The Sea is Cortes
by C.M. Mayo

C.M. Mayo charts the path of sportfishing on the tip of the Baja Peninsula, from before the days of refrigerators, timeshares, and traffic.

Blue marlin leap out from the sparkling carpet of sea, black marlin, striped marlin, huge and sleek, their bills long and sharp as swords. They might weigh anywhere from two to five hundred pounds; often they top six or seven hundred. The largest certified marlin to date was a female that weighed in at 1,070 pounds. Minerva Smith, an International Game Fish Association representative, weighed it on the scales in her tackle shop in downtown Cabo San Lucas, here in the marlin capital of the world.

I met Minerva Smith at her shop across from Baskin Robbins' 39 Flavors; then we drove out a few blocks beyond Planet Hollywood to a restaurant called Cannery Row. A TV was going over the bar, weather news in English.

"I don't know anyone who doesn't feel good about themselves after catching a marlin," Minerva said as she dug into a plate of corned beef and cabbage. "They've got blisters, they're bruised from the rods and the reels, their thumbs are burned, but they're so happy! They feel so good."

Minerva was a large woman with a pretty, boxy smile. Her thick black-coffee hair tumbled over her shoulders like a mantilla; she wore white shorts and sandals and a diamond ring the size of a dime. When she touched her hair—a pretty gesture—the ring flashed. Everyone in Cannery Row seemed to know her; hey, Minnie, they would say, stopping by our booth, how's it goin'?

She'd grown up in Southern California and so she spoke English with the same lilting flat–toned accent I had. I wouldn't have guessed if she hadn't told me: she was a Mexican citizen born in Sonora. The name Smith was her husband Bob's, and it was because of him that she'd come back to Mexico. "He wanted to marry me, but only if I agreed to live in Cabo San Lucas. Cabo San Lucas? I didn't even know where that was! I got a map and looked. I thought, it must be beautiful because it has water all around it."

© C.M. Mayo

It was beautiful. Bob and Minerva married in 1976 and set up house here in a trailer in what has since become a bustling neighborhood of condos and shops barricaded from the sea by a wall of hotels and the Plaza Bonita mall. But back then, there was nothing. "There was no one, no one on the beaches. From my trailer, every night I could hear the waves, and the sea lions barking.

The water was so clear! Bob took a picture of me standing in the water up to my chest. When the photo was developed, I could see all the little red flowers on my bathing suit."

They brought down a thirty-four-foot boat they named the No Problema. Their first client was a Spaniard. "He wore this huge medallion covered with rubies, emeralds and diamonds. Each gem represented a billfish he had caught somewhere in the world. His goal was to catch a striped marlin and he caught it on the first day. Then –" she touched her hair and smiled—he fished for twelve more days."

Back then a boat might have hooked as many as twenty marlin in a day. Some were released, some died during the fight, but most were killed. In fact, so many marlin were dumped on the beach near the ruins of the fish cannery that marlin became a staple of the local diet. "You have to understand, there was no refrigerator in town. There was one ice machine, that was it. Not even the grocery store or the butcher had a refrigerator. The townspeople would cut the marlin into steaks, butterfly them, salt them down, and then hang the meat over a clothesline to dry. It would keep for months that way. Later, they would soak it in water and cook it up to eat in burritos."

When Cabo began to boom in the 1980s, Bob and Minerva Smith's sportfishing business prospered along with it. In 1989 Minerva opened Cabo's first tackle shop. "I opened in the fall, when people were getting ready for the tournaments. I still had things in boxes and all these people came in. They'd say, do you have a three way swivel? I'd say, go hunt in the box! Here I was, boxes not even open! There was such a need."

Minerva's tackle shop (airconditioned, jam-packed with merchandise) continued to do brisk business, and people would shell out several hundred dollars plus tips to go out on one of her and her husband's boats for the day. She had competition now—I'd noted half a dozen other fleets and tackle shops in a stroll down Cabo's main boulevard and around the marina; nevertheless, I knew for a fact (a friend had tried to get one) that Minerva's sportfishing boats were booked solid for the next two weeks. I couldn't help staring at her ring.

In Cabo, it seemed, people had money to burn.

