Dawn found us perched at cliff’s edge, overlooking the Pacific. The pangas were long since out on the water, searching for gilled prey, and the tiny cinderblock-built fishing camp was ghostly quiet. Even the resident dogs held a seemingly respectful silence, as if they knew that their fates, too, were pinned on the bounty of the day’s catch.
With coffee in hand, we walked the craggy Mexico shoreline, absorbing spray at the watery intersection of moon’s playful drag and gravity’s covetous leap. High tide caressed the cliffside incessantly, obsessively, a dangerous adoration that had stolen more than one resident of the fishing camp. The interstices between elements make for the most precarious lives and livelihoods.
Our walk soon brought us to an impromptu concrete shrine holding a skull fashioned out of a buoy. This, perhaps, was made in honor of one of the lost fisherman, proffering a portal toward communion with him. Maybe his family left regular offerings for him — colorful shells, stones lovingly shaped by the tides, driftwood with knotholes, the ocean’s artistic offerings. And maybe they hoped he would sense their sustained love, find refuge in it, and then bring their prayers to the ears of the saints. The small shrine was not only hallowed access to the dearly departed, but it was a portico toward divine grace.
In Baja, these reliquaries blanket the countryside, some as simple as candles lovingly placed in a small cave. Others are grandiose, with tall, brightly colored walls, glass cases for photos and votives and murals depicting the Virgin de Guadalupe or Christ and the Sacred Heart. Offerings range from flowers and rosaries to cigarettes and liquor bottles. We frequently found these small altars along roadsides, especially near dangerous curves and cliffs. In this way, Baja’s highways are a landscape of loss and holy space, a divine drive amidst watchful saints, cross-shaped cordon cacti and the eternal flame of the cirio or candlewood.
The Catholic faith is very much alive in Mexico; it is evolving, not simply some fixed remnant of another time. Here, it is pertinent to people’s lives, malleable enough to match each individual’s joys and concerns. It speaks in terms of the everyday, not the elite. The saints are just as willing to listen to a supplicant offering tobacco as one with jewels. They are as eager to populate shallow caves and arid earth as they are churches or cathedrals.
A religion that once protected salvation from the masses by imposing a high tariff now finds the populace storming the gates, taking what has always been rightfully theirs. Access to God’s grace no longer sits on scales awaiting the requisite amount of gold. Instead, spiritual currency is of subjective value. As such, each shrine, whether made of simple seashells or soaring adobe walls, is a thing of beauty, speaking to the heart and hopes of its creator.
This was true even for a foam skull looking longingly at land from its small, shore-bound shelter — a shrine built to honor death and to hope for a better life through the intercession of celestial beings.
In Mexico, Christ and his entourage of saints walk amongst the masses — just as they always intended.
Farther south, we learned Cerritos Beach is no longer the desolate shoreline of the previous decade. Large resorts have sprung up, a gated RV park blankets the nearby desert and tourists like us swarm the surf beach and beach bar. No furtive candles in the rocks. No holy gaze surveying the sea. It seems the gringo influx has displaced natives and saints alike. The locals now commute to collect trash at the RV park for 50 pesos per bag while the Virgin and her Son seek shelter and employment elsewhere.
We went for a hike through this changing landscape, exploring neighboring beaches by traversing the rocky points segregating each cove. Atop the lower tier of rocks, enormous tide pools offered their warm embrace while tiger-striped fish flittered beneath us. In one me-sized puddle, I floated on my back, ears submerged, enjoying the womb-like calm of the pool with the faint sensation of pounding surf filtering toward my awareness.
Instead of retracing our footsteps along the coast, we wandered back on a rural road paralleling the beach. There, we found a fascinating mix of people and economic realities. The path we walked skirted working farms and modest ranchos, abandoned and unfinished multi-million-dollar homes and inhabited Turkish palaces. An enormous yellow hotel sitting on a point overlooking Cerritos Beach — which we dubbed Banana Manor — has a room atop its phallic turret that rents for $900 a night. Within view of this opulence, mutts scavenged for food and fought fleas while a lone horseman sat on his pony bareback and stared over the waters. Here, Mexico’s past and present seek the terms of an uneasy truce. And the years-long conflict has displaced the saints.
The abandoned homes — ruins of the recent economic collapse — stood on the shoreline battlefield where the forces of nouveau colonialism recently made a hasty retreat, conceding the coast to scavengers and tides. The wounded buildings sat open to the elements, devoid of the warmth and memories habitation creates. Careful brickwork spiraling toward 20-foot ceilings, storied mosaics, polished beams, the artistry of human hands — it had all been created, unknowingly, for entropy and erosion’s pleasure.
Unintentionally, the villas had also become monuments to the unrevealed — just like the shrines. Though their creators had meant them to be bulwarks against the outside world and its unknown undercurrents — a cocoon for one’s delicate mortality — life’s uncertainties had prevailed. This space of onetime dreams, of perished plans, of crumbling monuments to wealth and self now had to allow that there are forces at work greater than one’s means. We can’t buy our safety, serenity or salvation. Nor is it anyone’s to sell — as Mexico’s faithful have learned.
Perhaps this is where the lost saints of Cerritos now reside, amidst the toils of men who unwittingly built testaments to loss and change. Much like the fishing village shrine to the north, these skeletal remains held space for forces beyond our control.
We hit Punta Santo Domingo near sunset, and Tyler had a chance to surf on the point’s small waves. Our camp sat atop a rocky outcropping where shrines had been placed, likely by and for area fishermen — in honor of those who travel among tides of abundance and loss. Statues of Jesus and the Virgin de Guadalupe stared out over the bay, blessing the waters and those who cross it, including my beloved.
I sat near the holy sculptures and reflected upon these acknowledgements of death and the divine, the inescapable and interconnected energies that shape our world. These energies were now visibly at work on the half-built palaces full of unrealized dreams, each tumbling brick a transcendent footstep among us. And they were imperceptibly weaving their unrealized plans into my own life. Acknowledged or not, the holy, the ghostly, the unseen and unknown — the saints — continue to march through our lives.
My companion soon trudged up the crumbling hillside as purple dusk descended. A salty-wet and smiling kiss was our nod to the divine. To mark this, I placed a heart-rock at the Virgin’s feet. And, as always, she and her Son faithfully cast their gazes upon our watery surroundings, serving as a rock-bound reminder that, if we humbly hold space — landscape, heartscape, dreamscape — the divine will freely walk among us.
Senior correspondent Jen Jackson’s last piece for the Gazette was “Forgetting in a Landscape of Memory,” which appeared in #188. Jackson’s blog, “Desert Reflections,” can be found at mountaingzette.com. She lives in Moab.