Sunday, March 10, 2013

Living Roots planted in San Javier

Regular readers will be familiar with my several previous postings about the San Javier Mission, the second Mission to be established after the original one was founded here in Loreto about 300 years ago.  I have written before about the 30+ km drive into the Sierra de La Giganta mountain range west of here and the tiny hamlet surrounding the historic building itself, the oldest un-restored Mission in the Baja.  I have expressed how I am moved by the sense of history and spirituality every time I return to visit this special place.

However, in spite of frequent visits, the community of San Javier itself has remained an enigma to me – a cluster of small buildings bordering the unexpectedly wide avenue leading to the Mission building with one or two palapa style restaurants (that may, or may not, be open on any given day) a MINI “mini-super” with little stock on the shelves, other than the ubiquitous Coca-Cola cooler, bags of spicy chips and foil wrapped cookies.

Beyond the Mission building itself, are the irregular shaped fields that are cultivated with onions in season and the orchards of olive and fruit trees, with a few livestock and, of course, territorial dogs – evidence of a larger population that is largely invisible to most of the casual visitors.  However “connected” I have felt on a spiritual level, after a visit to San Javier, I often left there feeling that I have missed connecting with the real place that is San Javier today.

 But that has now begun to change!

This change started for me last week when I went to an open meeting here in Loreto Bay at the Community Center, sponsored by the Loreto Bay Volunteers, on behalf of Living Roots, a non-profit organization with the goal of nurturing and assisting the ranchero lifestyle and culture in the Sierra de La Giganta region surrounding Loreto ( ).  The meeting was an introduction to McKenzie Campbell, the co-founder and director of Living Roots, accompanied by several residents of San Javier who are part of the organization she has been working to develop over the past several years.

McKenzie’s story is interesting; with an MBA from Colorado, she spent four years in management and leadership roles with NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) and through that organization lead backpack and kayak tours of the Baja, which introduced her to the hidden beauty of the ranchero lifestyle in the mountains surrounding Loreto.  San Javier and the neighboring ranchero community was chosen as the first area of focus for the Living Roots organization a couple of years ago and following an extensive communication process, goals and objectives were established with much input from the local residents and the ranchero community.

The presentation that took place here was coordinated through the Loreto Bay Volunteers organization, some of whose members have assisted in the beginnings of Living Roots, and was to announce the official opening of a newly completed cultural center and marketplace in San Javier last weekend, so your “Faithful Scribe” decided that this would be a worthy Blog item and made plans to attend.  There have been some significant improvements to the San Javier road since my last visit a couple of months ago ( ) the paving has been completed on the last stretch of the approach to the community, although there are still the other washouts through the mountains. 

The new cultural center is a tidy thatch roofed building midway along the main street leading to the Mission, next door to the Police detachment.  As part of the local commitment to Living Roots, the building was designed and built with community volunteer labor and donated materials.  When I arrived there were a couple of dozen people milling in and around the building, about equally divided between locals and residents and supporters from the ex-pat community.

For the occasion, shade tents had been erected at the entrance where a couple of celebratory cakes were on display as well as some cold drinks.  Inside there were several small displays of locally produced handcrafts including leatherwork, quilts, embroidery, preserves and baking, among other things.  Establishing direct market access for locally produced goods is a primary goal of Living Roots, with the dual benefits of preserving traditional skills and generating commerce for the local craftspeople.

Although, from a merchandise point of view, the offerings were modest, the obvious pride and enthusiasm of the people who there that had made the goods was evident, as was the pride of ownership they had, as members of the community, for what they had accomplished in building the cultural center itself.  But as the afternoon passed, I came to appreciate that probably the most significant element was the “sea-change” that was evidenced by the very existence of this Living Roots organization – for a community that had changed little in perhaps hundreds of years and an economy that had been largely self-sufficient and supplemented by barter – now was making its first tentative steps towards modern commerce.

I also realized that this incipient commercialism was almost exclusively being undertaken by the women of the community.  McKenzie told me a story that serves as an example of this feminine entrepreneurship.  During the Festival of San Javier, an annual celebration of the Mission’s Patron Saint’s day held in early December that attracts hundreds of pilgrims and people participating in the combination county fair/carnival atmosphere that overwhelms the hamlet every year, one of the women who had become involved in Living Roots decided to put up a hot-dog stand – her first such venture at the Festival, although she had grown up in the community.  She also had her portable wood stove set up from which she was making and selling tortillas, and while she sold lots of hot-dogs, what surprised her the most was that her tortilla stove attracted a standing room crowd of fascinated on-lookers waiting to be customers.

Now that the Cultural Center has been launched and is staffed by contributing volunteers, the next project is to establish a self-guided nature walk of the surrounding area, including the orchards that date back almost three centuries to the Jesuit founders of the original mission.  Listening to McKenzie, there are many more ambitious plans for new products and projects in the future, and as this initial San Javier Living Roots “takes root” and becomes self sustaining, it will become a model that will be duplicated in a network of other ranchero communities within Baja California Sur.

What I took away from my afternoon visit to San Javier was a new appreciation of the underlying community that has existed there for many generations, but has remained largely invisible to the average casual visitor who comes to see history in the form of the Mission building, and then leaves again, without having made a connection to the living history that is represented by the people who call this place home.  But on second thought, perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised by the revelation that an organization called Living Roots could make a big impact on “Living Loreto”!