The Corrido of Tommy Yonley
A crew of hyphenated Americans travels to Mexico's oldest canoe race
Ed. note: The 50th running of Mexico’s oldest canoe race, the Rio Nazas Regata, takes place this Friday through Sunday. This story by Dominican-American writer Nelly Rosario recounts an unlikely road trip to last year’s race, the first in living memory to include an American competitor.
DURANGO, México—Follow the locals. Own a Velox Attack. Break your paddle.
This is how an American wins the oldest and longest kayak race in Mexico, held every July. Tommy Yonley is the first U.S. racer to compete in the 49th Río Nazas Gran Regata. Boasting more than 100 competitors and thousands of spectators, the three-day race in Durango state is 90 miles of hard paddling down the river that inspired the event’s motto: Lagunero, conoce tu río.
The locals know their river, or at least fear and revere it.
Without an outlet to sea, the flow of the Nazas is bipolar: raging floods one season, no river at all the next. Droughts caused the regata to be canceled twice in its history, and during dry season the racers train on irrigation canals. “Competitors from other regions tease locals for not having ‘a real river to practice on,’” jokes Jorge Ramírez, a past Junior Division winner. Even if they could practice on the Nazas year-round, veteran racer Carlos Garza says that the river’s character changes between training runs and the race itself.
Those who’ve seen this devil dry know where his bumps are.
The earliest locals called the river Tlahualilo, Nahuatl for “the devil”. Then came the Spaniards, who took particular interest in the nasas they saw being used for fishing and renamed the river after those small baskets. The Nazas basin is itself a basket, a vein in the desert that has also earned it the title the Nile of Mexico. Hoarding of the river in the past caused violent feuds among the area’s cotton barons, sometimes resulting in the dynamiting of dams, until the government appointed a commission for equitable distribution of the waters.
The office of Darío Medina, Municipal President of the City of Nazas, is decorated with nasa miniatures. He’ll tell you in simple terms why the river remains an issue in local politics today and why his constituents prefer to call it Padre Nazas: “He feeds us.”
Day T-1. It’s pouring the night we arrive to the campsite in Rodeo. Briefed only by online recon of the Nazas, Tommy is eager for a glimpse of the surrounding river. Our Mexican hosts welcome us by flashlight, breaking through the heavy rain and darkness with tent assignments, barbecued meat and valuable information.
Big rapids, they advise. And follow the locals, who know where the presas , the dams, lie.
Everyone knows this isn’t Tommy’s first rodeo. He’s won countless races, including the 2012 Texas Water Safari, “The World’s Toughest Canoe Race”. In a boat named Spirit, Tommy raced down 260 miles of rivers and bay, a flat-water challenge more of ultra endurance than the river running. (Purse: $0)
Nazas, on the other hand, is faster flowing than the San Marcos River and full of tree limbs and big boils—challenges Tommy welcomes. He’s here to train for one of the world’s largest kayak race in Australia, where he and his wife will be racing in less than a month. The Avon Descent is said to be full of huge dams with lots of rocks, but for a Texan who wants more racing challenges without having to travel so far, the Nazas offers similar conditions closer to home. (Purse: $2,000.)
Tommy’s game plan: “Keep riding 1st place, since he seems to know where he is going.”
Just as quickly as the locals learn his name, the very likeable Tommy also comes to know ‘1st place’ as the event’s poster child, last year’s winner Martín Rangel, AKA El Mudo. With The Mute for a nickname, Martín might just be able to thwart Tommy’s strategy by staying in the lead without divulging the river’s secrets. The given name Martín, however, weighs down his kayak with a historical precedence that makes this story a larger one than that of a paddling race: his namesake is the first known mestizo in the Americas, born to Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés and the Nahua woman Malinche. Said to be lover, intermediary, interpreter, and advisor to Cortés, Malinche is the country’s very own Pocahantas, cast by history as a major protagonist in the Spanish conquest of Mexico.
I feel some of El Mudo’s burden.
Travelling with Tommy is this Dominican-American writer, along with Mexican-American multimedia journalist Macarena Hernández. We’re daughters of Las Américas, raised in the USofA, whose fears of malinchismo sway who we root for in the 2012 Conquest of Nazas.
Must we cheer on our fellow countryman, a Christian conservative and proud member of the Tea Party who argues with me against affirmative action and drinks a lot of milk?
We’ll root for the underdog instead, but even that’s not too clear in this race.
Fourth of July falls on the eve of our trip. Macarena and I forego barbecues and fireworks to drive four hours from San Marcos to the border town of Laredo, Texas. We end up celebrating Independence with salty hot dogs from Target.
