February 8, 2011 -
Olivier van Beemen
The Colorado River was the meaning of life for the Cocopa, a native tribe that lives in the border area of Arizona and North Mexico. ‘When the river disappeared, so did our lives and culture’, says village chief Inocencia Gonzalez.
El Mayor – Inocencia Gonzalez is 74 years old but looks like she’s well in her nineties or even older, and that’s what most people in the region think of the crooked, wrinkled chief of the Cocopa village of El Mayor at the Colorado River Delta in Mexico. She has a valid excuse: the extinction of her tribe’s culture is approaching.
When she was a young squaw life was easy. The desert land surrounding her village was a fertile green area, with lakes and wetlands, irrigated abundantly by the mighty Colorado River and its branches. ‘There used to be water everywhere and we lived from fishing. There were big fishes’, she remembers. In their own language, the Cocopa call themselves Those Who Live On The River.
Nowadays, the Colorado Delta has run dry and the river doesn’t reach the Sea of Cortez in the Gulf of California any more. All the water is used before. Behind the village of El Mayor, there’s still the Rio Hardy, a small stream filled with agricultural waste water. Some people do still fish there, but according to Gonzalez and other people that’s a source of diseases.
A treaty between the United States and Mexico, signed in 1944, gives the Americans the right to use 90 % of all the water in the river. Back then, cities like Phoenix, Palm Springs and Las Vegas hardly existed and the Mexicans thought the amount of water would be more than enough. Once they found out it wasn’t, the Americans didn’t want to renegotiate.
After crossing the (heavily protected) border at Los Algodones, the remaining water is immediately diverted by a dam into a canal, providing water for local agriculture and for the populous cities Tijuana and Mexicali. Only on rare occasions, after heavy rainfall, there’s some water running through the original river bed.
Gonzalez: ‘We’re a minority in the village now. Only 30 to 40 of us are left and three of them still speak the Cocopa language. We’re all half-blood or married to Mexicans or foreigners. If the water was still here, we could have saved our culture, but nowadays we fight over money, and some are addicted to drugs or alcohol.’
Even though this is debatable – similar events unrelated to water have happened to many other native American tribes – it’s clear that the dry river played an enormous role in the lives of the Cocopa. ‘When the river disappeared, so did our lives and culture’, Gonzalez says.
These days the Cocopa live of crafts they try to sell to tourists (who aren’t numerous) and some of them work for a day salary at the fields. Apart from being chief of the village, Gonzalez is also head of the one room museum of Cocopa culture, which displays some old photos and clothes. The masterpiece is a kitsch painting of an Indian with feather head dress. It’s for sale for 200 pesos, a bit more than 10 euros.
Text: Olivier van Beemen
Photos: Ronald de Hommel
October 30, 2010 -
Olivier van Beemen
Meet Juan Patiño Suárez, sitting in his big chair in his garden, with his little dog. Don Juan, as we nicknamed him, is 74 years old and at the age of twelve, he came to Colonia Miguel Alemán, an agricultural community near San Luis Río Colorado in the northwest of Mexico. Most of his life, he worked on the land. ‘Back in the days, there was no bridge over the Colorado River’, he tells us. ‘We had to take little boats to get to the other bank.’Nowadays Don Juan doesn’t cross the river anymore. He limps due to a nasty fall out of a tree. But anyone who does want to get to the other side, has no need for a boat nor the bridge they built since then. One can easily walk through a strip of desert that forms the bed of the river.
For decades Colorado River water hasn’t reached the Pacific – all the water is used before. Around thirty million people in the western parts of the US and Mexico depend on the fresh water of the Colorado, just like the 150 golf courses around Phoenix, Arizona.
Don Juan would love to see the dry river turn into a great area of wetlands, which is a project undertaken by the Mexican authorities and local NGO’s. But for the moment the Don takes it lightheartedly. ‘I’m not much of a traveller. I like to stay here in my garden.’
Text Olivier van Beemen
Photos Ronald de Hommel