Doña Anita of El Rosario. By Helen Ellsberg. Introduction by Walt Wheelock. Glendale: La Siesta Press, 1974. Illustrations. Map. References. 48 pages. $1.50.
Reviewed by W. 0. Hendricks, director of the Sherman Foundation Library, Corona del Mar, and editor of David Goldbaum, Towns of Baja California.
El Rosario, in the title of this book refers to the Mexican village, present population about 1200, situated some 220 miles south of the border on the west coast of Baja California. Although the area in which it is located receives only about five inches of rainfall per year and the surrounding hills are starkly barren, the village itself rests in a narrow little coastal valley whose fertile bottom lands can be irrigated from a small permanent stream fed by wells. Because of this water source, the Dominicans founded here, in 1774, Nuestra Señora del Santísimo Rosario de Viñadaco (the latter word the Indian name for the place), the first of the nine missions eventually established by that religious order in the northern end of the peninsula. Most of the local Indian population died off rather quickly, and the mission was abandoned in 1832, but the site continued to serve as a small civilian settlement. Yet what has given this otherwise rather insignificant settlement some importance down through the years is that it lies on the northern fringe of Baja California’s Central Desert region — an even more arid, desolate, and sparsely populated area stretching southward from there for about 350 miles. In the late 1920s, as automobiles and trucks came into widespread use, construction was begun on a dirt road called the Transpeninsular Highway, which is not to be confused with the modern paved highway of that name. When completed, by the beginning of 1930, this road made it possible, for the first time, for a motorist, if venturesome enough, to drive the length of the peninsula, all the way from Tijuana to Cabo San Lucas. Although traffic through the Central Desert on the old dirt road could hardly be described as heavy (oftentimes as many vehicles now pass through in a single day as then passed through in an entire year), El Rosario developed into a small-scale supply and communications point for those intrepid souls journeying into or out of the forbidding region farther south.
Chief caterer to the needs of those traveling through El Rosario during the past several decades, and hence the person who came to personify the place to the outside world, is Señora Anita Grosso de Espinosa, the Doña Anita of the book’s title. The youngest member of a rather large family, she was born in El Rosario in 1910. Though her mother was a native Baja Californian, her father was an Italian immigrant who had originally been drawn to the peninsula in the 1880s by the El Boleo copper mines at Santa Rosalia. Because of Revolutionary turmoil, Anita left El Rosario while still a tot. She spent her early years and received most of her education, including the use of English, first in Calexico and then in Encanto (near San Diego), later attending high school in Mexicali. She returned to El Rosario in the late 1920s and, in 1931, married Heraclio Espinosa, one of the sons of the oldest and best-known family in that vicinity. During the late 1930s, they lived for a few years on the Espinosa family ranch in the southern foothills of the Sierra San Pedro Mártir, some fifty miles or so to the east, but by early 1942, they were back in El Rosario where she has lived and, between raising their fifteen children, carried on her work of looking after travelers ever since.
Based largely on personal interviews with her subject, Mrs. Ellsberg’s book provides an interesting and informative account of Anita Espinosa’s life, as well as useful bits of data on the history of northern Baja California during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It also contains sections dealing with such topics as the Flying Samaritans; rescues of lost travelers; various scientists and writers who have visited the area; even a short section on the “Baja 1000” and “Baja 500” road races, for which El Rosario served as a checkpoint. In addition, the book captures and preserves in its pages a way of life now rapidly vanishing; for though it may help economic development in other ways, the opening of the new, paved Transpeninsular Highway, in December 1973, together with the subsequent construction of a chain of gasoline stations, hotels, and trailer parks along the route through the Central Desert, threatens to diminish greatly the old importance of El Rosario as a desert outpost. Nowadays, travelers often whiz straight through the village, barely even slowing. But not those who know and remember the old days. They stop at Espinosa’s Place to chat and pay their respects to Doña Anita, and perhaps, if lucky, to savor one of her nonpareil lobster crepes.