The original travel plans to Mexico called for a group of Texas paddlers to meet in the border city of Laredo, then a 12-hour drive to Durango on bus, escorted by the Green Angels, Mexico’s AAA. For too many reasons to name, those plans change. We’re down to a motley crew of four Americans (two of us hyphenated): Tommy, organizer Eric Ellman, Macarena, and this very Nervous Nelly.
The State Department’s carefully worded advisories warn that “criminals have particularly targeted” dark-colored SUVs. We’ll be travelling in Tommy’s black Honda SUV.
From the window of my hotel room at the Río Grande Plaza, I watch the occasional fireworks above the Río Grande. Mexico’s city lights shine across the river, and I imagine a war zone. My last trip there was eight months before 9/11, to the gringo/artist/tourist haven of Tepoztlán. Cortés is said to have razed the town after its leaders refused to meet him. Today, its peaceful residents are engaged in civil resistance against Mexico’s climate of insecurity, which Eric compares to the Revolution of 1910.
Downstairs in the lobby, though, Eric tries to ease my insecurities about the trip by invoking a New-York state of mind. “Look,” he says, “I lived in the Lower East Side during the 70s.” He goes on to credit Korean grocers with helping to save the neighborhoods in the city that were “troubled”. His theory is that, by leaving the lights on all night, the grocers sparked more business to the area: one person turns on a light on little by little others do the same. “In a sense, we’re trying to do that here, get something started, get a light on the river here.”
Something’s started, all right. There’s a brisk wind coming in from across the Río Grande, which, after crossing the Laredo International Bridge tomorrow, I’ll be calling by its Mexican name, Río Bravo or Fierce River.
“The wind blows like this all year,” says the man who works hotel reception, shortly after my talk with Eric. Gilberto’s laid back and slow of movement, nothing like this wind besides his regular commute between Mexico and Texas. “What’s strange is that just a block a way not even a tree moves.”
He points out an 18th-century church that looms in the distance, right there in Scary Mexico. “If anything, this is the best time to go. It’s summer, more activity on the road, and a new president’s just been elected.”
Still, the winds of change are hard to read. Enrique Peña Nieto’s presidential win three days ago is being contested. Just yesterday, a car bomb killed two policemen. Rival gunmen left 10 dead near Mexico City. Assailants opened fire on a wake near the U.S. border. At Peña Nieto’s first post-election news conference tomorrow, he’ll vow to “adjust the strategy so that Mexicans really feel an improvement in security and a reduction in crimes rates, especially homicide, kidnapping and extortion.”
That’s Macarena’s take. No boogeymen are going to scare her from making this trip. Born and raised on the Texas-Mexico border, she insists that the narrative of Mexico has always been that it is a scary place.
“Mexico’s my second home,” she says. “For me, this trip is not so much about kayaking as it is about reaffirming my right to be in Mexico and refuting the fear that has consumed so many of my own family members, including those who were born there and who refuse to cross because of all the border violence.” As a reporter who covered the border, Macarena knows that this fear is largely the product of media hype. “Of course the narco story is what most interests the media. I mean, for a while I felt like I was being assigned to write that singular narrative, and that’s one of the reasons why I eventually left newspapers.”
Yes, I get it, Macarena. During the Dominican wave of immigration to New York in the 1980s, the media caricatured us as Jheri-curled drug dealers. Especially since 9/11, Fear of The Other—whether fueled by real tragedy, hyperbole, anti-immigrant sentiment or a cocktail of all three—has infected the American psyche. How do I distinguish, then, this collective fear from my very personal ones? What mother in her right mind ignores the concerns of loved ones and strangers alike and agrees to make the trip?
Like the Spanish missionaries who traveled with cross and sword, I have as much foolish faith in the unknown as I have the deepest fear of it. So it is that when Gilberto points out the distant church steeple, my Catholic roots urge me to mentally do what I later see the Mexican paddlers do before each race: make the sign of the cross.
Eric travels with paddle and kayak on his mission. He’s Executive Director of Big River Foundation, which teaches communities “to value the vital role rivers play in the web of life” through programs that “foster respect and appreciation for river ecology and conservation.” Another such ‘light on the river’ are Eric’s efforts to unite paddlers from both sides of the border on the Río Grande.
His romantic mission and freewheeling persona easily invite comparisons to Don Quixote, a characterization Eric’s quick to dismiss. He often quotes the 1848 treaty whose dreamy name is Peace, Friendship, Limits and Settlement between the United States of America and the Mexican Republic: the Río Grande “shall be free and common to the vessels and citizens of both countries”.
Both the law and Eric recognize that water can heal old wounds.
In 2008, he brought together the organizers of two time-honored river races on either side of the border in hopes of sparking a golden marriage. The Texas River Safari just celebrated its 50th anniversary this year; Mexico’s Río Nazas Regata will celebrate theirs next year. “Two storied canoe races, each with traditions stretching back over the same half-century, neither aware of the other,” writes Eric.
