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You have brought art and culture, the children have confidence in you, you have made the children proud of the paintings they do.


A quote from Betty, the president of the neighborhood association of the Arroyo Concreto or concrete river in the area called el Esterito in the city of La Paz, Mexico. She was describing why she appreciates the work the Painting Pirates club is doing for the local people of her community.

This article is about the very same people and area of La Paz written about in the book 'The Pearl' by John Steinbeck, and the artistic project called 'The Painting Pirates club' who is making a difference to a lost generation of children by teaching them to express themselves.

 

 

 

 

The people living in the Arroyo originate from main land Mexico, Senora, they are of the Yaquis tribe. They are native Americans who came here to fish and dive for pearls. They were adept at holding their breath and were a great profit to La Paz.

I started 'The Painting Pirates Club' in October 2011 to provide the neighborhood children and adults a means to express themselves freely through different forms of the visual arts. I felt the area needed to give active children healthy things to think about and hope for their future success in life. Our overall goal is to teach them that they can make an income through art. That expression through art is good for them psychologically, physically, and economically.

I believe that 'Art' is a gray area of discussion, a place that allows us to think. I am also showing latin American films and artistic documentaries in Spanish and teaching the kids to film and make their own documentaries so they can tell their personal stories.

 

 

I asked a fisherman who has lived in the Arroyo for most of his life, Jose Maria Arse Ortega, what he thought about the Painting Pirates Club? He said "It's very good for the children, since so many fathers lost their jobs the children have no one to teach them about the old ways, fishing and diving are not an opportunity for them. When they paint they learn much more then spending their day doing nothing. The kids are proud and they show their painting to their families, they don't want anyone to graffiti over their paintings as it belongs to them."

 

 

 

 

 

 

La Paz Baja California south, seems to me, to be the safest place in Mexico. It's truly beautiful, a real paradise. La Paz has not been ruined by tourism, unlike it's more famous neighbor Cabo San Lucas, and the locals are nice and welcome you openly and sincerely.
When I arrived in La Paz I had a 37 meter long aquatic mural commission to do for some US house owners in the Esterito area of La Paz. Once I had finished the mural, I had a few gallons of paint left over and I decided to start painting the walls of a 2.5km long concrete river down the road from my apartment.
I started painting early in the morning and within two hours the children started to come out and watch from about 50 meters away. When ever I would turn around to see, they would duck behind a tree or a rock and giggle. I had two bags of M&M's, one of which I laid on a wall closest to them. I then had their full attention, they all came running out of their hiding places to join me, and we painted M&M's on the wall together.
A camera crew from the local TV station 'Channel 10' came to interview me the first day of the project. The next day people with the heartfelt and innate need to express themselves, locals and tourists alike, came to paint or just admire the mural, and more importantly to interact with the people from El Arroyo. The Painting Pirates Club was born.

I noticed tagging and some graffiti art in the Arroyo, and I realized with a rush of excitement, that other Mexican artists had been there before me. I later met some of those artists, they explained they had started to teach mural painting for the same reasons as I had. Every time they were stopped by the police, some at gun point. I was allowed to continue, possibly because I'm a European woman, with long blond hair, or because I babbled in my terrible Spanish trying to be charming. Every time the police hassled me, the conversation ended with him saying, "Okay, just don't tell anyone that I let you continue". After being visited by all the La Paz police and the machine gun armed police chief, they now just wave and honk their horn.
Having media coverage was a great help. We have been on the local news 3 times and newspapers more times than I know. This all helped to allow the teaching of free expression to continue for the past 5 months.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dangers of living on the Arroyo and the economic problems of the people living there.
"The people living on the Arroyo are squatters, they are not legally allowed to live there." Said Carlos Estrada Talamantes, director of Decope, the land developers who built the new housing complex you can see above the Arroyo in the photographs. "They are taking a real risk living there, we have offered to move them to a safer area, but they say NO, NO, NO. They are squatting the land next to a dry river bed which becomes a running river when it rains. It only rains a few times a year here, but when it does the ground is so dry that the water flash floods. The rain water is directed into El Arroyo Concreto. On October 1 1976, Hurricane Liza's heavy rains caused a flash flood that burst a dyke near La Paz . The resulting torrent of water did heavy damage and killed at least 435, and probably more than 630 people. The people will be allowed to stay there until they can no longer afford to. As La Paz changes economically these people are left behind because of their high rate of illiteracy."

