A few years ago, Mike Wilken and some friends with a professional video camera drove to a village in the mountains southeast of Ensenada. There they met with a septuagenarian Baja Indian named Benito Peralta. With the camera running, Peralta recounted in the Paipai Indian language an ancient story about a monster who lived in a cave in the arroyo running through the community. Later Wilken and his friends went to the cave and recorded some of the village children playing where the mythic monster crunched his victims’ bones. In subsequent months, Wilken transported the elder to several other locations that were the subject of the old man’s gritty folktales. To the videotaped collection of stories, Wilken later added voice-over translations, one version in English and another in Spanish. This past June he had 40 copies of the tape made.
The goal of all this was to enable the Indian elder to earn some money, an activity more or less alien to the culture of the Baja California Indians. In the coming months, Wilken plans to drive the old man to events in San Diego and elsewhere, where Peralta will try to sell the tapes for $20 each. Peralta will keep all the profit from the enterprise, Wilken says, adding, “Hopefully this will be a way for him to generate some income from his knowledge.”
At one time, 40,000 to 50,000 indigenous people made a living from their knowledge of the Baja peninsula, Wilken points out. They moved over obscure trails to find plants and animals and water holes and shelter. Today only about 1000 of their descendants survive. Those statistics, which would slide right past most people, have transfixed Wilken. As his name suggests, the 39-year-old anthropologist isn’t Mexican and couldn’t be mistaken for one. His skin and eyes are too fair; his hair and trim mustache too colored by red highlights. A trim, barrel-chested man, he’d look right at home selling cellular phones in Solana Beach. But Wilken has eschewed the gringo life to study Baja’s native inhabitants and to help them preserve their fading traditions.
He lacks conventional credentials in this enterprise. He has no Ph.D., doesn’t work for a bureaucracy. He does have family roots in Mexico. A paternal grandfather named Thomas Robertson was born there. Robertson was an amateur historian who translated Jesuit works and wrote a book about a utopian colony in Sinaloa where he grew up. During the Mexican Revolution, he moved to Southern California, finally settling in Ventura County, where he established an orange ranch and raised a family. (Wilken was brought up not far from there, speaking English only, he laments.) But Robertson’s interest in Mexico persisted, and in the late ’50s he developed the San Miguel community, on the coast just north of Ensenada, in partnership with Pepita Bitterlin, founder of Ensenada’s renowned El Rey Sol restaurant.
Robertson also took his grandchildren, including Wilken, on forays into Mexico. These included visits to some of Baja’s missions, about which the old man later wrote a book. But while Baja’s early missionaries fascinated the grandfather, Wilken’s attention was always riveted by the native peoples subjugated by the Spaniards. “There was a part of the whole story about the missions that seemed really unjust to me,” Wilken muses today. “I knew that there was more to it than just the padres who selflessly came to convert the heathens. I wanted to know more about these people and what their life was like.”
By the time he entered UC-Santa Cruz, Wilken’s interest in the Baja Indians conjoined with his discovery that he loved anthropology. For his senior thesis, he spent three months living in a Baja Indian village. As late as 1918, more than 40 such settlements were counted on the arid peninsula, but by 1980 (the year of Wilken’s academic project) only 8 remained, all in the northernmost part.
In these eight villages, four ethnic groups survive today. Far to the east, on the shores of the dry lakebed known as the Laguna Salada, about 250 Cucapa reside. A fraction of that number — perhaps 50 — Kiliwa Indians live in an area known as Arroyo de Leon at the foot of the Sierra San Pedro Martír. The Kumeyaay Indians, whose territory extends as far north as Escondido, in San Diego County, inhabit four settlements south of the border. Finally, Paipai Indians, who bear many cultural similarities to the Yavapai, Hualapai, and Havasupai Indians of Arizona, have two distinct Baja communities: San Isidoro, near the Trinidad Valley, and Santa Catarina, in the Sierra Juárez.
It was in Santa Catarina that Wilken says his grandfather helped arrange for him to live with a Paipai family. Besides observing as much as possible, Wilken says he also had specific interests. He knew, for instance, that various Yuman Indians (of which the four remaining Baja tribes are subgroups) had been producing pottery for somewhere between 800 and 1500 years. Fired by dung or yucca stalks in shallow pits, this pottery has an elegance that derives from its simplicity. Natural elements provide the subtle ornamentation: sprinklings of golden mica caught within the reddish brown clay, patterns of charcoal-colored cloudlike shapes created on the surface by the firing process.
