While the U.S. continues to have a policy in place through at least Nov. 21 that prevents Mexicans from crossing the southern border for non-essential reasons, Mexico allows U.S. residents in without asking any questions about COVID-19.
Nov. 10 was the third time I drove across the border with the intent of spending the winter in Todos Santos. This time was the easiest. It all had to with getting my FMM (Forma Migratoria Múltiple) online. Those who fly to Mexico get the same document only there is no additional cost; the airline has collected the fee and passed it onto the Mexican government.
Mexico requires U.S. citizens to have a passport and FMM to get into the country. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
This is essentially a tourism fee. It costs 575 pesos, which at the time came out to $27.09 on my credit card. It allows people to be in the country for up to 180 days.
While I had possession of the document I still needed to get it stamped at the border. No one else was in the Tecate office, so I was in and out in a matter of minutes.
It never took long before, but having the paperwork done and knowing how the process worked made it a breeze this time. Before when I did all the paperwork in person it meant paying at in one place and getting the FMM in another.
Some people don’t bother to get an FMM when traveling by land, even though it’s the law. Cops and guards at military checkpoints can ask to see it. I have it in my possession while driving down the peninsula, but I don’t at other times. I also don’t have my passport while driving except on the initial drive and when headed back to the U.S. So, I’m not really sure what would happen if someone asked for it and I didn’t have it on me.
With everything being computerized, the Mexican government knows who has extended their stay illegally. Whether officials could find those people is another question. If they care is yet another question. Fines are possible for an expired or lost FMM.
The document is supposed to be surrendered when driving back across the border as well as when flying.
While it’s possible to come and go, and come and go to keep extending the six-month stay, Mexico could also deny an FFM. After all, it would likely appear the person was actually living in the country without proper documentation. The computer knows when a person has entered the country and where, as well as when they left and how they did so.
Illegal immigration is an issue on this side of the border, too.
For those wanting to actually live in the country legally for more than six months at a time there is a lot more paperwork and time involved to get that documentation.
Volunteers with Platos Con Amor in Todos Santos prepare and package food for area families in need. (Image: Platos Con Amor)
The disparity between the haves and have nots is easy to see in Baja Sur—just look at the vehicles people drive, the houses they live in. This pandemic, though, has only widened that divide, pushed those on the edge over the economic cliff, and shown that the government does not have the resources to save her people.
Thanks to a slew of nonprofits throughout the Todos Santos-Pescadero area people in need have food on their table. The demand became apparent the first week of April as commerce came to a screeching halt when the Mexican government put in protocols because of COVID-19. The economic crisis has not let up even as things have started to open and tourists are beginning to return.
“We are hearing more people are going back to work, but we are not seeing the need slide,” said Laurel D’Angelo, who is on the board of ACTS (Asociación de Colonos de Todos Santos) and involved with other nonprofits. “We are in slow season so we are not seeing the numbers decrease. If anything, we are seeing the need increase because more people are catching wind of the despensa program.”
Despensa, while it means pantry in English, is better known as a bag of basic food staples. It’s a pantry of a different kind; one that is extremely limited. Even though there is no mandate as to what a despensa must have, most include corn flour (masa) to make tortillas, milk, eggs, beans, lentils, rice, cooking oil, pasta, canned tuna, canned vegetables, oatmeal, and fresh produce when available. Most bags can last a family of four for two weeks.
Several groups in the area have despensa programs. Requirements to receive help vary, and with some organizations giving without questions being asked. Names of those who need assistance come via community leaders, neighborhood captains, the Padrino Children’s Foundation, the centro de salud in Todos Santos and Pescadero, and churches. Just like in other countries, those who never thought they would need this type of help are asking for it. The general minimum wage in Mexico is 123.22 pesos, or about $6.50 U.S. That’s per day. This is one reason why there were already programs in place to help people make ends meet. But those nonprofits did not have the resources to take care of everyone who is now suffering in the wake of COVID-19’s ensuing economic collapse.
