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In remote Sonoran river valley, a family seeks simple self-sufficiency

Half submerged in a small, spring-fed canal across the Rio Sonora’s dry riverbed from sleepy Banámichi, the propellers of a small river pump turn.

“Every time it spins, it’ll grab a little bit of water, and then when it comes out it grabs a little bit of air,” said Stevan de la Rosa, whose family of three calls the six-acre spread known as  Los Paredones home. “So it will grab water and air, water and air, water and air. And the bubbles of air kind of create a pressure.”

That pressure then pushes water — slowly but surely — up to two nearly 300-gallon, elevated tanks. Before this pump, they depended on a bike-powered device.

“And it worked fine,” De La Rosa said. “It was a lot of pedaling. I would have to pedal for like two hours to fill that tank up and that tank would last us about a month and a half of use.”

“We could always put in an electric pump, but let’s try to figure it out this way,” said Lucia Gomez, a trained architect who eventually soured on the prospect of a life designing what she called “cookie-cutter houses.”

She met her now-husband De La Rosa five or so years ago in the Central Mexican state of Tlaxcala at a symposium on natural building, which prioritizes sustainability and is a passion the two share. She decided to take a chance and throw in with De La Rosa’s project at Los Paredones, where they’re now raising their 3-year-old son Samuel.

Crouched by the canal in the dappled shade of old mesquite trees, Gomez lifted a cloth cover to reveal another off-the-grid hack.

“We had our first harvest, I think it was oats,” she explained. “We learned that they go rancid very quickly. And we don’t have storage, like a freezer or refrigerator. … We made a hole very close to the canal. Well, this hole already was here, because turtles dig holes and they live there. So we made it bigger, we bought this barrel, a food-grade barrel. So we stick it in, and so it's always moist, it's always cool.”

The drop in temperature is dramatic as soon as your hand enters the barrel. And for the pests who also have a taste for grains, they set a lit candle at the bottom, which consumes the oxygen that any who dare enter would need to survive.

Low-tech innovation

The property, which De la Rosa bought back in 2010, is sprinkled with such innovations, necessary to provide for basic needs — and some comforts — when the only electricity comes from a handful of solar panels that mostly power their computers and phones. There’s a solar oven hot enough to bake cookies, a port-a-potty shell converted into a shower and fed by a solar hot water heater, and even a fire-heated clawfoot tub for hot soaks on the stunning valley’s not uncommon cold, winter days.

“You can call this a luxury, but you could also call it a necessity, you know,” De La Rosa said of the tub. “Because when your main tool is your body, you have to take care of it, otherwise it won't take care of you. That’s something my mother taught me.”

Los Paredones, tucked between the river and the foothills of the imposing sierra to the west, could hardly be more different from where De La Rosa and Gomez grew up — the sprawling, industrial Baja California border cities of Tijuana and Mexicali respectively. And that’s what they were looking for.

After years of nomadic world-wandering, during which he grew his natural building skills, De La Rosa set out to find a site for the project, and had three criteria: it had to be in northern Mexico, it had to be rural and the land had to have year-round water for agriculture.

The Rio Sonora Valley fit the bill, but he said land there doesn’t often change hands, more often staying within families for generations. However, Los Paredones’ previous owner had no heirs, and little use for the land, according to De La Rosa.

“So, it was just this luck that I had, being at the right place, at the right time,” he said. “And I remember when I walked onto the property the first time, just kind of walking it slowly, I could see myself here, I could see this being home for the next long, long time.”

Self-reliance

More than a decade later, he and Gomez said the project’s purpose and ambitions have shifted often, especially with the arrival of Samuel.

“But If I try to say it in a nutshell, what we are trying to accomplish here is to create is a lifestyle that draws from the old and the new, to create a very simple, simple way of life in which we lower our perceived needs and raise our standard of living,” De La Rosa said. “Another way of saying that is try to be as self-reliant as we can.”

They’ve cut back on food production this year to focus more on natural building projects, like finishing an adobe brick, thatch-roofed studio space that has taken far longer than anticipated. But when they’re in full production, they can grow much of what they eat.

“Beans, a lot of legumes, lentils, chickpeas,” Gomez started listing. “Corn for our tortillas is the base of our diet. And then sesame, flax seed … Pumpkins, and then watermelons, and all the veggie garden. All the greens, the chard, the spinach …”

“The tomatoes, the basil,” De La Rosa chimed in.

“A lot of tomatoes!” Gomez said.

While trying to meet as many needs as possible from their own land or nearby, they also believe in the importance of community, and have gained a great deal of know-how from their friends and neighbors in the valley.

And the land itself provides a lot of food and other necessities on its own, like wood, wild greens — and Sonora’s signature chile.

“Ah, there they are! Did you show them to mother Samuel?” De La Rosa shouted from a patch of bushes just beyond a tangled mezquite they call the Monkey Tree, which ably doubles as the young boy’s jungle gym. “There’s chiltepins in February! Look at that! We saw that there was an orange one that's almost red and…”

“This one, and THIS one!” Samuel chirped.

“Yeah, a green one and then one that's kinda in the middle color,” De La Rosa continued. “That's pretty neat, Samuel.”

Simple, healthy, delicious

Simple flat breads were on the lunch menu, and that meant De La Rosa needed to first grind rye on the bike-powered mill. On the first attempt, the chain was thrown after a few seconds, but not before still-course flour started filling a waiting bowl.

“Redo!” De La Rosa yelled through his laughter and the noise of the slowing contraption.

But after one more thrown chain and a couple passes through the mill, Gomez had the fine flour she needed.

“Kinda like a pancake, tortilla thing,” she said of the intended end product as she mixed the rye with whole wheat flour.

The low-hanging winter clouds made for a pretty day, but suboptimal solar oven conditions.

The bean stew needed to be finished off on the gas stove, but soon enough, the simple, healthy, delicious meal came together, with cheese, olive oil and pickled chiltepin to accompany.

Daily decision

There’s much they miss from their old lives, and many things that they used to take for granted require much harder, more time-consuming effort. They see a lot of beauty in their way of life now, but readily concede the challenges.

“It’s simple, but it (doesn't) actually mean easy,” Gomez said.

Asked if they consider their project a success, they said it’s not an easy question to answer, and maybe not even the right way to think about it.

“For me, it's like a decision daily,” Gomez said. “I decide to stay, and like, ‘OK, let's continue this.’”

And they try to see success in each day they decide to carry on. 

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Born and raised in the Intermountain West, Murphy Woodhouse has called southern Arizona home for most of the last decade. He’s one of two field correspondents at KJZZ’s Hermosillo bureau, where his reporting focuses on the trade relationship between Arizona, Sonora and the rest of Mexico.Before joining the station, Murphy was a reporter at the Arizona Daily Star and the Nogales International. Prior to his reporting career, he completed a master’s degree at the University of Arizona’s Center for Latin American Studies and did three wildfire seasons with the Snake River Hotshots. He’s a proud graduate of the University of Montana’s School of Journalism.When he’s not reporting, Murphy is often out in the woods running or riding singletrack, or swinging in a hammock with a book.