Betty, who lives at the end of the Arroyo where the water is evacuated into the sea, had this to say about Hurricane Liza: "When the dyke burst and the estuary flooded the town didn't have time to tell the people living in the Arroyo, and many were washed out to sea." I asked Betty how she thought the people in El Esterito were holding up against the booming tourist industry? "The People from El Arroyo live day to day, they haven't had time to learn how to get a job in tourism. They have no confidence in themselves."

An 88 year old fishermen, Senior Winkler Leon, said this when I asked him about hurricanes. "When a hurricane is going to hit we make a soup with biscuits and cheese and wait for it to pass. I remember two big hurricanes: October 5, 1957 when a hurricane made a landfall on the peninsula, afterwards all the panga boats were broken. Hurricane Liza in 1976 killed almost a thousand people; the fishermen were pulling the dead out of the sea for days, and dead people were piled up outside the hospital and everywhere in the street. We dug a trench for all the unnamed dead and buried them all together. Another tomb was dedicated to the missing in the graveyard. I found my panga boat all full of sand and cleaned her, I still have her today, she is my lucky panga." I asked Senior Winkler Leon if he thought there was more work for the fishermen or less since the tourist boom? "We thought there would be more but there isn't. I think it is because the fishermen don't know how to sport fish for Merlin etc. That is why the tourist industry hires people from other places." I asked what had changed since the tourism had started? "Before the beaches were clean and you could sleep on the beach, now it's dirty and the sand is not white. Before when you didn't have air conditioning you could sleep outside in the street, now you are not allowed to sleep outside; and besides it's no longer safe, you have to lock your door and watch out for thieves."

The development along the coast of Baja has changed the locals lives beyond words in the past 50 years. The speed at which the land has changed has left the locals spinning on the spot. The locals were not employed to do the building work for the booming tourist trade. Instead the developers had hundreds of people immigrated from the main land because they would work for less. Unfortunately as a result of the recent economic problems, the tourist industry is flagging. Large encampments of unemployed Mexican immigrants have started to populate the outskirts of La Paz, they have no running water or real living quarters.
The hotels that populate the coast have illegally closed off the beaches to the local people, not wanting them to bother the tourists by selling them goods or playing music for money. This is in effect illegal, coastal beaches, including 20 meters above the high water mark, territorial seas and related resources are under federal jurisdiction in Mexico. These lands and waters are considered common goods which can be traversed freely by the public.
But you can't blame the 'Gringos' or immigrants from the USA, Canada or Europe, who have bought the land and built their dream house. They had no idea the land was stolen from the locals. Even if the Gringos spoke Spanish, which most don't, they would not find out as the locals have been silenced in one way or another.

 

 

Education for the children.
I asked Betty what she thought of the schooling system in La Paz? "The Children go to school from 8am to 1pm, they do not learn much at school. It is up to the parents to make sure their children learn. Most fathers are tired after fishing and the mothers are mostly illiterate. After the age of 12 most of the children don't go to school any more, so, the children turn to easy money. This results in sexual diseases and addiction. It costs 5000 pesos to go to rehab, which most people can not afford."
Since I have been working in the Arroyo, I have been welcomed into the community, and I am often invited to eat with them. This is what I have noticed: Most of them are illiterate. Most of the families live in a one room house, all the children sleep in one bed. Most of them don't have a water heater. Most of them have never used a computer or cell phone. The kids do go to school for a few hours a day, but past the age of 12 they don't go to school and spend their time in the arroyo. Most of the fathers are out of the job, or working several jobs for hardly any money.
It is easy for these children to assume that no matter how hard they work, because of where they come from, they will never achieve their dream. When you give them something else to do for 8 hours, it makes a huge difference.

 

 

 

 

 

The fishing Permits.
I asked fisherman Jose Maria Arse Ortega about his livelihood? "I have worked for a privet corporation for 30 years." When I asked Jose what the name of the corporation he worked for is, he had no idea, "I can't read or write" he said shrugging his shoulders.

