"The bodies of at least 43 men and half a dozen women were found Sunday in plastic garbage bags near the town of Cadereyta Jimenez."  "Mexico gunmen set casino on fire, killing at least 53. The attackers apparently used gasoline to torch the crowded Casino Royale in Monterrey, which has been the setting for a brutal turf war between drug gangs." 
The above headlines are examples of what comes to mind when people think of Mexico. Brutal violence, corruption, and drug cartels are synonymous with Mexico today. Gone are the days when tourists would flock to the beaches of Cancun, Cozumel, or Acapulco. While these images of Mexico dominate the minds of the majority of Americans, they are not the images that dominate my mind.
When I think of Mexico, I think of the Baja Peninsula. Starting in Tijuana and ending in Cabo San Lucas, Baja is about 800 miles long and bordered by the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Cortez. Outside of the large towns such as Ensenada or the tourist depots like Loreto and La Paz, Baja is sparsely populated. Traveling down Mex-1, the only highway that runs the length of Baja, one drives through open landscapes dotted by ranchos, briefly passing through a small town only to be greeted by the open landscape once again. Nowhere in the whole peninsula is the beauty and vastness of the peninsula better seen and felt than in the central part of the peninsula, which straddles the two states of Baja California and Baja California Sur.
Home to the Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve, which includes the land and ocean, central Baja is dominated by mountains, desert playa, and, of course, beaches. Enormous Cardon cacti, elephant trees, the unusual Cirio or Boojum tree, along with a myriad of other desert fauna dominate the central Baja landscape. While the landscape is amazing, the people who call Baja home are even more incredible. An industrious people, the residents of Baja are always friendly, welcoming, and upbeat. I am always excited when I stop at Mama Espinoza's, a famous restaurant in El Rosario, to have a meal and talk with Mama's daughter Rolli. She greets you warmly and open-heartedly, like you are family. I am continually amazed that she remembers who I am when she meets thousands of people every year. In addition to seeing old friends, I am always eager to meet new friends. I want to tell you about a young lady I befriended in July of this year.
A ranchera living at San Borja Mission, Nanni is a 19 year-old girl, who knows her Baja environment like any ranchera would, intimately. Her family owns the ranch at the mission, remote even by Baja's standards, which was built in the late part of the 18th century. An oasis in the middle of the desert, San Borja is maintained by Nanni's family. Nanni speaks English and even sarcastically joked with me. She opened the gates for my companion and myself to tour the mission. Usually the rancher who maintains the mission does not give a tour, but during our tour Nanni rambled on about the history of the mission. When we went into the little museum she explained the differences between the Jesuit, Franciscan, and Dominican missionaries. She had a detailed knowledge of the artifacts created by the now gone Cochimi Indians. Nanni highlighted her fathers Indian heritage when discussing the Cochimi artifacts.
As I walked through the mission, I took a copious amount of photographs. But, the most amazing photograph is of Nanni standing in front of the original baptismal font. Hand-carved out of stone, it is a testament to the craftsmanship of the indigenous Cochimi who built the mission. The reason this photo is so powerful, is because Nanni, like countless generations before her, was baptized in this font. The photograph embodies the long, strong ties of the people of Baja to the region. It demonstrates how the Baja identity is inextricably linked with the missions and the desert oases that surround them.
Nanni showed us her favorite place to hide out and read, the balcony of the mission. She said that she spends hours at a time reading up there. She gave us a tour of the hot springs and told us the names of all the plants along the path. She gave us the life histories of her family's dogs. Nanni was a walking encyclopedia. Even more importantly, Nanni conveyed who she was to us, how she herself connected with the missions and the desert landscape.
I asked her where she went to school. She turned toward me with a perplexed look on her face and said she had not gone to school. Surprised, I assumed she meant she had not gone to university. When I asked what grade she had gone to in secondary school, she turned toward me looking even more perplexed. Once again she told me she had not gone to school. Finally, I got it. Nanni never attended school, ever. The nearest pueblo was an hour and a half away. In order to attend school, she would have to board with family in town during the week. It just was not feasible or necessary for her to go to school. Nanni taught herself to read and write Spanish and speak English. Talking with gringos helped her learn English and she would watch TV in English sometimes.
When we arrived at my truck, I thanked Nanni, gave her a bunch of food that they were unable to get unless they traveled about three hours, and a donation for the Mission. Even after departing I was completely intrigued by Nanni; a young lady living on the family ranch, an oasis in the middle of the Baja desert, who had a wealth of cultural and natural history knowledge but had never stepped foot into a classroom. Nanni is but one of the many extraordinary people I have met and am honored to call a friend in Baja.
This brief description of Baja and the vignette of Nanni were meant to convey a portrait of Mexico in opposition to the violent image readily seen in the media. Baja is a place where people are living their lives uncomplicated by the drug cartels of mainland Mexico. Instead of violence and drugs being the symbol of Mexico, for me the symbol of Mexico is Baja, a place of spectacular landscapes and incredible people.
 Wilkinson, Tracy. "Dozens of Bodies, Many Mutilated, Dumped in Mexico." Los Angles Times. 13 May 2012. 27 Oct. 2012. <http://articles.latimes.com/2012/may/13/world/la-fg-mexico-bodies-20120514>.
 Ellingwood, Ken. "Mexico Gunmen Set Casion on Fire, Killing at Least 53." Los Angeles Times. 26 Aug. 2011. 27 Oct. 2012. <http://articles.latimes.com/2011/aug/26/world/la-fgw-mexico-casino-20110827>.