The following is an excerpt from CHASING CHILES: HOT SPOTS ALONG THE PEPPER TRAIL by KURT MICHAEL FRIESE, KRAIG KRAFT, and GARY PAUL NABHAN, available now from Chelsea Green Publishing.
Find out more about the book and listen to Kurt Friese and Kraig Kraft as they cook with Kai. Coming soon.
CHAPTER ONE: Finding the Wildness of Chiles in Sonora
WHEN WE CROSSED the US-Mexico border into the estado de Sonora, we could feel something different in the landscape. It was especially visible along the roadsides, a feeling that was palpable in the dusty air. Less than half an hour south of Nogales, Arizona,we began to see dozens of street vendors on the edge of the highway, hawking their wares. There were fruit stands, ceviche and fish tacos in seafood carts, tin-roofed barbacoahuts, and all sorts of garish concrete and soapstone lawn ornaments clumped together. Amid all the run-of-the-mill street food and tourist kitsch, we sensed that we might just discover something truly Sonoran.
Dozens of long strings of dried crimson peppers called chiles de sartahung from the beams of the roadside stands, ready for making moles and enchilada sauces. Hidden among them were “recycled” containers used to harbor smaller but more potent peppers: old Coronita beer bottles and the familiar curvy Coca-Cola silhouette filled with homemade pickled wild green chiltepines. These were what we sought–little incendiary wild chiles, stuffed into old bottles like a chile Molotov cocktail and sold on the street.
They signaled to us that we had come into what the likes of Graham Greene and Carlos Fuentes have described as a truly different country–the Mexican borderlands. They are as distinct from the rest of Mexico as they are from the United States, for the borderlands have their own particular food, folklore, and musical traditions. This is a country where a beef frank wrapped in bacon can become a “Sonoran hot dog”–with jalapeÃ±os, refried beans, crema, and fiery-hot salsa soaked into a soft-textured roll–and where ballads are sung about rebels and renegades, both those of the past like Pancho Villa and those of the present like the narcotraficantes of the Sinaloan drug cartel. It is a place where preservative-laden ketchup is frowned upon, and where freshly mashed salsas are nearly as common as water.
We were after the first and most curious of all the North American chile peppers, the chiltepin–the wild chile pepper of the arid subtropical sierras. It remains one of the true cultural icons of the desert borderlands, a quintessential place-based food, for it is still hand-harvested from the wild. Chiltepines are associated with human behaviors that are considered both sacred and profane. On the one hand, they are deified in an ancient Cora Indian creation story, and relied upon in Yaqui and Opata healing and purification rituals. On the other hand, they remain the favored spice in Sonoran cantinas and cathouses.
As to their own behavior, wild chiltepines are a fickle lot. They camouflage themselves and hide deep beneath the thorny canopies of hackberry bushes and mesquite trees, daring us to come after them and shed some blood. Exasperated, some Sonorans have tried to take them out of the wild and domesticate them. They have tried to cultivate them in drip-irrigated, laser-leveled fields, but they have had little luck taking the wildness out of this chile. In the US Southwest, the great demand among Chicanos for its unique flavor has created a market scarcity of the chiltepin. This has pushed prices up above sixty-five dollars per kilo in mercadoson both sides of the border.
The difference in flavor and kick between the wild chiltepin and its domesticated brethren is much like the difference between Sonora and the rest of Mexico. Perhaps it is the potency of the desert itself that is expressed in the terroir of the chiltepin. Or maybe that potency is because it is truly a food of the borderland–verdaderamente dela frontera–a place so filled with environmental, political, and mythical juxtapositions that it has fire-forged certain unique characteristics in the Sonoran psyche. A disproportionate number of Mexico’s revolutionaries, rebels, presidents, dissidents, and saints have come from el estado de Sonora, a state of mind as much as a geographic one. No doubt, they were all eaters of the chiltepin, a food that the inimitable Dr. Andrew Weil once declared to be psychotropic. Perhaps in Sonora, you are really not what but where you eat.
The chiltepinis small but as fierce as the desert sun blazing on a summer day. Compared with other, bigger, but watered-down versions of peppers, it packs a terrific punch of pungency per unit ounce. And yet its fire quickly burns out; you are left with a lingering taste of minerals, the thirsty desert earth itself.
It is remarkable that the chiltepin remains one of few wild foods harvested in North America that grosses well over a million dollars in the international marketplace in a good year, for the chiltepin crop is very vulnerable to the vagaries of a harsh and variable climate. For us, Sonora’s stressed-out patches of wild peppers were the perfect place to make our first “landing” of our spice odyssey.
And so we careened off the highway pavement and into the desert’s dust, where a dozen roadside stands presented themselves on the edge of a Sonoran farming village named TacÃcuri. That term is an ancient Pima Indian word for the wild pig-like peccaries known in the Sonoran Desert as javelina. Yes, there were still plenty of javelina, rattlesnakes, and Gila monsters in these parts, but that was not why we slid to a halt before this makeshift marketplace. It was the stunning sight of those six-foot-long strings of red-hot chile peppers that suggested chiltepines might be hidden nearby.