I asked Senior Winkler about the fishermen in El Esterito? "The fishermen use to fish with nothing more than a paddle and a net, they would light torches to fish at night. They use to fish for sharks and turtles. When a fishermen caught a 9 meter long shark, his boat would sink about 10 inches into the water. They fished the sharks for the liver, which was turned into oil, they would through the rest of the shark back into the sea." I asked him about the fishing Cooperations? "My son is the head of a cooperation which was started 2 years ago called 'Pescadores del Esterito', he is also working on starting a small family fishing cooperation. We had some problems when we started the cooperation as our boats and motors were stolen. Now there are 33 fishermen, 15 permits & 15 boats in the cooperation. The fishermen can't fish every day, the fishing is only good on full moons and new moons. On a good days fishing a fishermen can make 2000 pesos. The cooperative takes 2 pesos per kilo of fish to pay for administration. They also have 3 boats which work in tourism."

Up until 30 years ago the fishermen could fish freely and sell their catch on the beach or in the street, now they can only get a fishing permit if they work for a fishing corporation. There are two possibilities: Private corporation or a cooperative run by the fisherman where the money is divided, almost equally between the fisherman. There are 4 cooperations in La Paz and more being founded as the fishermen who can read and write are opening their own. The fishing permits, which they need to buy to be allowed to fish, are 3000 pesos for 2 years fishing. A fishermen working for the private corporation makes under 100 pesos per day, unlike the fishermen working for a cooperation who on a good day makes 2000 pesos.
The private corporation hands out the boats, and the motors. The fishing permit is bought by the fishermen. If anything brakes the fisherman has to buy a new one. Many of the men in El esterito refute working for the corporation. Those fisherman who fish without a permit are called 'Pascdores Libres' in El esterito, but are known as the illegal fishermen by most social circles.

 

Jose Maria Arse Ortega.
Jose never asked his father where his family came from before La Paz. He considers himself native to Baja Sur. I asked Jose if there was anything he would like to add in this article? "To love the sea, care and appreciate for the sea. I hope the children can go fishing for free like before."

 

 

 

Betty.
Betty's family has lived in El Estrerito for generations. Both her farther and husband were fishermen. She is a single mother of 4 daughters and one son. As a child Betty would go door to door selling her farther's daily catch. She now owns her own restaurant, which she runs with one of her daughters. You could conceder Betty and her children a success story coming from El Arroyo. She and her children can read and write and have jobs in La Paz. Betty is also the president of the Colony in El Arroyo Concreto, she often organizes free celebrations for the people in her restaurant.
I asked Betty if she wanted to add any thing to the article? "Yes!! Come to eat at Betty's! The freshest fish in all of Baja!" She said with a cunning grin and then she added, "Love your colony, it is important that the colony gets organized, to understand the paperwork and the politics."

 

 

Senior Winkler Leon.
Senior Winkler Leon has lived his entire life in La Paz, 88 years. He started working when he was 14 years old for the boats importing and exporting. When he started working 74 years ago, he was paid 60 cents of a peso a day transporting food for the ranches. He has lived in El Esterito for the past 40 years, before that he lived in the other oldest part of La Paz El Manglito. When he was a child the beach was full of shell fish. At low tide he would go and collect buckets of scallops and sell them door to door for 5 cents of a peso the bucket, or he would trade them for food.
I asked him if he would like to add anything to the article? "Yes! Education is very important. When you can read and write you can run your own business. The kids have lost interest in fishing because many of their fathers can not get fishing permits. My sons children love to fish and want to learn, because their father is not being taken advantage of."

 

 

 

 

Conclusion - La Paz means Peace.
I living in Baja, I have been living in one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. I have met people from all walks of life, swam with a whale shark and stroked a gray whale baby's nose. The town of La Paz is full of galleries, and amazing art work. I love it there and I recommend visiting this amazing place at least once in your life time. There is no violence in the street, just music everywhere, and lovely chatty Mexicans who just want to please. At the end of the day you will enjoy a breath taking sunset reflecting in the Cortez sea. You will know what it is to feel totally at peace.
The problems the people I workec with are recent. Normally when I work in a disadvantaged area the problems have been there for generations and it's near impossible to make a change. That is not true of La Paz, if we act now and help educate and give confidence back to this lost generation we will change their lives for the better.