June 16, 2004:
Mexico. Despite the years of NAFTA and immigration
agreements, Mexico is still a radical change from the US -
roads, traffic, businesses, personal interactions, food –
I love the energy level here. I’ve always enjoyed the
Mexicans – they have great spirit and a sociality that,
to be frank, leaves us northerners in the dust (as we leave
them in the dust when it comes to orderly streets and efficient
The new and the old Mexico are evident side-by-side.
Mexicans in SUVs talking on cell phones drive into a modern
mall parking lot, while a half a block away indigenous women
sell handmade gorditas (little tostadas) from a wood fire.
Men in cowboy hats (sombreros seem to have disappeared years
ago) who seem to have nothing to do sit around nearby.
Tecate is one of the smaller maquiladora towns – border
cities where U.S. companies set up factories, called maquiladoras,
to take advantage of the cheap labor … about a dollar
an hour. I see names like Rockwell and Quaker State on the
modern factory buildings.
Some 3000 factories line the border from California to Texas,
employing over a million Mexicans, generating some $12 billion
annually. U.S. companies not only get cheap labor –
they escape the U.S. environmental laws. It is estimated that
60% of hazardous materials sent from the U.S. to the maquiladoras
go unaccounted for – in other words, they get dumped,
mostly in waterways.
The waterways around maquiladora cities have been found to
contain unacceptable levels of petroleum, naphthalene, total
xylene, chromium, copper and other toxic materials.
Welcome to global free trade.
School buses filled with workers depart from the maquiladora
factories at 5:05 to take them home to the vast mud street
colonias of hastily thrown up housing. It is estimated that
the maquiladora wage of $8-10 a day is less than a third of
what it takes to sustain a family. Yet these workers would
much rather, it is said, be here than working in fields. The
income in the agriculture sector is less and the work much
Welcome to the Sicily of Baja
Only a few miles south of the maquiladora sector the scenery
changes from slum-ridden urbanization to empty scrub lands
with occasional agriculture. Lack of water keeps people from
settling out here.
The first real agriculture I see is olive groves and well-kept
vineyards as I approach the Valle de Guadalupe, Mexico’s
premium wine country. Northern Baja California is much like
Sicily or North Africa climatically, and these two crops seem
to do well.
The olives are often on unirrigated hillsides, while the
vineyards, for the most part, are in the bottom-lands and
are irrigated with drip lines. This is all fairly large scale
agriculture. Most of the wines that Mexico produces are made
here – Santo Tomas, Domeq, and La Cetto are the three
Mexico has 3,500 hectares of table wine grapes and nearly
two dozen wineries, most of them in the valleys of northern
Baja near the Pacific. Wine grape production has shrunk drastically
from a high of 47,000 hectares in 1982. It was that year that
Mexico deregulated the wine trade and allowed Chilean and
other wines to be imported with minimal tariffs.
Mexicans who drink wine, mostly the upper and upper-middle
classes, are proud of their domestic wines, and despite there
being no taxes whatsoever on Chilean wines, 40% of wine consumption
in the country is of Mexican wine.
Like the Napa Valley, the wine producing region around the
Valle de Guadalupe is just inland from the Pacific, which
gives the cool nights necessary for good red wines, but is
far enough from the ocean to get the necessary hot, sunny
I found Doña Lupe’s organic farm on a side road
while looking for the larger La Cetto winery. Hand-painted
signs pointed the way down the olive tree lined dirt road
to her farm.
Doña Lupe Wilson has farmed here for 34 years. Her
late husband, an American, started the farm, and now Doña
Lupe and her son Daniel, continue to work the 30 hectares.
Wine grapes – Cabernet Sauvignon and Ruby Cabernet (a
UC Davis bred wine grape), are the main crop, with olives
a second crop.
