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Fruit of Their Labors: The Agricultural Revolution in New Spain

By Juan Estevan Arellano

With the colonization of the Americas by Spanish settlers, New Mexico was introduced to new peoples including assorted Europeans, Tlaxcalteca Indians and mestizos from Nueva España or Mexico. In addition, New Mexico saw the introduction of different fruits and vegetables never before seen in this part of the world. When Don Juan de Oñate settled in Ohkay Owingeh in 1598, renaming it San Juan de los Caballeros, the settlers carried with them their sheep, cattle, pigs and horses but they also brought with them the seeds of fruits and vegetables, which would revolutionize agriculture and social dynamics. In addition to the different plant and tree seeds brought to the Americas, these settlers also introduced different irrigation techniques and tools such as the plow which also played into the agricultural revolution.

Before the arrival of the new European and Mesoamerican settlers, the main staples of the Native population had been corn, beans and squash, known as “the three sisters.” Oñate knew that in order for the new settlement to thrive and survive water was needed for agriculture. According to Dr. Tomás Martinez Saldaña, a Mexican agricultural historian, Tlaxcalteca Indians who came to New Mexico with Oñate laid out the acequia systems in what is now New Mexico. Within a month of settling in Ohkay Owingeh, Oñate had 1,500 Pueblo Indians and new settlers digging what is believed to be the oldest acequia in New Mexico on the Chama River in what is now the community of Chamita.

To understand the agricultural revolution that occurred after Oñate's arrival on July 11, 1598, it is necessary to look at the Muslim agriculture revolution on the Iberian Peninsula starting in 711 and lasting until 1492 when the Moors were expelled from Spain and Columbus first encountered the so called New World. The encounter with the Americas resulted in an enormous exchange of species between the “Old” and the “New World.” It is estimated that 40% of the economically relevant crops used today originated in the Americas, a fact that sometimes makes it difficult to imagine Old World culture and gastronomy without the many American-originated crops. For example, corn, sunflower, potatoes, tobacco, peanuts, cocoa, beans, squashes, pumpkins and gourds, tomatoes, capsicum pepper simply known to us in New Mexico as chile and many others that originated in the New World, were “new crops” in the Old World a few centuries ago. On the other hand, many Old World crops adapted well in America, and this continent has become the main producing area for them, e.g. soybean, coffee, bananas, oranges, limes, sugar cane, and salad greens.

“The Muslims did not waste time in haphazard agricultural trials, but achieved maximum output by learning how to identify suitable soils and by mastering grafting techniques for plants and trees. The written works and oral traditions of ancient peoples were painstakingly recorded, whilst exchanges between experts became increasingly frequent, so that in all major towns the libraries were full of learned works on agriculture. Arising as they did from a civilization of travelers, the Muslims combed the known world for knowledge and information, journeying in the harshest of environments - as far a field as the Steppes of Asia and the Pyrenees,” writes Dr. Zohor Idrisi, in “The Muslim Agriculture Revolution and its Influence on Europe.”

Muslim agricultural practices were used in Spain for some seven hundred years and when Spanish colonists arrived in Mexico, they carried this knowledge with them. Cardinal Cisneros commissioned Gabriel Alonso de Herrera to write the first book on agriculture in the Spanish language, Obra de Agricultura, in 1513. This book was probably available to the Friars in Mexico who were in charge of teaching Old World agricultural techniques to the Tlaxcaltecas who would later migrate north along the Camino Real with Spanish settlers to “la nueva México.” The Tlaxcaltecas were exceptional farmers in their own right and quickly adopted the new fruits and vegetables and new farming techniques to their environment.

Just as the Moors had introduced the new technique of grafting to the Iberian Peninsula, this technique was also introduced to the Americas. Here in New Mexico settlers and natives were grafting the new varieties of apples, peaches and apricots by using trementina, sap from the piñon trees. They also used mud from the black earth when a fruit tree was damaged in order to heal the wound. The Muslims had also introduced new concepts of land ownership. Any individual had the right to buy, sell, mortgage and inherit the land and farm it or have it farmed according to their preference. And, those who physically worked the land would receive a reasonable proportion of the fruits of their labor. These ideas were later incorporated into the Ordenanzas of King Philip II of 1576 and later into the Laws of the Indies of 1681.

The manzanas, apples, were first introduced to Spain by the Arabs and were later introduced into the Americas by the Spanish who also introduced the albaricoque, or apricot along with peaches, known as durazno and melocotón. Watermelons, sandias and melons, melones, were also brought to the Americas from across the ocean.

Colonizers of the Americas encountered fruits and vegetables that were unfamiliar to them as well, the most notable being chile. In Mexico, the colonizers were introduced to the tomato and eventually the potato from South America. In the Americas the Mediterranean trilogy of wheat, grapes and olives met the Native American trilogy of corn, squash and beans and since that time, these fruits and vegetables have been the main ingredients of most New Mexican food, olive oil being replaced by lard from the pigs that were also introduced by the Spanish settlers.

Today most of the hereditary material introduced by the early settlers has been lost but there are still some places along the Camino Real where old seed varieties and heritage fruit trees still survive. According to Dr. Martinez Saldaña, northern New Mexico is the only place in New Mexico where some of this hereditary material still survives. Other places along the Camino Real where some of the old fruit, vegetable and animal species, as well as traditional agricultural techniques, such as acequia irrigation traditions still persist include Valle Allende on the Río Florido in southern Chihuahua and in Bustamante in the State of Monterey, close to Nuevo León, Mexico. Oñate and his settlers spent several years in the area of Valle de Allende in 1596, planting the same seeds and fruit trees that eventually made their way to the Río Arriba region.

