A recurring image I have had in my mind for the last couple of months is that of a drowned man floating in the sea. Grim dream, to say the least. And in connection with this dream, just a few weeks ago I was looking for information on the Smithsonian Museum (will tell the reason in aun upcoming entry) and there I found this photo of a sculpture of one Benjamin Paul Akers, called "The Dead Pearl Diver" and I felt like it was time to talk about the pearl fisheries in Mexico’s Northwestern region and give my try at the legends of the Yaqui pearl divers, including the famous legend of "El Mechudo" (or “The Long Haired One”), which I once wrote about in our official website.
But before touching the subject of legends and myths, let us first talk about facts.
The pearl fisheries in Baja California Sur and Sonora
The Pearl fisheries in Northwestern Mexico depended mainly on the use of Yaqui pearl divers, a native nation of Sonora. At the time when the legend of "El Mechudo" appears into history, many Yaqui were had rebelled against the governments of Sonora and Mexico. The President of Mexico, General Porfirio Diaz – ordered the arrest of all rebellious Yaquis and had them sent off to work at the haciendas of the far off State of Yucatan … and hence comes the name of this sector within the City of Guaymas, Sonora, known as "la Yucatan": this was once a “prisoner camp”, from which the yaqui were sent to Yucatan. This dark period of our regional and national history is known as the "Guerra del Yaqui". Many Yaquis were sent to work for the owners of the pearl fishing fleets of Sonora and Baja California Sur. We are therefore in the period that marks the end of the 19th century and the beginning of 20th.
In those years, the pearl fishery was an important part of the economy of Baja California Sur but was somewhat less for Sonora (which was already had a more diversified economy), but most of the revenue ended up benefiting a few families: that of the shipowners. The divers obtained work, a roof in a barrack and a few meals, and a very dangerous work environment.
In this situation, it is easy to understand the great enmity that existed between these two groups of Mexicans: the "white" or "Yoris" and the Yaquis . This created for a tense working releationship: how could the men in charge of the fishing crews (usually a “Yori”) give his men (Yaqui) knives for the extraction of the pearl oysters? The knives could easily have been used to cut their hearts out!
But, how could the Yaqui divers protect themselves from the attack of the fearsome sharks?!?! Some sources mention that divers were armed with a sort of "wooden stick" (a stave, which could have also been used to kill a person in true Van Helsing fashion); other authors state that the death of divers due to shark attacks was overrated, so it is very likely that in many occassions divers did not employ any defensive device, altough Vicente Calvo mentions several of the dangers afflicting the pearl divers of Sonora in the 1840′s:
… But the Manta-rays, would quickly throw themselves over them (the divers), and would compress them against the bottom and then they would drown within minutes.
Being truthful: I do not think the latter is possible. I have never seen or heard of a Manta-ray performing this type of maneuver; but if a diver actually believed that his death could happen if attacked by one of these fish, then he might go into a "panic attack" and end up drowning due to his own fears.
Pearl Fishing was carried out from a "mothership" from which descended several small boats, each with 2 to 4 men, and thus they managed to cover most of a fishing area of a "pearl bed”. Divers dressed only with a loincloth, and would throw themselves from the boat, some helped with primitive weigh-stones to help them quickly reach the bottom. We can watch this activity when watching the classic Mexican film "La Perla", if you don’t have access to the movie you can also watch this short video that contains a few segments of the movie (watch the action at around 1 minute & 25 seconds):
The divers descended to depths between 2 and 26 meters ( 6-86 feet) to find their catch of pearl oysters. Sometimes the physical exhaustion caused by continuous fishing (they dived for up to 6 hours daily) and lack of drinking water and food (did you perhaps believe that divers received an adequate nutrition?) caused some to lose consciousness and drown.
Again we have the description of Vicente Calvo on the pearl fishery of Sonora (and I place emphasis here, as many people believe still that only Baja California had a major pearl fishery):
Fishing starts in June and ends in October, using two or three boats from 40 to 60 tons each. In early November, these boats begin to arrive at the Port of Guaymas… the average time spent by the diver underwater is of one and a half minutes, but in such a short dive-time each divers collects many oysters.
