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Ancient ways and modern times

The Kumeyaay people practice their traditions and revive native crafts in remote areas of Mexico and California as encroaching civilization brings electricity and running water.

September 26, 2011|By Joe Mozingo, Los Angeles Times
  • Beatriz Carrillo, 58, collects rush that she uses to weave baskets. Anthropologist Mike Wilken has encouraged the Kumeyaay to revive basket weaving and has helped find markets for their wares.
Beatriz Carrillo, 58, collects rush that she uses to weave baskets. Anthropologist… (Don Bartletti/Los Angeles…)

Reporting from the Sierra Juarez Mountains, Mexico — In the high table land, a small, rawboned woman picks her way across ash and sand to a cave where she slept as a girl when her family came to harvest pine nuts every August.

Teodora Cuero is 90 years old, half-blind behind her sunglasses, with skin like crinkled wax paper.

She moves her fingers over the lichen-mottled rock, and the memories flood her with emotion. She talks of lost friends and family members, how they used to live.

Her friend Mike Wilken, an anthropologist, listens with rapt attention. What she describes are final scenes from the Indians' ancient yearly migration between the sea and desert, a pattern of life in Southern California and northern Baja long before the Spanish set foot here.

The territory of Cuero's people, the Kumeyaay, extended along the coast from what is today Carlsbad in the north, to the Santo Tomas Valley in Baja in the south, and over the mountains to the desert. The international boundary that was drawn across that terrain would put the tribe on separate trajectories. So unlike the many native peoples of Southern California whose language and customs were extinguished, hers found a measure of refuge in the remote, dusty valleys just south of the border.

Ancient ways remained not only relevant but necessary to get by in areas that had few staples from the modern world. They endure in many forms today.

No one embodies this more than Cuero, who didn't have shoes and spoke only Kumeyaay until she was a teenager, living 80 miles from downtown San Diego.

Today she lives in a rock house for which her husband traded a horse, speaks mostly Kumeyaay, cooks on an antique wood-burning stove in the garden, uses plant remedies for ailments and relies on food she gathers from the land to supplement her rice and beans. Goats andhorses roam the dirt roads of her village, La Huerta, which got electricity seven years ago.

Her life is not a simple snapshot of the past, but a complex amalgam of old and new. Cuero has a cellphone and refrigerator. She naps on a bench seat extracted from a recently deceased Ford pickup. She drinks inky black coffee and smokes Marlboros.

Over the last three years, Wilken has worked with Kumeyaay elders like Cuero to document their language and those traditions they adapted to the times. His material goes to a National Science Foundation project on documenting endangered languages and a museum in Tecate he helped establish.

"There are certain stories people want to hear about the Indians," Wilken said. "That they are living a way of life that hasn't changed in thousands of years. They want to know about shamans and go to a sweat lodge. We have to get over some pre-formed idea of who they are and experience them as they are."

He began working with the Kumeyaay 15 years ago as an "applied" anthropologist, meaning he not only studied them but worked with them to make endangered traditions more useful to them. He helped find markets for their basketry and native medicines, and arranged cultural exchanges with the Kumeyaay in the United States, who wanted to learn more about their heritage.

"When people from the California communities meet Kumeyaay from Baja they say, 'This is how we lived 50 or 100 years ago,' " Wilken said.

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The Kumeyaay greeted the first Spanish expedition in California in 1769. They had been here for at least 1,300 years, anthropologists say, maybe many thousands more. The Kumeyaay lived in temporary brush huts and moved throughout the year in search of food.

While many ended up in the Spanish missions and later on reservations, many others did not.

Into the early 20th century, clans of outliers still roamed the margins of the expanding Yankee society, following their old trails, speaking little English or Spanish and crossing the border without even knowing there was one.

Their exile was searingly documented in the autobiography of Delfina Cuero, who was born near Jamul in 1900 and told her story to an anthropologist in the 1960s.

As a child, Delfina, a cousin of Teodora Cuero's father, followed her parents around San Diego County, looking for ranch work while hunting and foraging. They collected shellfish and crabs on the rocks of Point Loma. They speared fish in the coastal waters and harvested greens and roots from the black mud of what is now called Mission Bay.

In spring, they went to the desert for agave stalks, which they roasted in pits for food. In summer, they moved to the mountains to collect pine nuts, then down into the valleys for acorns in fall.

When her father had ranch work, they would build a brush hut in a nearby arroyo. But as more and more ranches were cleared, ranchers told them to go away. They lost access to the coast, then Mission Valley, then the foothills. Their migration routes were cut off.

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