NORTH of 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.
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 accumulated cans.
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 fishermen.
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.
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 distance.
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 fishing.
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 Juan," 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 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 permanently.
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)