Punta Baja demands a certain hardiness

A quiet place south of here

Punta Baja is “a survivor, one of the last unspoiled outposts on the vanishing frontier of Lower California.”
  • Punta Baja is “a survivor, one of the last unspoiled outposts on the vanishing frontier of Lower California.”
  • Image by Michael Yada

A tall American fisherman placed five good-sized fish on his camping table and began to gut them as a fellow tourist in Baja California appeared on a bank above him. “Did you just catch them?” he asked. There were five cabezons ranging in size from three to nine pounds.

Norm Ash: “This place is subtle. It’ll fool you for a year or two"

Norm Ash: “This place is subtle. It’ll fool you for a year or two"

The fisherman looked up, surprised at the sight of another tourist at his party’s camping cove at the tip of the Punta Baja peninsula. “Yep,” he said easily. “They look ugly but they’re delicious." And with that the tall man cut into the stomach of one cabezon and pulled out a silver-dollar-sized kelp crab and a six-inch, undigested octopus.

Beto Alvarado:  bitter even today about his four years in the U.S.

Beto Alvarado: bitter even today about his four years in the U.S.

“Jesus!” said the visitor. “I’ve been coming to Baja for thirty years and I haven’t seen anything like this.”

The fisherman looked at an island offshore, the blue waters of Rosario Bay, and the mountains. “That could be,” he said softly, “because there isn’t anything in Baja like this.”

Norm Ash, the forty-two-year-old, tall, red-haired fisherman, explained to the visitor that Punta Baja is “a survivor, one of the last unspoiled outposts on the vanishing frontier of Lower California.” It remains that way today because Baja was developed from south to north over a period of 235 years, until about 1770, to about latitude thirty degrees north (the latitude of Punta Baja).

John Garcia, a thirty-year-old diver, was elected the local school board president

John Garcia, a thirty-year-old diver, was elected the local school board president

The development leapfrogged to San Diego and California during the next fifty-year period, at a time when syphilis was wiping out the native local Cochimi Indians. As late as the 1950s it was estimated that the desert region of which Punta Baja is a part actually had fewer inhabitants than it had before contact with the white man.

Though Punta Baja is within a day’s drive of San Diego — some 250 miles to the south — it gets little or no mention in Baja travel guidebooks. Miller and Baxter’s The Baja Book doesn’t mention it at all, for example. And the Automobile Club of Southern California’s Baja California calls it only “a seasonally occupied fish camp on an attractive beach.” Ash, a frequent Baja visitor who works as a surveyor in Marin County, said that Punta Baja is no more distant from the paved central Mexican Highway 1 than most other northern Baja coastal villages. “It’s just a little further down, and if campers get as far as El Rosario [the turnoff point for Punta Baja], the tendency is to turn left with the paved highway and drive across the peninsula to Los Angeles Bay. ” The alternative is the dirt road from El Rosario to Punta Baja, which is nine miles long. Depending on the weather, it can take an hour or a week to travel.

Punta Baja is plagued (or, depending on your viewpoint, blessed) with cold ocean temperatures at all times. Sixty degrees in summer is warm. This condition is dictated by what is known as upwelling, where chilly northwesterly winds combine with southerly ocean currents to displace normally warmer coastal water with deeper and colder offshore seawater. In short, visitors in wetsuits may surf Punta Baja; nobody swims it. Camping spots on the flat, sandy mesa have almost no protection from the wind that blows virtually year around. The place does get some visitors, but not very many returnees.

Though picturesque, with its La Jolla-like conglomerate rocks, tidal shelves, and sheer cliffs, Punta Baja demands a certain hardiness of its Mexican fisherman residents as well as of visitors. There is no electricity (not counting car batteries, which are sometimes called upon to light up lone twenty-five-watt bulbs when fuel for the Coleman lanterns runs out). There is no fresh water. Water is brought in by the villagers in fifty-five-gallon steel barrels, carried in the back seats of old sedans or the beds of newer Ford pickups. Clothes-washing is done on washboards, and the wash water, in testimony to the dust, comes out a dirty gray-brown and lacking suds. When there is no driftwood available — for use in the mass-cooking of lobsters in fifteen-gallon galvanized tubs — wood from the hills twelve miles away must be cut and trucked in.

