Category Archives: Mexico

la finca altozano – a delight to the senses

TI0A6167One might think that, having grown up in a place that place would be known in all its intricacies, in all its nooks and crannies. One would be wrong. Though I grew up in Baja California, Mexico, as well as Southern California’s Orange County I am only just beginning to get to know this place that was planted in me at such an early age. And though I grew up traveling back and forth to my grandmother’s home in the small village of La Mision, now that her casa has become mi casa, I’ve decided its time to get to know this place whose accent is on my tongue, whose sights, smells, tastes and sounds instilled themselves within me at such a young age, but have lain dormant these decades since. It’s time to get to know this place I call home.


Not even an hour away from my spot at KM 62.5 along what is called the ‘free road’ or the ‘old road,’ depending on the age of the one you ask and whether or not they have been around long enough to remember the construction of the new (toll) road, is hidden gem that is beginning to gain widespread recognition – Baja’s Guadalupe Wine Valley. Some are comparing it to Napa or even Tuscany – and though it does not yet have the following of either of those two famous destinations, it most definitely has the creds, with over 50 wineries (up tenfold in just the past five years) and a number of boutique  B&B’s, organic farms, and gourmet restaurants where food is often served fresh from the garden surrounding it.


Yesterday’s adventure took me to the ‘pop-up restaurant’ (though it has since become a permanent, though seasonal fixture in the southeast corner of the valley not far from the newly opened Wine Museum and the well-known Laja Organic restaurant) known as Finca Altozano – one of the growing number of ‘campestre’ (literally means ‘country’ our ‘out in the country’) dining experiences making themselves known in the region.

There is only one way to describe this campestre experience – it was a delight to the senses.


Finca Altozano is about a mile off Mexico highway 3, down a dirt road, and with no signage off the main highway – a place for those who know what they are looking for, or who happen upon it as they meander down the valley’s many dusty back roads. It sits upon a small knoll (or hillock, as the word ‘altozano’ means), above the fields of grapes and of springtime weeds. As you enter under the archway of what looks like reclaimed urban decay and find a place in the grassy field that serves as parking lot, the expansive vista of the Guadalupe valley unfolds toward the east.

The dining area is open air, looking out on the valley, with a dozen or so sturdy wooden tables – some with long benches, others with chairs in the rustico style and still others – like ours which was clearly overflow for a larger than expected Sunday evening crowd – collapsible topped with a red and white checked tablecloth.

The kitchen is outdoor – thus the campestre – with an ‘asador’ (grill) alongside. Locally brewed beer (we tried the Guerra Coquetona – the flirty blond) is served in mason jars and wine (also, of course, local from the valley) comes by the bottle.

© erin dunigan 2013


The menu changes based on what is available and what is fresh. Chef Javier Plascencia who also owns Tijuana’s well-known Mission 19 made his way from the grill to the tables to greet guests and share in a bit of conversation.

Our group of 7 decided to order a number of items  and share – morrones asados en lena de olivo (grilled red peppers in olive oil with arugula and garlic), pulpo del pacifico a la brasa (octupus with soy, ginger, peanut and cilantro), tostados de ahi, chorizo y chistorra, and grilled Brussels sprouts that were to die for.


We shared a bottle of the local tempranillo Norte 32 made within miles of where we enjoyed its smokey notes – which may have been enhanced by the smoke of the asador as it grilled our entrees.

Though it is still early in the season – traditionally (meaning, the past year, as the campestre dining experience in the valley is not much older than that) visitors find their way to the valley in the warmer summer temperatures – the dining patio was at capacity even with the extra tables that had clearly been set up to accommodate these unexpected numbers.


As the music strolled through a variety of selections including Johnny Cash and more traditional mariachi music the light of the setting sun turned golden and then began to wane. The delicate wine glasses held only the remnants of that valley tempranillo. The subtle intensity of the fresh flavors lingered. The conversation between friends – newly made and long connected – rested gently. After a beautiful evening, it was time to wind back along the dirt road, nigh sky brilliant for lack of ambient light competing with the stars, and head back to La Mision.TI0A6208

all images  © erin dunigan 2013

dia de los muertos (remebering, celebrating, and living)

catrina, la mision baja california, mexico
© 2012 erin dunigan

Day of the Dead‘ may sound like a morbid description for a holiday, at first, but as celebrations go, morbid is hardly the word for it.

Festive is a much better description of the day – a day that acknowledges and remembers those who have gone before us (our ancestors, as some might describe them, or the ‘saints’ as is more common in the language of the Christian church) and celebrates their memory even as they continue to live on in us.

