Mary Ann and I had been coming to La Gringa since 1974, when we had first visited this part of Baja's east coast. In those years, early in our relationship with this area, the beaches of Bahia de Los Angeles looked very much the same as today; it was covered with the same smooth round stones interspersed with sandy stretches. But at La Gringa there were simple homes for simple demands of a dozen families of fishermen that lived there then.
These houses were built from inexpensive half-inch plywood thrown over flimsy frames of two-by-fours. The interior and exterior were covered sloppily with a thick goo of blue-green paint. The garish color was a striking contrast to the natural tans, blues and greens with which nature had swathed La Gringa and the lagoon.
Families lived in the huts then, men, women and children, supported by the rich bounty of the sea, but paid the meager wages of some small Mexican conglomerate that operated the fish processing plant, located amidst the collected shacks. There were two rickety coolers in those days, actually, they were the cooling compartments from refrigerated trucks that had been removed and set on the dank earth there. Gas-driven compressors cooled them. The workers at the small plant had plenty of space in these compartments and would let us store tuna and yellowtail for the days we shared with them.
Most of the green shacks were occupied in the early 1970's, often all of them, but the families living there changed often. On a vacation we grew friendly with them but never over an extended time. We always camped a short walk north of the last hut. The locals would wave and we'd give them extra fish; they would walk by our camps and sit on the stone of the beach and visit.
Then a fellow we came to know for a lifetime moved in to the northernmost hut. His name was Raphael. When we first met him he must have been about thirty-five. His golden-brown skin and handsome face, his thick tapering figure and friendly, almost gringo way of flashing his white teeth in a warm, somewhat taunting smile was fetching. He was the guy whose confidence would have you think he owned the beach. In fact in those days he owned nothing. But he was charismatic.
We were camped, at this moment in time, with the Gallo's in our usual place. One afternoon Raphael sauntered past us on the stones, bummed a cigarette and invoked a conversation and odd friendship that has lasted ever since. Soon the borrowed cigarette had became a beer and then another. Jimmy liked him. I liked him from a somewhat greater distance. An invitation to dinner at our camp was extended and accepted. He stayed until too late and we were past ready to go to bed. He took several hints and carried them back to his hut. When we went inside we thought we heard voices from the direction of his hut but it was late and we didn't think about it further.
The next morning Jimmy and I were up and ready to fish, gathering our equipment. Raphael was also awake. He surprised us, coming up behind us while we were stowing gear in the boat. He spoke broken English. "Do you want? I will show you where the fishes are?" Jimmy and I looked at each other. Did we want another person in the boat?
"Uh? We're just going out to the channel to fish for an hour or so. We'll be back in a bit."
"Okay. I'll see you then. I'll keep an eye on your camp and the ladies." "See you in a few minutes." We planned to be out until noon. We started the outboard and shoved off from the beach. We headed into the gulf.
"What's that all about?" Jimmy asked. He was protective of his two girls. Beanie and Lisa were at this point both young knockouts. Any father would be on guard. Jimmy was New Jersey Italian and a 220 lb Gym Teacher. No one to mess with.
"Well, he's got nothing to do with his time." I said. "I'm sure we're his entertainment for as long as we're here." Throughout Baja folks have learned, for lack of better distractions, to entertain themselves by watching whatever natural phenomenon exists around them. Gringos are no less than a phenomenon to the locals. We were Raphael's entertainment. So perhaps were our ladies.
But both Jimmy and I sensed he had other motives.
Disregarding the hinted danger from Raphael, we went out in the boat and did our usual tour around Smith's island, dropping down in favorite places. We didn't discuss Raphael but we were both concerned about leaving the ladies alone on the beach. There was something about our neighbor that was too hungry. Before the second hour was up we found ourselves motoring back the La Gringa.
We grew more aware of Raphael's environment that day as we talked with him and watched him going about his work. He wandered into our camp several times. He timed his visits to be certain he caught Beanie and Lisa in bikinis, prone on the beach.
The voices we thought we heard on the first night turned out to be real. Inside his hut Raphael had hidden a tiny young woman, Lupe, perhaps a wife, perhaps even his but at least the mother of their infant girl. Lupe was between fourteen and sixteen, a baby herself.
For the first few days Raphael was relatively well behaved. He had his young wife that kept him tranquilized, although it was clear from the outset that she was another among the many La Gringa stones on which he would step. He didn't care about their child at all. He was an all right guy to chew the breeze with except that he was subtly and constantly hitting on Beanie and Lisa. Jimmy wouldn't leave to go fishing.
One day Raphael built a cross atop the promontory on the tip of the stony point at La Gringa. He came stumbling down the rough, steep hill breathless, shirtless, golden skin bared and glistening with sweat. He came into camp to announce he had built a cross for Lisa. We looked at the point to see a 4-foot cross. Jimmy bristled with anger but kept quiet. One day he wove macramé crosses for both the girls. The inventions and contrivances he used and the diluted confusions he must have suffered were amazing.
Our two families took a side trip to San Borja and San Francisquito. We were gone 3 days. When we pulled into La Gringa to a place on the beach on an afternoon, Raphael wasn't there to greet us and beg a beer. By early evening we still hadn't seen him. We had checked out his hut and it was obvious someone was there, probably Lupe and the baby, but the door was closed and we didn't knock. We decided he was fishing. We were in our sand chairs along the water late in the day and watching Beanie and Lisa dunk Michael and Kevin until they were screaming and throwing water at the girls, laughing. Raphael appeared out of nowhere. He was looking sick and pale. His movements were sluggish.
He asked for a beer and sat on the beach.
"Raphael, are you sick?"
"No. It's worse than that. I have a very serious problem. I have been gravely injured."
"Tell us what happened."
