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Monday, April 5, 2010

PEOPLE & VOICES - Tribes and Tribulations

Tribes and Tribulations

by George Bergin

Sometimes on The Travel Channel or National Geographic we get to see westerners meeting and greeting tribal people around the globe. It is always a treat to watch the clumsy visitors attempt to quickly learn the various greeting customs; the posturing, body language, exchange of words or small gifts that mark the first important ceremony. What we don’t usually get a chance to see is what happens next. If the visitors should linger, for weeks, months or longer, to fit in, it is necessary for them to learn much more than new handshakes.

Those parts of Baja California that can be called rural are home to small groups living off the land or sea, and we could still call them tribes. Some of you have wandered through the villages of such tribes as you read the fascinating histories of the area, the people, in books and stories by explorers.

The whole concept is a forest for the trees thing because those who have spent most of their lives in Baja California think of the place as though it were an island. Islands and tribes go hand in hand. Isolation is key.

Tribes consist of families. The colorful history of Southern Baja California recalls the founding of the place by an unusually small but prolific number of families whose names ring out in every voting roster of every small hamlet near the tip of the peninsula. Down here, if you, like our clumsy TV westerners, want to fit in, you need to learn the customs and some things about the families, the clans, the tribes.

It takes time. It is taking me forever. Before I could recognize the tribe thing I stumbled about telling new friends their cousins were lazy liars, paying great homage to all the wrong people while ignoring the whole family of the next mayor. I did not know that if I befriended the Cosios, I would not be trusted by the Montaños. I recognized way too late that my key to meeting the mountain people, being invited to see their world would hinge on my courtesy toward the little guy who built my palapa. Were I to apply for a business license it might depend on something I said or did on the beach three years ago. Trouble with the law, going before the local judge might turn good or bad because of my behavior last week on a visit to the dump.

After 10 years in this little village I am still a stranger. Every encounter with my Mexican neighbors has hidden danger or opportunity I still don’t quite fathom. I’ve learned that every small thing I say or do is magnified in importance to where I stand in the eyes of the villagers—every courtesy is deemed more grand, every unintended slight or dismissal augurs poorly for my reputation.

There are times when the villagers take me in, treat me like one of their own. These are the rare occasions when we are together witnessing some blatant discourtesy by a newcomer; a new, clumsy westerner meaning no harm, but is unfamiliar with life among the tribes.