We piled out of our van (which we had long since christened the Spice Ship) and stood there amazed by all the paraphernalia, guaranteed to dazzle any spice lover. Not only were there dozens of fire-engine-red sartas strung with hundreds of long chile peppers, there were bottles and bags and baskets and bins full of other chiles as well: chiles del arbol,serranochiles, jalapeÃ±os, and chiltepines. There was enough heat on that roadside to cause a nuclear summer if all of the fiery capsaicinoids in those fruits were ever ground and instantaneously let loose into the desert air.
“We have arrived,” Gary said to Kurt, who was on his maiden voyage into the deserts of Sonora. Gary had spent most of his “adulthood” in the Sonoran Desert–if in fact he had ever grown up at all–so he was serving as our host for this leg of our journey. However, Kraig was at the helm, for he had recently surveyed most of Mexico on his own, searching for the origins and domestication of chile peppers. Once out in the desert sun, Kraig took Kurt along to rattle off the local names for certain shapes, colors, and sizes that described particular varieties. As a seasoned chef, Kurt knew many of these variants, but by names somewhat different from those used in Sonora.
“Take one and grind it between your fingers,” Kraig demonstrated to Kurt, showing him how the locals put dried chiltepines in their food. “Just don’t rub your eyes afterward!” he added.
“And remember to wash your hands before you visit the letrina,” Gary interjected, with a wry smile and an exaggerated gesture toward a nearby outhouse.
Kurt eyed the two of them with a look that said,I’m not the rookie you take me for. He had handled far too many peppers in his twenty years as a chef to be vulnerable to that kind of calamity anymore.
Of course, there was more for us to look at than just chiles: huge bins packed full of pomegranates and quinces; monstrous piles of striped cushaw squashes; and coolers full of local cheeses called quesoasaderoor quesococido. The cornucopia of the desert stood before us in all its ragtag splendor.
At the same time, we noticed something peculiar: We were looking at what remained of last year’s chile crop, not any harvest gleaned from this year’s production. Chiltepinesare only harvested during a four-week-long window that shifts some from autumn to autumn, for the peak in their fruiting is triggered by the timing of the midsummer rains. The vendors made it clear to us that this year’s crop was coming in late–if at all–and would certainly be modest in scale. No bounty would suddenly appear here; the vendors were getting by with only the saddest remains of last year’s harvest to sell. Normally a brilliant crimson, these dried chiltepines had lost a bit of their luster and their color had faded, as if they were sun-bleached.
Yes, the Sonorans reluctantly conceded, this summer’s monsoons had not been as heavy as they had hoped. Hearing the vendors hint that this year’s outlook might be dismal, Gary’s face began to reflect concern that this might not be the best season to introduce Kurt to the wonders of Sonora’s wild foods. He would soon ask some old Sonoran friends just what was going on, and he would get an earful.
After buying chile peppers great and small, all of the gastronauts got back into the Spice Ship, which shortly veered off the main highway and hung a right onto a winding country road that landed on the plaza of the pueblo of San Ignacio. There, an ancient mission still stands tall above the surrounding orchards of quince, pomegranates, figs, and limes. First built in 1687 by Jesuit missionaries, who called Sonora “an altogether blessed country,” this very mission of San Ignacio had once hosted a grumpy German priest named IgnazPfeffercorn. When his Pima Indian neighbors decided to play a prank on old “Padre Peppercorn,” exposing him to a little green chiltepin in the early 1700s, his very first bite immediately convinced him that he had experienced hell itself. Padre Peppercornwrote the priests in a nearby parish that he had been seduced into sampling a culinary surprise that the others might wish to try only with their eyes wide open:
A kind of wild pepper which the inhabitants call chiltipin is found on many hills. It is a bit more bitingly sharp than the [black pepper], yet it is manna to the American palate, and is used with every dish with which it harmonizes . . . I tried for the first time to still my hunger with such a dish. After the first mouthful the tears started to come. I could not say a word and believed I had hell-fire in my mouth. However, one becomes accustomed to it after frequent bold victories so that with time, the dish becomes tolerable and finally agreeable.
Pfeffercorn did at least recognize that his Pima hosts fondly regarded the same little green, immature chile fruits–the size of peas or capers–with exceeding pleasure, not anguishing pain. Without revealing Pfeffercorn’s experience some 250 years prior to the arrival of chef Kurt Friese in the very same place, Kraig and Gary watched him with morbid fascination as their sidekick took his first culinary communion in the land where chiles run wild.
Yes, they immediately noticed the cooling sweat pooling on his brow. Yes, they recorded a prolonged moment of silence, then an anguished cough. Yes, indeed, Chef Kurt had been rendered utterly speechless by his first close encounter with wild chiles on their native turf. The inevitable smile soon followed.
When we stopped to park the Spice Ship on the plaza opposite the mission, a friend immediately forewarned us that we were wanted in two places at once. Gary had come down to San Ignacio the week prior to the group’s arrival to alert several families to our group’s odyssey, and all were now awaiting us. It was on that pre-trip that Gary had first heard about the magnitude of the summer drought and the toll it was taking on all perennial crops, both wild and cultivated.
