in a matter of minutes, and safely delivered to their camp. Says Trudi, “This was indicative of the type of reception we got from ranch families throughout the entire expedition. They were above and beyond hospitable and helpful. Wonderful meals for us, care for the mules, information on trails – they were generous to a fault with all these things.”
Doña Luz and Don Cata
Fermín Reygadas, a professor of Alternative Tourism at the Autonomous University of Baja California Sur (UABCS) who has worked with Baja California rancheros for over 30 years, is not at all surprised. “The Baja ranchero culture of hospitality is directly connected to the old Bedouin custom that demanded the utmost in hospitality, requiring you to give aid and succor to anyone who asked for it for at least 3 days, even if that someone was your mortal enemy. Of course, you were free to kill him after that, but for those 3 days he was an honored guest in your home.” Bedouins?
Fermín explains. “When Padre Kino first arrived with the Jesuits in Baja California in 1683, pirates were a menace to this new territory of Spain. Padre Kino sold the Spanish king on the idea of Jesuits settling the land and using their own money and means to keep it free of pirates. In return, the Jesuits would have the right to rule without interference from a Spanish-run civil government. The king agreed and the Jesuits set about recruiting soldiers that bore little resemblance to their European counterparts. They didn’t choose people based on their fighting or weaponry skills, but rather people who knew how to raise cattle and plant crops. They didn’t choose typical soldiers looking for new world get-rich-quick schemes, but people seeking a living from the land with a focus on family. The Jesuits chose people whom they considered honorable, trustworthy and capable to protect and settle Baja California Sur.” In short, they chose the people whose descendants make it possible for women to successfully hitchhike around the peninsula with a mule. We’re getting to the Bedouins.
Miguel Martinez. Photo by McKenzie Campbell, Living Roots
Fermín continued, “When the Jesuits arrived in Baja California the indigenous peoples here were hunter-gatherers, skills not suited to building a permanent society. So the Jesuits looked for people who had the ranching and farming skills that could support their missions. These people came from two main sources: 1) people from the agricultural province of Andalusia in Spain, which had been heavily settled by Moors, Arabs and Middle Easterners during the Moorish conquest of Spain in the 8th to 15th centuries, and 2) descendants of the Moors, Arabs and Jews who had been kicked out of Spain during the 15th century Christian reconquest of the country, and had settled in the new world. Not only did these “soldiers” carry the Bedouin tradition of hospitality and honor, they brought Middle Eastern foods to the Baja Peninsula that still flourish to this day including olives, grapes, lentils, date palms and alfalfa.” Teddi Montes, a member of La Mula Mil expedition, took DNA samples from rancheros throughout the trip and her preliminary results show that these middle eastern bloodlines are still found throughout the peninsula, i.e., the Bedouins – along with their hospitality – are alive and well in Baja California!
Ranchero Rule in BCS
The Jesuits ended up being entirely too successful for their own good with their BCS economic model, and they were unceremoniously kicked out of Baja in 1768. The king sent a new administrator who gave the Jesuit mission lands to the “soldiers” who had been working the land under the Jesuits. By this administrative fiat a whole new class of fairly egalitarian land ownership arrived in BCS, and a system of ranches owned and operated by people with excellent skills, a strong work ethic, and a tradition of honor flourished. This was in stark contrast to mainland Mexico, which was heavily settled by Spanish hidalgos, the 2nd, 3rd and 4th sons of wealthy marquis who could not inherit the ancestral lands back home, but who could help themselves to substantial holdings in the new world. “Work ethic” was not a phrase commonly used when speaking of the privileged hidalgos.
By the late 1800s the Baja economy had become centered around mining, with major gold, silver and copper mines flourishing in towns like Santa Rosalia
Chema. Photo by McKenzie Campbell, Living Roots
and El Triunfo. As mining prospered, so did the ranches that supplied them with food, leather goods, horses, mules, and coffee. Mainland Mexico, focused on its own affairs – including wars with the US and France – paid very little attention to Baja for the next 100 years. The result was that the BCS character cultivated by the Jesuits and strengthened by land ownership was left intact, and continued to develop almost completely independently of the rest of Mexico. While mainland Mexico society became highly stratified, Baja California remained a much more egalitarian, independent-minded place, with ranchero families a key and integral part of the peninsula’s economy.
Then mining collapsed in the 1950s, and the ranchero economy went into a tailspin. But the deathblow really came in 1975 when the Mexican government opened its previously closed economy to the outside world. Two territories were declared free ports open to foreign trade: Quintana Roo and BCS. Almost overnight the market for ranch meats, cheeses and leather goods dried up; imported goods could be bought more cheaply and easily in the cities. Ranchero culture was in peril, and made all the more precarious by a school system that requires ranch children to leave home for 9 years and live in boarding houses in towns like Todos Santos, where they steadily lose touch with their culture. As Fermín says, “They watch a lot of TV in the boarding houses, and if their culture doesn’t appear on TV, then they assume it’s not important.” Fermín, Trudi, Olivia and others are trying very hard to change that perception.