In the course of his fieldwork, Wilken discovered that only five of the Paipai women still made such pottery. “Their mothers had made pots all their lives because they still didn’t have access to glass and plastic and metal containers. But as these girls had grown up, pottery had changed from being something you would make for your own use to something you might sell as an art piece,” Wilken says. When he arrived, “They still made some pots, maybe because they liked to. But also they did it because occasionally someone would come and buy from them — maybe an anthropologist or some stray tourist would go up there and find them. But it’s a lot of work to gather the clay and work it, so they would only do it every year or two.” Wilken persuaded one of Santa Catarina’s remaining potters to demonstrate her craft and allow him to photograph the process.
Although Baja Indians traditionally made two types of baskets, and these are still produced in some of the Kumeyaay villages, no basket makers remained within the Paipai settlement. But Wilken did spend days with a woman who practiced another ancient and essential craft, making twine from the fiber of the agave. “The twine was used to make bowstrings, bindings, and a variety of nets,” Wilken explains. The latter was one of the most indispensable possessions of the hunter-gatherer. Nets traditionally were used for carrying all one’s goods on one’s back, for hunting and fishing, and for gathering and cleaning prickly pear fruits.
When he embarked on his fieldwork, Wilken says, he also dreamed of finding Paipai elders who would recount some of the tribal legends for him. But for about a month, whenever he asked who might help him with this, people would shake their heads and say that no one knew the old stories anymore. Wilken says his biggest breakthrough came one day when the community leaders were meeting at the village school. “I’d been given permission to be there. But I didn’t want my presence right in the room. So I was sitting outside the door where I could hear,” he recalls. He was joined by an old man wearing a funny little felt bowler. “We started to talk,” Wilken says. “He had a cane and he started drawing in the sand, illustrations of the things he was telling me, about the constellations that the Paipai recognize and the stories that go along with those constellations.”
The man, as it turned out, was Benito Peralta, Santa Catarina’s most gifted storyteller. Wilken today reflects that jealousy might have kept some of the villagers from directing him to Peralta (since Wilken paid his sources in the villages for assisting him). “But I also think it’s kind of a catchall phrase to say that there isn’t anyone left. I think what it really means is, ‘There’s no one left like the old-timers that we once had.’ ” Communication problems complicated Wilken’s life in other ways, he says today. Although most people in the village spoke some Spanish (and Wilken had studied it since high school), he still struggled for comprehension, particularly when addressed by the village young people. “My relationship with them was more or less nonexistent, and I think it’s because they talked a lot faster and used a lot more slang. Sometimes they’d take me along when they’d go to a rodeo or something, and it was fun just to be there and see things. But I’d always be really frustrated because I couldn’t understand a lot of what they were saying.”
His biggest disappointment wasn’t linguistic. Wilken says it came one day when the community was planning another big meeting, and this time the American was told he couldn’t attend. “They had every right to do that,” he says. “But up to that point, everyone had always said yes. This time they said, ‘We don’t know what your motives are. And other anthropologists have come and taken information and then distorted it.’ I remember I went home and felt crestfallen.”
But he says the rejection forced him to confront a tough question. “Here I was, intruding on their lives, but what lasting results would be left for the community?” As a result of some soul-searching, “I decided that I would make a little booklet of the information I was receiving and leave it with the different families I worked with.” Wilken says his parents contributed $100 to pay for the photocopying costs, and later he learned that the village teachers were using the finished product in their school. “It helped them see their culture through somebody else’s eyes.”
He says the wish to do something lasting for the community continued to haunt him after he left the village and was graduated. Rather than pursuing an advanced degree, “I wanted to do something completely nonacademic for a while,” Wilken recalls. He worked as a waiter, did some landscape work, dabbled in the importation of Oaxacan handicrafts. Pottery from that region is much more “commercial” than the Baja pottery, he says. “There are more specialists involved in different parts of it. It’s more like a factory, and as a result, you can have 100 pots all the same size with the same design. And the potters have spent their lives doing nothing but making pottery. Whereas with the Baja Indians, the same lady who made pots also probably would gather her own firewood and build her own house. One of the things that’s said about these cultures is that each person had to know everything there was to know about how to survive. They were all generalists!” The look of the Baja pottery also distinguishes it from the better-known Oaxacan varieties. “The Oaxacan pots are definitely geared toward a certain kind of Western taste — symmetrical and painted with nice designs. But one of the things that 1 love about the traditional shapes of the [Baja Indian] pottery is that it’s kind of like rock art in a certain way. It allows you somehow to have a glimpse into another people’s aesthetic, into what to them was beautiful, what to them was worth making an effort to preserve and pass on to future generations.”
