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by Leland Foerster
Reviewed by Judy Goldstein Botello

The Baja California peninsula dangles from the edge of North America like a question mark at the end of the continent. For more than three centuries, this enigmatic land has drawn a steady stream of seekers: explorers, adventurers, fishers of souls, all of whom have sought, in their own way, the nature of its mysterious question. Some have felt that the peninsula’s question has something to do with our very identity, so that it draws us back again and again, as if to some parallel home, as John Steinbeck observed in his Log from the Sea of Cortez. “Some quality there is,” he wrote, “that trips a trigger of recognition so that in fantastic and exotic scenery one finds oneself nodding and saying inwardly, ‘Yes, I know’”.

That inward “Yes, I know” informs the photographs in Leland Foerster’s stunning new work The Californios. With skill and deep understanding, Foerster’s camera records a world of fantastic and exotic scenery, faces unknown and unknowable that somehow seem familiar. We feel in these photos, as Steinbeck expressed it, a sense of returning rather than visiting. If the question posed by Baja California is “Who are we?”, then the Californios may be the answer.

Today’s Californios, descended from the soldiers and artisans who accompanied the early European missionaries to Baja California, live and work on ranches started a dozen generations ago by their ancestors. The geography of their world—precipitous mountain canyons and rocky windswept mesas—has isolated them, preserving a culture almost miraculously innocent of the twenty first century. In the world of the Californios there are few or no roads; transportation is by foot or by mule. There are few telephones or televisions; communication takes place through gossip and stories when the day’s chores are done. Trade is more likely to be by barter than cash; there are no banks, no ATM machines, no currency exchanges. Much of the clothing and most of the food is generated on the ranch itself. In short, as Foerster notes in the introduction to his book, the Californios represent “a resilient frontier culture”.

Thus, the sense of recognition: The faces that smile, brood, and peer at us from these pages are faces straight out of our own American frontier mythology. Cheeks weathered by too many rainless seasons, hands gnarled with years of scrubbing laundry in cold water—Foerster’s stark black-and-white images have the timeless quality of myth. In the scenes of ranch life with its livestock, crops, and daily chores, many native Californians will recognize moments from their own childhoods, or those of their parents. And even for those of us without a ranch in our immediate past, there is somehow a sense of belonging: This is where we came from; this is who we really are. The portrait of Ramón Arce’s family, each smiling shyly at the unfamiliar camera, could be a portrait of a frontier family in Alta California a century and a half ago. The three Aguiar sisters, breathtaking in their wild beauty as they teeter on the edge of womanhood, bring a lump to the throat: We know these girls; they are our own daughters and sisters.

But the power of Foerster’s photographs derives not only from their universality, but also from their exquisite specificity. This photographer sees his subjects not as symbols but as friends, and his respect for their individuality lends great depth to his work. The portrait of Rosario Arce, for example, captures a facial expression as complex and enigmatic as any Mona Lisa. It is a portrait that could have been created only by an artist who knew and understood that face well. Similarly, Camerina and Antonio Villavicencio posed for a friend, not for a photographer—he stiff and formal in his best suit, she warm and relaxed despite her finery—but both gazing at Foerster’s compassionate lens with complete trust. In return Foerster captures, with the click of a shutter, their dignity, their humor, their wisdom. They are no more abstract symbols to him than are the flesh-and-blood individuals who gaze at us across the centuries from the great portraits of Velázquez.

And like Velázquez, Foerster records not only individuals, but also the specific world they occupy. In the photograph called “Esmeralda Arce Making Tortillas”, Esmeralda’s face and hands are only a blur of activity, while the very real buckets and pots and pans of her kitchen glow bright and sharp in the light from the open doorway. By contrast, in “Chema Aguiar with Goats”, it is the goats that are a blur of activity, while Chema himself seems to almost float above his herd, holding tight to his solidly constructed corral. In “The Villavicencio Brothers Cultivating their Garden”, the brothers’ faces are obscured; what is illuminated is the earth itself, the Californios’ legacy across the generations.

Baja California’s well-known historian Harry Crosby wrote the definitive history of the Californios, published by the Copley Press in 1981 (and now, regrettably, out of print). He called his book The Last of the Californios, implying the end of an era. And to be sure, the pressures of change reach even to the most remote mountain ranches of Baja California. But one of the last photos in Foerster’s book shows a smiling young Californio, Luis Bastida, dressed in shorts, tee shirt and teva sandals. Luis exudes a confident energy as he stands by his garden in the Sierra de la Giganta—a garden he cultivates with modern techniques on the ancient land of his grandfathers.

One of the most memorable photographs of Foerster’s remarkable collection is titled “Edrulfo Villavicencio Aguilar and his daughter, Elisa”. Erdulfo lies on what is presumably his deathbed, and his daughter sits by him in attendance. But rather than pathos, what shines in their faces is joy. Light suffuses the humble room; light suffuses the photograph. We know, in this image, that the Californios will survive. There is a clock on the table by Erdulfo’s bed, and it foreshadows what Foerster describes in the text accompanying the final photo of the book: “Unexplicably,” he writes, “the clock stopped, and time stood still.”

Baja California’s headlong rush into modernity started three decades ago with the completion of the transpeninsular highway. Since then, what was once a stream of seekers has swollen to a torrent of visitors that pours across the border. Cabo San Lucas has transformed itself almost overnight from a dusty village to a world-class tourist destination, and the northern towns of Tijuana, Rosarito and Ensenada welcome hordes of shoppers and revelers twenty-four hours a day. On both coasts, the beaches boom with surfers, divers, kayakers, whale-watchers, sunbathers, and assorted beachcombers.

Such precipitous change would be enough to rattle the romance and magic from a lesser land. But Baja California is no lesser land. She has her indomitable spine: the mountain ranges that extend down the center of the peninsula for almost its entire length; and she has her soul: the Californios who bring life to those mountains. It is typical of Leland Foerster that, of all the magnificent images available in Baja, he chose to record the very soul of the country. Those of us who love Baja California, along with those of us who will visit it only through the magic of his vision, owe him a debt of gratitude for the enduring gift of this book.


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