EL MAYOR INDÍGENA, Baja California Norte - Doña Inocencia Saínz González remembers what life was like when the river ran free.

That was before a sequence of dams changed the Colorado River, and the lives of her people, forever.

Isolated in this village less than 50 miles southwest of Yuma live 38 indigenous Cucapá families.

The tribe always has lived along the river, fishing and using its floodwaters to farm.

But the "River People," as the name Cucapá loosely translates, now must buy water to drink or to wash (because their river has been poisoned and its waters are not safe to drink anymore).

The adjacent Río Hardy, a tributary of the Colorado, now is an agricultural drain laden with pesticides and fertilizers from the Mexicali Valley.

In 1950, the last dam was completed on the Colorado River at the Mexican border.

Since then, Morelos Dam has diverted all water into Mexico to the Mexicali Valley upstream.

Except in rare flood years, the Cucapá get nothing. They no longer can rely on fishing, but alternatives are few.

Doña Saínz, 69, gestures with her cigarette, frustrated, as she recounts the cycle of poverty in El Mayor.

As a girl, she recalls, she sat on the banks of a fiercely running river, so packed with fish she would get splashed.

El Mayor is the principal village on a reservation created in 1937 and now totaling 360,000 acres. Most of this rocky, sandy land is impossible to cultivate.

Across the border, the Cocopah branch of the tribe lives on 6,500 acres near Somerton, Ariz.

Their land is prime, irrigated riverfront, much of which they lease to non-Indian farmers.

The Cocopah have built a golf course, gas station and RV park.

And the Cocopah Casino is "a major employer in Yuma County," says tribal spokeswoman Liz Pratt.

The border has fractured the relationship between the sister tribes, she says.

"Since 1930, the Cocopah and the Cucapá people have been forced to end tribal unity," Pratt says. "Although the two tribes interact today, it is difficult to have the relationship that once existed."

El Mayor has no golf course or casino. It has rocks, sand roads and a one-room kindergarten, closed because there are no teachers.

Water barrels stand stacked outside cardboard-patched houses. Wooden outhouses are coated with dust from a gravel company across the highway.

Emblazoned on the cement-block clinic's wall is a yellow, orange and blue mural with a message clear even to the illiterate.

The map shows how Colorado River water is apportioned - a large, full glass of water for California and a small, nearly empty one for Mexico.

Mexico receives 10 percent of the river's allocation.

Yet for the Cucapá, "agua es vida" (water is life), and the lack of water is killing their livelihood.

Antonia Torres González, Saínz's daughter, has considered migrating to the U.S., as a cousin did 20 years ago when she married an American and moved to Tucson.

"I cannot do it," she says.

While many Cucapá entertain this notion, few leave. And most who do return within two or three months.

Despite the limited opportunities, El Mayor is home - and it's all they have left.

Technically Mexican citizens, they consider themselves Cucapá. And life in El Mayor binds them as a people.

Xitlali, Torres' teenage daughter, went to Calexico, Calif., to work as a nanny but came back after a few weeks, homesick.

Now she hangs out with friends at Las Cabañas, a bar that flies an American flag to lure the few tourists who stop.

Xitlali no longer can help with expenses. So Torres beads jewelry, a craft learned from her mother.

She also runs the Cucapá museum, a dark room with a glass shelf and a few pictures of Cucapá life where the beadwork is sold.

Sales are few, as are tourists.

Many Cucapá fish, but they must drive to tidal zones an hour away.

During fishing season, the streets are lined with overturned boats.

Fishermen rise before dawn to head to what formally is known as the Upper Gulf of California and Colorado River Delta Biosphere Reserve.

The government created the reserve of more than 3 million acres in 1993.

In these waters breed corvina, a Mexican sea bass.

The Cucapá claim they have fished here for centuries and should be allowed to do so still.

They have been granted a temporary permit to fish in this protected area while legal battles over their claim are heard.

Francisco "Pancho" Galindo Flores is among the dozen men who journey to the Cucapá fishing camp.

"I don't know how to swim," Pancho says, "and the sea is unforgiving.

"You need money for gasoline, oil, engines and maintenance, and it doesn't matter how much you fish that day."

A caravan of eight Cucapá vehicles heads south through muddy terrain, pulling boats that display the name Cucapá and permit number.

With no highway or signs, they read the land by sticks and tire tracks.

After river tides keyed to lunar cycles, they fish at the biosphere three to four days every two weeks, three months a year.

Corvina are here only from March through May. They come up the river's mouth to where river meets sea.

The tide also brings fishermen from El Golfo de Santa Clara, 60 miles south of Arizona.

A Mexican man can fish here only if married to a Cucapá - and only if she accompanies him.

Félix Aguilar Velásquez of El Golfo has been fishing more than 20 years.

If Golfeños cannot fish in the preserve, then neither should the Cucapá, he says.

"I agree we should protect the species. But we should all do it - no exceptions."

A few dozen Cucapá don't threaten corvina as do 700 fishermen from El Golfo, says Oswaldo Santillán, biologist and chief fishing inspector for PROFEPA, the Mexican environmental ministry.

PROFEPA acknowledges that the Cucapá have fished here for ages but says they sought other species, such as shrimp.

The reduction in fresh water also reduced the shrimp, leaving only corvina to catch.

PROFEPA challenges the Cucapá's ancestral right to fish corvina.

For the Cucapá, though, other work is scarce.

A few in El Mayor have found jobs at nearby tourist camps, where Americans bird-watch, jet-ski and hunt ducks along the contaminated Río Hardy.

Tourism depends on the river flow, and it is declining, as is the culture of the Cucapá.

Don Onésimo Saínz González, chief and eldest Cucapá in El Mayor, says haggling over fishing is costing his tribe its culture.

"How do you preserve culture if you have to constantly fight the government?"

In the old days, Cucapá painted their bodies black, symbolizing evil within. As days progressed, they painted white lines, a symbol of their spirits' purity.

Then they washed away the paint in the river to purify themselves.

Ruth Guadalupe, his granddaughter, speaks only a little Cucapá but hopes the new generation will continue tribal traditions.

"I wish we had Cucapá lessons at school so we could learn. Only older people speak it."

She looks down smiling and points to the unborn child she is carrying.

"Mi hijo hablará Cucapá." My son will speak Cucapá, she says - in Spanish.


Celia Rosario Rivas completed a master's degree in public administration at the University of Arizona in May. Luis Carlos Romero-Davis is pursuing a master's degree in Latin American studies at UA.

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