As he imported and sold the Oaxacan pottery, Wilken says, he also tried to sell some of the Baja pots — “so that I could go back and buy more.” Gradually he learned about powwows, Indian art markets, museum stores. “The market is very limited, but it’s out there.”
Over time, a couple of interesting things happened among the Paipai potters’ small community, Wilken reports. For one thing, the group began to expand. “A lot of culture is transmitted grandmother to granddaughter.” As the pots have grown in economic importance, “the granddaughters are now beginning to learn, and they’re also becoming part of the production process — gathering the clay and so forth.”
Although pottery has always been considered women’s work, some of the men have also become involved in gathering the necessary raw materials, according to Wilken. “Another thing that’s happened since we’ve been able to find more of a market for their work is that the ladies have gotten a lot more practice — and the work’s getting better.
“From a technical point of view, the constant struggle with pottery is to have as thin a wall as possible, but a strong wall. Some of these ladies’ older work was thicker and uneven. And as they’ve practiced more, it’s getting stronger and thinner and more even. They’re also getting more intentional about the fire-clouding — the raku kind of effect. And they’ve been experimenting a lot with shapes."
About six years ago, Wilken took another step closer to Baja’s Indian communities. When some of his relatives decided to build a house in San Miguel (the seaside community next to Ensenada developed by Wilken’s grandfather), he volunteered to help with the construction. The house included a room for him, and he has lived in San Miguel ever since the building was completed. About the same time he moved in, Wilken had an experience that transformed him. He and a group of San Diego friends had joined together to help an elderly Paipai man get a much-needed cataract operation at Scripps Hospital.
“We all sort of worked on different aspects — getting him and his sister through the border, finding them a place to stay, doing the translation, etc. The surgeon, the anesthesiologist, the hospital all donated their help. And I realized, my God, there’s so much we could do to help down here, if we just set up a structure that was more official and permanent." So it was that CUN A, the Native Cultures Institute, came to life.
Today, in retrospect, Wilken says “it was kind of a reckless decision” on his part to form a Mexican nonprofit organization. He thought he’d get foundation or governmental support for it, but only a little has materialized. The institute does have a tiny office in a historic building a few blocks from the center of Ensenada. Wilken’s grandfather was friends with the woman who’s now the state director of the Mexican federal agency in charge of historical and anthropological preservation. She has let Wilken use the office without charge since 1993. Wilken still earns some money from landscaping, importing, and translation. “I’ve been surviving on about $500 a month,” he confesses. “I’ve had a very interesting life. But it hasn’t been a moneymaking life.”
After founding the institute, he says he concentrated for a while on promoting cultural exchanges between the various Indian groups. On several occasions, for example, he transported some of the Paipai Indians to special events sponsored by the various Pai Indians of Arizona. Strong similarities between the languages were noted and stories exchanged that reinforced the notion that the Paipais, Havasupais, Yavapais, and Hualapais shared common ancestors. Other times, Wilken and volunteer helpers have brought the Baja Kumeyaay together with their American cousins. “They’ve been aware of each other forever, but the border has divided them," says Wilken. He adds, “You might think the communities down here have all the need, and it’s a one-way street. But the communities [in San Diego County] need the culture that’s still alive down here. They’re very interested in learning.”
A chance to educate Ensenada residents about the Indians living in the mountains and valleys around them also came last year when Ensenada’s main history museum, located in the historic Riviera Del Pacific cultural center, won a $25,000 grant to set up an exhibit about Baja’s indigenous peoples. “Most of that went for construction and signs,” Wilken says. He got $2500 for curating the exhibit.
Though modest in scope, the exhibit is informative and professional. One glass case shows the plants that the Indians relied upon for food and medicine. Others display traditional weapons, tools, and crafts. “Basically it’s my own collection of stuff from 15 years,” Wilken confides. One of the nicest touches is the transformation of the stairway that connects upper and lower rooms into a cave-like passageway bearing examples of the rock art found in Baja.