One of the ladies-in-waiting was DoÃ±a ChataGallego, a spry, ninety-one-year-old quince paste maker. Hardly eighty pounds soaking wet, with thin gray hair neatly trimmed into a style vaguely reminiscent of a pompadour, DoÃ±a Chata was still in control. A week earlier, she had Gary escort her into her backyard to show him an entire tub full of mottled, misshapen quince fruit, scarcely half the size that he remembered from the best years. She had picked up one of the smallest fruits and then thrown it back in the bin, unable to hide her disgust and frowning like a sad-sack clown.
“What’s going on, DoÃ±a Chata?” Gary had asked her in Spanish. He was there to listen, and listen he did.
“It hasn’t rained, has not rained,” she scolded, looking up to the heavens and shaking her bony, crooked finger to the dry cloudless sky. “The quinces are smaller than usual, in fact, tinier than they have ever been. The peaches didn’t grow either. It has been so dry this summer.”
Gary’s own experience living some sixty miles north of her that summer somewhat corroborated her opinion; his hometown of Patagonia had suffered its driest recorded year since the 1890s. May and June had seemed rather cool and, in fact, had coughed up three or four minor sprinkles, which was something unusual for the end of spring in the desert. But as ranchers in both Arizona and Sonora had long warned him, when little rains come at the end of spring, there is a delay or disruption of the big summer rains–the thunder-and-lightning, gully-washing monsoons that are simply called lasaguas by Sonorans. Local knowledge appeared right on target this year. Not only did borderlands meteorologists record that July and August of 2009 were as dry as they had been for years, but the meager rains that did arrive came late, as if the storm patterns that offered them up had been delayed.
Arriving at the San Ignacio plaza for the second time in two weeks, Gary first ushered us into the historic adobe home of the Sanchez family, traditional farmers he had first met in 1975. Maria del Carmen, the oldest sister, had prepared a hearty peasant meal of carne con chilecolorado, refried beans, spiced rice, hand-stretched wheat tortillas, chiltepin salsa, and rice pudding for us.
Meanwhile, JesÃºs Sanchez, Gary’s oldest friend in the village, sat down to eat with us and started to talk about the weather, as it seems farmers everywhere in the world are apt to do, even before other more mundane topics are broached. JesÃºs had a broad face that had been bronzed by the desert sun, but at age sixty he was as strong as he had been when Gary first encountered him some thirty years ago. Gary asked him to comment on DoÃ±a Chata’s dire predictions about how prolonged drought would ultimately affect the entire harvest.
JesÃºs began in a somewhat circumspect manner, not wanting to contradict his elderly neighbor. Nevertheless, he felt that he had to offer a more nuanced perspective: “Well, it’s raining now, but when the trees really needed it, there just wasn’t enough rain. The fruit are not only smaller, but they have become pockmarked by a hailstorm that arrived in September. The pomegranates were already at a stage of maturation where they got really damaged by the hailstones. They were that big,” he added, curling his index finger and clasping it together with his thumb.
He cleared his throat and paused so that we could absorb and translate his words. He spoke in the matter-of-fact tone of someone who has painstakingly observed the effects of lots of different kinds of weather in the same place over many, many years. That’s what a desert farmer gets used to doing–facing dramatic swings in the quantity and intensity of precipitation as well as in the severity of heat from year to year. But JesÃºs modestly hinted that there was something happening here that was (or at least appeared to be) beyond what he had experienced in the past.
His eyebrows rose and twitched as he continued, “The curious thing is when the hail came this year. Usually if it hails, it’s in August, when the fruit are small and held tight on their stems so that they’re hard to damage. We know how to deal with any incidental damage when that happens, pruning the damaged branches back so that the remaining fruit reach larger sizes. Then the entire tree isn’t burdened by so many small fruit. But this year, the hailstorm came later, when a lot of fruit were getting big, and we’ve witnessed them suffering a lot of damage.”
JesÃºs was not directly forecasting the fate of chiles for this particular year, but he was revealing something that wild harvesters as well as farmers would tell us wherever we stopped to talk to them in Sonora: They expect the rains to wax and wane from year to year, but they don’t quite know what to do when heavy rains, hailstorms, hurricanes, or floods arrive in an untimely manner. Unseasonal or unexpected is the word farmers use, but they spit it out of their mouths as if they are saying unnatural.
In other words, what scientists call outside of the normal rangeof variation spells uncertainty, if not outright trouble, for farmers and foragers, the provisioners of our food security.
But just when we thought JesÃºs was going to continue, as some farmers often do, in a completely fatalistic rant, he reminded us that climate change is not exactly the bane of every crop. “You know, of course, the climate has been changing all along, but after our father died in 1998, I realized that I could try some fruits that he never would have been able to grow here when he was a younger man. I can now grow different kinds of avocados, as well as some truly tropical fruits like mangoes, guavas, and papayas. For some reason, strawberries grow well here now. We really couldn’t successfully grow such fruit crops here up until about eight years ago. It’s too bad that my father didn’t see them; they would have filled him with wonder . . .”
