On the surface, Santa Rosalía is a rundown mining town with no pretty shoreline and no quaint fish shacks. Why did Josh and I love it so much?
Santa Rosalía is a brilliantly incongruous place. The red roofs and clapboard of French architecture give way to steep desert mesas which give way to burgundy tailings piles and dilapidated mining equipment that is mysterious and somehow charming. The one highway that runs the length of the peninsula runs across the foot of the town at the water’s edge—it’s the first town where the highway meets the Sea of Cortez, and vehicles descend a very steep grade before being plopped into the very busy, dusty edge of town. But a couple blocks in, the streets are tidy and entirely local. There’s a gym on the corner of main street and the highway, always full with young people working out under green and purple disco lights and listening to catchy Latin electronica. Two streets away, women hang their laundry from their second story porches. There are dogs, but the town has a shelter, so almost all of them have homes. The streets are narrow, the porches are sloping, and there are people all over the sidewalks. Santa Rosalía was built up as a mining town by the French in the late 19th century, and the copper mine still operates north of town under Korean ownership, occasionally billowing polluting smoke over the village. The town has stayed immune from tourism, except for people occasionally passing through, probably for its lack of traditional coastal amenities like beaches and palapas and the reputation from the mine.
Instead, this town has the strong and genuine character of a small, working town. What made this town one of our favorites were the genuine people we met. Whether it was the older men serving up delicious rotisserie chicken, or the hugs from the marina staff when we left, or the group of middle school kids who got up the nerve to come and talk with us while we sat on the porch of a café at the edge of town, we couldn’t believe how remarkable our interactions were here.
We ended up staying in Santa Rosalia for over a week to diagnose our dying batteries. While Josh tried trick after trick to get the battery bank to hold a charge, I set out for interviews. The woman who runs the marina, Isabel, became an amazing ally: she found people for me and would bring them to the marina office.
I talked with people at all hours. One morning I had just started to drink my coffee when the maintenance man, Elias (pronounced el-EE-yas) knocked on the boat to tell me someone was at the office waiting to be interviewed. I grabbed my recorder and paper (and of course my coffee) and dashed up to meet my unexpected storyteller.
The old man I met, Roberto, spoke his stories like a song. His booming voice lilted along, hitting high and low notes, speeding up and slowing down, to tell me about specific dates and changes. He is Isabel’s neighbor, and she told me he is always telling stories. He brought a jar of shells to show me what he used to collect on the beaches. He was the first to tell me here of the disappearance of sargassum seaweed, and he could remember when everyone in the town died from complications of working in the mine.
I also got to interview Vidál, a pescadero who works at the fueling station at the dock. When I walked over to find Vidál, he was sweeping up specks of trash near the edge of the gas station—a care generally not afforded to an industrial space. After he filled fuel for a bus, we sat down on the curb in front of the tiny station attendant building under the yellow lights. Vidál was earnest, pensive, and familiar, and when I told him I was looking for stories, he dug one out of his mind after a few minutes, laughing.
He told me was standing on the shore, about to get in the water (Vidál dove for octopus using a Hawaiana, or pole spear,) when he noticed this weird, white thing floating in the water like a ghost. He looked at it, poked at it with his spear, but still couldn’t figure it out—it moved like a giant floating bag. As he stepped into the water, he couldn’t see it anymore. But once he was waist deep, the white creature rushed around his legs and enveloped them as he pushed backwards out of the water in terror. It was a giant Humboldt squid! He pushed the air back with his fingers spread wide and palms flat as he showed the speed with which he backpeddled out of the water, laughing at himself in the story. I loved sitting there with him in the stillness, sharing his stories.
The last person I interviewed was Yerenia, the secretary alone in an office on the ground floor of the marina building. She comes from a tiny fishing village on the Pacific, and I could tell that she was a little wistful for her family. But, she said, if you want to do anything with your life, as a woman, you have to leave the village. There is nothing more there for you.