Besides the personal satisfaction that the curatorial work gave him, it also brought Wilken into contact with Norma Harris. Harris, her name to the contrary, is Mexican, a retired language therapist who moved to Ensenada from Mexico City 15 years ago. Today she lives on a pension, but she’s hardly in her dotage. Quick-moving and animated, she was volunteering at the historical museum when she met Mike and heard about the little organization he had started.
“When he told me what he was doing, it made a deep impression on me,” Harris says. “I thought, ‘Why is a foreigner so interested in Mexico?’ ”
Moved by Wilken’s commitment, Harris asked if she could help with anything. In fact, Wilken did harbor dreams of implementing a huge project.
Ever since being involved with the eye surgery for the Paipai elder, he says, he yearned to help the Baja Indians get more systematic medical care. Disease and illness, after all, had been the biggest force in decimating their ancestors.
‘The reason there are some native people left in the north is because the Spanish got there last,”
Wilken says. “In the south, the Indians are all extinct.” He says that’s partly because the Spanish, claiming the best land, forced the Indians to trade the kind of life that had sustained them for centuries for agricultural peonage. The change weakened the Indians, but the germs imported by the missionaries finished most of them off.
Some kind of justice would thus be served in helping to improve the health of the remaining Indians, particularly the elders who remember most about the traditional ways. Wilken also thought that many doctors would donate their help, if only they could be organized. “It’s such a big project, I didn’t want to take it on by myself,” he says. “1 knew that the institute wasn’t far enough along for me to be able to do that. So when Norma came along, I said, ‘Well, there’s this. But it’s probably more than you want to handle.’ And she said, ‘No! I’ll do it!’"
Though she lacked any contacts within Ensenada’s medical community, Harris blithely knocked on the doors of various medical facilities, introducing herself and explaining what was in the offing. Some practitioners declined to help, but the woman soon had assembled a list of doctors, dentists, and laboratories willing either to join Sunday morning outings to the Indian villages or to provide services to the Indians in Ensenada. In March of 1995, the Kumeyaay village of La Huerta was the first target of this Medical Aid Network. Soon the volunteers were also going to Santa Catarina, the Paipai community Wilken had studied as an undergraduate.
“We communicate by radio!” Harris explained recently. “One day we want to make a video of the whole process — because it’s very complicated!” First she calls around to doctors and dentists asking if they can go on a particular Sunday. For every one who agrees, Harris figures that ten patients in the village can be seen. Armed with a list of the likely openings, she calls a lady known as Doha Aurorita, who’s paid by the city of Ensenada to provide shortwave radio contact with all the areas in northern Baja that have no phone service. Harris asks her to pass the message to the villagers that the network volunteers will be arriving at a certain hour. “Near Santa Catarina there’s a butcher shop that does have a phone, so we usually call there a day or two later to see if they got the radio message,” Harris elaborates.
The medical team members leave the task of deciding who needs help to the Indians themselves. Usually a list has been compiled when the team members arrive in the village. “And now we have a very elegant system for getting medicines back to the village,” Harris adds. There’s a bus that goes to two ejidos near Santa Catarina and La Huerta every day. “The driver is very friendly, and he’ll take a bag of medicine to a store in the ejido,” says Harris. “Then we get Dorta Aurorita to radio the person who needs the medicine to go to the store to get it.”
“It’s very Baja California,” Wilken, delighted, interjects.
The network has now expanded beyond Santa Catarina and La Huerta. In February of this year, the volunteers made their first visit to the remote Kiliwa outpost, as well as the Paipai village of San Isidoro. By the end of May, Harris was also itching to venture into the Kumeyaay community of San Antonio Necua. She planned to start by bringing a couple of volunteer doctors to an introductory meeting with the Indians there.
By 7:30 on a cloudless Sunday morning, however, Harris was waiting outside the building that houses the institute and looking chagrined. One or two doctors had already canceled, and the remaining one who’d pledged to join the outing was nowhere in sight. The only volunteers in evidence were two neighbors of Harris, a shy but radiant housewife named Lidia and Lidia’s teenaged daughter Graciela. Mario Magaño, CUNA’s only employee, also had shown up. This year the institute got a $6000 grant to help the Campo Kumeyaay community survey the water resources in Baja’s Kumeyaay Indian communities, and Wilken decided to use that money to hire Magaño, a historian acquaintance who was looking for work, to be his administrative assistant.
By about 8:00 a.m., the group had given up hope that the remaining doctor would materialize. “It happens,” Norma said with a shrug. “For most of the doctors, this is their only day off, and things come up.”