“This place is subtle. It’ll fool you for a year or two,” Ash said. The dozen families here have all come within this decade, and they’ve come by way of La Paz, little villages in Sonora, Michoacan — you name it. They have created their own culture and to some extent their own standards and values. Very resourceful, very independent.

“They’re not angels, but Christ, this is still the frontier. I see these villagers as personable people of gumption and tolerance. They know what prejudice and injustice is all about. Many of them worked illegally in the United States.

“Every year Indians come to this region to harvest the tomatoes and probably the beans and the chiles. They come from Oaxaca. And as migrant laborers and as the local minority culture they are looked down upon by the Mexicans. But they are looked down on maybe less by the people in Punta Baja.”

Beto Alvarado, whom Ash calls “the mayor,” was born in the historic Mexican city of Morelia in the early Depression years and is in his late forties today. As a teen-ager he moved to and worked in Mexico City, and went from there to the farm fields of Sacramento and Salinas. He is bitter even today about his four years in the U.S. as a farm laborer of questionable status. “Beto spits angrily when he talks about the years he spent in California,” Ash said.

In 1952 Beto moved to El Rosario and began to work as a barber. He is still referred to today as “El Peluquero,” or the barber. Through a friend he got into fishing, because,in his words, “it paid more than cutting hair.” After the paved trans-peninsula highway that runs the length of Baja opened in December of 1973, making the port of Ensenada easily accessible to the El Rosario fishing cooperative, Beto was among the first to take up residence year round at Punta Baja. His first home was a tarpaper and frame shack. Today he lives with his second wife, Socorro, 35, and seven children in one of two cement-block houses on the Punta Baja headland. His three-room house is a half mile from the tarpaper-covered homes of the other villagers. Beto is seen by American visitors as the leader of Punta Baja and by Ash as its symbol. A proud, stocky man with

thick black hair, Beto has developed into a businessman; he now owns three sixteen-foot fishing skiffs and three Johnson-40 outboard motors. Currently, he is completing a cement-block room addition.

A forty-year-old diver, Juan Negrete, owns the other cement-block house, and, as a close associate of Beto’s, is a member of one of Beto’s two four-man boat crews. Negrete’s house has been windowless for over a year because he put the window money into a used black Ford sedan. The windows will have to await the profits from a good lobster harvest this fall.

There are nine other families besides Negrete’s in the central Punta Baja village, and their homes are all of the tarpaper-and-frame variety. In all, there are about fifty villagers living in a sandy village adjacent to a boat-launching harbor.

Two frame-and-plywood houses are under construction, and could be seen as evidence of the village’s growing prosperity. But perhaps most symbolic of the economic changes — and unity — is the new schoolhouse that stands out prominently against the backdrop of a sandstone slope. Still windowless and doorless and lacking tarpaper on the roof, the school is a twenty-by-forty-foot plywood-and-frame structure built on a concrete-slab floor. The blackboards are strips of sheet metal painted green, and the desks are antiques of oak and steel — the kind with the folding slat seat on the front of a chair-seat combination.

Financed solely by nine of the village heads-of-household, the building materials have cost 8016 pesos (about $400) to date. Initially, the nine villagers put up 752 pesos each and then contributed an additional 2000 pesos as more materials were bought and trucked in from Ensenada. John Garcia, a thirty-year-old diver, was elected the local school board president; all contributions and expenditures are carefully recorded by him in a steno notebook. In a tour of the school room, Garcia proudly explained its genesis. It opened last spring and has now reopened after the summer vacation. The villagers bear the cost of housing and feeding the teacher, though the Mexican government, through grants from the Consejo Nacional de Fomento Educativo, provides 2000 pesos (about one hundred dollars) monthly for the instructor’s salary.

