A Nahua Way of Knowledge

Camping, surfing, and farming on the edge of a Nahua village in Michoacán with local David “El Vaquero” Ramos Flores.

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[Originally published in TSJ 17.1, February, 2008]

We had been camped on the edge of the Nahua village in the Tierra Caliente region of Michoacán for about two weeks. The daily routine was simple: surf in the morning and lay in the hammocks during the midday heat, then surf when the sun was a fist from the horizon. It takes a lot to get me out of my hammock in the hottest part of the day, but my friend Roberto Vezzoni, a documentary filmmaker from Brazil, assured me that I would want to meet “El Vaquero.” El Vaquero’s real name is David Ramos Flores, and he is very easy to notice when he surfs the point at the mouth of the Ostula River. David has the rivermouth and point wired, he makes drawn-out bottom turns and tucks into barrels effortlessly. He grew up surfing the waves of the Ostula and it shows. David always smiles, and when his long, black hair isn’t covering his eyes, he is quick to greet you.

[Feature image and above] Two moments from a Michoacán town named for corn. A shard from the past thrown up by a wooden plow; between-swell benders finding the cobble at the rivermouth proper. Photo by Matt Proehl.

The village was a ghost town in the sweltering midday heat, and only a few people lay under the sanctity of the large ficus trees in the town square. When we reached David’s place, he was nowhere to be found. His house was a combination of woven thatch and adobe perched above the muddy Ostula River. The dirt around the house was packed hard and swept clear, the yard filled with mango, banana, and guava trees. Compost and eggshells lay at the base of every tree; a few of the trunks had burros and pigs tied to them. Chickens and roosters roamed freely into his yard from neighboring yards. A couple of old women sat on tree stumps under a palapa next door speaking Nahuatl, the native tongue of the Aztecs and a common language of resistance maintained since the days of the conquistadors. We sat in the shade of passion fruit vines and waited for El Vaquero.

A young boy named Pedro came by to see what the two gringos were doing; I had seen Pedro surfing the point. He always had a smile on his face and sat on the far inside of the point, usually alone. Pedro offered to take us to El Vaquero. He said it was a short walk—I groaned. Making our way down the muddy bank of the river, we passed a field of fallen papaya trees and some girls doing laundry who smiled as Roberto and I stumbled after Pedro who seemed to glide across the river. Tucking into a grove of palm trees, Pedro stopped and knelt down pointing at some mushrooms growing from a cow patty. “Buenas,” he said with a grin. There were some thatch houses tucked among the palms that, even after many years of visits to the area camping for months at a time, I never knew existed. Two elderly men lay in hammocks, one of them mustering enough energy to raise a fist and wave us off. Just past the houses we climbed the hill that overlooked the point and crossed a field that had been freshly cleared of papaya trees. Maize was beginning to come up, not in perfect rows, but sporadically, among dung and fallen tree branches.

El Vaquero was hunched over with a spade in one hand and a plastic bag of maiz negro kernels in the other. He straightened up when he spotted us, smiled, and waved the spade out toward the point behind him as a head-high set rolled into the bay. “It’s cleaning up,” he said, guiding us over to a small palapa with a driftwood bench nestled in the blessedness of its shade. There were two boards to the side of the palapa, and our guide Pedro grabbed one of them, painted and well worn, threw a shaka, and took off down the trail that led to the point. David tucked the sack of maize kernels under the bench and wedged his spade into the rafters of the palapa, and, inviting us for coffee the next morning with his family, nodded at the improving conditions, grabbed the other board, and joined Pedro at the point. Roberto and I watched them surf alone until the sun made its way down, signaling our time to surf.

David plants three seeds—provided by the co-op—per hole. The tools are basic: a machete, a shovel, and a spade. Burros transport the crop to his house and to the co-op. Pesticides are disdained, with plantings between the crops attracting beneficial insects.

Upon hearing of gold in Michoacán, the conquistadors made their way toward the Pacific and attempted to force the Nahua and the neighboring Purhépecha into slavery. Many resisted and often ran away to their death. The region’s gold turned out to be of poor quality, and the Spanish quickly gave up hope of settling the land. But the damage was done, and the population of the Ostula Valley was nearly lost to disease. By 1765, 75% of the population had perished. Only 70 families remained, and David and the rest of the present-day Nahua are their descendants.

