This article is from the July 2004 The Mexico File newsletter.
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Paulino Pérez

by C.M. Mayo 

From Miraculous Air: Journey of a Thousand Miles through Baja California, the Other Mexico

by C.M. Mayo, University of Utah Press, 2002. This excerpt is found in the chapter, “The Sea Is Cortés.” © 2002 C.M. Mayo. Reprinted by permission of the author. 

“The sharks will all be gone in twenty, maybe thirty years. There are much fewer sharks than there were five years ago. Ask anybody in La Paz, they'll tell you the same.” Paulino Pérez sighs and looks up at the ceiling of his studio. A green lizard is resting there upside down, its tiny toes splayed in a grip. Over the hum of the floor fan, the night outside his studio crackles with croaks and chirps.  

He is a painter, but Paulino knows a lot about sharks: he spent three years researching their eating habits for his thesis in marine biology at the Universidad de Baja California Sur. That was why he’d come to La Paz, to study marine biology; he grew up on the mainland, near Guadalajara. He obtained the shark specimens for his thesis research from local fishermen. When he’d finished, he took his data to PESCA, the Mexican fish and game authority. 

“They needed it,” he says, “because what they had was a big mess.” PESCA registers catches of tiburón, or shark, and cazón, which means, roughly, small shark. “But cazón,” Paulino explains, “can be shark species as different from one another as elephants and chickens. And not only that, PESCA counts a kilogram of dried shark meat the same as fresh. Age, size, species, none of these are differentiated.”  

Paulino put together some conferences, but the PESCA officials were not interested in his data. That was disheartening, as were his prospects as a researcher / professor. The pay was, as they say, una miseria. Even worse, as far as the sharks were concerned, more research wouldn’t be of much use anyway. “Everyone will tell you the sharks are disappearing, although there’s no really good data on the trend. To get really good data I’d have to do a ten-year study, but in ten years the subject of my research might not exist! What’s happening is happening, whether I study the sharks or not.”  

What the PESCA officials were interested in were his photos and illustrations. Rather than despair, Paulino took that as a signal. “I can make art, I can transmit a feeling. And that, I think, is a contribution.” 

The walls of his studio are covered with his paintings, all of them of things submerged under water: a shark, a fish, a hand, two swimmers, the light playing on their bodies like tangles of ropes. Paulino is fascinated by the water, he always has been. When he was small, he would put his head in the wash tub and look back up at the surface, shimmering like a layer of mercury. As a teenager, he took up skin diving. It always attracted him, the way light moves through water. 

“It’s very fast. Things appear, disappear. You don’t see anything and then all of a sudden: a whale! You see bubbles, a whole cloud of bubbles, then nothing. And colors — ” he is on the edge of his chair now, waving his hands, his face pinkly glistening in the heat, the harsh bright light of the lamps — “in the sea there are thousands of colors.”