Just like every person I have interviewed, she said that the hot season is longer now, and hotter. People use air conditioners now, and all you used to need was a fan, she said. As my more formal interview came to a close, we started talking more about her life, and I learned that her husband has advanced cancer. That was why she was working and not with her two kids. She looked young, resigned, and alone, and I sat there with her wanting to give her a hug, but at least giving her an ear and asking about her life. I don’t have a photo of her because I simply forgot in the sadness of our conversation.
In the end, I interviewed six people and learned much more about these people than just what my interview would tell. They opened up to me, and my Spanish improved by a big leap in Santa Rosalía, I think in part because people communicated with me with sincerity. All around us there were people who wanted to talk, and I ended up finding an interesting story about climate change embedded in the recent history of the town (stay tuned for the next blog!)
The interviews weren’t the only way that people connected with us. Josh and I rode our bikes around Santa Rosalia and met with characters everywhere. After successfully figuring out how to ride to the top of Mesa Mexico, the mesa on the southern end of the arroyo (where all the Mexican managers lived in the days of the mine,) I wanted to try to ride up Mesa Francia (the northern mesa where, you guessed it, all the French managers lived.) Mesa Mexico was ‘paved’ in old cobbles and passed the town cemetery (the best view in town), and I thought surely there was a way to get to the top of the other mesa.
I could SEE an old mining road, and we rode all around the little community at the base, asking how to get to the top. People just looked at us funny, slightly baffled, and say we WERE on top of Mesa Francia. I’m sure I looked back with equal confusion and would try to ask in another way how to get to the top. They would eventually recommend that we go down and then back up a different road. At one corner, a man and wife told us this, and I laughed and said we had just come from the other side. Well, they are on bikes, they can just go up this way, the woman said to her husband. I will show you the way! He proclaimed jovially. Both hopped from their chairs in their yard, and the man led us to the start of a loose, steep dirt road, as neighbors emerged from their stoops, smiling, to see what we were doing.
“Now, just remember, go past the trailer when you get to the top, you will see it,” the man told us, and we thanked him and began the bike crawl up the road. Soon, we were off and pushing. We discovered the old trailer at the top, occupied but with no one around, and walked through this person’s ‘yard’, through a fence, and onto a little trail. I could see the road cut up the mesa, and we rode and walked our bikes past the old chimney for the mine. The road ended up being covered in baby-head-sized loose rocks, and after pushing our bikes up the road for half an hour, we finally agreed that the road was worsening and bounced back down, past the swiss cheese holes drilled into the hillside. We rode our bikes over the maroon moonscape of the tailing cone and back into town. I love that the man and wife had enough faith in our skills as big riders (or pushers) to send us where we wanted to go—the back way up the mesa.
After another failed attempt to ride out-of-town to the west, we stopped at a restaurant at the edge of town. In the shade of their porch, we watched middle-school-aged kids congregate in their uniforms (each with some subtle personal flair) in the small plaza park in front of us. A couple of girls goaded a boy to come and say something in English to us, and I teased him back by telling him to speak more English. He ran back to the girls, and after much tittering and the added courage of a few more girls, we were descended upon by about ten kids. Taking my request literally, a girl began to read an essay in English from her notebook (with was short sentences that included; I am old. I have gray hair.) I was so confused by her words that I thought I didn’t understand her, and when I asked her about it, they soon realized that I spoke Spanish, and they began intently and curiously quizzing me. Very quickly they asked ‘Do you have kids?’ “We have the dog!” I replied, to which they laughed uproariously. When they left, they asked, “How do you say goodbye, like informally, in English?” “See you later,” I told them, and they repeated it back to me with such perfect slightly East coast accents that I couldn’t help but feel stunned by how quickly they absorbed it, and I complimented them, much to their mixture of embarrassment and surprised accomplishment. As we rode away a few minutes later, a chorus of perfect “See you later”s echoed from the park.
When we departed, I felt sad to leave Isabel and Elias and our daily conversations at the marina, earnest Vidál, and even the men with the kind eyes I never got to interview in the amazing chicken rotisserie restaurant. Santa Rosalía showed us its whole heart, from young to old, from thriving to weak. The bones of that town are not so much the crumbling French architecture, but the souls of its residents. As Le Petit Prince said, “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”