“As an organization, we knew we needed to start raising funds for local food banks. The need was so great we ended up taking the lead on the Food Security Program. We order despensas, store them in a local bodega, and deliver door-to-door to those not served by the ACBCS program,” D’Angelo said. “ACTS currently has funds to support our area through the end of October. We plan to continue the program as long as there is a need, and if we have funds. Our goal is to ensure no one in our area goes to bed hungry during this time.”
Children in Todos Santos receive food for their family from Platos Con Amor. (Image: Platos Con Amor)
Alianza Comunitaria de Baja California Sur, or ACBCS, is an umbrella agency working with more than 80 other groups. For the six-week period from July through mid-August, ACBCS provided 7,429 despensas.
“The Community Alliance began in March of this year and will continue to provide support while current funds last. Funding has come from philanthropic sources including foundations, individual and business contributions,” McKenzie Campbell, spokeswoman for ACBCS, said. “In terms of the Todos Santos-Pescadero region, ACBCS has provided support throughout the municipality of Todos Santos including the surrounding ranches.”
In Todos Santos families receive a despensa about every three weeks from ACBCS. The goal of the agency is that no one goes to bed hungry. The average cost of a despensa is about 500 pesos, or about $23 U.S.; with the value of the bag more to the recipient because so many items are bought in bulk or at discount, not at retail prices.
ACBCS volunteers created an app that tracks who is getting what, the number of people in a family, number of kids under 12, those older than 65. Information is private, but could be used in future emergencies, like a hurricane. A family receives a card with a bar code that is swiped, so there is a record of who received what. This can also cut down on fraud.
“The power of this organization is what enabled us to ensure our community was fed. They had the purchasing power to source all of the items in the despensas. They connected us with the Mexican marines, national guard, and army who provided storage bodegas, trucks for transporting, and muscle to help deliver,” D’Angelo explained. “We started by signing up families by going door-to-door in the hardest hit neighborhoods of Todos Santos and Pescadero, plus connecting with ranches and farmworker camps. ACTS also provided emergency despensas for families in urgent need, and enrolled new families into the ACBCS program, an average of 250 despensas every two weeks.”
Platos Con Amor, aka Community Dining Room, provides full meals to families. It started with people in Todos Santos and has since expanded to Pescadero.
“It began with my concern about the ravages that the COVID contingency would cause in the most vulnerable population of our town,” said Elisabeth Chavez, who has a catering business in Todos Santos. She talked with friends about her idea in early April and by April 27 was serving families. Chavez and Denisse Gonzalez run the hot meal program with the help of volunteers.
There was a time when 150 meals a day were delivered every day. That was scaled back to 30 meals Monday-Friday to keep it sustainable. The plan is to double that number in September. Platos Con Amor focuses on seniors, disabled and children. The goal is to have this community kitchen be a permanent fixture, and a resource for future emergencies. Money to keep it going has been from the expat community as well as ACTS. Chavez said the group is working on future fundraisers to ensure it can keep going indefinitely.
Platos Con Amor hopes to help people in need even after the pandemic subsides. (Image: Platos Con Amor)
The names of people in need came from the mayor’s office, with that office also helping with food distribution. A kitchen has been installed in the municipal DIF building that will allow the services to continue.
A group of expats and locals Mexicans formed the Pescadero Food Bank three years ago and has been serving about 50 families a month. That number swelled to 200 families when the pandemic hit.
“We are an independent organization that does all its own fundraising, shopping, packing, and distribution. We do not receive any funds from any other group. We are now an official nonprofit in the U.S.,” explained Marla Lynch Edwards, vice president of the group. “We are committed to serving the vulnerable families of Pescadero for now and after the pandemic is over.”
Other groups helping stem the food insecurity emergency include Madre Teresa of Pescadero, the Aaron Cota Foundation, the Catholic Church, and individuals like Jess Flood and Serena Saltzman. Most of the groups have policies in place to keep everyone safe—masks, sanitation, distancing, and training in some cases.