His father, Casimiro Sanchez Senior, was always delighted by the unexpected. Before he died at the age of ninety-five in 1998, he had been a mentor to Gary and many others for decades, for he was a true storyteller of the life and times of rural Sonora. During the last days of the Mexican Revolution, while he was still just a boy, he had begun farming to feed his mother and siblings after his father had been killed. With astonishing detail, he could cite the years and even the months of the great floods and droughts that had occurred in Sonora over the entire span of the twentieth century. When we asked JesÃºs, as Casimiro’s second son, which of those flood years he personally remembered, his answer surprised us, for it did not follow any script we had heard about climate change.
“Oddly, we’re not having big floods here in the Magdalena Valley now as frequently as we did during my father’s time on earth. Others may be getting massive floods, but we’re not anymore, at least not right here. The last big one to hit this valley was in 1993. Before that, 1989. I remember the previous one well–it was a whopper of a flood that came on the fringe of a hurricane in 1979. Before that, 1969.
“Now, I’m not saying that it’s all benign. We may be having fewer floods, fewer hard freezes, a longer growing season. But in some parts around here, especially at the lower margins, the apple trees just don’t bear fruit anymore. Some peaches have been negatively affected by the hotter climate as well. We’ve had to change varieties. We now grow a flat-faced peach–we call it duraznochato–that we got from the lowlands over by Baja California.”
Gary recalled to JesÃºs what Arizona’s agricultural meteorologist Dr. Paul Brown had told him earlier during a conversation in which Paul had expressed his concern for how shifting weather patterns might be affecting desert fruit crops: “I’m not worried so much about annual crops in the desert lowlands or tree crops in the mountain valleys as I am about perennial crops growing below two thousand feet in elevation.”
Paul went on to describe the rise in nighttime temperatures that the Sonoran Desert has already received. “I just don’t see how those trees and vines will still get the winter chill hours they need to flower and fruit.”
What Dr. Brown suggests holds true not only for Sonora, but for other lowland regions as well. In a recent study, Dr. EikeLuedeling looked at historical temperatures in California’s Central Valley–the epicenter of fruit and nut production in the United States, with crops worth more than nine billion dollars annually. He concluded that, by the middle of this century, the valley will no longer have sufficient chilling hours to trigger the flowering and fruit production of its characteristic tree crops. Eike has commented to us that this phenomenon is already decreasing fruit yields in other deserts–such as the one in Oman on the eastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula–not just the Sonoran. The way rising temperatures are reducing chill hours below the critical threshold needed by fruit trees has recently become a phenomenon of global concern.
As Gary translated Brown and Luedeling’s conclusions into Spanish, JesÃºs nodded in agreement. We asked him whether he believed that the drought that began between 1998 and 2000 was finally coming to an end. His answer was terse: “It’s still not raining like it normally does.”
He looked outside through the window, then continued. “The water table that we tap into with our wells is lower than it’s ever been. Even after some rains, it doesn’t appear to have recovered much. That’s not only because of the effects of the drought. It’s also because there’s more pumping now, more competition for scarce groundwater.
“But as a farmer, I still see evidence of the prolonged drought. The rains have not yet replenished the moisture in the soil of our fields. Nor have they replenished the groundwater . . .”
Just then the older brother of JesÃºs, Casimiro Junior, peeked his head out from the kitchen. A skinnier version of JesÃºs, with high cheekbones and gaunt cheeks, Casimiro sometimes plays the contrarian in the family. Most of the time now, he lives alone in the orchard under a sprawling ramada rather than coming up to the home in the village that has been in his family for nearly a century. He tipped his baseball cap to everyone, then motioned toward the door.
“I don’t think you came here just to sit like squash on a shelf, I thought you wanted to go and see some of my chiles in the field, or learn how our sister cooks them up in this kitchen. Come on into the kitchen for a little bit so Maria del Carmen can show you how to make her salsa, then I will take you over to our orchard. You need to walk off some of that food you’ve just eaten . . .” He rubbed his belly, then pointed to Gary’s ample torso.
Kraig and Kurt crowded into the tiny kitchen with Maria del Carmen and her sister. In the corner was a wood-burning stove, that is, an oven shaped from adobes topped by two “burners”–holes above the coals that were suitable for setting cookware on. One burner was topped with a flat piece of smoke-blackened steel with a small handle–a comal to cook and warm tortillas. On the other sat a charred and juice-stained stockpot full of bubbling beans. On the opposite side of the door from the woodstove sat a four-burner propane-fueled modern range. The range harbored a couple of small saucepans, one of which held the chilecolorado that had so delighted the gastronauts when they sat at the dining table just a few minutes before.
“How do you make that sauce?” Kurt asked. Kraig stepped in to translate as Maria del Carmen began to describe her time-tested process of making chilecolorado.