In their Spanish-style tasting room, the Wilsons serve local
cheeses, homemade bread, and grape preserves along with their
wines. One of the grape preserves is an interesting combination
of amaranth seed and grape.
|"Mexicans who drink wine, mostly
the upper and upper-middle classes, are proud of their
domestic wines, and despite there being no taxes whatsoever
on Chilean wines, 40% of wine consumption in the country
is of Mexican wine."
Four wines are made – a sweet wine from raisined grapes,
a honey-grape sweet wine, a Ruby Cabernet/ Cabernet blend,
and a Cabernet Sauvignon. I really liked the Cabernets. The
sandy soils, Pacific air, and hot days in the Guadalupe Valley
clearly impart a terroir to the wines, which are big and robust.
“We don’t put a lot of water on the grapes”,
says Daniel, “so the flavors are undiluted.”
“We pioneered drip irrigation here about 25 years ago,”
says Daniel. “When the owner of the big winery next
door saw us putting out drip lines, he laughed at us. The
next year, he was using drip himself. Sprinkler irrigation
is just too wasteful of water for Baja California.”
A struggle for water has developed between the wine growing
region and the city of Ensenada, which wants to pipe the water
down to the city. A plan is said to be in the making to develop
a wine production corridor which would include a plan for
preserving the wine region’s aquifers. Conflicts between
rural and urban areas for water are common in Mexico …
and nearly always, the urban interests win the water. Dried
up and abandoned areas which were formerly populated with
small farms are commonly seen near cities all over semi-arid
parts of Mexico. If wine production and consumption weren’t
associated with the empowered classes in Mexico, we all know
who would win the water war there.
While I was in their tasting room, several upper-middle class
Mexican families from Tijuana came in, tasted wines, and bought
Doña Lupe’s products. It was Easter weekend,
which is a big holiday here, and people were touring the wineries
of the area.
Doña Lupe’s farm is in a great location near
the two large wineries that attract tourists. This is undoubtedly
the secret to their survival. My guess is that 90% of Doña
Lupe’s customers discover them while visiting La Cetto,
as I did.
Olives are grown for both oil and the fruit in Baja. The
olive fruit fly (Bactrocera oleae), the Mediterranean region’s
worst olive pest, invaded about eight years ago and devastated
the olive groves here. Conventional farmers now spray dimethoate
for the pest. Daniel Wilson uses neem-based products.
Two old Spanish varieties of olive make up the majority of
olive plantings in Baja – the Manzanita, which is mainly
used for preservation, and Mission, which is mainly for oil.
The Wilsons have their olives pressed for oil at a local press
which uses a modern centrifuge method for extraction.
I have tasted many types of olives, having been married to
an olive lover who grew up in Italy, and I can say without
hesitation that the Baja olives are good, and sell for a third
of the price of olives in California.
While not yet certified organic, Daniel plans to do so soon.
Cactus cash crop
The drive down the length of Baja California is spectacular
at times – 1000 miles of desert and ocean vistas. Only
a few hundred miles south, I encounter the first boojum and
ocotillo plants – the unique spiral-like plants endemic
to Baja, as well as huge saguaro and cardón cacti.
As the main north-south road begins to cross the Baja peninsula,
the land is rocky, dry, and sparsely populated, with only the
occasional collection of small farm shacks.
It was here that I passed small farms with plots, no bigger
than a half acre, of nopal, the Opuntia cactus that is a favorite
food of the Mexicans.
Nopal has traditionally been an important crop for its penca,
the fleshy cactus “leaf” (cladode is the botanical
term), which are eaten sliced and sauteed with onion; as well
as for its fruit, the cactus pear. It is also traditionally
an important livestock forage crop, and is still cultivated
for cochineal-carmine dye.