In 2008 a documentary titled Corazon Vaquero – Heart of the Cowboy – won the Paso Robles Film Festival California Roots award. Created by Garry and Cody McClintock and Eve Ewing with Trudi, Fermín and others to showcase the beauty of BCS ranchero culture, the film is centered largely around a family at Rancho San Gregorio in the Sierra de la Giganta above Loreto. In the spring of 2008 a young NOLS instructor named McKenzie Campbell found herself at that same ranch. “I learned how to do leatherwork, make cheese, all kinds of things. I was completely enamored. I then did a week-long scouting trip through the Sierra de la Giganta walking ranch to ranch, and I was completely blown away by the hospitality of the people and their values. They are focused on family, their land and working hard for themselves. They don’t need a lot to be happy. They inspired me to go back to school to get the tools to aid them in the transition to the modern world, to participate in the larger market around them.”
Carlos Ignacio (Nacho) Chiapa with La Mula Mil in Todos Santos
Two years and one MBA later, McKenzie returned to BCS and founded Living Roots, a non-profit with the mission of “Helping an endangered culture adapt and thrive in the modern world.” Focusing on San Javier, the site of one of the Jesuits’ very first missions in BCS, McKenzie set about walking the delicate line between protecting ranchero values and traditions, while connecting ranchero families directly to the marketplace. “They grasped immediately that they had a brand-able concept, but they didn’t see that some of their every day items like ropes and jackets had market value, and we were able to help them see and capture some of that value.” In 2013 Living Roots helped the rancheros establish a cultural center in San Javier that connects them directly with their public. Not only does this place serve as a market for ranch products, but it’s now the base station for many young rancheros who are being trained as guides in order to lead interpretive hikes around the area. In 2014 Living Roots and its ranchero partners also started a farmer’s and artisan’s market in Loreto that sells organic produce, fish and handicrafts. Says McKenzie, “The US and Canadian communities who live in Loreto are hungry for local produce so it’s been quite successful. It is wonderful to see it all progressing so well.”
McKenzie’s next goal for Living Roots is to start a school for young rancheros aged 15-25 where they can learn the old technologies and merge them with the new. Courses are already underway in some schools, with living legends like Dario Higuera, featured prominently in Corazon Vaquero, teaching traditional leatherwork to kids in the local schools. The most popular items to make are wallets and cell phone covers.
Into the Future
35 year-old Rogelio Rosas knows the value of learning traditional skills from his ranching elders. As a child he lived with his grandparents on the family ranch in San Dionisio in the Sierra de la Laguna mountains. Every day he would work alongside his grandfather, learning how to identify and use the 80 edible wild
Don Claudio teaching leatherwork. Photo by Eduardo Boné
plants that grow in BCS, including those with medicinal properties. By the time he was 10 he was helping his grandfather deliver babies and heal the sick throughout the area. When his grandfather died at the age of 116 (leaving 35 children fathered with 5 wives) Rogelio felt compelled to enroll at a seminary in Tijuana. But he didn’t find the answers he expected there, so he joined up with some missionaries and spent the next 6 years traveling throughout Baja, using the healing arts learned from his grandfather to help children around the peninsula.
Rogelio found this work rewarding, but he still wasn’t finding the answers he was seeking. So at the age of 28 he moved to La Paz to study philosophy at UABCS, the first member of his family to attend college. While there, he met McKenzie and Fermín who were in the alternative tourism arena, so he added tourism to his list of degrees. By this time Rogelio’s parents, the now-legendary Don Catarino and Doña Luz, had been living at the family ranch for many years, making a very nice living with their organic produce, leather work and other traditional skills. When Doña Luz suffered a snake bite that paralyzed half her body, Rogelio returned to the ranch where he had grown up to help her. By the time he graduated with his double degree from UABCS, he could have joined the majority of his ranching peers and gone off to seek employment in a shinier part of the economy. But he found the pull of the ranch impossible to resist, and is now working with his parents to develop their ranch as a tourist destination where visitors can learn about traditional crafts like leatherworking and cheese-making, hike to see waterfalls and rock art, learn about traditional medicinal herbs, make tortillas from scratch, and enjoy the
Don Claudio and Rogelio
history and culture of the area. This is the future that he sees that will sustain not only his family’s ranch, but those of other families throughout the region.
But like Fermín, Trudi and McKenzie, Rogelio’s real passion is to preserve the heart and soul of ranchero culture. To that end he has created a document that sets forth the principals and values of ranchero life. Working with seven other sons of ranchers who, like him, left home for a while but then returned, he is in the process of creating an association that will keep the rancheros of the Sierra de la Laguna mountains united and focused, adapting to a changing world economy as necessary to thrive, but doing so while maintaining the values and ethics of their forebears, handpicked by the Jesuits. The goal is to remain true to their Bedouin roots. You can count on their hospitality.
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.
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.
“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.
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!”