Las Mujeres del Mar

Three decades after it began, the Women of the Sea oyster cooperative is still thriving in the wetlands south of Puerto Peñasco.

May 1, 2014

FeaturesIssue 6: May/June 2014
Francisca Luna collects oyster trays in the waters off Estero Morúa.

Francisca Luna collects oyster trays in the waters off Estero Morúa.

From the banks overlooking Morúa Estuary on the outskirts of Puerto Peñasco, Mexico, Francisca Luna gazes out at the rows of stacked trays anchored in mudflats to bolster the life cycle of oysters wrapped inside.

It’s a balmy Saturday morning and Luna has just arrived at the open-air restaurant where she and other women sell the oysters they cultivate in the water. She squints in the bright sun as she tries to assess whether it is prime time to don her rubber boots and plunge into the lagoon. After brief contemplation, she decides to wait.

“The water is still high,” she says, almost in a whisper.

Luna’s sturdy frame slips past a ramada and into a narrow kitchen where her sister, Rosario Luna Javalera, shucks oysters over a big sink. Nearby, Francisca’s daughter, Angélica Medina, chops onions and chile peppers. Luna dives into a supply basket to retrieve crackers, condiments, and napkins. The crew’s daily ritual of preparing to serve the oysters nears completion.

“Let’s hope for a good day, girls,” Luna says, then rectifies. “It’s going to be a good day.”

The trio belongs to a women’s cooperative that for three decades has farmed oysters in the estuary just a few miles south of the heart of the town known in English as Rocky Point, which is about 60 miles south of the U.S.-Mexico border. The women’s enterprise is among the oldest oyster-farming ventures in Sonora, a leading producer of the shellfish. Pacific oysters (Crassostrea gigas) are the species most commonly produced in the state.

One of seven oyster farms in the region, the Women of the Sea cooperative has the distinction of being the first established by an all-female membership.

In Puerto Peñasco, residents refer to the cooperative simply as Las Mujeres, or The Women. Luna is one of the original 118 members who staked out a place in the estuary back in the early 1980s, when the beach resort that hugs the Sea of Cortez was still an isolated fishing village few Americans had discovered.

Whole families are involved in the cooperative, including kids.

Whole families are involved in the cooperative, including kids.

Through the years, the back-breaking labor that is seeding, sorting, and cleaning oysters tested many members who chose to leave. Some left because of the unpredictable nature of trying to make a living growing oysters, others over apprehension about the staying power of the cooperative. The physical rigors of the job, which requires standing in water for hours at a time, also forced members out. Nowadays, six hardy women comprise the cooperative. Most rely on family members—including some males—to lend a helping hand.

“Growing oysters comes with many challenges,” says Maria Isabel Cervantes, the president of the cooperative. “It’s not for everybody.”

In the beginning, oyster mortality posed the greatest threat; cultivating the bivalve mollusks is risky because they are vulnerable to natural forces. But the mid-1990s ushered in a boom in growth that began to transform the town into a coveted tourist destination. Pristine beaches and teeming fisheries beckoned vacationers from both sides of the border. The wetlands became increasingly attractive to developers as new luxury houses and resorts took shape all around.

Sitting behind the wheel of her work truck one early afternoon, the soft-spoken Cervantes is not in the mood to recall legal battles waged to defend the women’s livelihood. She would rather talk about how the women are working to boost oyster production and obtain organic certification from the government. Someday, she says, the cooperative would like to export oysters to the United States.

From her vantage point on the shoreline, Cervantes points toward a wooden structure that stands half-built next to the restaurant up above. When completed, it will serve as a lab where the women will grow their own oyster seed, or larvae. The idea is to reduce the millions they buy from hatcheries each year to stock their operation.

“We will start small and, little by little, add more of the seeds we raise ourselves,” she adds.

All the women will be trained to handle the lab work, while continuing to care for oysters in the trays that stay in the water for months at a time, feeding on plankton and algae as they grow.

At “El Barco” Restaurant, the taste for oysters is cultivated early; Natividad Hernandez watches over her daughter.

At “El Barco” Restaurant, the taste for oysters is cultivated early; Natividad Hernandez watches over her daughter.

Luna was in her mid-20s when she attended the first workshop on cultivating oysters after a friend told her about the nascent cooperative. She was an unemployed, single mother who had moved to Puerto Peñasco from Sinaloa state after the death of her husband.

Luna knew little about oyster farming, but she quickly seized on the new opportunity and set out to learn the trade.

“It’s intense labor,” she says. “But I’m grateful I came across the cooperative when I needed a job the most.”

Though her earnings are unpredictable because they depend on a variable rate of oyster mortality each season, Luna says she makes enough to raise her family’s standard of living and put two of her four children—three girls and a boy—through college. Luna’s second-oldest daughter chose to work alongside her mother and aunt.

The job has allowed Luna to be her own boss and, when her children were growing up, to bring them along to work and keep watch over them.

Compared to more than 30 years ago, when Luna and the other women farmed oysters without running water, the operation has come a long way, she says, wiping down kitchen counters before heading outside again. She jumps into her pick-up truck and drives to a shack overflowing with old boxes, foam squares, and plastic trays. Before she owned a car, Luna and her kids often slept in the darkened, closet-sized dwelling because transportation in and out of the estuary was hard to find.

“We spent a lot of weekends here,” she recalls.

On the shore a few minutes later, Luna unloads her gear from the back of the truck, puts on her rubber boots and long apron, wades through the water, and pulls out a tray full of oysters fit for consumption. She dips the heavy tray in the water forcefully, again and again, rinsing off the sediment covering shells. By the time she’s finished selecting and washing out the nearly 500 oysters she needs for the restaurant, Luna’s breathing has turned heavy. Tiny sweat drops on her forehead glisten in the sun as her ungloved, swollen hands carefully pick through the hundred in the last tray retrieved.