Garcia explained that the building took a month for the villagers themselves to erect and he asked that credit be given to the most tireless “carpenters,” including Negrete, the mayor’s son Pancho, and CuCo Flores. Garcia added that profits from a good lobster season, which begins this month, will allow for completion of the construction — windows, two doors, a tarpaper roof, and a cement porch.

Garcia is legendary in the village not only for his achievements as a school builder but also for once providing some friendly tourists with a hundred pounds of fish to take back home. The tourists had arrived in Punta Baja during a full moon and the fish weren’t biting. Garcia wiggled into his wetsuit and went to the bottom of the bay. He opened numerous purple sea urchins, which carpet the cobbled bottom. As whitefish and sheepshead and bass flocked to the delicacies, Garcia poked them with a hand spear and popped them into a hinged-door wire basket. He had the hundred pounds of fish in thirty .minutes.

Norm Ash’s party included a reporter and his wife, and a photographer. They talked about diving while seated in the kitchen portion of Garcia’s wood-frame home. Some of the timbers were driftwood. A transistor radio, basically in pieces and hooked up to Garcia’s old car battery, played mariachi music in the background. Garcia’s motorless and wheel-less red Ford Ranchero outside no longer needed the battery. As Garcia trimmed, sliced, and pounded the day-old abalone, which had been soaking in salted water for preservation, he talked about his work. The reporter’s wife translated.

The sea urchin is a major object of the villager’s sea harvesting during much of the year. It is not as lucrative per man as trapping lobsters, but it is more steady, since the lobster season (which runs from October to March) frequently is spotty. Even so, the wind and sea are calm enough for harvesting sea urchins fewer than half the days of the year. Sea urchin harvesting and processing is hardly glamorous work. A four-man crew takes a diving skiff, rigged with an air compressor, to a reef about an hour’s boat ride from Punta Baja. One man sculls with oars, keeping the unanchored boat over the diver; another tends the precious air hose; a third hauls and shucks the urchins’ gonads — the only marketable portion; and the diver, in about sixty or eighty feet of water, rakes up the urchins and deposits them in a wire basket.

The average boat take is about twenty gallons of gonads per day, and the diver’s take is about eighty dollars; the other crew members get forty dollars each. The urchin gonads are hauled into a fishing cooperative in El Rosario, where women cannery workers in blue smocks salt and rack them for shipment from Ensenada to Japan.

Garcia didn’t say so, but like the lobster and the abalone, the sea urchin is already in danger of being “fished out.’’ The problem is that a five-inch-diameter adult sea urchin generally protects anywhere from a few to fifty or sixty baby sea urchins under its oral side. When the adult is removed and destroyed for its roe, the young sea urchins are gobbled up by sheepshead. starfish, and lobsters. One sea urchin broker on San Geronimo Island, nine miles off Punta Baja and near the urchin harvesting reefs, said, “The sea urchin industry could be dead here within twenty years.’’

In Garcia's kitchen. Ash spoke in English (he speaks broken Spanish) about the sometimes controversial conservation practices of the Mexican fishermen. “I’ve talked to a couple of Scripps oceanographers about Mexican fish and game practices, and considering that these oceanographers are very straight-laced about protecting the sea’s resources, they seem to understand the basic problem. There’s no morality when you’re hungry.

“The historical reality is that Baja has been a lot harder on the people than on the animals. The missions, as they spread northward, wiped out the Indians. Perhaps some 50,000 of them perished.

“For 400 years this hostile, rugged strip of land — virtually an afterthought of nature — defeated colonization. It whipped Cortez in 1535, three orders of missionaries (Jesuit, Franciscan, and Dominican), Spanish attempts in commercial ventures, and even efforts in the last century by Europeans. Nobody — certainly not the original Indians who had no fresh water — has lived here before year round, and, hell, these villagers aren’t going to poison their own well.

“I’m prejudiced, of course, in their favor. Maybe the bias comes from fishing and clamming with Pancho [the mayor’s son|, but he is as adept a naturalist as I’ve seen. And he comes very close to Beto’s description about the sea and the land and the people being one.’’