“There are so many families who would never have asked for help. These are middle class families that are not used to asking for help,” D’Angelo said. “All of a sudden they can’t provide and they are shocked. There was not a way to save for this much time without work. They are ripping through their savings if they have any.
“A lot of people were poor before COVID and they know how to be poor, but they are so grateful for the extra bag of support. A lot of Mexicans have stepped up to donate time or money.”
While the busy season is just around the corner, no one knows what that will bring. Tourists? More COVID cases? Fewer donations? Greater need?
“The virus is contagious, but generosity is contagious too,” D’Angelo said.
While street dogs can often be found roaming many towns in Mexico, five breeds are credited with being native to the country—Chamuco, Xoloitzcuintli, Chinese Crested, Calupoh, and Chihuahua.
Chihuahuas are small (most can fit in a purse or backpack), but they come with a big personality. They are the smallest breed of dog in the world. Ironically, they hail from the largest of Mexico’s 32 states—Chihuahua—which is 95,540 square miles or 247,460 square kilometers.
It’s not uncommon for them to act like they are a much bigger dog. While Chihuahuas are known to be extremely loyal, they don’t always play well with small children. They also aren’t a great breed to leave outdoors because birds of prey and coyotes have been known to scoop them up.
Artifacts have been unearthed in Mexico, including an Aztec rattle with a carving of a Chihuahua head on one end. A monastery not far from Mexico City also had carvings of this dog breed.
“The Aztecs conquered the Toltecs in the 12th century. Historians credit the Aztecs with refining the Techichi into a smaller, lighter dog. By the time Spanish conquistadors toppled Aztec civilization in the 1500s, the Techichi was so integral to Aztec culture it was considered one of Montezuma’s fabled treasures, once presumed lost forever after the conquest of Cortez,” according to the American Kennel Club. “But the hardy little dogs lived on in remote villages and, in the mid-1800s, when Americans began to take an interest in the breed, they found many specimens in the state of Chihuahua. So it was that this survivor of two lost civilizations gained worldwide fame as the Chihuahua. The first AKC-registered Chihuahua, a little guy named Beppie, was recorded in 1908.”
While the Chihuahuas’ roots run deep in Mexico, they are the most popular breed of dog in Germany.
Often when people think of buying in bulk it means something from a big box store with a ton of plastic wrapping. Just the opposite is true when shopping at A Granel in Todos Santos.
A granel is Spanish for in bulk. The goal is to eliminate all the packaging and keep as much waste from the local dump as possible. In the first 10 weeks of being open owner Kimberley Gutierrez refilled more than 1,000 containers. That’s 1,000 plastic or glass jars that didn’t become garbage. That number is just for liquid goods; it doesn’t count the number of containers she has filled with dry goods from A Granel. She keeps track daily with a chalkboard that customers can see. This reinforces how they are contributing to keeping waste out of the landfill.
Instead of buying a product in a container, customers bring in their own vessel like a used a used yogurt container to have it filled with something from A Granel. People can also buy a reusable container at the shop. Gutierrez is quick to say that not everything needs a pretty label like one finds at a traditional grocery store. A homemade label with tape and ink to identify the contents works just fine. And no reason the same jar can’t be used for years.
Kimberley Gutierrez at her store A Granel in Todos Santos. (Image: Anne Patterson)
A Granel takes things a step further with bins and dispensers being repurposed, whether it’s recycled wood and pallets or the 5 gallon buckets for product.
“A Granel is providing an amazing service for those of us looking to de-plastify, stay healthy, source hard-to-find ingredients like tahini, or all three,” Todos Santos homeowner Anne Patterson said. “Her inventory keeps growing; which now ranges from household to body care and even to the gourmet like olive oil from the Valle de Guadalupe.”