“First, the meat is simmered with garlic, oregano, and salt. The sauce is made from the dried chiles from the sarta. We boil the chiles with water for twenty minutes or so, then we brown some flour with oil, and then whip the softened chiles in a blender. We add this to the browned flour and then add the shredded meat.” She pulled a strand of hair back from her face and shyly smiled. “It’s simple,” she added, as if she had been making chilecoloradofor a long time without anyone ever having asked her how she did it.
Kraig translated this into English as Kurt peered into the pots and nodded.
When it came to learning about the salsa de chiltepinwe had been served, we were surprised to hear from Casimiro and Maria del Carmen that they hadn’t really used the local, wild chile of Sonoran tradition to make the salsa that day. Instead, Maria del Carmen had used a similar but cultivated perennial chile grown in the understory of Casimiro’s orchard crops. While almost everyone in the region preferred truly wild chiltepinesover other peppers in their salsas, the great demand and smallish crops had raised their prices a bit too high for folks of modest means.
“I have a couple of those plants growing here in our dooryard garden,” Casimiro explained, “but let’s hop into your vehicle, and I’ll show you how many we have growing in the orchard.”
Guided by both Casimiro and JesÃºs, we meandered down dusty lanes lined with fruit trees, dropping off the mesa where the mission was built, and down onto the floodplain of the Rio Magdalena. This time, when we piled out of the Spice Ship, we were led through a gate into a world that was lush, cool, and shady. While the prolonged drought continues to have an impact on both cattle and wild chile production in the surrounding desert canyons, here was a refuge from the heat and aridity, a sanctuary of shade and luscious fruit nourished by waters running down a 350-year-old irrigation ditch.
JesÃºs stuck his hand into the clear running waters, splashed them onto his face, and gestured to the ancient stone-lined trough through which they ran.
“This acequiais older than the historic mission buildings up in the pueblo,” he reminded us. “It’s been irrigating quince, pomegranate, and fig trees since the Spanish first arrived and planted them here. But now it’s also watering a number of other fruits we’re trying to grow because of the changing climate: avocados, guavas, pumelos, flat-faced peaches, limes, lemons, mangoes, and persimmons.”
As we strolled along under the overlapping canopies of so many fruit trees, Kraig spotted a patch of some perennial chiles growing deep in their shade. JesÃºs signaled Kraig to come over and take a good look at them. The woody perennial peppers appeared to be one and a half to three years old; most were thigh-high, but the oldest ones reached up to our chests. Casimiro picked some slightly beaked green and red fruit off one of the plants and handed them to Gary. Gary passed them over to Kraig, asking, “Are these some other kind of bird pepper?”
Kraig carefully looked them over. “Well, these are pretty close in appearance to the wild chiltepines found locally, but take another look: The fruit are too pointed to be true chiltepines. Folks all throughout Mexico keep a couple of plants of this pepper; they are feral chiles–sort of mongrel mixes of wild and domestic varieties. You’ll see them in patio gardens or in orchards.”
Kraig picked a handful and took a close look at them. “They are all really similar and have certain of the same characteristics–small size, oval fruit, waxy small leaves . . . The birds love them and disperse them all over the place. These make a nice substitute because no one has any real luck growing the wild chile. If you put the chiltepin in an agricultural setting, you must coddle it–it just doesn’t like to get its roots too wet . . . it’s too susceptible to picking up all sorts of diseases.”
Even with his limited English, Casimiro had picked up that we were debating the differences among truly wild and semi-cultivated chiles.
“Look how many of these chiles we’re getting in such a small space. Of course, they don’t sell for as much as the truly wild chiltepines del monte, but they’re easier to pick. The wild chiltepines are scattered beneath hackberries and mesquite, and sometimes hard to find.
“You might see one over there.” Casimiro signaled toward the orchard’s edge some thirty yards away. “But the next one might be far away, way over in that direction,” he said, pointing to the gate through which we had come. “So that’s why this chilepequin del jardinsells for only 100 to 120 pesos per kilo, while the true chiltepin del monte sells for as much as 500 to 600. And when the drought makes them scarce, sometimes they even go for more,” Casimiro concluded.
As we had heard from our colleague Kimberlee Chambers, who was off surveying the 2009 chiltepin crop some hundred miles to the east of San Ignacio, the drought in northern Sonora was indeed pushing up prices for truly wild chiles. The drought’s effects were not limited to the paucity of moisture diminishing the production of fruit. Compared with other years, there were also more moth larvae infesting the fruit. In the worst years, these little gusanos infest as much as half the chile fruit in certain wild populations, eating the seeds inside and, for the most part, spoiling the value of the chiltepines. But here in the shade of quince and peach, the moths could hardly find the perennial chiles, which were well watered, naturally fertilized, and apparently resistant to insect attack. We saw no evidence of their larvae making holes in the green or the red fruit.
