March 16, 2010

San José de Magdalena

What strength possessed the Spanish people to struggle through the steep arroyos and climb the craggy mountains and to find the hidden valleys with water so they could stay to make a life here in Baja centuries ago? Some of their descendents stayed on, even though water was more plentiful in other places, such as California proper. They make a living from their cattle and goats, becoming experts at curing and tooling leather, and making cheese. The live in isolated communities and plant their crops in the arroyos. When the hurricanes come and the arroyos flood, they are wiped out, but still they stay on eking out a living from this harsh and unforgiving land. Initially it was the missionaries that found the places here with water and tried to establish communities with the Cochimi and Guaycura Indians in this part of Baja. None of the indigenous people ultimately survived the arrival of the Spanish, succumbing to disease over time. Later even Anglo settlers came to Baja, settling in this area just after the U.S. Civil War.

According to Wikipedia: "the Visita de San José de Magdalena was founded in 1774 by the Dominican missionary Joaquín Valero to serve Cochimí Indians associated with the Misión Santa Rosalía de Mulegé. Building a visita, or subordinate mission station was initially proposed by the Franciscan missionary Francisco Palóu prior to the Dominicans' assumption of responsibility for the Baja California missions. The visita was terminated when the mission at Mulegé was closed in 1828. Ruined walls of stone and adobe brick survive at the site. (This is excerpted from the book Las Misiones Antiguas: The Spanish Missions of Baja California, 1683–1855 by Edward W. Vernon 2002, Viejo Press, Santa Barbara, California)."

Esperando and I knew nothing of this last weekend when we took the bumpy narrow dirt road 15 kilometers west of Highway 1 to follow the sign pointing to San Jose de Magdelena. We were just curious to see what was there since we drive by the sign on the highway often and now were looking for an afternoon’s diversion. Though a mere 11 miles from the highway, the drive to this little community took about an hour as the road was so rough. After 45 minutes of bumping along the first sight to greet us were little green pockets of water, winding down a deep wide arroyo, and strung together like pearl beads. The water nourished small well tended fields of green surrounded by rugged barren hills of naught but cactus. The first indication of a town is the cemetery, a little village of tombs and mausoleums in various bright colors, some new, some old with the ornamental iron crosses of a century ago. The dead have a sweet little city densely packed up against each another. It has a convivial feel to it, and one senses community and not desolation in the cemetery.
San Jose de Magdelena is known for growing garlic and selling the braided strands locally, so that is supposed to be what you come up here to see and to buy. We found an old almost toothless man (Esperando tells me he has read that these people are addicted to piloncillo-an unrefined brown sugar produced in hard cones of various sizes; they suck on them and over time rot out their teeth)  engaged in the so Mexican past-time of mixing up a batch of concrete. Since we have moved down here, I have come to realize the Mexicans and concrete go together like soap and water. Everywhere they always are building and improving on their structures. He seemed to be the only person in town. Everyone else must have been taking a siesta.

We inquired about the garlic, but it was still too early to buy any. He wasn’t sure when it would be available, but his neighbor across the way sells it when it is. He told us the road to the coast from here was impassable. We didn’t go any further down the road to see the old mission which apparently is quite ruined. On our drive back through town we passed a sweet little shrine to the Virgen de Guadalupe set by a spring. As we got back even with the cemetery, a man was in the field saddling his mule. (Mules are preferred to horses here; they are tougher and more sure-footed). The mule was saddled with a particular kind of saddle that the ranchers make here which has the chaps built into it so that you are not destroyed by riding in the thick cactus. He wanted to know if we wanted a photo, and then put his little dog up on the mule’s back and smiled at us. He, too, had a lot of missing teeth--too much piloncillo!

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