It is a classic melting of an indigenous Aztec celebration with the Catholic beliefs and culture that came to overlay (some might say colonize) that existing practice in what we now know as Mexico.

Day of the Dead, as with All Saints Day (November 1) in the strictly traditional sense, is a day to remember that we in our individual lives are not isolated, but part of something much larger than our own personal existence.

As Franciscan Friar and author Richard Rohr puts it, in our individual selves we are part of a larger ‘we’ (the we of our country, our tribe, our religion, our ancestors) that, in turn, is a part of the ‘great I am’ – what the mystics throughout the ages have seen as the ‘univocity of being‘ or the connectedness of all that is.

The Day of the Dead is a day to stop, to pause, and to celebrate those who have given us life, our lives, to remember them well, and to live out their legacy as we carry it forth into our lives as they unfold.

The author of the book of Hebrews, in the Christian Scriptures, put it this way:

Since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses let us throw off all that hinders and entangles and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.

barbies crossing borders

Often, when you grow up with a particular custom or habit, it seems normal because that is, of course, normal for you, in your life, in your world. So, it didn’t really cross my mind that there might be something unique about a particular game I used to play as a young girl growing up in Newport Beach, California. I have come to call it ‘Barbies Crossing Borders.’

I was reminded of it yesterday when I, for the last time, crossed south from the US into Mexico, across the same border that has been there my entire life – with it’s off-white pillars, and a large sign above, MEXICO, in red letters – for me a sort of ‘comfort food’ from my earliest memories. It was the last time I would cross that particular boundary because as of November 1, 2012, the border between the US and Mexico, in San Ysidro, will be changing to accommodate the expanding lanes heading north into the US, and the new crossing into Mexico approximately half a mile west of the longstanding crossing.

In a world that is changing so rapidly we have difficulty keeping up – even twitter, which is still baffling many (was it a tweet? Did you tweeter?), is beginning to become passe – it may seem silly to mourn the dissolution of a particular structure such as a set of border gates. But it was, I realized, as I crossed through that last time, with a sense of sadness I did so. This image, this crossing, has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember.

Enter, Barbies Crossing Borders, which could, of course, have been a reference to my tan but still white skin and blond hair (both of which, in addition to my having been born on the ‘right’ side of that boundary line defining what that crossing, and the ease with which I could do it, meant for me) – though Barbies younger sister Skipper would have been more appropriate. But, as a young girl growing up down the street from Newport Harbor High School, Horace Ensign Middle School, and St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, this was the game I played with my barbies, who would regularly travel back and forth across the US/Mexico border as I did most weekends growing up.

An only child, I traveled with my parents as we ventured south most weekends to care for the house that had been my paternal grandmother’s. When she passed away the care of her house was left to her only child, my dad. So, on any given weekend when other children in the Newport Mesa area were off to AYSO soccer games, I was in the back of our 1970 Ford van heading south along I-5.

I do remember being disappointed about not being able to play soccer (something I finally remedied as a student at Newport Harbor – though clearly showing the lack of all those AYSO weekends) but going to Mexico on weekends also seemed like, well, seemed just normal. It was a part of my life. The navigating of these two very different worlds was planted within me from my very first trip south as a six-month old baby. At my grandmother’s house there was no phone and no t.v. and so  most of the weekend was spent reading, playing cards, sitting on the patio, or walking to the beach.

The highlight of the return trip was navigating the border crossing north – something that my dad, an engineer, always tried to predict (“The line will be shortest during dinner time,” was one of his favorite assumptions) and something that taught me the word ‘bifurcate’ (when one lane becomes two, which, of course, we were always hoping for to speed up the line) much earlier than would be normal for a young child. To this day, even with my SENTRI pass for expedited crossing, I still take note of the exact time I arrive in line at the border and the minute I am across – my last trip it was a 7 minute border (unheard of in the early days, unless one was crossing in the middle of the night like we did when my dad broke his leg walking home from a party – a story for another time) all thanks to that SENTRI pass.

My memories of these years crossing back and forth over this international boundary, but also somewhat arbitrary delineation, are not marked with particularities – except the one time we got into a fender bender because my dad refused to let someone cut in line in front of us  (or was he the one doing the cutting? I can’t recall) – but more of an overall sense that was sown in me from a very young age. It wasn’t until decades later that I realized, in traveling the world, that the places where I feel most ‘at home’ in the world are actually the places that remind me not of my birthplace in Newport Beach, but of my adopted home, Baja.