We said good-bye to Casimiro, and while JesÃºs was accompanying us over to DoÃ±a Chata’s to taste another version of salsa de chiltepin, we discussed how two things were becoming glaringly apparent. First, the ways that wild desert foods like the chiltepin del monte respond to shifting weather are different from those of cultivated food crops like the chilepequin del jardin, as it sits with its toes in the water and its head in the cool shade. Both kinds of foods may be essential to local food security, but they have altogether different vulnerabilities, so that, even at the same site, one may be more affected than the other.
Second, as global or regional weather patterns shift, it seemed to us that each location would have its own unique manifestations of those shifts. We began to wonder whether any two places might respond the same way.
In the face of such unpredictability, what’s a farmer to do? Fred Kirschenmann, a Dakota grain farmer associated with the Stone Barns Center for Sustainable Agriculture, has pondered this dilemma for some time. The answer that Fred has come up with seems to be generally in line with what Casimiro and JesÃºs are already doing: “The only thing that the experts can agree on that they think will bear out during our lifetimes is that we will have more unstable climates. And one of the few ways that we as farmers can gain resilience in our food system–that is, to buffer ourselves from climate change–is by having more diversity in our fields and orchards.”
There in the dooryard garden of DoÃ±a Chata, just as in the floodplain orchard of Casimiro and JesÃºs, we felt that diversity of food crops cooling us, shading us, nourishing us, and filling our nostrils with heavenly fragrances. That diversity was not merely good for our eyes and our noses to behold; it was good to eat, and good for buffering us against the unknown.
We hugged DoÃ±a Chata and JesÃºs, then went on our way, down to the Feast of Saint Francis celebration in Magdalena, Sonora, and beyond. Already we had formulated a new objective: to see just how uniform or heterogeneous the effects of shifting weather were on food production within the very same valley, and across valleys in the same Sonoran Desert landscape. Did other farmers and foragers tell stories radically different from those of Casimiro and JesÃºs about how changes in climatic patterns might be affecting their chile harvests?
The road south from Magdalena, Sonora, led into climes that are typically hotter and drier than those we had experienced in San Ignacio. But the plains region of the Sonoran Desert had already been suffering drought for most of the last nine years, and this year seemed to be no exception. Kraig and Gary had already received a number of reports suggesting that the wild chiltepin harvest in most localities north of Sonora’s capital, Hermosillo, would be the worst in years.
And yet we had also been alerted to an extraordinary event that had happened just a month before our visit on the coastal plains south of Hermosillo, where the Sonoran Desert meets the subtropical thornscrub northeast of the Gulf of California port of Guaymas. The remnants of Hurricane Jimena had arrived just north of the Guaymas region during the first week of September and had dumped an ungodly amount of rain on the plains in a matter of thirty-six hours.
We beelined toward the port town of Guaymas, with only a brief stop in Hermosillo for fish tacos, roasted chilegÃ¼erosalsa (soaked in lime juice and Worcestershire sauce), and a short chat with desert ecologists Alberto BÃºrquez and Gela Martinez. We asked them about damage from the recent hurricane.
“You just won’t believe it.” Alberto sighed, shaking his head. He was Sonoran-born but internationally renowned for his studies of environmental change in desert and tropical ecosystems. He ran his hand back through his slightly graying hair, perhaps as a way to sound more objective while he recounted the chaos that he had witnessed less than a month earlier.
“Bridges collapsed, and the highway pavement on either side of them was completely washed away. In just twenty-four hours, they received somewhere between 700 and 730 millimeters [twenty-seven to twenty-eight inches] of rain. That’s two and a half times their average annual precipitation arriving in just one day. The rain streamed down the slopes of the inland mountains, and then the flood roared across the coastal plains two to three meters deep, literally pushing the ocean waters back when it flowed across the beaches . . .”
This did not sound like a tropical storm that had confined itself to the normal range of variation. It had broken all records in the state of Sonora for the amount of rain heaped onto these otherwise dry lands by a single hurricane. What Alberto told us begged the question: Could such an extraordinary storm be linked in any way to the working hypothesis of global climate change?
Well, it was hard to say, but most scientists would beg off from saying that any single event indicates anything. As much as the media would like to put some spin on enormously destructive events like Hurricanes Katrina, Mitch, or Jimena, one showstopping hurricane in isolation cannot be used as an indication of unidirectional changes in weather patterns. At the same time, meteorologists have been able to confirm that, in general, the frequency and ferocity of such hurricanes have been increasing with the current rates of global warming. One recent analysis of weather records has suggested that hurricane frequencies have doubled over the last two decades. Climatologists have amply documented that today’s hurricanes have become far more intense, with faster wind speeds and heavier rains as they reach their peak velocities.
Alberto’s wife, Gela, had something to say about all this. Her lovely head of curls rained down upon her suntanned shoulders as she talked. Because her technical studies delved into issues of leaf litter decomposition and nutrient release, it was not surprising that she had been keen on recording what the storm had left behind. Gela had been stunned by all the flotsam and jetsam that she and her family had seen on the beaches of the Gulf of California immediately after the storm: “Millions of cans and bottles and bags mixed with seaweeds and sponges and even slippers and shoes, all piled in huge mounds that were strewn all the way down the beaches.”