Undaunted, she and the other lay volunteers set off, determined at least to introduce themselves to the village. They headed for the toll road to San Diego, but before the first collection booths, they cut off on the road to Tecate. After about 17 miles, this road enters the Guadalupe Valley, the heart of Mexico’s winemaking industry. The most modern and impressive spot along the road is the place where the Pedro Domecq facilities face the vast acreage controlled by L.A. Cetto, the country’s largest winemaker. Here Harris’s car left the highway and headed south, kicking up a fog of fine yellow dust. It charged past the huge Cetto plant and countless rows of emerald grapevines. Bushes laden with roses stood sentry over many of the rows. Only as the car neared the mountains at the southern edge of the valley did the grapevines disappear, giving way to a broad, sandy wash. Here the houses of San Antonio Necua could be glimpsed.
Of Baja’s eight Indian communities, this one has the most contact with the outside world, according to Mike Wilken. “It’s the only one that regularly has electricity and running water,” he says.
Two dirt roads lead into the community, and a curious stranger who followed one of them would be hard-pressed to realize he’d stumbled into an Indian enclave. The road leads past houses that are pastel-painted concrete blocks instead of the traditional domes once made with local brush and branches; a conspicuous church bears the name Iglesia Cristiana Assemblies of God, Calvary. Crude wooden poles strung with barbed wire line one of the two main byways, but a Ruffles bag caps one of them. A Doritos bag adorns another.
Dogs trot through the dust, toast-colored creatures of intermediate size with shaggy coats and curling tails and vulpine faces. This is also a village of horses and cattle; the men here enjoy a reputation for being superior cowboys. Around 150 people live in the community in some 36 or 37 households, according to Tabita Dominguez, the woman who greeted Harris and her team of volunteers that first Sunday morning. Dominguez directed the Ensenadans to a scrofulous cinderblock building where a community meeting was already in progress.
Outside the gathering, Harris parked her Nissan Pathfinder near a hitching post in active use. Then she and her helpers unearthed a box of sunglasses donated by an international Lions Clubs project. Within moments, villagers appeared box-side, self-conscious but eager to claim some of the free shades. “In almost all the communities, there are eye problems,” Harris explained, drawing nodding agreement from Dominguez. Although the latter works as a teacher in the tiny village school, she says that most people toil in the nearby fields out in the sun and dust and pollen, earning $40 a week for working eight hours a day, six days a week. “That’s barely enough to buy food,” Dominguez commented.
The interior of the cinderblock building was dim and cool. Sky-blue walls rose from a bruised concrete floor, and heavy waves of gray metal formed most of a roof. More light entered the missing section, as well as through windows that ranged from intact to fractured to glassless. About two dozen adults sat on folding chairs lining the perimeter. Every man wore a hat — some the traditional cowboy gear, others baseball caps adorned with everything from Indian words to Mickey Mouse. One middle-aged fellow sported a canvas fedora. A few women wore skirts, but a greater number dressed in slacks or jeans. As a group, the assembly looked as well dressed as most of the people strolling down Avenida Constitución in Tijuana.
Harris and her three colleagues took seats behind a battered table facing the assembly. Against the muffled interjections of a distant rooster, each network representative spoke for a few minutes, outlining what they had done in the other villages and stressing that this was an ail-volunteer effort. Face aglow, Harris thanked the villagers for receiving the volunteers. Then she urged all of them to avail themselves of some vitamins the group had brought.
The meeting continued as the Network members regrouped outside and hauled out a Gigante grocery store sack containing dozens of Baggies filled with pills, some for adults and others for children. From the meeting room, a man in a Cowboys baseball cap and an In-N-Out Burgers of Southern California T-shirt emerged to approach the volunteers and ask what the vitamins were for. “Protection,” Harris replied. Someone else chimed in that they augment one’s diet. The man seemed a bit concerned that the supplements might somehow affect his eating, but the volunteers assured him that this should not be a problem. The man accepted a bag for himself and one each for his two children, aged six and four.
As more villagers straggled out to claim vitamins, Graciela, the teenage volunteer, recorded each person’s name and age. A curious fact emerged. Almost everyone reported that their last name was Dominguez. “We’re all one big family,” confirmed Tabita, the schoolteacher. That fact has put additional pressure upon the community, Wilken points out. According to him, the Indians of Baja (as well as the larger Yuman family) have long had a taboo against marrying cousins. “Because they have these exogamous marriage rules saying that you have to marry outside of your clan, in old times maybe a Kumeyaay would have married a Paipai or a Kiliwa or another Kumeyaay but from a different clan,” Wilken says. Today, however, the Indian men tend to choose non-Indian women who might be from anywhere in Mexico. “Also, one of the things you’ll find in Necua and San José de la Zorra (the other Indian village in the Guadalupe Valley) and even in Paipai Santa Catarina is that for a lot of the younger guys, it’s sort of a status symbol to have a light-skinned wife.”
