A renaissance is taking place in Baja California’s border region – known as northern Baja. Driving from the oceanfront Hotel Coral in Ensenada into the nearby Valle de Guadalupe, you see acres upon acres of vineyards, gracious wine-tasting rooms, elegant restaurants, bed-and-breakfasts with strikingly contemporary architecture, and even a new wine museum.
This is Mexico’s increasingly famous Ruta del Vino. And with tourism flourishing, it’s easy to forget that this is part of Indian country.
When you near the far end of the valley, keep going past the Doña Lupe winery, and when you see the “Ecoturismo Kumiai” sign, turn down the dirt road to your right. (If you pass the L.A. Cetto winery, you’ve gone too far.) In just two kilometers, you’ll find yourself in San Antonio Necua, one of Baja California’s four Kumeyaay communities. Approximately 200 people live here, and they welcome the public to visit their museum, gift shop, restaurant, outdoor amphitheater and recreation space, which also includes a replica of a traditional Kumeyaay shelter.
San Antonio Necua is a must-stop on a visit to northern Baja. Not only is it easily accessible, it’s in one of the last natural, undeveloped areas of the valley. It’s also a vivid reminder that the peninsula’s original indigenous inhabitants are not relics of the past; they’re still here, and they’re looking toward their future.
Challenges in Indian Communities of Northern Baja
While the indigenous peoples of Baja California Sur — the Guaycura and Pericú — were completely wiped out in the centuries following Spanish contact, those in northern Baja were able to hold on. Barely. According to the Seminario de Historia de Baja California and the Instituto de Culturas Nativas de Baja California (also known as CUNA), there are roughly 2,000 members of the Pai-Pai, Kumeyaay, Cucapá and Kiliwa tribes remaining in northern Baja.
The four tribes belong to the Yuman linguistic family, whose ancestors likely migrated to the Baja peninsula thousands of years ago. The 2000 Census determined that the native languages were in significant danger of disappearing — at that time, there were 193 native Pai-Pai speakers, 159 Kumeyaay, 82 Cucapá, and 46 Kiliwa.
But there is hope, said María Martha Lozano Jíminez, CUNA administrator.
“For so long the educational model was to Mexicanize,” she explained, “but in the last 20 years, there has been a resurgence of interest in traditional cultures, and young native people are showing interest in learning and preserving their languages and traditions.”
There are other challenges. Most communities are not as easy to reach as San Antonio Necua, and according to Rafael González Bartrina of the Seminario de Historia de Baja California, electricity didn’t reach many of them until just a few years ago. Due to the lack of infrastructure, it’s difficult for artisans and growers to get their products to a viable marketplace. Remote native communities struggle with getting their kids through high school, as the nearest school might be a couple of hours away. And, as in the United States, health conditions such as diabetes are having a debilitating impact.
CUNA is responsible for a variety of health initiatives and programs that support native artisans. It’s also playing a key role in developing much-needed infrastructure, such as bringing safe drinking water to the indigenous communities of northern Baja. Until recently, these communities had relied on untreated, often contaminated water from springs, shallow wells and creeks.
In 2012, the Pala Band of Mission Indians completed a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency-funded assessment of the drinking water in Baja California’s seven indigenous communities (four Kumeyaay, two Pai-Pai, one Kiliwa and one Cucapá) and determined that six of the seven suffered from significant water contamination.
Jíminez said CUNA joined forces with the EPA, the Mexican government and the Pala Band to provide infrastructure improvements. These included training and capacity building for the operation and maintenance of two new water treatment systems and water distribution lines in San Jose de la Zorra and San Antonio Necua.
“We all worked together to bring safe water into our indigenous communities,” she said.
Preserving Tradition, Pursuing Sustainability
In San Antonio Necua, many Kumeyaay people work on area ranches, raising cattle and crops as they have for generations; more recently, some have turned to the local vineyards to earn a living. Yet you only need to step inside the community’s four-year-old adobe museum and market complex to see that other options are emerging.
The dimly lit, cool market is filled with organic honey, sauces, jams and jellies, as well as locally harvested and bundled sage. It also contains the work of Kumeyaay artisans, including sophisticated, traditionally woven willow, pine and juncus baskets, handmade jewelry, dolls and clay pottery.
Leticia Arce, who provides museum tours, said San Antonio Necua’s craft and food items are now sold at businesses and markets throughout the region, giving local people additional sources of revenue. She also directed our attention to an adjacent building, which houses San Antonio Necua’s new restaurant.
Clearly, visitors are welcome here — for a traditional meal, to shop for gifts and food items, to tour the museum, to hike and mountain bike on the local trail system, and even to camp in an ancient grove of oak trees on the Kumeyaay’s carefully protected tribal lands. There are 14 campsites with grills, water and picnic tables. Firewood, restrooms and showers are nearby, as is a small grocery store for basic necessities.
Kumeyaay guides offer tours of the community, sharing information about their culture and traditions, the local ecosystem, sacred sites, medicinal plants, and sustainable hunting and gathering methods. If you have large group, you can arrange a package that includes meals, lectures, workshops, hikes and cultural presentations.
A great time to visit is during the month of April, when San Antonio Necua celebrates its annual fair. You’ll see traditional Kumeyaay, Pai-Pai and Kiliwa arts and crafts, purchase handmade wickerwork, ceramics and jewelry, and sample traditional foods such as acorn atole and artisanal cheeses.
Welcome to the “Baja Med”
New opportunities lie outside the villages and craft markets, as well. Youn people of northern Baja, Native and non-Native alike, can pursue careers that are ideally suited for the region’s rapidly transforming economy, thanks in part to the Universidad Autónoma de Baja California. Not only was UABC ranked the second-best public university in the country in a national 2008 survey, it’s home to Mexico’s only enology school and offers degrees in gastronomy as well.
“A lot of young people are working in the new ‘Baja Med’ culture,” said Roberto Alcocer, chef at Malva Cocina de Baja California, a new restaurant located at the Mina Penélope vineyard.
Just 30 years old, Alcocer earned a bachelor’s degree in gastronomy in Mexico; studied for a year in Bordeaux, France; completed a service course in Bruges, Belgium; and practiced his craft at Michelin two-star restaurants in France before returning home to Mexico.
“It’s mind-blowing what’s happening in gastronomy here,” said Fernando Pérez Castro, proprietor of the Hacienda La Lomita winery, also in the Valle de Guadalupe. “About five years ago, Ensenada began to appear on the radar in Mexico as one of the most important places to eat. Part of that is the wine we produce here; the other part is how careful we are with our food.
“It’s a big movement that’s giving Mexican cuisine a new name,” he continued, “and because it’s a mixture of southern California and northern Baja, it unites us all. It’s like there’s no border.”
These days, there are more than 50 wineries in the Valle de Guadelupe, with more under construction. There are several new restaurants, Malva among them. And as Alcocer executes his own unique farm-to-table vision, he draws from local indigenous cultures.
“The Indians at Tecate and Mexicali would travel through the valley to gather acorns and native plants as they made their way to the coast for seafood,” Alcocer said. “ Acorns traditionally were used for things like flour, pudding and coffee. I’m researching what was edible, adding new techniques and making something new.”
On the menu that day, in fact, was a salad with locally harvested fruits and wild mustard, fennel, arugula, rosemary and malva, the restaurant’s namesake.
Between the resurgence of interest in the region’s traditional indigenous cultures and burgeoning economic opportunities like these, there is great hope for the future of Mexico’s border region, and for its Indian country. Castro perhaps said it best.
“We’re writing our own history right now, all of us together,” he said. “This is our spring.”
This story was originally published May 6, 2014.