The same Río Grande/Bravo that separates these paddlers can also reunite them. For the last three years Eric has organized the annual race now called the Laredos RioFest. In 2008, the Nazas Escuela de Canotaje sent up their best ambassadors to put on a summer series of paddling demonstrations on both sides of the border. Twenty-one of their members competed in the 33-mile race down the Río Bravo. Among them were veterans Arturo ‘El Ranchero’ Martínez, President of La Asociación de Canotaje del Estado de Durango; José Ríos, Technical Secretary and Trainer; and regata organizer Alberto Villanueva, President of El Club de Canotaje. Alberto is also working closely with Eric to establish La Asociación Binacional de Canotaje, the Binational Canoeing Association. In Nazas, Alberto plays attentive and patient native host to our sometimes Ugly American delegation.
A Sancho Panza might tell Don Quixote that this kayak crusade’s a tough sell on either side of the border: “He who seeks danger perishes in it.” There are just too many presas to negotiate, too many logistics that occasionally make Eric have to portage the mission on his head.
For one, the three days of “peace & paddling” in Nazas, as a poster advertised to US paddlers, managed to attract only one competitor. The Mexican racers had been looking forward to the confirmed participation of gold medalist Greg Barton, especially given the upcoming Summer Olympics—but he withdrew.
There’s the obstacle of the border itself.
Only two Mexicans could attend last year’s RíoFest awards ceremony in Laredo. Eric laments that the event “showcases only the down-river marathon racing that Texans favor, with no allowance for Olympic-style heats practiced by the Mexicans”. In fact, the finish line was “a quarter-mile downstream from where spectators from two nations might have cheered as one.”
Obstacles, if anything, can strengthen resolve. Tommy showed his soon after winning the Laredos RíoFest competition. Because competitors could only meet on a small wooden raft moored near the Mexican shore, he and former Yukon Challenge Champion Brad Pennington paddled over.
The way Eric tells it, “On a partly submerged raft decked out with U.S. and Mexican flags they met their Mexican brothers and told them they’d see them before another year had gone by.”
Tommy’s banana-yellow kayak draws eyes in Mexico. A window wiper at a gas stop exclaims, “I’ve never seen these in person, only on TV!” A woman at a taco stand in Rodeo is optimistic that in three days she’ll be reading headlines about the gringo’s victory. And shortly after our arrival to the campsite, Mexican competitor Otto del Toro whistles at the sight of the Velox Attack.
The fiberglass K1, custom-made by Kayak Centre, was shipped from South Africa to Texas in time for the race. The Mexican competitors race in Olympic stilettos, some handed down through generations and weighing at least 19 pounds more than the Velox.
In fact, this race is essentially a microcosm of the Olympics, which London will host in a few weeks. While the ideals of the Games are admirable, the victories are predictable: nations with the larger shovels mine the gold.
“I’m here to win,” says an unapologetic Tommy.
The electrical engineer for Halliburton and sports-science geek is further armed with gadgets like wrist meter, drink tube, and foot-operated bilge pump.
His opponents tie plastic baggies of water and Gatorade to their life jackets—I can’t help but think of deflated breasts. El Mudo’s never seen a kayak pump.
In the eyes of Chief Judge Geraldo Morales, though, all is fair in love and war: “It’s an education for us…Next year, all these kayaks will have water pumps.” (As it happens, one of the veteran paddlers owns a water-pump company.)
Marketing student Carlos Gustavo agrees that the bar’s being raised at Nazas. As the son of a sponsor, he’s seen the same crop of winners and competitors each year. Beyond the bells and whistles, he says it’s Tommy’s paddling skills that impress everyone. “He’s really prepared. Though we’d like the regata champion to be a lagunero, now there’s a foreigner forcing us to improve.”
So what can they teach El Gringo?
In Carlos’s hazel-green eyes and wide smile lurks The Cheshire Cat. “Well, Mexican culture…that you have to expect the unexpected and make do with what you have.”
Day 1: Five locals help Tommy duct-tape his ruptured spray skirt.
Day 2: Tommy’s $450 paddle smashes on a leonine rapid called Boca del León; multiple racers offer replacement.
Day 3: Tommy borrows a skirt and a Braca IV Marathon paddle.
“I ride wake, lots of wake,” he writes in his logs. “These guys do not like to draft much, but they don’t mind me drafting.”
Jorge Ramírez paddles for the both of us down the Nazas. We ride Eric’s two-seater kayak, and I feel like Ms. Daisy as Jorge huffs answers to my questions. He’s good-humored, the one to tell me about the teasing laguneros get about their non-river. After winning the Junior Division three years back, Jorge became a father and had to stop training in order to work fulltime.
“Now I’m too fat,” he says.
