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Native Culture Crosses a Divide

Indian artisans from Mexico teach traditional crafts on a San Diego reservation.

August 25, 2003|Anna Gorman | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — The heat was searing on the Viejas Indian Reservation, but Abelardo Sesena didn't seem to mind. The 52-year-old Paipai from rural Baja California adjusted his cowboy hat and continued chipping away at the willow branch with a knife while his young students watched closely, eager to finish their own bows and arrows.

Sesena and his fellow artisans and toolmakers from the remaining Indian tribes in northern Baja traveled across the Mexican border this month for a summer cultural program designed to pass down ancient traditions to the younger generation of Indians living in San Diego County. The elders showed the youths how to weave juncos leaves into baskets, pound clay into pots and play traditional games. They also taught the students how to say words and phrases in the native Indian languages.

Sesena said Indians on both sides of the border have forgotten the culture of their ancestors. "It's important for the kids to learn how things were," he said as he bent the bow into an arch. But to him and other Baja Indians, handicrafts are more than just history. The baskets, tools and dolls are economic and cultural lifelines, used to raise money for the communities and to strengthen ties with the tribes north of the border.

It's unclear exactly how long Indians have lived in Baja California, but anthropologists believe that about 95% of the population was Indian as recently as 130 years ago. The numbers declined with the arrival of colonists, miners and ranchers. Now there are only about 1,200 Indians left in northern Baja, divided into four tribes -- Kiliwa, Kumiai, Paipai and Cucapa.

The tribes have witnessed a dramatic shift in population in recent years, as many members have given up farming and moved to the cities to find steadier work. Baja artisans have played a critical role in the effort to maintain traditions, filling stores and museums on both sides of the border with handicrafts and tools.

When the artisans can afford to get the necessary visas, they also travel to the U.S. to teach at schools and conferences. Much of the money from the classes and sales helps sustain the families who still make their homes in remote villages like San Jose de la Zorra.

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Few cars traverse the dirt road into San Jose de la Zorra, a community of 145 Kumiai Indians who live in small ranches surrounded by chaparral and oak trees nearly two hours by car from Ensenada. Chief Rito Silva says he understands why his fellow tribe members have left for the cities. In addition to jobs, they want to live with electricity and running water and with immediate access to doctors.

Silva said he does what he can to provide work for his community, but he can't find jobs for everyone. Last month, the tribe received a contract to renovate part of a rural road nearby and he was able to offer short-term work for 20 locals. Others find work on nearby vineyards and cattle ranches. Standing next to the workers as they raked pebbles off the road, Silva said he wished the Mexican government paid more attention to the tribes. But the chief said he, too, has hope in the handicrafts -- and the younger generation.

"We need to preserve the traditions ... and I'm hopeful we will do so," he said. "The kids will have the knowledge. They will become" professional artisans.

Mike Wilken, a cultural anthropologist from the U.S. who has worked with the Baja tribes for more than two decades, said the traditional bowls Indians now sell as art were used to gather, store and serve food. "It's a different world here," said Wilken, who runs the Ensenada-based Native Cultures Institute. "Here the women are weaving the baskets like their ancestors have done for generations. And it's only 100 miles away as the crow flies from San Diego."

On a July morning, Virginia Melendrez Silva, 42, and her daughter Arcelia Ojeda Melendrez, 20, sat side by side in a trailer in San Jose de la Zorra. Ojeda threaded strands of juncos into a flat circle, using her mouth to hold strands in place. It takes three days, working six hours a day, to weave a small basket that sells for about $20, Ojeda said. When asked what she thinks about as she weaves, Ojeda smiled and answered, "Money."

Down the road, Rosa Maria Silva worked on a pendant that she hopes to sell for about $7. Silva said she was one of the first women in the Kumiai community to learn how to make the necklaces and baskets two decades ago. Now, she said, there are about 30 Kumiai who know how to weave. Silva grew up in San Jose de la Zorra and doesn't want to leave, even though it's hard for her family to earn enough money to buy food. "Sometimes I am desperate" to sell the handicrafts, she said.

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