Pearl fishing in the Sonoran coast began when the waters warmed enough and stopped when it is cooled off. The Gulf of California is a sub-tropical sea, so we have ample temperature differences between summer (with 32/90 degrees Celsius/Fahrenheit on the surface) and during winter we have recorded up to 12/53 degrees Celsius/Fahrenheit here in Bacochibampo Bay). Unfortunately, this pearl fishing period also coincided with the breeding season of the "Panamic Black-lip Pearl Oyster" (Pinctada mazatlanica), so that the effects of fishing were doubly harmful to the populations of this particular pearl oyster.
Another interesting description of Vicente Calvo states that:
All divers feel -at the beginning of each task- how blood flows from their noses, and they see this as a good sign, and will continue –happier- with their work, which lasts no more than six hours.
And this brings us to another reference to the hardships associated with fishing for pearls, but this time by an British Lieutenant by the name Robert William Hale Hardy, who in the 1820’s visited various spots within the of Sea of Cortez -including Guaymas- and he even dived for pearls at the bay of Mulege, and so he states about this occassion:
…I felt myself gliding through the slippery water, which, from its density, gave one the idea of swimming through a thick jelly; again I experienced the same change of temperature in the water as I descended; and again the agonizing sensation in my ears and eyes made me waver. But now, reason and resolution urged me on, although every instant the pain increased as I descended; and at the depth of six or seven fathoms, I felt a sensation in my ears like that produced by the explosion of a gun; at the same moment l lost all sense of pain, and afterwards reached the bottom, which I explored with a facility which I had thought unattainable.
…I no sooner found myself on the surface than I became sensible of what had happened to my ears, eyes, and mouth; I was literally bleeding from each of these, though wholly unconscious of it. But now was the greatest danger in diving, as the sharks, mantas, and tintereros, have an astonishingly quick scent for blood.
R.W.H. Hardy. Travels into the Interior of Mexico in 1825,1826,1827 and 1828.
This was really a risky profession in many ways, and divers would find their lives shortened and their health compromised… in the above cases we can see that the diver’s body is subject to a bleeding nose and the bursting of their eardrums…or even being drowned or devoured.
The Legend of "El Mechudo"
This is probably one of my favorite stories or legends which references to the pearl fisheries in our area, and it’s a very Mexican –and Sonoran and Lower Californian- legend. This story has been described in several other sources, including the blog of my friend Benjamin Arredondo, author of one of my favorite blogs "El Bable". However, I think there are things that should be reconsidered within this legend and then reinterpreted so that it has more shades of reality… and what do I mean by this? There are certain details that make the story quite unrealistic at some points, but by re-focusing these it can turned into a real story.
Well, so far I’ve written a lot about the fisheries… and nothing of the legend. So, this is waht author Fernando Jordan mentions about a site near La Paz known as "Punta El Mechudo" (“Long-Haired One Point”):
Southwest of San Jose Island and 12 km from ‘Amortajada bay’ and at the end of last century (19th) there existed a pearl bed that was a good producer of pearls, and on which hundreds of divers gathered every year. At the end of each season, before the cold north winds made diving impossible, the fishermen would prepare to take one last dive to offer a pearl to the Virgin’. On one occasion a diver was preparing to jump into the sea for the last time, when someone warned him from attempting it, he shouted:
‘No more do you need to dive. We already have the pearl of the Virgin’
The fisherman, made a gesture of disdain, and replied scornfully:
‘I am not going after the pearl of the Virgin, I’ll get one for the devil.
And he jumped into the water.
Satan took him to the sea-floor, and the fisherman did not reappear nor did the sea return his body. This place is now taboo, and no one goes there to look for pearls. Those who have, state that they found -at the very bottom- the blaspheming diver’s ghost, who has grown long hair and a huge beard and a long tongue. It seems alive, and in his hands it holds a huge mother-of-pearl shell. It is the ‘pearl of the devil’ they say, and because of the long-haired ghost the place has been given the name ‘El Mechudo’.
Fernando Jordan “El Otro México”, 1967
This is –if it can be called this way- the “official version” of the legend, and as you’ve read, it is also known as the "Legend of the Devil’s Pearl". In the next blog entries I will begin to “break down” this legend, and will hopefully come up with an alternative ending for the legend, but the next entry deals with this issue of the “Virgin’s Pearl”.
Until next time!