A slew of bins and jugs fill the small store. Some are for dry goods like flour, some contain cleaning products, others are full of hard to find items. Ninety percent of the products are from Mexico. Olive oil from the Valle de Guadalupe is the best seller, along with peanut butter and tahini. After that, cleaning products and vinegar are popular.
“The most challenging task was and continues to be sourcing products I can get in Mexico. I get most everything from the mainland,” Gutierrez said.
The goal is for customers to be gringos and local Mexicans. The prices are so most everyone can afford them.
“When I saw the first Todos Santonian filling up dish soap and laundry soap it was my best day. Those are the people I was really trying to target,” Gutierrez said.
She and her husband have lived full time in Todos Santos since 2017. She is from Canada, while he is from Mexico. They had a place in Cabo since 2012, but knew three years ago it was time to move to Baja full time with their then 2-year-old.
Gutierrez opened the doors to A Granel on Feb. 28 before anyone in Baja knew what COVID-19 was. That has not been a problem. Clientele has steadily been increasing; even to the point to where she has needed to hire someone to help in the store. Inventory changes weekly, with new products being added based on customer demand. If she gets a handful of requests for the same thing, Gutierrez will add it.
“It’s been an adventure. Who knew I would be opening the store smack dab in the middle of a pandemic?” Gutierrez said. Despite the timing, she had remained open by making a few adjustments. “I don’t allow entrance to the shop. I now have the cash desk at the door. It fits perfectly, like it was the place it should go. We do all the refills ourselves. They hand us containers or drop it off. No one is touching anything. It works out better for cleanliness and safety for us and the consumer.”
In between each customer any bin she or her co-worker touched is sanitized. They are constantly washing their hands as well.
Gutierrez hopes demand will continue so she could have two more stores in the area by this time next year.
Tracy Durland, from left, Phyllis Brzozowska and Susan Green of Todos Santos practice harmonies. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
A rhythmic melody filled the room; soothing, as though it were intended to lull a listener to sleep.
The intent of Comfort Singers of Todos Santos is to bring calmness to the person who is being sung to, as well as to caregivers and anyone else who may be there. It’s a loose knit group of women (men are welcome) who want to provide solace to those in need.
“The important thing to note is we are not a performing group. Our aim is to sing, to bring comfort,” Tracy Durland explained. “Building a safe culture of kindness and concern for one another in the choir and for those we serve is our fundamental motivation.”
The group is taking its lead from Threshold Choir, whose mission is “singing for those at the thresholds of life.” Often that threshold is the end of life or at least being in hospice care. Threshold Choir is an international nonprofit with more than 150 chapters. It started in the San Francisco Bay Area of California in 2000.
While the Todos Santos women have a desire to create a Threshold chapter, it takes a minimum of six people. They are looking for members. The transient community and limited full-timers, along with a small group of “customers” may thwart that intent. That doesn’t matter, though, because those involved are happy and eager to help how they can. That is why the singers are looking to be part of Comfort Care, a program started by ACTS (Asociación de Colonos de Todos Santos) in 2017. Comfort Care assists people in the greater Todos Santos area with health and end of life issues.
“We figured when Comfort Care is offered, this could be offered,” Durland said of the singers.
Phyllis Brzozowska, who is one of the Todos Santos singers, has been involved with a Threshold chapter in Portland, Oregon, for the last decade.
“It is one of the most meaningful things I do in my life,” Brzozowska said. “I think about and sing the songs to myself. They are very affirming of life and supportive. To me they can apply in almost any situation.”
The Portland chapter gives a broader definition to threshold than just end of life. Nursing homes, Alzheimer’s care centers, hospitals, weddings, and memorial services are places chapter members have sung. They also sing for the nurses and caregivers, even new moms, because they all also need comfort and support.
“I always feel like I get more than I give because it’s such a beautiful experience to be part of,” Brzozowska said. “There is something about each situation that is different. I would say in general it feels like a privilege to be part of such a sacred time with other people.”