The next morning, Roberto and I headed up to David’s house for coffee. The family was up and about, cleaning and cooking breakfast. We all sat in the back of the house under the cover of the palm thatch as David’s friends began filing in to chat while the air was still cool and fresh. David’s mother, Ceferina, moved about briskly, sweeping the hard-packed dirt. David’s brother, Lupe, came out and greeted us. Lupe commands respect in the water. He rules the point with an angry fervor that reminds you of your place in the lineup, but he is always welcoming to the ladies when they paddle out. I could tell that Lupe initially felt uneasy that we were there, but he seemed to get a bit more comfortable as our talk began to focus on surf. Our surf-Spanglish would have been intelligible to any surfer in the world. David told stories about surfing the inside of the point as a kid. Starting out like a lot of us do on a Boogie board that was left behind by a traveling gringo, it wasn’t long before David was standing and riding waves. He began putting broken boards back together and started a ding repair service to help finance his surfing habit. His surfing began to be noticed, and at one point he was ranked in the top 20 in Mexico. In a sense he’s lived two distinct lives: one of a surfer, and the other, the life of a communal Nahua man. When I asked David how he got the name “Vaquero,” he told me that his grandfather once owned cows that he helped to care for. But this got a laugh from Pedro who said that David got the name when he danced to the “Vaquero” song at a fiesta as a child. The name is more endearing to the family than it is macho.

The Ostula River, flowing from the Sierra Madre Occidental, is the life-line of the Nahua people. They use the river to bathe and play, for fishing and irrigation. The people of the Ostula have lived on this land with relative autonomy for hundreds of years. To preserve the culture and homeland, nobody within the Ostula Valley owns his or her land—it is communal. Until recently, the Nahua prohibited marrying outside the tribe. Members who did were forced to move from the community and their land returned to the tribe. These precautionary laws have preserved their land rights when so many other tribes have been displaced.

David belongs to the tribe’s farming co-op, most of his food provided for in exchange for a large percentage of his crop. Despite the fact that there are no roads to his plot, he chose the land overlooking the point. The benefits of this spot are obvious, but cultivating the hill means using no machinery and relying on the rain for irrigation. David rotates his crops between maize and papaya. He says he can harvest papaya for four years. He then hacks down the trees and grows maize for a few years. He allows all of the fallen trees to help enrich the soil. Crop rotation balances the fertility demands of various crops and avoids excessive depletion of soil nutrients. But this cycle requires him to miss an entire year of income. Most farmers would never be able to go an entire year without a harvest if not for the help of a co-op or tight community that supports them and the land.

While most of the farmers work in the early morning to avoid the midday sun, David usually surfs with the early offshores, then works the middle part of the day when the wind turns onshore. He says he has grown accustomed to the heat, and if it gets too hot he can always rest under the palapa and watch the waves roll in. Last year, El Vaquero began building his own home on a spot below his field at the point. He will be close to his farm and steps away from the waves, but he’s in no hurry to finish the house; he would rather work slowly and make sure it can withstand the elements and time. Using woven palm wood for the walls, he hopes to eventually add adobe at the base. Only two other houses face the beach at the point —one owned by an eccentric old man who raises burros and goats at the mouth of the river, and the other by a family who works the land adjacent to David’s plot. 

One afternoon before our evening surf, Pedro showed us a small pre-colonial figure he found along the river. The carved stone figure fit perfectly in the palm of his hand. He told us finding the figure was the most valuable thing he had done for the community. It was not something he owned, but something he was able to give to his people. The communal mentality began rubbing off on us as we spent countless hours surfing the point with our new friends. The Nahua can seem poor, but they have a richness of character that creates a harmonious microcosm rarely seen in the modern world. Each rainy season, tens of thousands of turtles simultaneously make their way up the beaches on the coast of La Tierra Calienta to lay their eggs. The site is breathtaking. Like the Nahua, the turtles seem to use their numbers to strengthen themselves as individuals.

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