The people of the Río Arriba region at the farthest reaches of the Camino Real have been very creative and inventive in times of scarcity, as evidenced by oral history. When there was no coffee to be had, people would in its place roast garbanzo beans and substitute ground garbanzo powder for coffee to drink. When chocolate was hard to come by, they would roast barley, grind it into a substitute drink. Of course there was always ground blue corn meal from which the settlers made atole and still do today.

William W. Dunmire in his 2004 book, Gardens of New Spain: How Mediterranean Plants and Foods Changed America, has apricot, cherry, nectarine and peach in New Mexico as early as 1630, that according to Fray Alonso de Benavides and plum was grown in San Gabriel prior to 1600 according to Gaspar Pérez de Villagrá. Apples seem to have been growing in Manzano (which means apple) as early as 1633. Pear is not mentioned in New Mexico prior to 1776 and Marc Simmons mentions quince during the colonial period with no specific date. Grapes were grown in the Socorro region as early as the 1620s, according to Marc Simmons.

Among the crops mentioned by Villagrá prior to 1600 and growing in San Gabriel, across the river from Ohkay Owingeh were barley, artichoke, cabbage, lettuce, carrot, garlic, onion, radish, turnip, cucumber, garbanzo, pea, chile and cumin. By 1630 when Benavides came through New Mexico the settlers were already growing haba or fava, lentils, and vetch to go along with what Oñate brought with his group of settlers.

Two American staples are not prominent in the early agricultural history of New Mexico. Potatoes, a staple in most households today, came relatively late to New Mexico. They are not mentioned in New Mexico until 1831 by Josiah Gregg. Tomatoes were first mentioned growing in New Mexico in 1745. Both crops did not take hold in Europe for quite some, as people thought them unholy or unchristian, dirty, primitive, or unhealthy and poisonous.

The earliest mentioned legume in New Mexico is wheat, which was growing in San Gabriel in 1599, a year after Oñate settled there and appears to be the first crop to be grown. Apparently the other crops were not planted until the following year when the settlers had made sure the acequias were running and the fields were ready for their vegetables which had to acclimatize.

With the introduction of new grains, leaf vegetables, root vegetables, “fruit” vegetables, legumes, stone fruits, and other fruits and culinary and medicinal herbs and spices, the diet of people in New Mexico changed. Meals like mutton stew would never have been possible without the introduction of the Churra sheep, along with cabbage, carrots, onions and other ingredients originating in Europe and transferred by early settlers.

Arroz con leche or rice pudding and capirotada, bread pudding, have their roots in the Middle East as do buñuelos and sopaipillas, foods often associated with the Southwest and New Mexico. But the main staples of New Mexico cuisine still remain American in nature, that is, chile whether green or red, fresh, roasted, dried or frozen; corn, fresh eaten as sweet corn on the cob, roasted, made into a flour to make atole or chaquegüe, or horno cooked and made into chicos or dried and turned into posole. Tortillas, made from corn are the bread of the Americas.

European beef, chicken, and pigs were added to the native diet. Pork meat became a main ingredient in tamales, along with chicharrones, and lonjas, used in cooking posole and the blood of the animal was used for making morcilla or blood sausage. These new ingredients were added to the Native diet of buffalo, antelope, deer and turkey.

Today’s New Mexican cuisine is what could be called a fusion cuisine as it blends the best from the Old World with the best of the New World and is only limited by the imagination of the cook. Organic produce is nothing new to New Mexico farmers. Traditional agriculture is organic, sustainable and also follows the precepts of permaculture. Permaculture is built upon an ethic of caring for the earth and interacting with the environment in mutually beneficial ways. A prime example is the acequia, which provides water for New Mexico’s rich agricultural heritage.

Sources Used:

1. Benavides, Fray Alonso de, The Memorial of Fray Alonso de Benavides: 1630. Translated by Mrs. Edward E. Ayer, annotated by Frederick Webb Hodge and Charles Fletcher Lummis. Chicago: R. R. Donnelley and Sons, 1916.

2. Dunmire, William W., Gardens of New Spain: How Mediterranean Plants and Foods Changed America, University of Texas Press, 2004.

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

4. Idrisi, Zohor, “The Muslim Agricultural Revolution and its Influence on Europe,” The Foundation of Science, Technology and Civilisation, UK. 2005.

5. Martinez Saldaña, Tomás, “El Río Grande en la historia agrícola del norte de México y sur de los Estados Unidos,” pp. 4-9, in El Caminante, Edited by Juan Estevan Arellano, No. 2, Summer 2003.

6. Martinez Saldaña, Tomás, “La riqueza bótanica del Río Grande: La herencia olvidada del Camino Real,” pp. 10-12, in El Caminante, Edited by Juan Estevan Arellano, No.1, Fall, 2002.

7. Personal observations based on oral histories over the past 35 years and also as a practitioner of traditional agriculture and acequia irrigation within the Merced del Embudo de Nuestro Señor San Antonio in the Embudo Watershed. Writer is currently writing two books dealing with acequias and traditional agriculture, which will include the food ways of traditional New Mexican cuisine.

8. Villagrá, Gaspar Pérez de., Historia de la Nueva México, 1610. Translated and Edited by Miguel Encinias, Alfred Rodríguez and Joseph P. Sánchez, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1992.