Alejandro Cota Maclis looks gravely at the remains of his grandmother’s garden, a five-by-fifteen-foot patch of limestone and churned dirt. At the back, grape vines lean like broken caryatids against a ramshackle fence of sticks and wire. A committee of vultures perch in the high, green tops of date palms. Behind him, an austere limestone church—the Mission of Santa Gertrudis—stands on a lonely rise in the center of the silent village.
Cota’s family has worked this patch of land deep in the arid interior mountains of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula for six generations. When the last of the missionaries left the village in 1834 (the newly independent Mexican government had legally secularized all the country’s missions the previous year for fear that the priests would be more loyal to the Crown than the new Republic), they handed over the keys to Cota’s great-great-grandmother, Ignacia. One of the last surviving Cochimí—the indigenous tribe that once populated the mountains and coasts of central Baja—Ignacia, Cota says, “barely spoke a word of Spanish, but they entrusted it to her anyway.” They also left her this garden, one of the most fertile patches of land in Santa Gertrudis.
Founded in 1751, Santa Gertrudis is one of the 27 missions built on the Baja peninsula between 1697 and 1834. Though colonizers had landed on the coast well over a century earlier, Jesuit missionaries were the first to establish inland settlements. From the coastal town of Loreto, which served as the capital of the unified Californias until 1776, they ascended the peninsula’s rocky spine, building stone churches and irrigation systems for elaborate gardens wherever they found a sufficient water source. Isolated from both the colony and the crown, the Jesuits aimed to turn Baja into a Kingdom of Heaven, full of righteous converts governed only by their god.
Despite that isolation, the oasis gardens represented a spectacular cross-section of plants from across the known world. There were fruiting cacti from the Mexican mainland; dates, pomegranates, figs, and olives from the eastern Mediterranean; coconuts and mangos carried across the Pacific from the Philippines; and a staggering variety of citrus species from Asia. In 1714, the Jesuits imported grapes from the Canary Islands and planted the first vineyards in California. Within 40 years, the missions of Comondú, Purísima, San Ignacio, and San Javier alone were producing some 4,000 gallons of wine annually, much of it for export to mainland Mexico, where it was compared favorably to wines from Europe (New World wines aren’t so new, after all). That grape, known as the uva misionera, or mission grape, has long since gone extinct in Spain, but still grows on the Baja missions, albeit in dwindling numbers. The missionaries are gone now, too, and the villages they founded are shrinking, but their gardens still grow, agricultural time capsules from the Age of Discovery. The Jesuits had planned to build an Eden. Instead, they built an Ark.
Date palms in the orchard of Santa Gertrudis, introduced three centuries ago by Jesuit missionaries. All photos by Felipe Luna
When Cota returned to Santa Gertrudis in 2007, after several years studying in the northern port city of Ensenada (the center of Baja’s burgeoning food and wine scene), he found just one person left making wine: his grandmother. He spent six years working with her to learn the old techniques, sun-drying the grapes, crushing them under foot, and fermenting them in chiseled limestone vats before bottling. In 2012, he produced his first vintage of 250 bottles, sweet as dates and nutty as port, nothing like the modern Cabernets and Tempranillos he’d tasted at the vineyards up north. The wine from this land, Cota tells me, his diction both lofty and shy, is “the same wine the Spanish used to drink, the wine drunk by emperors.”
A year later, in 2013, disaster struck. Rains like Cota had never seen swept down the arroyo and washed his grandmother’s garden away just as it returned to life. As Cota and I leave the ruined garden, the clouds part and the sun blazes down like a benediction. He turns to survey his broken land. “Bringing the mission and the garden back to life,” he says, with the steadfast conviction of a desert eremite, “that’s my mission. That’s my dream.”