On October 31 I crossed the border for the last time as I drove south from Newport Beach, where my mom, now widowed, still lives, and headed toward what was my grandmother’s house, but has now become mine, about an hour south of the border, in Baja. As I looked up and saw the sign announcing my entry into MEXICO, with big red letters, I thought of that game I used to play with my barbies – as they traveled back and forth to Mexico – and how this place has, over these years, permeated my very being.

What a gift it has been, and how thankful I am, as we enter into this month of giving thanks, and these few days of remembering and celebrating those who have come before us, for the gracious hospitality of this country that for so long has felt like home, and now finally is.

pruning, abiding and bearing fruit: repentance and the days of awe*


I remember, after I had been ordained–three years ago this October–though there were many emotions present, there was one with a very particular outlet.

I was excited, finally, to be able to have something to say that I ‘do’ when crossing the  border from Mexico to the US and being questioned by the border guards. Up until that point I had tried to describe it–well, I’m in the process of becoming a Presbyterian minister, but I’m also a photographer and a writer and I travel a lot–but now I could just say “I’m a Presbyterian minister.” Easy. Done.


My first time crossing, after being ‘official’ as a minister I drove up to the gate (this was pre-SENTRI pass for those who pay attention to such details) ready to give my answer.

Sure enough the guard asked me, “What do you do?” Almost too proudly I responded, “I’m a Presbyterian minister” to which his immediate response was, “Recite the 23rd Psalm.”

I blanked. Totally blanked. This was not what I was expecting from the US Border Guard.

“Yea though I walk thru the shadow of death…” I tried, starting in the middle and stopping far short of the end.

“Keep going,” he said.

“Well, I don’t have it memorized,” I had to admit to him. “Do you?” I asked him in return.

“Yep,” he responded.

“Well, you must be Catholic,” I replied, to which he, smiling, answered in the affirmative.

“I’m Presbyterian, we don’t have to memorize Psalm 23,” I responded, rather pathetically, I can admit.

He, smiling, waved me through as I, in my shame, crossed over to the other side.

The very next time I crossed, not to be dissuaded, I planned on the same answer–though I still hadn’t memorized the 23rd Psalm.

“What do you do?” the border guard asked me. “I’m a Presbyterian minister,” I responded.

“Do you have any drugs, tobacco or alcohol with you?” he responded.

Oh, so you must be Presbyterian too…

This month our Not Church theme is the Days of Awe. It is a phrase that references the Jewish calendar, a ten day period beginning with Rosh Hashanah, and ending with Yom Kippur.

It is said that on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, God writes each person’s fate for the coming year into the Book of Life, and on Yom Kippur those records are sealed. The time between, then, is a sort of ‘purgatory’ if you will in which one can, if necessary, attempt to change the outcome.

What is interesting is that the two days are not back to back, one right after the other.  They are separated by ten days, what are known as the Days of Awe. This ‘grace period’ in a sense, is a time of penitence, of repentance, of considering what one has done that is not exactly what might have been best, and what one might do, in the coming year, to change that.

The new year begins with repentance. Ten days of repentance. It’s not unlike the New Year, the January 1st one, being a time of making resolutions. Though with the Days of Awe there is more of a focus on this need to cleanse that which has kept one distant.

Many of you know that I like to work in my garden. I’ve given you a break from garden stories for the past few months, but you know that can last only so long…

Lately I’ve been planting fruit trees. Many fruit trees. At last count I’ve got 15. You name the fruit, I’ve likely got it. except for Quince, which I had to look up when the plant guys were trying to sell me a membrillo to see what that meant. Even having the translation, knowing that the tree was a quince didn’t help me much. I’m not sure what to do with a quince.

But mango, apple (yes, I do have both mango and apple planted in the same yard…we’ll see how that goes) peach, nectarine, plum, avocado, guava, pomegranate, pear, tangerine, lemon, lime, grapefruit and, most recently, orange. I’ve also got an almond tree, a pistachio bush, and two grape vines.

Not that long ago I posted a photo of my grape vine, newly purchased, and captioned it ‘grapes!’ A friend on facebook correctly pointed out that, in fact, this was not a photo of grapes, but of a grape vine (with not even a flower at this point) and that by calling it grapes I was expressing something that I ‘saw’ but that clearly was not yet realized.

Which, of course, is what I think the ‘Days of Awe’ are all about…

Jesus, himself a Jew, who, it happens, liked to tell stories from the garden, is said to have put it this way in the book of John–the most poetic and mystical of the four gospels:

I am the vine and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit. (John 15:1-5)

Pruning, abiding, and bearing fruit.

