Barbara Kastelein in Acapulco
Sunday December 18, 2005
At the age of 12 Iris Alvarez has made history by becoming both the first girl and the youngest diver to take part in a 70-year-old tradition – diving 59 feet off La Quebrada rock in Acapulco, Mexico.
Last week, in front of Padre Angel, Acapulco’s bishop who held Mass from the cliff top, her extended family, local TV cameras and thousands of onlookers, Iris dived to honour the saint day of the Virgin of Guadalupe.
Iris has been swimming ever since she used to throw herself into Acapulco’s Social Security pool aged three. Her father, Jose Alvarez, known as ‘El Cuchillo’ (The Knife) is a star clavadistas, or cliff diver. Six of her uncles and cousins are divers, keeping up a tradition that has given holidaymakers a thrill for more than 70 years.
Her ebony hair in a tight plait, Iris climbed the cliff face with 28 men, also set to take part, and darted down into a black crevasse in a ritual that is part of the divers’ annual tribute to Mexico’s Patron, whose blessing they seek. They certainly need her protection. The sea below is just 4 metres (more than 13ft) deep and an man diving from 100ft, the top of the cliff, hits the water at 90 kph (56mph).
Iris’ mum now has to get used to the fact that her daughter will join her husband cliff diving.
‘I get scared, but not as much as before,’ she smiles, cuddling her husband on the doorstep of their two-room home in Colonia Lamira, a rough neighbourhood up from the cliff. ‘She’s been on TV but it hasn’t gone to her head,’ she says of her ‘niñoniña’ (tomboy) who loves football and martial arts.
Iris said that the three things to remember in order to perform a stylish, safe dive are: watch the wave come up, tighten your legs and concentrate. The part that scared her most was scaling the cliff face.
‘I still get the shakes sometimes,’ she said. Her father climbed behind her to help her find the footholds.
‘Why do we do it? Because we’re crazy,’ chuckles veteran diver Juan El Peque, who says he was the always considered ‘the chicken’ of his generation, because he is only one to have avoided injury in his 35-year career.
It has become a way of life, says Consuelo Valdera, secretary to the 50 members of the divers’ association. ‘They are trying to get the world’s attention with an act of courage. It’s their way of showing off to the girls.’
Barbara Kastelein’s book, Heroes of the Pacific, about the cliff divers