“These are ready,” she says, holding up one of the delicacies she would soon prepare for her customers.

Las-Mujeres-Del-Mar

Oysters grow from larvae in these stacked trays, which sit in the warm, shallow waters of the estuary.

Oyster farmers like Luna know about patience. It can take a year, and sometimes longer, for an oyster to reach maturity. Cooperative members plant seed at different intervals to produce oysters year-round.

The Intercultural Center for the Study of Deserts and Oceans, known as CEDO for its Spanish acronym, holds up the women’s enterprise as a model for responsible use of the estuary because of its low impact on the fragile ecosystem. Oysters act as natural filters, improving the quality of the water as they grow.

The nonprofit works with the women and other area oyster farmers to promote conservation of wetlands replete with crabs, octopus, snails, and dozens of bird species. The critters and plants that inhabit the estuary also grace the women’s restaurant in the form of a mural that University of Arizona students painted some years ago.

The center, which has an office in Tucson, long has encouraged oyster farmers to participate in ecotourism activities that can boost their business income and keep developers at bay.

“We go out there often with class groups and researchers that are coming to the area,” says Peggy Turk Boyer, the center’s director.

She and other conservationists are working to revive a dormant ecotourism corridor that in past years sought to connect visitors with the women’s cooperative and other local enterprises. The project had been going strong until the mid-2000s, when the economy crumbled and safety worries about Mexico travel kept tourists away.

The project stalled because “it has been really unclear where tourism was going,” she says. “But it seems like it’s picking up now.”

Back in the kitchen, Luna’s sister has finished her shift and gone home. It is Luna’s turn to shuck oysters, a skill she mastered long ago. She cups a hand over each oyster, jabs a short knife between its two shells and, in a swift motion, pries it open. For optimum freshness, Luna shucks oysters as orders come in. Her daughter prepares oyster plates. The women also serve fish tacos and ceviche, but raw oysters on the half shell are by far the most popular item on the menu.

Raw oysters on the half shell, seasoned with lime and hot sauce, are by far the most popular item on the menu.

Raw oysters on the half shell, seasoned with lime and hot sauce, are by far the most popular item on the menu.

It is late morning and a few customers start to trickle in. Off in the distance, tour guide Abraham Meza, who works for CEDO, explores the estuary with a Phoenix family. The group’s last stop is the restaurant, where some sample raw and steamed oysters. Medina walks out to the ramada and shares a bit of history about the women’s cooperative.

Around lunchtime, Luna’s two other daughters and their children burst into the restaurant, breaking the relative quiet with boisterous conversation and laughter. The kids soon scurry out of the room to frolic in the sand, as their mothers had done as girls.

Luna’s youngest daughter, 30-year-old Rosalba Corral, recalls spending a good part of her childhood in the estuary. “I’ve always loved it here,” she says.

She and her oldest sister, Silvia Medina, especially liked playing with their other siblings in the bony hull of a vessel that had washed ashore and become a landmark in the estuary. Later, in a nod to the old shipwreck, the women named their restaurant El Barco.

With full-time jobs and children to rear, Corral and her sister mostly drop by the estuary on weekends when their mother runs the restaurant. They help out, they chat, they eat together. On this Saturday, the family feasts on oysters and manta ray tacos.

By midafternoon, the tables under the ramada are emptying out. The last customers are leaving. Inside, Luna’s children and grandchildren are kissing her goodbye.

The grandmother looks tired, but content. Luna and her second-born daughter, Angélica Medina, take advantage of the lull in business to clean up.

“Not a bad day so far,” Luna says.

Lourdes Medrano is a Tucson writer who covers stories on both sides of the border. Follow her @_lourdesmedrano.


Eat, Visit, Farm

Harvesting oysters can be intense, backbreaking work, as Maria Esther Tamores Zepeda demonstrates.

Harvesting oysters can be intense, backbreaking work, as Maria Esther Tamores Zepeda demonstrates.

Casanova, the 18th-century lothario, was a believer in the aphrodisiac properties of oysters. Although many scientists dispute this claim, it nonetheless persists among many lovers of the bivalve mollusks.

Oysters are a low-calorie and highly nutritious food. They are a rich source of zinc, magnesium, potassium, and other essential nutrients.On the down side, oysters are high in sodium and can be infected with the Vibrio vulnificus bacterium commonly found in marine waters. People with compromised immune systems who eat raw oysters can be particularly susceptible to illness.

At the Women of the Sea oyster farming cooperative in Estero Morúa, members say they take great care to follow health regulations and ensure frequent testing of the water in which they grow oysters to ensure as much food safety as possible.

To visit the women’s cooperative and other oyster farmers in the estuary, head over to the highway that connects Puerto Peñasco and Caborca. The cooperative’s billboard, depicting two mermaids, stands near kilometer 7 and points to a dirt road leading to the oyster farm and restaurant.

In their open-air eatery, the women serve plates of oysters, raw or steamed on a half shell and sprinkled with bits of cheese, tomatoes, chile peppers, and onions. Fish tacos and other seafood dishes also are on hand. Don’t be shy about asking about their oyster farm; the women enjoy talking about it with customers. The restaurant is open 10 a.m. – 6 p.m.

CEDO offers guided tours of the oyster farms in the estuary. Visitors seeking a hands-on experience can become oyster farmers and chefs for a day. For more information and to make reservations, visit the center’s website at CedoIntercultural.org. ✜


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