Cape Crusaders, Part II: 10 Key Figures in Los Cabos History
Any survey of the most important figures in the history of cape cities Cabo San Lucas and San José del Cabo necessarily starts in the Spanish colonial period–there were no records before then–but ultimately reaches its zenith during the region’s “golden age of tourism,” when luxury hotels and world-class fishing and golf courses transformed Los Cabos into one of the world’s great resort destinations.
Some of these figures were heroic, while others were pioneers or promoters. But all played a huge part in making Los Cabos the place that it is today.
Ildefonso Cipriano Green Ceseña (1836 – 1932)
Ildefonso Green’s life reads like an adventure story, in that he was a larger-than-life character in almost every respect: he was an fierce fighter, a tremendous patriot, a man who lived to a remarkable old age, and sired enough children to start his own army.
Often referred to as the “Zorro” of Los Cabos, Green fought for the Constitution of 1857 on several occasions, against the invading filibusterer William Walker and territorial governor Pedro M. Navarette, and once triumphed in a duel to the death with a politically connected bandit, Ramón Valdés, who was terrorizing and extorting citizenry around San José del Cabo.
He is also reputed to have sired the second or third most children on the Baja California peninsula during the 19th century: his 25 reported progeny rivalled only by Vicente Ceseña, whose wives produced 27, and the some two dozen plus fathered by Alejandro Mendoza.
Although his entrance into the world is often erroneously written as 1830, Green was actually born in 1836, son of an whaler named Stephen Green (his ancestry has been variously reported as English, Irish or Swedish) who landed at Cabo San Lucas in 1834 and married a local woman named Maria de Jesus Ceseña. His mother subsequently remarried, and young Ildefonso spent a good portion of his childhood in Alta California, before journeying to New York, and sailing around Cape Horn to eventually regain the region of his birth.
Green is said to have personally known Joaquin Murrieta–the real life inspiration for the fictional character of Zorro–and to have consciously tried to imitate him in fighting for the rights of his fellow Mexicans. He did so throughout his life, lastly during the Mexican Revolution, when at the age of 85 he fought for the Constitutionalists and helped expel Villistas from the territory of Baja California Sur. Until the day he died, in his late 90s, he was as staunch a defender of the Constitution as any who ever lived.
María Amelia Wilkes Ceseña (1907 -1989)
It is a testament to the enduring esteem for Amelia Wilkes that there are no less than three plaques dedicated to her within a one block radius in downtown Cabo San Lucas. Two of them are located on the plaza principal, which of course is named in her honor. She is also paid tribute in San José del Cabo, as the only woman memorialized at El Jardín de los Cabeños Ilustres.
Born in Cabo San Lucas in 1907, she was a teacher, first and foremost, serving regional communities in that capacity for 43 years, beginning at the tender age of 16. But Wilkes was also a nurse, and a tireless advocate for local causes. She helped facilitate the introduction of electric lighting and a potable water service for her hometown, and in 1966 became the first woman ever appointed to political office in the Baja California Sur (not yet a state at that point), when she was entrusted with management of the then subdelegación of Cabo San Lucas by governor Hugo Cervantes del Rio.
The day of her birth–February 26–is always celebrated locally, most recently when the newest of her plaques was unveiled at the local museum of natural history, in remembrance of what would have been her 109th birthday.
Pablo L. Martínez (1898-1970)
Like Amelia Wilkes, Pablo L. Martínez was a teacher. He was also a fine journalist, although his enduring fame, and the reason he is memorialized at both the Rotonda de los Hombres Ilustres in La Paz and El Jardín de los Cabeños Ilustres in San José del Cabo, is because of his talents as a historian.
Born the second son of ranchers in Santa Anita, just north of San José del Cabo, Martínez was trained as a teacher and wrote for several area newspapers and magazines before his first trip to Mexico City, where he subsequently spent a great deal of time scouring the national archives for historical accounts relating to the history of the Baja California peninsula.
His knowledge of peninsular history became so profound that he was asked to be a part of a regional commission that met with General Manuel Avila Camacho, then president of México; and he was lauded for his contributions during the first Congress of Regional History, held in Mexicali in 1956.
