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Chile Roasting in New Mexico

When driving around New Mexico in the fall, perhaps one of the most welcome sights is the big roasters spinning green chile. New Mexicans relish the smoky chile scent in the air and look forward to their enchiladas smothered in red or green chile. Moreover, many New Mexicans and tourists often stop to buy the bright red chile ristras hanging on the road side. Although many know that chile is currently one of New Mexico’s most lucrative crops, they may not realize that chile has a long history in the state. In examining Chimayó chile, for example, one can trace the history of the Spaniards’ arrival to New Mexico, how the Pueblo people adopted it as their own, and how it became an integral part of life in northern New Mexico.

When the Spaniards arrived in the New World, they encountered new agricultural wonders grown by the Native Americans. Chief among theses wonders was maize. Other foodstuffs included American beans, tomatoes, and squashes. But it was ají, also known as chile, that became such an important crop to the future inhabitants of Chimayó. Spaniards quickly adopted the fiery chile into their diet and when they left the Valley of Mexico and began to explore the vast continent, they brought chile seeds with them.

The conquistador Don Juan de Oñate, who came to New Mexico in 1598, hoped to strike silver and to develop a major mining and smelting industry. But until that occurred, he knew that survival depended on the ability of his colony to produce foodstuffs. He therefore included seeds and livestock in his inventory. The Spaniards introduced crops, traídas de Castilla (brought from Castile), such as wheat, barley, cabbage, onions, lettuce, radishes, cantaloupes, and watermelons. They also brought crops native to Mexico which had not been grown before on the upper Rio Grande: Mexican varieties of beans, tomatoes, cultivated tobacco, a new variety of corn, and chile. Eric Votava, a senior research specialist at New Mexico State University Chile Pepper Breeding Program, concludes that the chile found in northern New Mexico is a direct descendant of chile found in Mexico. He says: “We recently completed a study at NMSU in which we looked at the DNA of landraces from northern New Mexico and compared them to modern cultivars and landraces collected from New Mexico. We found that the landraces from northern New Mexico were genetically unique, and that they were genetically more similar to landraces from Mexico than they were to modern cultivars. These landraces are the direct descendants of chile brought to New Mexico from Mexico. In essence they are a living link to 400 years of New Mexico history.”

After settling near San Juan Pueblo, even before constructing a church, the Spanish colonists began to ready the area for farming. They built irrigation ditches and sowed their crops. By 1601, one colonist, Alférez Martín Gómez, described (through a scribe) the agricultural conditions of the colony to the Viceroy: “when we came to this land we had no other sustenance than what the Indians gave us. Now many persons can get along without any provisions from the Indians because now we have our own harvest. He [Gómez] knows that this year about fifteen hundred fanegas of grain will be gathered, and we could almost get along without any aid from the Indians. He also saw the garden full of vegetables and fruits, such as melons and watermelons, sufficient to supply more people than we are. He knows also and has seen that there are more than three thousand head of cattle and sheep and believes that the natives will harvest much corn this year, so there is no danger of famine.” Since Oñate and his men never did find the sought-after metals, agriculture and livestock raising became the mainstays of the colonial New Mexican economy.

Over the course of the century, the Pueblo people adopted these new crops making them an essential part of their diet. After the Pueblo Revolt, when don Diego de Vargas, returned to New Mexico in 1692, he sought provisions from the local Pueblo people to feed his followers. On 26 November 1693, the governor and captain of Santo Domingo, Antonio Malacate, came to Governor Vargas with the provisions that Vargas had ordered. Malacate said that he was only able to gather two sacks of ears of maize and another of beans, but he also came bearing gifts for Vargas. Governor Vargas wrote: “For his part, he was giving and presenting me, as my compadre and my very good friend, three sacks of ears of maize, a bag of flour, some onions, three strings of chiles, and some white beans. He was bringing this and presenting it to me with what he had gathered in the first goods I had given him. Then, I ordered one of my horses brought up, and I told him that I was also giving him that horse because it was the one they valued for chasing deer and going out after the Apaches, their enemies. He told me he was accepting in not as payment for what he had given me, but because I was his compadre.” Clearly, Malacate valued the chile and Vargas recognized its worth.

Some of the new colonists settled in Chimayó in 1695 near the villa of Santa Cruz de la Cañada, also established in 1695. These settlers found themselves in almost the same situation as the Spanish settlers of one hundred years earlier. Establishing irrigation and crops took time, and until that time came, the settlers depended on their neighbors for survival. In a letter to the Conde de Moctezuma, dated 28 November 1696, Governor Vargas explained why he allowed Indians entry into the newly established Santa Cruz: “As to not permitting the Indians to come into the new settlement that may be established without first completely finishing it and its defenses, I reply that were I the consummate lawyer and lawmaker, I would make this distinction. If those who are going to settle need nothing in order to live in a civilized fashion, I would permit it. When, however, the settlers are miserable paupers who need to buy and trade for everything from firewood, salt, chile, maize, and beans, to pots, jars, bowls, dishes, soup plates, and all the rest, which can only be obtained from the Indians who bring them in, the conclusions is that it will be impossible to comply with such a rule or law were I to order it.”

The desperate straits of the people did not last long and the people of Chimayó successfully established an agricultural economy. When Fray Atanasio Dominguez visited Chimayó in April 1776, as part of the districts of the Santa Cruz Mission, seventy one families, consisting of 367 people, resided there. He described the village: “Chimayo, up the Cañada somewhat to the east northeast in relation to the villa, is about 2 leagues from it. It is a large settlement of many ranchos like those mentioned in all the foregoing, with good lands and many more orchards than the Villa of Cañada, but there are no pears. This whole settlement uses the aforesaid river, which is called Chimayo around here, and the settlers, who usually harvest a great deal, water their lands with it. In some nooks like cañadas which there are near Chimayo to the south, there are some ranchos with different place names, but they are so small that they have been included under what I have just said. There are two small mills in this Chimayo.”