As we devoured the last of our fish tacos, Alberto detailed exactly where we should go to witness how the hurricane had potentially affected farmers and chile harvesters.
“They’re already fixing up the highways and the bridges so you should be able to get through, but I have no idea how bad it still may be once you get back on the farms. So just be careful how you drive. There is mud everywhere.”
The Spice Ship was sailing out on the highway to Guaymas within fifteen minutes of leaving Tito’s Mariscos, fully loaded on fish tacos and roasted chilegÃ¼ero salsa.Once we passed Hermosillo’s southern edge, we began looking for the first telltale signs of floods along the roadside. Curiously, Hermosillo had received barely a sprinkle when the hurricane landed in Sonora, and the same looked true for most of the landscape on the way down into Guaymas.
But then, just past the ancient junction of Los Arrieros–perhaps fifteen miles from the Guaymas city limits–the vegetation began to change in color, texture, and density. In particular, we scanned the landscape for “streamside” vegetation that typically concealed chiltepines beneath hackberry trees along the banks of dry washes.
But the washes weren’t dry anymore. They were pockmarked with small puddles and tons of new sprouts of the insidiously invasive weed called buffelgrass. The little vegetation that was left along the arroyo clung precariously to its banks, with many tree roots exposed by recent erosion. It appeared that just a few weeks before, torrents had run through the culverts under the highway as if they were hardly more than funnels; once on the coastal side of the highway, the floodwaters had jumped their channels and spread out clear across the landscape. The buffelgrass was vivid green and spreading its seeds to the wind, and the wild native amaranths were tall and rangy. Above them, all the desert trees looked beat-up, as if they had been pummeled by raging winds.
“Look over there.” Kraig pointed ahead, across the median. “We’re going down to one lane; the other side of highway has been completely washed out, and its trucks are detouring over here.”
“Holy mole!” Gary exclaimed. “Look up there–the entire overpass must have collapsed, or was washed away.” The passengers groaned and held on as we dipped off the elevated roadbed and down onto a makeshift lane in the median.
When we came back up onto the pavement again, we looked out over the landscape and realized that we must have arrived near Ground Zero of the most massive flood to hit Sonora in many years. Power lines were tilted, trees were uprooted, churned-up mud and standing water were everywhere. Our chances of finding any chiltepines left nearby were slim to none. And yet there might be the possibility of finding farmers nearby who had weathered the storm.
Once we arrived at the cloverleaf intersection between the highways to Guaymas and Bahia San Carlos and those to Navajoa and points south, we began looking inland, hoping to spot a farmstead or orchard that still appeared to be accessible. Gary fixed his sights on some eucalyptus trees back in the midst of a citrus plantation, drove the van off the elevated roadbed once again, and plunged through a series of puddles as large and as deep as a toddler’s swimming pool. We turned a corner when we arrived at the first orange trees and came to a stop in front of a barnyard thick with mud and littered with swamped vehicles. When we got out of the van, the first thing we noticed was that we were surrounded by dragonflies.
Dragonflies? They’re not exactly commonplace in deserts or even in the dry subtropics, yet there they were, fairly swarming all around us. The noise of the Spice Ship splashing through puddles must have brought the remaining residents out of their midday siesta. One older man in a white cowboy hat looked up at us briefly, then went back to work on a piece of machinery. Another, younger man–really, a mountain of a man, huge and swarthy by comparison with his elderly relative–lurched out of a mud-stained adobe farmhouse and waved. He then took a swig from a liter bottle of beer, set it down on a pile of debris, and waddled over through the mud to greet us.
Sergio AraÃºjo was his name. He was tall, stocky like an offensive lineman, and his broad head was covered with a mass of curly brown hair that verged on being an Afro. He told us that he typically tended eight hectares of orchards–about twenty acres–but he wasn’t sure anymore how much of that area would still produce a fruit crop.
We looked at him. There was no way we could be certain that his countenance had changed since the hurricane, but it seemed that he was suffering some kind of post-traumatic stress. His eyes were oddly sucked back into their sockets, almost hidden by the fleshiness of his face, while his lips protruded as if pursed into a permanent frown. It was clear that he had a headache–though whether from the beer or from dealing with the aftermath wasn’t so clear.
“How did it look through here when HuracÃ¡nJimena landed?” one of us asked.
He started to speak, paused, and then slowly raised his beefy hand up, up, up, until it was nearly at the height of his collarbone.
“When the water ran through here, it was more than two meters deep, even two and a half in some places. I’m not kidding you–you can see for yourself. Look at the debris caught up there in the branches, and over there, all that trash perched up in the canopy. So it must have knocked off about 20 percent of all the developing fruit in the entire orchard. Just knocked them down, washed most of them away.”
He paused again, as if catching his breath and trying to slow a heart that had been beating under a great deal of pressure for the last month.
“But look, just look at the rest . . .”
He slowly turned and stretched his hand out toward the closest row of citrus trees. The skins of the oranges were typically a bright, solid green at this time of the year, but all the fruit that we saw were mottled, pocked, or stained with sickly yellow and black.