The 1950s were a fertile decade for Martínez. He published a well-received pamphlet, Efemérides Californianas, about notable events in Baja California history in 1952, and a sociopolitical study of El Magonismo en Baja California in 1958. His best known work, however, was Historia de Baja California, the first–it was published in 1956, with an English translation following four years later–and still best attempt at a full-scale peninsular history.
He alo spent years pouring over often poorly kept records in regional archives to save the genealogical records of the pioneer families, which are preserved for posterity in his exhaustive Guía Familiar de Baja California, 1700 – 1900.
In honor of his achievements, the state historical archive now bears his name. This tribute was bestowed in 1972, on the second anniversary of his death.
Abelardo L. “Rod” Rodríguez Montijo
Although born in Berkeley, California in 1918, Rod Rodríguez was blessed with an impressive Mexican pedigree. His father ultimately became governor of both Baja California and Sonora, and was president of México from 1932 – 1934.
Rod became a legend on his own terms, transitioning from a dashing career as a pilot–he transported aircraft during World War II, worked as a test pilot, and set a then speed record flying between Los Angeles and Mexico City–to pioneer developer during the golden age of tourism in Baja California Sur.
The resort he and his wife Lucille Bremer, a Hollywood actress who had once co-starred with Fred Astaire, opened in 1950 at Las Cruces was, and still is, one of the landmark lodgings on the peninsula. Rancho Las Cruces, built on 10,000 acres of prime coastal land east of La Paz, attracted a who’s who of international celebrities during its early years, with household names like Clark Gable, John Wayne, Desi Arnaz and Bing Crosby flying in for big-game sportfishing and general relaxation. U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, for example, could occasionally be found helming the barbecue grill.
So successful was Rancho Las Cruces, that at one time a columnist for the New York Times called it the second best resort in the world. Rodríguez is rememberd in Los Cabos, however, for his pioneering resorts at Punta Palmilla near San José del Cabo, and on Médano Beach in Cabo San Lucas. The former, originally called Hotel Las Cruces Palmilla, was completed in 1958, and was the area’s first lodging of consequence. The property lives on today as One&Only Palmilla, an ultra-luxury getaway that draws the same sort star-studded of clientele that made Rancho Las Cruces famous.
Rodríguez also built the first hotel in Cabo San Lucas (Budd Parr’s Hotel Cabo San Lucas had already opened, but was located in what is now known as the tourist corridor, overlooking Chileno Bay). Hotel Hacienda premiered in 1962, opening Cabo San Lucas proper to tourist traffic, and paving the way for other important local developers like Luis Cóppola Bonillas and Luis Bulnes Molleda.
Don Luis Bulnes Molleda (1929 – 2011)
Perhaps no one in the history of Los Cabos witnessed, or helped to effect as much change as Don Luis Bulnes Molleda. When he arrived in Cabo San Lucas in 1955 to manage the tuna cannery, Impresas Pando, there was no electricity, no potable water, no paved roads, no hotels, and a population that numbered in the hundreds. When he died 56 years later, he was a titan of local industry, and a legendary developer of hotels, restaurants and a fishing fleet in an area that had exploded in popularity, and was now connected to the U.S. via a 1,000 mile-long highway. The little town he arrived in had become a thriving city.
Originally from Ribadesella, Spain, Bulnes arrived in México at the age of 19 to work in the canning industry. None of his experience with fish prepared him for his first experience with a billfish, which occurred shortly after the arrival of he and his wife Conchita in Cabo San Lucas. If his life were to be made into a Hollywood movie, this magical moment would segue into a montage of construction and spiraling prosperity, as hotels and restaurants appeared, and fishermen and tourists began appearing in ever greater numbers.
Bulnes collaborated with Luis Cóppola on the latter’s acclaimed Hotel Finisterra, which opened in 1972. Two years later, Bulnes opened in his own scenically set lodging, Hotel Solmar, nearby at the threshold of the half-mile long Land’s End headland. Hotel Solmar welcomed guests a scant year after the tranpeninsular highway was finished, and the same year dredging began on the Cabo San Lucas Marina. It was a time of tremendous growth, and under Bulnes’ stewardship these early successes led to what is now known as Grupo Solmar, as impressive a collection of luxury hotels, resorts, restaurants and fishing boats as exists in Los Cabos.
Geographically speaking, his early hotels were not very far from the old cannery he had once managed. In terms of the area’s evolution, however, they could not have been farther apart.