By this time, the Chimayosos grew their own chile and no longer relied on their neighbors. Dominguez reported that the parishioners of the Santa Cruz mission provided the friar with the first fruits which included: “80 fanegas of maize, almost an equal amount of wheat, about 6 fanegas of all kinds of legumes, about 20 strings of chile, about 400 heads of onions, some fruit, because there are many orchards near this villa and they give an almud of each kind and a bunch of grapes.”

Over two hundred years later, when Don J. Usner, interviewed the ancianos of Chimayó about the crops grown there in the first half of the twentieth century, Fray Dominguez’s words ring out. Amada Trujillo and Tila Villa recalled the Chimayó of their youth: “And then the gardens inside the plaza—clean, hoed, irrigated, with flowers all over. They grew squash, corn, chile, pazote (Mexican tea), yerba buena (spearmint), cilantro. They also planted cebollas (onions), ajo (garlic), alberjones (chick peas), and habas (cow peas) around here. In those days people had to work hard, so they had to eat good. In the summertime, everything was from the garden. Oh, we had corn and peas and string beans, garbanzos, carrots, and squash, melones (melons), sandías (watermelons)—and I mean melones! Orange and sweet. Nectarines and a lot of fruits grew in the orchards outside: apples, apricots, peaches, pears.”

Out of all the crops grown in Chimayó, the most important crop was chile, with fully one-third of the land under cultivation given over to its production. Everyone who owned irrigable land grew chile. The chile from Chimayó was and is special. It is small and crooked with a very thin skin. It has a sweet flavor and ranges from mild to hot. It owes its singularity to the unique growing conditions of the region: rugged terrain, unpredictable weather patterns, and the short growing season. Chimayosos did not only serve it up with their meals, but used it for medicinal purposes. For treating colds and sore throats, they crushed the chile and ate it alone without any other food.

In the fall, Chimayosos needed to prepare the chile for market. Making ristras involved tying the chile onto a long string. In most cases, this task was a communal event, a time when the residents came together to work and to exchange stories and news. Benjamín Ortega remembers, “That’s another thing that people did to help each other. If you had a bunch of chile, they’d all come at night and help you tie it up. Family and neighbors would come from all around the plaza. My dad would hang his chile string from there, from the vigas, and he’d have so much chile.”

At the turn of the twentieth century, Chimayó’s economy remained dependant on small-scale agriculture. Due to the importance of chile in the Chimayosos’ diet and of its value to people in neighboring villages and cities, farmers continued to till their huertas (chile fields). During the Great Depression, Chimayosos used chile as a means of obtaining goods from local merchants. In the 1930s local retailers, such as the Bond and Nohl’s store in Española, traded about 60,000 ristras. Using the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad, Bond and Nohl’s shipped the chile out to destinations throughout the West. Chimayosos, with cash and/or chile in hand, went to local stores such as Bond and Nohl’s to buy food, clothing, shoes, cooking pots, and farm equipment. If Bond and Nohl’s rejected some of the chile ristras, the farmers took the rejects and other produce to trade in other communities. They traded the chile in Mora, Peñasco, Truchas, Taos, Chacón, and Chamisal. In Mora, for example, in exchange for the chile, Chimayosos received queso de cabra (goat cheese), potatoes, and mutton. The people of Truchas and Peñasco received chile in exchange for wheat and potatoes.

Since World War II (WWII), fewer and fewer people produce chile in Chimayó. As the local population grew, pressure grew on Chimayó’s limited land resources. Moreover, Chimayosos experienced many economic hardships during the depression and WW II. Due to these factors, more and more villagers opted not to farm the land and began searching for other means of employment. Many accepted jobs at Los Alamos National Laboratories, which offered economic security. Nevertheless, the old strain of Chimayó chile remains a vibrant reminder of the shared agricultural history of the original Spanish settlers and the Native Americans.

Sources used:

Andrews, Jean. Peppers: The Domesticated Capsicums Austin: University of Texas Press, 1984.

Cuvelier, Monique I. “Saving the Native New Mexican Chiles.” http://www.fiery-foods.com/dave/landrace.asp

Dominguez, Francisco Atanasio. The Missions of New Mexico, 1776. translated and annotated by Eleanor B. Adams and Fray Angelico Chavez. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1956.

Hammond, George P. and Agapito Rey, eds. and trans., Don Juan de Oñate, Colonizer of New Mexico, 1595-1628 2 Vols. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1953, II.

Kessell, John L., Rick Hendricks, and Meredith D. Dodge, eds. To the Royal Crown Restored The Journals of don Diego de Vargas, New Mexico, 1692-94 Albuquerque: University of New Mexico, 1995.

Kessell, John L., Rick Hendricks, and Meredith D. Dodge, eds. Blood on the Boulders The Journals of don Diego de Vargas, New Mexico, 1694-97, Book I. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico, 1998.

Padilla, Carmen. The Chile Chronicles: Tales of a New Mexico Harvest Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press, 1997.

Simmons, Marc. “New Mexico’s Colonial Agriculture.” El Palacio Magazine of the Museum of New Mexico, 89, no. 1 (Spring 1983): 3-10.

Usner, Don J. Sabino’s Map, Life in Chimayó’s Old Plaza Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press, 1995.

Weigle, Marta. Hispanic Villages of Northern New Mexico. Santa Fe: The Lightning Tree, 1975.