"I was stabbed. They took me to Ensenada in a helicopter. It only missed my heart by half an inch"
"Where did this happen?" Jimmy and I chimed in unison.
"Just inside a hut, here at La Gringa."
It has always been problematic for me to imagine the details in the lives of rural families. Families form relationships based on individual and far-ranging circumstances. It was impossible to imagine all those and all the ways individual personalities would, could react to each of them. So I felt there was too wide a range of behavior to enable any close-to-accurate prediction of individual performance within my range of experience. But I had known the road that Raphael walked for some time. It was a risky one.
"How did it happen?"
"I was just inside the house of my friend, next door, when he walked in, unknown to us."
"Well, he was not happy to see me with his woman. He was enraged, and it happened at a time when I was compromised. He caught me unaware and unable to defend myself. He grabbed his fishing knife and pushed it into my back. It was very deep. It missed my heart by an inch. Look at this!" He turned his back to us and showed a healing scar several inches long and a half-inch thick, puffing out from the surrounding flesh by a quarter-inch. From the positioning of the wound his diagnosis had to have been accurate. It was not hard to envision what had happened. Woman's husband comes home and finds his wife wrapped around Raphael. Man stabs Raphael in the back with a fishing knife. Raphael, knife sticking out of his back, struggles to his feet, amidst a lot of noise and shouting (these green shacks are only a few feet apart). Neighbors hear the ruckus and come to see what's happening. They see the situation and someone with knowledge of these things removes the knife from Raphael's back. They lay him in the bed of a small, battered and unreliable pickup and go as fast as possible to the village, 10 kilometers distant. Several men would have ridden in the back with Raphael, who may or may not have been unconscious by that point. On arrival at the village the medic would be summoned from his house to the Diaz ranch, where he was patched as quickly as possible into a condition that would make it likely he would survive a small plane flight to Ensenada, the nearest hospital.
What a scenario!
Raphael felt no sadness or regret over this circumstance, as near as I could tell. He realized no sympathy for the friend whose relationship he had violated. There was no feeling that perhaps his own behavior should be evaluated, reviewed for improvement. The event had simply unfolded without right or wrong.
It isn't fair for me to apply my standards to Raphael. But I could consider life at a level I had experienced another time here amid the sand and the ocean and the smooth round stones. When I had not long ago caught my first yellowtail, I had discovered that there were some values that humans held and other animals did not (as far as I could reasonably determine). Sympathy was the name I had given to one of those differences and the one I had chosen to ponder.
Humans (or at least some humans) feel they can influence the outcome of some situations. That feeling causes us to try and change an outcome by modifying the performance of the events causing the outcome. This causes us to actually try and change events and resultant outcomes. When we fail, we feel sympathy. Other animals (perhaps) don't think enough or feel they have the opportunity to cause the change in an outcome, thus they never try but rather accept everything as a given. Having the opinion that nothing is changeable, that everything is "manifest destiny" there is no reason for sympathy, as things just are the way they are.
I had asked myself if this characteristic was a plus or minus for us as a race. This is difficult to understand because not all humans held the capability to feel sympathy and most of us at least feel more or less than others. Any animal feeling sympathy is at least more vulnerable then ones that do not. When we feel sympathy for another we will take actions we otherwise would not. But the reactions to those actions have possible positive and negative outcomes. If I sympathize with a fellow whose car has broken down along the highway by offering him a ride I might get robbed or, even worse, killed; or I might make a friend for life.
Once, we were living on the beach, the four of us, and had chickens. A hen, sitting on a nest of eggs, had hatched a single chick. After several days passed with no other chicks and the hen running around defending her single chick, Mary Ann and I investigated the abandoned eggs. I gently picked several up and held them one at a time next to my ear. Inside one I could distinctly hear peeping and feel movement. The rest of the eggs were silent. We decided to pierce the shell with the live chick in it and I pushed my nail against the shell until it cracked and laid it back in the nest. The chick picked at the shell from the inside and we picked at it from the outside until there was room for the chick to climb out of the opening. It settled in the nest next to the eggs and rested awhile. Mary Ann and the boys and I went back to the hut, just a few feet away and checked on the new chick every few minutes. After awhile it became apparent that the mother wasn't going to have anything to do with it. The biggest part of the mother's efforts were spent in defending her single, accepted chick from the other hens. Without this attention the new chick was being tortured by the other chickens, which were systematically pecking the baby to death. There was nothing we could do to prevent this. The chick needed its mother. But the bottom line to me was that we had messed with Mother Nature and had caused a disaster. If we had left the eggs alone the chick would never have been born. It would never have suffered as it did. It was sympathy, evoked by the faint, helpless peeping sound from within an abandoned egg that triggered this action.
Several years after he was almost killed, Raphael left Lupe and their baby. We didn't see him for some time in La Gringa and then one summer he reappeared and was living in the village. He had a boat and was soliciting tourists, to take them fishing. His boat was older than any of Sammy's and his motor was unpredictable. But he told us he had made his living in this way for some time. We had our own boats then and no longer used guides, so we never went out with Raphael.
We now see Raphael nearly every visit to Bahia. Several years ago, on a Sunday afternoon when we were living in Glendale, Barsam called me and said that Raphael was the subject of an article about fishing guides out of Bahia de Los Angeles in the Los Angeles Times newspaper. The article said that Raphael had been chartered to take several tourists fishing and had motored on a calm morning the twenty something miles to the southwest end of Angel de La Guarda island. Here they had hauled over the sides of the 20-foot panga several Sea Bass well over one hundred and fifty pounds each.
So Raphael was for a few years the piloto of choice for those rugged southern California fisherman that made it to L.A. Bay without a boat. No one had to know the real Raphael. With all the attention he abbreviated his name to a cool Rapha, which is how he is now known in the village.