Wilken adds that in the Guadalupe Valley, the Indians often have married women descended from the Russian pacifists who settled in the village of Francisco Zarco shortly after the turn of the century. It explains why the residents of San Antonio Necua for the most part lack the darker skin and more classic Indian features found in some of the more remote villages, Wilken says.
Another vitamin-seeker, a 43-year-old woman, shyly asked if the nutritional supplements could be taken by her husband, a diabetic. No one seemed sure about the answer, so they advised her to wait until the following Sunday, when she could ask the doctors they hoped to bring back then.
By Wednesday, Harris had extracted promises of assistance from two general practitioners and two pediatricians. But once again, Sunday morning brought disappointment. The pediatrician from Ensenada called Harris’s cellular phone to say she had to attend to a child hospitalized with meningitis. The second pediatrician, a woman from San Diego, never called or showed up. With obvious relief, Harris greeted Rafael Ruiz, a staff doctor at one of Ensenada’s hospitals who had met Wilken at the museum and gone with the network on several of its previous outings. A young medical colleague named Rodolfo Benitez accompanied him.
In the village, the team this time decamped outside a large building once intended to be a schoolhouse. Again Tabita greeted the visitors, this time dressed in a lavender “Los Angeles” T-shirt and a darker purple skirt of heavy canvas. Something about the schoolteacher — the breadth and strength of her — suggests a column. Her long dark hair she wore braided and secured at the end with a pink spongy roller. A broad straw hat adorned with dried pastel flowers, heavy work boots, and white socks completed her outfit. She informed Harris that the village had selected those individuals with the greatest need and organized them to see the doctors.
Harris found two nearby chambers to serve as consulting rooms for the doctors and began directing the waiting patients to each. Meanwhile, Magaño set up an impromptu pharmacy on a countertop at the front of the one-time schoolroom, arraying boxes of Riopan, Tylenol Flu, Motrin, amoxicillin, even Prozac (“para antidepression , ” the container read).
A Santa Barbara organization called Direct Relief International had donated some of these drugs, Magaño explained, while benefactors in Ensenada had provided others. Every few minutes, Benitez or Ruiz would emerge from their sanctums, stride up to the counter, scrutinize the scanty spread, hesitate, then grab something, like children at an understocked candy counter, impelled to make some selection rather than walk away empty-handed.
While the doctors consulted, Lidia and Graciela, on hand again, created a makeshift optician’s shop in the rear of the central room. Armed this time with ten boxes of prescription glasses from the Lions Club, the housewife and her daughter tackled the daunting task of dispensing them. To this end, they taped to the wall two sheets of paper bearing the letter E oriented in different directions and diminishing in size with each descending row. Instead of asking each person which way the Es pointed, however, the two women posed a less confrontational, vaguer question about which rows could be seen. Then they rooted around in the boxes and urged each patient to try on a succession of glasses, until a match between the myopic person and the free correctional gear seemed effected.
By 11:00 a.m. Ruiz had worked his way through to one of his last patients, 74-year-old Maria Ernes, San Antonio’s most venerable elder. She’d been plagued by leg pain so severe that she was hardly able to walk. In his consulting room, Ruiz greeted the old lady with well-polished courtesy. “Do your legs hurt all day long, Señora María?” he inquired.
“Unless I get off them,” she murmured. To another question, she disclosed that she’s been taking drugs to control diabetes and hypertension for many years.
A jovial fellow, Ruiz relied exclusively on oral examination, peppering the woman with questions. Had she been eating a lot of cookies? he probed. Meat? Whole milk? Salt?
“You have to think of your circulation like a little hose,” he lectured, professorial. “And in this little hose, if you throw a lot of grease, what the fat does is to block up your arteries. Now, your arteries are like the little streets for bringing the nutrients to your body — to the muscles and the skin. When they’re blocked up and you’re walking, the muscles say, ‘If you want me to walk, you have to give me food.’ The only way your body can tell you that it can’t work is with pain.”