"One time we had a couple from Texas get on the boat. The husband offered a five hundred dollar tip to the crew for his wife to get a blue marlin. She was a tiny little thing. Well, she hit a blue marlin and it almost took her overboard. She was yelling, 'Cut the line! Cut the line! Please! My husband will give you the five hundred dollars anyway!'" Minerva giggled.

But wasn't all this fishing affecting the marlin population?

Catches had declined, Minerva conceded. "There's no data, it's just my feeling. Back in the 1970s a boat could hook sixteen, twenty marlin, but now a boat might get four in a whole day." But the problem, she stressed, was not the sportfishing, but commercial fishing––Japanese long–liners and seiners, especially. A single long–liner might take in a day what all the sportfishermen together took in an entire year. As for the local population's taste for marlin tacos, that was damped back in the mid-1980s when the sportfishing fleet owners began to encourage local people to eat other kinds of fish—easier to do now that refrigeration and American-style supermarkets had arrived—and urged their customers to practice catch–and–release. Posters and bumperstickers appeared all over town: "Suelteme, Suelteme," (let me go, let me go), said one with a cartoon of a marlin; "Fish 'Em And Release 'Em," said another; "Let Him Go To Fight Again."

© C.M. Mayo

"The idea is, take what you can eat, take what might be a record, but otherwise, let it go." A "catch," she explained, constitutes bringing the fish alongside the boat. For release, the deck hand leans down over the gunwales, and either cuts the line or pulls out the hook. Whether the fish is killed or released, the boat chugs into harbor flying its flag: red for shark, yellow for dorado, orange for wahoo, green for roosterfish, dark navy blue––the most coveted of all––for marlin.

So far, three American women had come over to our table to say hi to Minerva, one of them with a Boston terrier that planted itself by our booth and gazed longingly as I ate my french fries. And now here was Roger, Minerva's boat propeller repairman, an American retiree with a tousle of sun–bleached hair. Briefly, before he went back to the bar, they discussed a storm that was moving out to sea.

It had been Minerva's idea to do the interview here at Cannery Row. I guessed now that Minerva had wanted to show me this part of herself, her place in this community, her many friends. Yet—and this intrigued me—Minerva was a Mexican come back to Mexico. Her life had made a loop, from Mexico to a Mexicanized area of the United States, to this Americanized tourist town in Mexico. She seemed thoroughly Americanized herself— her accent, her sportfishing business, these friends. What had it meant to come back to Mexico? Minerva smiled. She said, her grandmother, who still lived in Sonora, was thrilled because her son, born here, was the only grandchild who could speak Spanish to her.

In Los Cabos, both Mexicans and Americans had embraced Minerva. For example, she said, her son was born during a chubasco. The water and electricity were cut off for five days. Yet several of the local people drove through the flooded arroyos to see her at the hospital. Minerva sat up tall at the memory. "The doctor slept on his desk, for me." She talked for a while about the clam bakes she and Bob used to go to, "someone with an ice–chest full of clams, you bring the bread, I'll bring salad…"

And there was still a sense of community— a bicultural community, if I understood her correctly– although it was cloudier now. Like so many of the people I'd talked to in Cabo, Minerva had watched as the little fishing village filled with Mexicans from the mainland, and Canadians and Americans. "They come and go," she said of the latter. "It's not for everyone."

She could have said that about marlin fishing, too. It sounded dangerous, I said.

"Catherine," Minerva said, "people have been killed."

She waved to a weathered looking blonde in a purple T-shirt.

"It's hard, it's not easy," Minerva said. She meant fighting a marlin. She smiled her big boxy smile. "That's why it feels so good."

Excerpt from "The Sea is Cortes", MIRACULOUS AIR: Journey of a Thousand Miles through Baja California, the Other Mexico, by C.M. Mayo. (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2007). Copyright © 2002 by C.M. Mayo. Reprinted with permission from Milkweed Editions,

C.M. Mayo is also the author of Sky Over El Nido, which won the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction. Founding editor of Tameme, Mayo is also a translator of contemporary Mexican poetry and fiction. Her anthology of Mexican fiction in translation, Mexico: A Traveler's Literary Companion, was published in 2006. Mayo's stories, essays and poems have appeared in numerous U.S. literary magazines as well as the Los Angeles Times and Wall Street Journal. Currently she divides her time between Mexico City and Washington DC, where she is on the faculty of The Writers Center. She is at work on a novel set in 19th century Mexico, The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire.

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