The abalone that Garcia had sliced and pounded and cut into pieces was mixed with diced onions and Chila brand hot sauce and then served on one porcelain plate. “Ceviche," Garcia said, his eyes twinkling. “Muy sabroso.” And it was — very delicious. Two of the abalone were eaten as ceviche, and then Garcia gave the group the remaining four to be later sliced, pounded, breaded, and fried. The abalone, though still brought into and processed at the El Rosario fishing cooperative, is in relatively short supply in the waters of Punta Baja.

During Ash’s stay in the Punta Baja region, he and his party were taken to San Geronimo Island in a skiff by the mayor’s oldest son, Antonio — who at eighteen just became a diver last year — and by the mayor's brother-in-law. Johnny Valladolid. They watched as the sea urchin crews came in and deposited their four five-gallon plastic containers of sea urchin gonads. Then there was suddenly much shouting and excitement in San Geronimo’s tiny harbor and settlement. One of the crews had slain and boated a sea turtle of perhaps 400 pounds. (How they got the 400-pound turtle into the skiff defied comprehension; it was a seemingly impossible feat.) As the boat carrying the turtle was beached, a yellow plastic bucket was removed from its head (presumably it was put there to catch the blood), revealing a one-inch wide gaping hole at the base of its head. Six men wrestled it out of the boat, and as they tied it fast against the incoming tide, it was explained that only in the summer do they even see such turtles, and that so far this year only this one was taken. Last year two were killed in the island vicinity. They are, as one fisherman said in English, “very rare.’’

Later, at the north end of the island, Ash and the photographer observed thousands of nesting gulls, cormorants, and brown pelicans in a territory that was totally theirs. Crossing the width of the island were signs that read: No pase. Peligroso. (‘ ‘Do Not Enter. Dangerous.’’)“That’s their land,” explained the photographer. “If you pass into it, you threaten their young and they’d peck your eyes out — at least. ” Back at the Punta Baja cove where Ash and his party had their camp, preparations were made for a small fiesta. The reporter wrapped each of the five cabezon — caught the day before — in aluminum foil, adding butter, salt, and lime juice to each. Later, nineteen members of the fishing village arrived with their contributions of hot tortillas wrapped in cotton dish towels and a giant iron pot of frijoles. The cabezon was plucked from the coals and twenty-three people served themselves a kind of fish burrito, all without the use of a single fork, knife, spoon, or dish.

A day later, Ash’s party drove back to San Diego in a station wagon, and the red-haired naturalist spoke sadly; returning to the United States was painful. “You have to kind of let it happen,” Ash said. “You have to sit back and watch the pelicans fly past in perfect line formation. What’d we see? Maybe twenty, twenty-five of them at a crack? You look, and if your eyes are open you can slow down and see.

‘"You’ve seen this place. But you wanna know why this is so much a part of me?” he asked, and then he told this story: .

“Last year, in July, a supply ship bound for Cedros Island from Ensenada ran aground in early morning fog on the rocks at the southwestern tip of Punta Baja — maybe about 200 yards from Beto’s house and maybe 300 yards from where we were camping. This forty-eight-foot steel ship, called the Noreste, was carrying meat, cheese, canned goods, and 1000 cases of Tecate brand beer — and every ounce of it was dumped overboard by the six Mexicans on the boat in an effort to lighten the craft and back it off the rocks when the tide came in.

“Well, they didn’t get the boat off, and as dawn broke an American who was camping nearby alerted Beto’s family to the mishap. The two oldest boys climbed into their wetsuits and, using ropes, Beto and the boys assisted the crew members ashore.

“A sealed beer can floats, and as word spread, the villagers flocked to the peninsula’s western shoreline to find themselves on the beach kneedeep in drinkable beer. They were drunk for a week — men, women, and children.

“Damn near 24,000 cans of free beer, and they didn’t let any of it go to waste. I can relate to that.”

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