It seems to me that the word ‘repentance‘ has got a bit of a PR problem.  I think that the idea ‘repentance’ can be a word we don’t necessarily like talking about. It too easily can bring up images of hate mongers, standing on the corner spewing vitriol, or protesting whatever they see as the current threat, while waving signs that say “Repent!”

If that’s what ‘repent’ is, I want nothing to do with it.

But in Hebrew, which is the language of the Jewish Scriptures, the word translated as repent is most often the Hebrew word Shoov, which, literally, means to turn. When I was in seminary, studying Hebrew one summer, my friends and I had to memorize something in the range of 40 words a day. The mnemonic which we used to remember Shoov was the image of your shoe, turning around. That’s free of charge. There was also another word, Ohell, which we remembered as “Ohell there’s a bear in the tent” but I can’t remember if the word means ‘tent’ or ‘bear.’ Since there are more tents than bears in the Bible, I’m guessing it was the former…

I also took Greek, which is the language of the Christian Scriptures, known often as the New Testament. In Greek the word for repent is most often metanoia, or to change ones mind.

So repent literally means to turn around–to stop going in one direction and turn, or return, in the opposite direction. It is a changing of ones mind.

It is not so much about “Horrible me, I’m an awful person, what must I do to rid myself of my horrible-ness.” It is more like ‘pruning’ which is an entirely different concept altogether. I’ve seen it primarily in my bougainvillea.

Last winter I gave the bougainvillea what I would call a good haircut. So good, in fact, that people who saw it wondered if it would ever come back. It had been a few years since I had pruned it, and in the intervening time it had gotten rather ‘leggy’ and not very full. So I pruned it. It was not because I was mad at it, or because it is an awful plant and needed to be punished–I pruned it because I wanted it to grow well.  And this summer? The blossoms are abundant, the foliage is dense and green.

The Days of Awe give us an opportunity to reflect, to prune.

But the thing about pruning, and about bearing fruit is that they both, of course, assume planting. There is a Chinese proverb–the best time to plant a tree is 100 years ago. The second best time is today.

The thing is, if you want to eat grapes now, you don’t plant a grape vine. If you want to eat grapes now you go to the fruteria and, provided they are in season, which they are currently, you buy yourself some grapes.

Planting a grape vine is something different entirely.

Though I have 15 fruit trees, this summer I can tell you exactly how much fruit I ate from them: three nectarines and one plum. That’s it. Four pieces of fruit. Granted, they were delicious. The best nectarine you’ve ever eaten. A plum that was sweet beyond anything that you’d buy at the store. But, that’s something in the range of $50 per piece of fruit, if you do the math.

It’s not exactly a great deal. At least not yet.

Right now, in fact, it seems a bit absurd, really.

But give it time. It will most definitely seem absurd. But, I trust, for entirely different reasons.

For I remember, as a kid growing up, we had a plum tree in our back yard. There were three of us–my mom, my dad and I–and we could not possibly eat all of the plums that came from that tree in a given summer, making jam with some, and giving the rest away. In fact, I was born in June, and that summer the plum tree on Snug Harbor Road had a bumper crop. Let’s just say, my mom learned the hard way that what she ate, I ate. But, I like to think that the love of plums, fresh from the tree, was instilled within me from the very milk that I feasted on when I was only weeks old.

That was one tree, with three people. I’ve planted 15 trees. I hope you all like fruit…

The Days of Awe invite us into a time of reflection, of repentance, of turning away from certain ways of being, pruning if you will, and turning toward that which bears fruit, abiding.

We are invited to consider that which we need to let go of, that which binds us, that which keeps us from being who we already are.

The fundamental question asked, in the ten day period represented by the Days of Awe, is ‘will my name be written in the book of life?’

We are called to turn, to change our minds, to repent.

But, at the end of the day, the point is not the pruning. The point is to bear fruit.

Jesus, when he preached among the people, put it this way: “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.”

Turn. Return. Change your mind. That which you are seeking, it is not ‘out there’ distant in some far off place or for some future time. Believe. It is right here, now, among you, within you.

You are already who you are still becoming–like a Presbyterian minister who doesn’t know the 23rd Psalm. Like a fruit tree. Like a grape vine.  This process doesn’t happen over night or immediately. It is not instantaneous. There is a time, a grace period–the Days of Awe–a space between the New Year and the Day of Atonement.

It’s like seeing that young vine, still only a plant, no fruit yet to speak of, and proclaiming, “grapes!”


*presented at Not Church September 9, 2012