Yeah, we’re both out of shape. For Jorge, this cameo in the race marks the start of his plan to get back in the game. For me, it’s a rare workout and an opportunity to learn the basics of paddling. Soon I put down the notepad, pick up the paddle, and nickname Jorge ‘El Profe’.
Overworked professors are demanding. Whenever the lazy student complains she’s tired, El Profe lies that we have two more hours to the finish line. My job at the front is to steer, he keeps saying, not just dip paddle into water.
“Stay with me,” he scolds, “you’re breaking rhythm.”
Inhale on the right stroke, exhale on the left—it’s yoga. On every left stroke I smell alcohol.
“Are you hung over?” I ask.
El Profe laughs, tells me to just steer the kayak toward the light in the water and away from the shadows, which are full of tricky currents.
Tommy and his wife Sandy paddle in much better rhythm. Together they’ve raced and won in the Texas Water Safari, a feat that served as metaphor for their marriage and helped to solidify it. As the Spirit Paddle Sports team USA, the Yonleys will win first place in the Avon Descent’s Double Plastic Mixed category weeks later.
Another tandem worth noting is competitor Anca Mateescu and her husband Javier Flores, both in attendance at Nazas. The Olympic-trained power couple met in Anca’s native Rumania and is now two children strong. She and Javier live a half-day’s drive away in Mexico City, where they run an outfitting business as well as a paddling school. Their van is packed with family, along with student paddlers Paulina Sosa, 27, and Joanna Aries, 13. There’s also the gear Anca and Javier sell at the makeshift kiosk they set up in stops along the regata. Anca comes in 7th in the Principiantes division. About the challenges of this race, including her loss of a paddle, Anca says, “We’re trained to paddle on flatter waters.”
Padre Nazas gives as much as he takes away.
Day 2, La Presa. The regata sees its first-ever fatality when the son of a competitor drowns in the reservoir. One moment, the caravan of family and friends picnics at the dam in sunny La Presa; the next, we sit grief-stricken under metallic skies. The clouds threaten rain, but none comes, just an impossible stillness in the air. The rest of the campers are at a loss for words as El Mudo, among others, helps transport the boy’s body. I sit at a picnic bench, gripped by thoughts of the 13-year-old boy, with whom I’d joked less than two hours ago, of his parents, of my own 13-year-old, with whom I’d spoken over the phone less than two hours ago. I think also of the 30-year-old Texas paddler who succumbed to hyponatremia just a month ago, also the first death in the history of the Texas Water Safari.
“Separated by language and a river they thought a barrier,” writes Eric in 2011, “these two groups, with a shared fixation that makes them brothers, grew up like twins separated at birth.”
Maybe Eric’s dream is not so Quixotic, after all. It’s as if the rivers on either side insist on reminding us of what the pre-Hispanic peoples knew about the dynamism of duality, that borders—between life and death, between countries—are as mutable as water itself. Filtered through Mexico’s traditional Day of the Dead, to die or to race in these rivers can be otherwise seen as expressions of rebirth and unlikely beginnings.
By end of day, the organizers decide that the regata must go on. By the fire and under moonshine, some of the campers mourn with song. We nurse a spirit called sotol, the state drink of Durango, distilled by a complex process from the heart of the Desert Spoon, an ancient and resilient native plant.
Day 3. Macarena’s video footage captures the finish line at the 2012 Río Nazas Gran Regata. The top racers—Tommy, El Mudo, and Jesús ‘El Cuate’ Villela—are docked at the river’s edge. Too exhausted to move, the three remain in their kayaks in an almost Christian tableau: El Gringo is flanked by The Mute and The Twin.
They grasp each other’s kayaks for balance.
The locals had been cheering Tommy on all along—they cheer for everyone—and are now asking to pose with the winner.
Macarena congratulates Tommy, then ribs El Cuate with, “Hey, I hope you haven’t been avoiding me because you assumed I was rooting for El Gringo…I just met him a day before you did…”
Prior to last year, El Cuate had been champion for five years straight and competed in the Pan American games. He gives Macarena the smile of a good sport when she asks him what he thinks of the race.
“We gave this gringo a good run for his money, no? I challenge him to come back next year…This time, I’ll train for real.”
No mention of death during the closing ceremony. Winners are presented with a plaque designed by lagunero artist and paddling auxiliary Francisco Fernández—AKA ‘Pancho’ AKA ‘Paco’ AKA ‘Quico’ AKA ‘Remero Plus’. Tommy wins the purse of $2,000 US, $100 of which he donates to the event organizers toward funeral expenses. The prize comes with a certificate that translates his loot into Centenarios, the solid-gold coins minted in 1921 to commemorate a century of Mexico’s independence from an empire.
Check back tomorrow for Macarena Hernández’s video of the Río Nazas Gran Regata.