Ruiz recommended that the elderly woman go into Ensenada to have her blood sugar and urine checked (at no charge). He repeated more dietary injunctions, then bade her a cheery farewell.
Diabetes and hypertension are all too common among the Indians, the network volunteers testify. Obesity also is rampant, another reminder of how little the Indians’ patterns of diet and exercise today resemble their traditional ones. Once Baja’s Indians were seminomadic.
spending winters in the coastal lowlands where sea life could be harvested, then migrating in the spring to the inland valleys and mountains as plants there bloomed and provided edible fruits. With the abandonment of these cycles, lard and flour became the major staples, replacing the fruits, nuts, and seafood. Besides the lifestyle diseases, Ruiz says he’s also seen a lot of tuberculosis, arthritis, respiratory disease, and intestinal problems — common complaints exacerbated by the people’s poverty.
Back in Ensenada, Wilken seems resigned to the lack of attention paid to the Baja Indians by the Mexican federal government’s equivalent of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs. He says the Mexican bureaucracy is overwhelmed by the Indians who have migrated to the border area from mainland Mexico; they now outnumber the Baja Indians by at least 40 to 1. And anthropological funding in Mexico, highly centralized, has always tended to go to the Aztec and Mayan sites.
Last year CUNA did get about $5000 from two Mexican government social service agencies, one federal and one state. That money has paid for some medicines, Wilken says, and helped with some of the gasoline and phone expenses. “It’s a small amount, but it really has helped us to be able to continue with this work.”
Still, money has been a continuing source of various kinds of stress, some unexpected. “It’s been kind of hard for me as a non-Indian involved in all this,” Wilken confides. “There’s been a certain amount of suspicion about my motives. I think it’s appeared to some of the native people in San Diego that I’m just another white guy trying to make money off the [Baja] Indidans...that there was some kind of an exploitive situation.” Gossip has been insidious, Wilken contends, citing one San Diego rumor that had him taking an 80 percent cut from the Baja Indians’ sales. “I don’t make anything on what the ladies sell,” he counters. “They make everything. And what I can sell is basically just to keep this whole thing going. That’s how we pay for the gas and that kind of stuff.”
At the same time, dealing with a cash economy has imposed pressures on the Indians that helped fuel the rumors of exploitation, he acknowledges. Three years ago, when he first brought some of the Baja Indians to the Museum of Man’s annual Indian Affair, the Paipais and Baja Kumeyaay wanted him to put a price tag on each thing, Wilken recalls. “And then they wanted us to take care of the money and change and everything.”
He says he complied because he realized how hard these tasks were for the Baja elders. “First of all, everything was in dollars, which doesn’t make sense to them. And the language is a big problem too. They feel shy, and then it’s hard for them when somebody’s saying, ‘Oh, what is this? And how much is it? And what are these for?’ This is just not part of their world. It’s something that we Americans grow up with, but for them it’s as foreign as maybe for us it would be to go and gather barrel cactus fruits.”
Wilken says he soon realized that his help with these tasks was being misinterpreted. “So as time went on, we said that they had to take care of all that. They resisted, but we’ve sort of insisted that they have to do it.” And they are making progress, Wilken asserts, particularly the young people. “It’s hard for us to expect that the elders are going to jump up and give change and all that. But the younger people will. We’re hoping to get them involved to where they can take it over. It would be great if they eventually had vehicles and a way to communicate and know when there was going to be some kind of an event. Or if they had a good place here in Ensenada to sell their stuff when the tourists flood the town.”
Ensenada’s main drag, First Street, looks like a human river on Wednesdays around noon, Wilken says. That’s when the tourists from the cruise ships surge through, hungry for souvenirs of their foreign adventure. Mindful of this weekly infusion of money, Wilken has secured a place for the Baja Indians to sell their handicrafts, at the little regional history museum opened last year in the historical building on Gastelum Street. “The only problem is that the space is half a block off the main drag. And that half a block is death,” Wilken declares. The tourists are nervous because they’re in Mexico. “And as a result, very few people will leave the river.”
Wilken nonetheless nurses the hope that the site could develop into a new focal point for the Baja Indians’ economies. “You know, if they can earn $40 or $50, that makes it worthwhile for them to go there. And I know if they were able to do it on a regular basis, they could sell a lot more than $40. They’d be doing a traditional-type activity that would be helping to keep their culture alive. I know that sometimes it seems that’s more important to us non-Indians than it is to the Indians, but it is important to them.”