The songs are simple, even repetitive. The belief is that the less complex the music, the more relaxing it is. Most are harmonies, which the Todos Santos women are working on as they learn the lyrics. The goal is to have this be a bilingual choir. Many songs provided by Threshold Choir have been translated into Spanish. No instruments are used – just vocal chords.
“Finding our way to evolve as a useful community asset goes hand in hand with learning the songs and becoming a group of harmonious singers,” Durland said.
For more information about Comfort Singers of Todos Santos, contact Tracy Durland at 612.154.4729.
Other than startling me at times and irritating me when they poop on my pillow, I got used to sharing my home with geckos.
They would stay high enough on the walls to avoid AJ the dog, though I’m not sure what she would do if one would have come across her path. They didn’t want to spend much time in the open when I was around. Darting behind a picture frame or squeezing into an opening or out the door was their response when they saw me.
Geckos live inside and outside in Baja. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
While they are nocturnal creatures, they are out in the daytime as well. I’m not sure whose heart jumped more when we scared each other.
Most of these little creatures in Baja are the Common House Gecko. Mexico is also home to the Tropical House Gecko, American African House Gecko, and Mediterranean House Gecko. Throughout the world there are 1,500 species of geckos. Most Common House Geckos live five years.
Even if you don’t see a gecko, they make noise–most often at night. A high-pitched screech of sorts signals they are staking out their territory or interest in a mate. The two or three quick chirps can be disconcerting, especially at night when the lights are off.
The nice thing about having geckos inside is that they eat almost any insect, as well as spiders. There are tricks to get rid of them, but I don’t see any reason to.
It’s their poop that is most annoying because it can be found anywhere. It’s distinct because of the white tip on the dark tiny turd. This is the crystallization of uric acid from their urine because lizards poop and pee from one hole. Not a day would go by that there wasn’t gecko poop on the floor. The outside table was a favorite spot for them to relieve themselves, too. It was like cleaning up after children on a daily basis.
It takes help from the front vehicle to pass on the highways in Mexico. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
It’s amazing how even though each country has its own set of rules for the road, all one usually needs is a driver’s license—no test of any sort. The test, well, that can seem to come with each mile or kilometer marker.
With another trip along the 1,000-mile Baja peninsula behind me, I have a greater appreciation for some of the idiosyncrasies of driving in Mexico. There can still be plenty of head scratching in Mexico; mostly that comes with signage and lane markings. Still, I wish drivers in the U.S. would adopt a few of these “rules”.
Drivers in Mexico watch out for each other. Every time lights flashed at me from an oncoming vehicle it was a warning of some sort. It could have been traffic was stopped ahead, often it was animals on the pavement or side of the road—goats, cows, horses were the norm, sometimes a cop had someone pulled over. I always slowed down with that subtle flash of headlights, which was a good thing. I eventually got in the habit of flashing my lights as a warning.
People in orange vests sell food and beverages to travelers stopped by road construction. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
It took a little time to get used to the left signal not meaning the vehicle would be turning left. When I got accustomed to that, I had to remember the left signal might actually mean the person was turning and not be cavalier about passing. The left signal is probably my favorite Mexico driving ritual. The vehicle in front uses this to indicate when it is safe to pass. So much of the highway system through Baja is one lane in each direction, with turnouts an extreme rarity. Passing lanes don’t exist, so this buddy system is imperative.
It’s not that one should blindly rely on another driver, but that left signal is an indication to floor it. (In the Jeep flooring it is necessary to pass, especially with a full load.) While there are plenty of no passing signs on the highway, people ignore them. It’s like they are decoration. The unwritten rule for passing in Mexico is do it when you want. I loved when truckers would signal because sitting up higher I presumed they had a bigger picture of what was ahead. This left signal alert was easy to learn to help drivers behind me.
When road construction required drivers to be stopped a while, enterprising individuals would come out with food and drinks. I never partook because on the long drives I always packed plenty of snacks, water and Coca-Cola Light. Such vendors would probably be illegal in the United States, or permits would be required, and lawsuits would ensue if someone got ill.
