Cliff divers offer unique tribute to the Virgin of Guadalupe

BY BARBARA KASTELEIN
El Universal
Domingo 11 de diciembre de 2005
Miami Herald, página 1

ACAPULCO – Many people all around the world have heard of the cliff divers of Acapulco, or “los Clavadistas de la Quebrada.” They are among enduring Mexican icons such as the pyramids, Emiliano Zapata, mariachis and tequila.

This closely-knit community in Acapulco, Guerrero, has offered for more than 70 years one of the most unique, best-known tourism shows in North America.

But there is much that we do not know about the divers, or that the public has forgotten, in the confidence that they are always there, throwing themselves from the cliff of La Quebrada for anyone to see.

Many of us who watch the spectacle for the first time – which takes place five times a day, every day of the year – are surprised to notice that the divers, normally a group of five, walk down the steps among the crowds, opposite the cliff. Suddenly they hop over the protective stone wall and climb down to the churning water that swells in the cove beneath. They swim across and then begin a perilous ascent up the cliff face; in itself an act of daring that takes your breath away.

PERILOUS FEAT

Most spectators are not aware that the divers take their elegant plunge (you never see a scrappy dive) from a height of 35 meters into a mere 4 meters of water – maximum, it can be even less depending on the tides. This makes their feat all the greater as they impact the water vertically but then immediately have to arch their body so they do not harm themselves on the rocks beneath the surface.

Most accidents are caused by the impact of the water which adult divers hit at a speed of about 90 km after a 2-and-a-half second plunge. But there are also some tragic head injuries caused by another little known fact: the dive is not merely vertical (as in the Olympics) but the divers also have to throw themselves out between 7 and 9 meters horizontally to reach the safety of the water, as the cliff is slightly inclined.

It hardly comes as a surprise to find that the divers pray each time before they take this terrifying leap, nor that they have a patron saint, who is the Mother of Mexico: Our Lady of Guadalupe. But although their prayer to the Virgin of Guadalupe at her brightly-lit altar that sits atop the cliff is a familiar part of the spectacle, only local people know that each year the divers give tribute to the Virgin with a series of dives on the eve of her day – the night of Dec. 11 – in which the whole community participates, from active, working divers, retired divers (or veteranos as they are known) and even children.

Iris Álvarez is 12 years old, and has been able to swim ever since she used to throw herself into the local pool at the age of three.

Her father, José Álvarez, known as “El Cuchillo” (the knife), is a cliff diver at the legendary La Quebrada, as are six of her uncles and cousins.

But the pretty and chatty Acapulqueña is the only girl in the whole cliff diver scene, and this Dec. 11, she plans to dive for the first time from 59 feet. This is over half the full height of the cliff of La Quebrada, from which the adult men dive every day.

Iris is doing this in honor of the Virgin of Guadalupe, whom the divers celebrate on the eve of her saints´ day (Dec. 12). Many of the old diving stars come out of retirement for the occasion. Each diver asks for the Virgin´s blessing through the following year.

Iris´ mother is a bit scared but also proud of her “niñoniña” (the boy-girl, or tomboy) who loves football and martial arts, and started diving at La Quebrada when she was 8.

In front of her admiring 9-year-old brother, and 3-year-old cousin, Iris demonstrates the three things you have to remember to perform a stylish and safe dive and says the part that most scares her is scaling the cliff face. Her father usually climbs behind her to help her find the footholds.

She says her ambition is to do well in school and she was thrilled when the school principal and his wife came to see her in the show.

She suspects that her future will take her away from her home and this makes her sad as she says she will miss her granny and her extended family.

The divers have been organized since 1934. Their veterans used to hang out with Hollywood stars and crooners from Johnny Weismuller (Tarzan) and John Wayne, to Frank Sinatra and Brigitte Bardot. Today most live humbly close to the cliff edge where they risk their lives and win applause, tips, and short-lived fame, every day of the year.

Barbara Kastelein´s book “Heroes of the Pacific” on the cliff divers of La Quebrada will be published next year. Those who would like to contribute memories about Acapulco´s cliff divers are invited to contact her