Shelter Masthead

Bad Roads, Good People . . .
by Lloyd Kahn

Mama Espinosa
Mama Espinosa © Lloyd Kahn, 1999

first heard of Mama Espinosa from Dennis Breedlove, neighbor, botanist, and seasoned Baja traveller. “You know what Mama Espinosa says?” Dennis said, “‘Bad roads, good people. Good roads, bad people.’”

Some months later, my friend Chilón, who travels up and down the Baja peninsula a lot (and is interested in everything), said I had to stop at Mama Espinosa’s restaurant in El Rosario (about a third of the way down to Los Cabos). “She has fossils there,” he said. “Big ones. And a guest book that people have been signing since the ’40s . . .”

So in February this year, on my way north, I stopped in. Mama wasn’t running the restaurant any more, but her daughter Rolli (a young 50s-year-old), was there — a twinkle in her eye.

“How’s the lobster omelet?” I ask her.

She rolls her eyes upward, pinches the fingers and thumbs of her right hand together in an upward-facing position and says something French-sounding like “Meouf!”

It was fabulous, with fresh corn tortillas and home-made salsa and good coffee. I’m finely fueled for the trip north.

Rolli is a lively one. Before I leave, she shows me guest books signed by hardy travelers from all over the world, the early ones from the days when El Rosario was the end of the graded road, and drivers proceeded tortuously and slowly any further south, in 4-wheel drive and on unmarked tracks. Mama’s kitchen was a well-loved stopover at the southern entrance to the wilds of southern Baja in those days.

There are indeed huge fossils, unearthed nearby in early geologic explorations. About 5 women run the place. The kitchen has a good vibes feeling of warmth and female camaraderie. They’re all family. They talk and joke and smile and laugh a lot. As I leave I give them a Shelter book. They all stand around at the counter, looking over each others’ shoulders, slowly turning page by page.

I ask if I can come back in the summer and interview mama, and Rolli says, “Sure.” As I leave I shake hands with Rolli, and after a regular old-fashioned handshake, she slides our palms around until they are in a shoulder-level bro’ handshake, and then says, “We’re on the internet, you know.”

I start the truck and am about to pull onto the road when Rolli comes running out the door and hands me a warm package wrapped in aluminum foil. “Por tu viaje,” she says.

In a few minutes I unwrap two lobster tacos in warm fresh corn tortillas and inhale them as I roll towards San Quintín. ¡Hijole!!

Now it’s a few months later, and I’m heading south. Mama Espinosa sits across the table from me. A presence. A woman of power.

She has lived a full life. “I’ll be 90 this October, God willing,” she says. Her family came to the oasis El Rosario in a 6-burro train in 1896. She has raised ten of her own children and four orphans, helped the poor and the sick, fed legions of travelers at her kitchen table, guided geologists and botanists, and been a lively and witty light along the Baja coast all her life. If she hasn’t seen it all, she’s seen a lot of it at her portal-to-the-desert roadhouse.

“It wasn’t a restaurant in those days. It was like a posada, an inn. My daughter Rolli made it into a restaurant, she added the tables, in ’95. Before that it was just my kitchen with a big round table. I didn’t have a menu and I served whatever I had. And I had lobsters . . . chivechangas . . . tortillas de jarina  . . . vegetables from los huertos . . .”

She was also hostess, guide, nurse, community organizer and translator through her excellent command of English.

“My place was the last frontier. The last jump into the desert. It took 2-1/2 days to get here from Ensenada . . . . In those days, we got to know everyone that came through El Rosario.” In the early years, there were only 5 or 6 American cars that passed through all year. This number slowly grew to about 20 American cars, before the Baja races came. “Nearly everyone passing south would stop. My home was the only place, only five houses total were standing here . . . .”

“In November, 1961, there was a bad dust storm. It had been a dry year and now the wind was blowing choking dust all around. We heard an airplane making a strange noise, and then it stopped. Our friend Adrian said, ‘They’re down on the mesa.’ My husband had an old Maxwell, you know, you had to crank to get it started, and he and Adrian drove up to the mesa where there was a paved landing strip.”

The plane had crash-landed and was damaged. The 5 passengers were OK, but shaken up. The plane had been flying from La Palmilla Hotel in Los Cabos to San Diego, and it was nearly out of gas. Sr. Espinosa brought them back to Mama’s in the Maxwell. Mama suggested a local brujo (Medicine Man), but the Americans, especially one lady, wanted to see an American doctor.

Heraclio & Anita
Heraclio and Anita, 1939
“I put on a wood fire and boiled up some herbs — yerba tea — because I knew, the woman, she’s not sick. She’s just frightened. She wanted to see a doctor, but I explained there were no medical facilities for 100 miles. I gave her the tea, and she felt better right away.”

One of the women was married to the owner of the Palmilla hotel in Los Cabos, the most beautiful hotel in all of Baja. Heraclio drove the party to the Sky Ranch, where they spent the night.

As they got ready to leave the next day, they asked Doña Anita if they could do anything for the people of the area in exchange for her family’s kindness. “Yes, you can!” she told him. “The people here need medical help.” And so in the next few weeks, plans were made to fly doctors and medical supplies into El Rosario.

Mama went out and rounded up everyone in the area who needed medical attention They camped out in the arroyos, waiting to see the doctors. And on December 6th, 1961, the planes flew into the tiny town, with a doctor, dentist, and optometrist.

“They were true to their word. It was beautiful. Just like a big dream. Nine airplanes formed steps into the sky. They were loaded with Christmas gifts, food, medicine, dry milk and clothing . . .”

How many (local) people were there, I ask. “Maybe 200 — muchos!”

“The dentist was pulling teeth under a tree and putting them in a bucket. I found some sheets for privacy and the doctors had their patients up on my kitchen table. The eye doctor did his exams and they brought glasses back the next time.”

The Flying Samaritans, as they came to be called, flew into the town for 16 years, treating people of the remote area gratis. During those years, people from south of El Rosario made the pilgrimage north, camping in the arroyo bottom, and waited their turn.

I get ready to go. “What about these days?” I ask her. What does she see going on?

Mama Espinosa
© Lloyd Kahn, 1999
“It’s terrible,” she says. “In all directions. Everything comes from the store. We used to grow all our own food. I cannot understand, why do people buy string beans and tomatoes? Why don’t they grow them here?”

“And they have killed to goose that laid the golden egg. The lobsters are gone, the abalone are gone. The Japanese combed the floor of the ocean and took all the sea urchins and sea cucumbers.”

What about the future, I ask. “A lot of people are coming down here now.”

“I have a vision,” she says. “In 8 to 10 years, El Rosario will be a ghost town, a pueblo fantasma.”

But in the meantime, Doña Anita’s family of lively women run a world-class Baja roadhouse (with rooms to rent as well). Mama still helps poor people, distributes food, clothes, and shoes to 15–20 people in the Cataviña desert.

“I’m not going to take my shoes with me when I go,” she says.