Mexico is more carefree, with a culture that seems to care about each other—even on the open road.
The Todos Santos-Pescadero dump was not built to handle all the garbage created by gringos. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
“The systems worked until we showed up.”
That is the assessment of Susan Mittelstadt who for 20 years was an employee of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in Montana. She was speaking about solid waste and in particular the landfill where trash from Todos Santos and Pescadero ends up. The “us” being gringos.
She said rural communities throughout the world, including in the United States, have similar issues with an influx of people overrunning infrastructure designed for a smaller population. Mittelstadt labeled it an “environmental justice issue,” noting how last year there were 8,000 landfill fires in the U.S.
She and others spoke earlier this year at the ACTS (Asociación de Colonos de Todos Santos) meeting on infrastructure. This nonprofit, whose motto is “together we are strong”, wants to be the bridge between concerned residents, the government, private businesses and other groups that are identifying problems and working on solutions.
Vickie Butler, ACTS vice president, said, “We probably cannot depend on more money from La Paz.” That means solutions will have to come from the people.
While Roberto Tito Palacios, delegado for the region, was at the gathering that brought out more than 100 residents, he didn’t have much to say. Still, he supports the efforts by the gringo community to work with the government and locals to find solutions.
The landfill has been a growing concern of many people because of the fires that occur there. Natural combustion is the problem. Water won’t put them out; it takes dirt and moving the debris around. These fires are an environmental nightmare as the smoke drifts to the coast, settling over the communities of Pescadero and San Pedrito. People are breathing the toxic plume, it’s settling onto agricultural fields, and seeping into the groundwater.
The dump is on land owned by the Todos Santos Ejido, it is the government that operates it. The road leading to it is also government owned.
The Zero Waste Alliance was recently formed to bring together interested parties to work on short- and long-term goals to deal with solid waste management in the area. The Tractor Project is one of the success stories. Money has been raised to lease a tractor to work the dump, and pay someone to drive it. Since the tractor’s arrival, there have been no major fires, according to Caitlin Allen. She is part of the Alliance and a key player in the Tractor Project. Moving the waste helps prevent the waste from heating to the point it ignites.
It’s not a perfect solution, though. That worker and the firefighters who are called out to help extinguish the fires don’t have safety gear. They are inhaling the fumes and whatever else is percolating there. Money is needed to keep the tractor running – gas and maintenance, cash to pay the driver, and ideally funds to buy safety equipment. A Go Fund Me account has been set up by the alliance to raise money to keep the Tractor Project alive.
As the Alliance’s name states, zero waste is the group’s ultimate goal. This means nothing would ever end up in a landfill. Garbage would be recycled, reused or composted. The Environmental Ministry of Mexico in 2019 proposed a zero waste program for the entire country. It is being fought by the plastics industry.
“It’s important to get organics out of the waste stream,” Mittelstadt said. “Compostable plastic needs to stay out of the landfill like all plastic.”
Multiple people reported that 80 percent of what goes into the Todos Santos-Pescadero landfill is organic material. This is primarily landscape debris, not food waste. The Alliance’s first meeting about composting saw 30 people turn out. Allen said people in Pescadero are willing to donate 2 acres for community composting.
Martine Gonzalez, a gardener in Todos Santos who was not at the ACTS meeting, has organized eight of his clients to buy a mulcher at a cost of 3,000 pesos each. These residents use organic compounds on their respective properties, so the end product is organic as well. They, then, have access to that product for their gardens. The device is at one of his client’s homes. It’s a closed system to prevent pesticides from contaminating their product. It is an example of what can be done on a small-scale basis.
It is going to take education and the work of like-minded people to create the change needed to fund projects and improve the solid waste system that is being strained because it was not built to handle the number of expats who live in the Todos Santos-Pescadero area or the tourists who visit.