- Isla Pardito -
the peninsula on which the city of La Paz is situated, stretches
a string of islands reaching up the Sea of Cortez to the region
of Loreto. The first islands in this chain are the pair of Isla
Espiritu Santo and Isla Partida (these islands appear as one
land mass, but are separated by a narrow channel). The channel
separating the La Paz peninsula and Isla Espiritu Santo is
several miles wide.
Further north of these two islands, across a gap of about 15
miles, lies a small island, Isla San Francisco. Just to the
north follows the largest island in the chain, Isla San
José. The gap between these two islands is quite small,
about one mile in width. In this gap lies a large rock shown on
the nautical charts as Isla Coyote, but known locally as Isla
Pardito or El Pardito. The size of El Pardito is,
perhaps, several acres. All of the larger islands may be seen
from the road which follows the western side of La Paz Bay up to
the settlement of San Evaristo.
Our story concerns the community of fishermen, and their
families, who live in a permanent village on Isla Pardito.
These people are the wives, children, grandchildren, etc., of
just one man, the late Juan Cuevas.
- Shark Fishing in the 1940's -
During the 1940's, the price of shark livers was quite high.
While the liver was highly prized, the remainder of the fish was
considered junk, and was thrown out, but not back into the sea.
If the remains of a shark were thrown back into the sea,
superstition said that this would chase the other sharks from
the area; and so the remains were piled on land, there to
attract large numbers of flies and other insects.
The fishermen placed the shark livers into 5 gallon cans,
packing one to two livers in each can. This helped to preserve
the livers until a "mother ship" arrived to pick up the
Nowadays, almost the entire shark is valued - ranging from the
jaws (sold to tourists) to the cartilage (used for the
extraction of some modern drugs). And so fishing for sharks
remains an active pursuit for a number of Sea of Cortez
- The Arrival of Juan Cuevas -
It was at this time in the 1940's that a young man by the name
of Juan Cuevas arrived in La Paz from the state of Sinaloa on
the mainland, probably traveling by the occasional freighter
crossing to La Paz. An adventurous soul, he had heard of the
exceptional fishing to be found on the far shores of the Sea of
Cortez, and was willing to make the arduous journey to La Paz
and the fishing areas to the north.
Image from Google Maps
Juan sought out a place where he could fish by himself, yet
still be convenient to the mother ship which would stop at the
fishing camps on a regular basis. This search lead him to the
shores of Isla San José, where he settled near the large
estero at the southern end.
However, as is well-known to mariners, this particular area is
infested with jejenes (a form of "no-see-em").
These insects have a bite entirely disproportional to their
size, and are the reason no knowledgeable captain drops his
anchor near the estero at night. Another problem associated
with jejenes is infection - the act of swatting the insect off
can leave the head embedded in the skin, and subsequently
produce a nasty infection.
Following the course of action surely taken by many who preceded
him, and many others who followed him, Juan chose to quickly
move his camp away from the jejen-infested estero. He moved
across the one-mile channel to Isla San Francisco, and there he
built a house which is now in total ruins.
On the northern shore of Isla San Francisco, the jejen problem
is not so bad as on Isla San José, one mile to the north.
However, there are jejenes in residence on San Francisco as
well, and these insects once again drove Juan to seek a
jejen-free environment. He chose wisely this time: he moved
to a large rock in the middle of the channel. The rock could
not harbor jejenes, and those on the adjoining islands were now
over half a mile away.
While the rock may have already had the name Isla Coyote on the
nautical charts, Juan choose to name his new home El
Pardito - a name which means something small and gray. The
rock certainly has a gray appearance when seen from a
- Juan Needs Help -
Having found his haven from the jejenes, Juan was able to pursue
shark fishing as he had hoped. He was a hard worker and met
with considerable success, but only as much as he himself could
generate. It became clear that he needed some assistance.
Juan returned to the Mexican mainland to seek out a strong woman
who might be able to help him with the fishing as well as
provide female company. In this effort he was also successful,
and he returned with a woman we will refer to as his wife,
although there may have been no formal wedding.
This arrangement worked very well until one day the wife said,
"Juan, I can't go out in the boat today." Juan, perplexed that
this strong woman felt unable to work, inquired into a reason
for her illness. The reply was, as we might have expected,
that she was pregnant!
Juan continued on his own for some time, but he now had a wife
who would certainly be unable to help him during the time the
new child was being nursed, and probably for some time
thereafter. The solution to this problem easily came to Juan -
after all, he had faced the problem before. He would again
return to the mainland to seek someone to assist with his shark
Juan returned with yet another strong woman to be his helper,
and while his first wife was nursing the new child, this second
woman worked hard and proved to be just what was needed - until
the day when she also had to beg off work. Yes, she was
pregnant, and unable to help with the shark fishing.
It seems clear that Juan felt this process for finding help
worked well, since he continued to repeat the scheme of bringing
in a new woman to help whenever the previous helper became
pregnant. And he did this a total of nine times!
As the children grew, they were able to help with the fishing
and cleaning as well. The operation became a family business
unlike, perhaps, any other.
It is said that Juan, in trying to keep some sort of social
order in this unusual family arrangement, used his old house on
Isla San Francisco as a place for members of the community to
cool off. If someone was not in concert with good social order,
he or she would be sent over to the house on Isla San Francisco
for a period of solitude.
As the story of Juan Cuevas and his nine wives spread, he
acquired the name of Juancho, which would mean "Big
or "Big John" in English. As he grew older he further became
known as Don Juancho, the "Don" being a gentlemanly title
conferred as a sign of respect in Mexico.
Don Juancho died in La Paz sometime during the mid-1980's. Many
members of his family continue to live on Isla Pardito, and in
a house near the Malecón in La Paz. His second son,
José ("Pepe"), is still actively living on the rock.
- The Community on Isla Pardito -
The number of members of the Cuevas family living on Isla
Pardito varies from 20 to 50 (roughly). The variation is
brought on by children being sent to school in La Paz, family
members living temporarily in La Paz due to illness or some work
necessity, or, in some cases, due to members leaving the island
While there is now a federal school on the rock, children who
choose to attend high school must move to La Paz during the
school year. There is nothing beyond simple first-aid available
on the island, and so again La Paz becomes the location for the
treatment of more difficult medical problems.
One of the major problems facing the community on Isla Pardito
is that of water. The infrequent rains provide some water, but
there are no natural sources nearby.
Water is often provided to the islanders by passing vessels,
although they must be of a good size to have the capacity to
provide some hundreds of gallons. Mexican Navy boats are one of
the more regular providers, as is the dive-boat Marisla
during the diving season.
As the operator of the ship Marisla, one of the
contributors of this story, Richard Adcock, has had considerable
contact with the islanders over the years. He considers them to
be good and kind people - somewhat more quiet and reserved now
that Don Juancho is gone.
When the Marisla first heaves into view, a small boat
will come out from the island to inquire about the possibility
of obtaining water. Usually, a general time is set when,
towards the end of its trip, the Marisla will again be in
the area and can offload some unneeded water. A boat will come
out at that time with a number of large plastic containers, and
the offloading will take place while Marisla guests are
looking on. These guests are then welcome to visit the Cuevas
family on the island.
A number of people, curious about the life of these people, have
made extensive visits to the island. A psychologist from Santa
Barbara, California, spent so much time on the island that he
eventually built a house there, although he has not been seen in
residence for a number of years now. The author Peter Benchley
spent a week on the island researching the background for his
book The Girl of the Sea of Cortez.
Richard Adcock (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Fred Metcalf (email@example.com)
(Written in September, 1996)