Diet and health authorities, as well as the Mexicans, attribute
a number of health properties to the consumption of nopal
pencas. It is especially noted for its hyperglycemia reducing
The nopal was intensively cultivated in Mexico and Central
America for several centuries after the Spanish conquest for
the carmine dye that is derived from an insect, the cochineal,
which infests its cladodes. Cochineal-derived carmine dyes
fetched high prices in Europe until the development of aniline
dyes in the mid-1800s. Carmine dye is still produced from
Opuntia for natural red dyes used in foods. Most of the production,
however, now takes place in Peru.
There are over 100 species of nopal in Mexico, and a half
dozen of these are cultivated on over a quarter million acres
all over Mexico.
One morning just before the Easter weekend while I was in
Ensenada getting my car worked on, an indigenous woman, obviously
from the countryside, showed up with a sack of nopales. She
had probably taken the bus in from the countryside with all
the nopales she could carry with her granddaughter. The women
from the surrounding businesses quickly bought all she had.
The nopal is an important part of any Mexican feasting weekend,
such as Easter is.
Adriano Medina was applying herbicide to his nopal crop when
I stopped and initiated a conversation with him. To my chagrin,
he said the herbicide was paraquat - one of the most toxic agricultural
chemicals. However it is powerful, and cheap in Mexico. Use
of paraquat is highly restricted in the US because of its toxicity.
Adriano was applying it with no gloves and only rubber boots
and a piece of crude plastic to shield his legs from the spray.
||"Nopal has traditionally been
an important crop for its pencas, the fleshy cactus leaves,
which are eaten sliced and sauteed with onion; as well
as for its fruit, the cactus pear. It is also traditionally
an important livestock forage crop, and is still cultivated
for cochineal-carmine dye."
Adriano, who looked to be in his late 20s, farms about a
third of a hectare of this dry, unpopulated land, land for
which a hardy, low water crop like nopal is ideally suited.
This would be ideal land for a young startup farmer like Adriano
- low value, possibly even free under homesteading laws in
Mexico. He and his family live on the farm. The land has a
"Right now I sell my crop in Ensenada and Tijuana, but
the price is very low," he said in Spanish. "I would
like to take it to the United States. They say that in cities
like Chicago and Ohio (sic) nopales sell for 15 to 25 dollars
a box. Here in Mexico I only get twelve pesos (about a dollar)
"The problem is that I need to get a visa to drive into
the United States." He said he has a truck, but a visa
would probably be the least of his problems. Since the US
bioterrorism laws kicked in, the obstacles to Mexican farmers
transporting their goods to the US have multiplied (I will
discuss this in my next article about the Del Cabo organic
Contrary to my preconceived notion that a native cactus would
have few pests, nopal has a host of insect pests. Adriano
said that a moth worm (probably Cactophagus, the Opuntia Borer)
infests nopal and must be sprayed.
Another serious potential pest is headed toward Mexico from
Florida - the cactus-feeding worm Cactoblastis cactorum. Native
to Argentina and introduced into the Caribbean decades ago,
Cactoblastis is one of the star organisms in the annals of
biological control. It was introduced into Australia to fight
an invasion of exotic Opuntia. It pretty much wiped it out
Lonesome Don on the long empty roads of
Driving the long hours of nearly empty but at times beautiful
land, I don’t know what I would do without the 48 hours
of books-on-tape I brought. Larry McMurtrey’s Comanche
Moon, part of the Lonesome Dove series, keeps me company –
the land is the same as that set in the book.
In the southern Baja city of La Paz I pay my second bribe
to the federal police – for driving through an intersection
whose light had just turned yellow. I’m beginning to
get a feel for the interaction. They started with numbers
like $70. I got them down to $20. As with the first interaction
in Ensenada, it ended with smiles and a handshake and repeating
each other’s first names.
It is generally all pretty harmless – they have power
and want some money – you have it and give them some
in order to not spend a few hours at the station – which
would end up costing the same anyway, in the form of a formal
Next time I’m pretty sure I can get it down to $10
or even $5 – everything in Baja is generally more expensive.
I can count on getting plenty of practice – my mini-RV
with California plates will increasingly stand out as I go