“By harvest time, the skins must be ripened to a uniform color, but I don’t know how that will happen this year. Once they are scrutinized, I doubt whether the buyers will take any of them . . .”
Silence. Sergio’s mouth shut in its deeply set frown.
“Well, where did the water come from?” Gary asked.
Sergio finally laughed a little. “It came from everywhere. There wasn’t even an arroyo here before. Sometime during the thirty-six hours of rain, the watercourse moved over this way. It’s usually dry and was about a kilometer and a half away. Now the channel is within five hundred meters of my house here. But it didn’t just run in the channel, it ran all around us, right through the orchard. It took out a quarter hectare of orange trees, ruined every motor and pump we’ve ever used, damaged everything left on the floors of our buildings, and toppled a twenty-meter eucalyptus tree along our entranceway. It was good you drove in the back way, parked, and climbed through the fence. Otherwise you wouldn’t have gotten in here.”
“Have any government people gotten over here to help you?” Gary asked.
Kraig stepped in, trying to phrase the question another way in Spanish. “It seems that the government is already taking care of the highway in front of your place, and clearing away debris so it can rebuild the bridges. Has it offered assistance? Before, during, or after the tormenta?”
This time, Sergio AraÃºjo almost sneered, but he held back his contempt and tried to turn the whole ordeal into a sad joke. “You aren’t going to believe this, but we had no notice that we were going to be hit. No word of any kind reached us in time. And we haven’t seen anyone from the government since, except for those road construction workers out on the highway.
“Well, maybe I’m not exactly remembering everything. We must have heard from the teachers not to bring my daughter back to school for the first three weeks. Trees had fallen on the small concrete-block building where she had taken her classes before. They’re trying to clean it up, and they just reopened the school this week in another building . . .”
“So how long do you think it will take for your production to recover?” Kraig asked.
“Well, this season we expect to pick just 120 to 140 tons of oranges instead of the typical 200. No, let me see if I’m figuring that right. We totally lost a quarter hectare of mature trees, so no fruit there. Then, instead of 25 to 30 tons per hectare I’ve been getting on the rest, I may get 8 to 10 tons each. Does that add up? No, it doesn’t. Anyway, the skins are all damaged, so the fruit we haven’t yet lost will still fetch a lower price, if we can sell them at all . . .”
At this point, Sergio seemed confused and started to breathe heavily, as if his huge body had suddenly run out of air. We let him breathe for a while, and watched the dragonflies hovering over him.
“I don’t think I answered your question,” he said quietly, once he had recovered. “Pretty soon, we have to walk through the orchard and clear out the broken branches to assess what’s left. If we then prune the trees back and level the ground again, it may take two or three more years after that for them to fully recover. Maybe then we can get back to normal . . .”
We thanked him for his answers and departed from the farmyard, for it was time to just let him be. Perhaps shared among all of us was the sinking feeling that neither Sergio’s orchard nor anyone else’s might ever get back to what we used to know as normal.
Before getting back into the Spice Ship, we walked over to the back of Sergio’s citrus orchard, to see just how close to his trees the watercourse had shifted. Just beyond his fence, built to keep out cows, the former arroyo was now a broad riverbed filled with a half-mile length of standing water. Egrets and herons waded knee-deep in water where a cactus-studded desert had been just weeks before. And, of course, the instantaneous oasis was swarming with dragonflies.
What surprised us was just how narrow the swath of the hurricane was. It appeared that when HuracÃ¡nJimena hit the Sonoran coast, the damage done by its winds and floods was hardly twenty-four miles wide. And we struggled for a while, driving around in circles on the few still-functional paved roads, hoping to determine whether Sergio AraÃºjo’s crop losses were unique–a data set of one–or whether other farmers and foragers were affected as well.
When we found the mixed citrus grove a mile or so away from Sergio’s farm, and heard Oscar GonzÃ¡lez and his young helper Chano recount their tragedy, we became convinced that our larger narrative could not limit itself to chiles alone. Wild chiles no doubt grew in the area before the storm, but they may have been ripped out of the ground by floods, or buried under mud. And yet the fate of perennial fruit crops such as citrus provided a telling contrast with that of widely scattered wild chiles. The more infrastructure you develop as a farmer to pamper your tree crops, the more you risk losing it when catastrophic winds, floods, or fires descend upon your land. In contrast, new wild chile seeds germinate, old ones become unburied, and, with no overhead costs to bear, the life of the pepper burns on.
As we drove up to this second citrus grove, we spotted the young farmworker Chano toiling alone. He was trying to mend fences in order to keep neighbors’ cattle out of the orchard plantings, so that they would not do further damage to drip irrigation lines as well as trees. But when we tried to talk to him about the flood, his post-traumatic stress surfaced even more quickly than Sergio AraÃºjo’s had done. He pointed to a tall paloverde tree across the way and brushed us off, simply saying, “Go find Oscar GonzÃ¡lez over there and he’ll tell you about the tree.” It made no sense to us, but still we followed his advice and moved on.
We came into a yard where a brand-new diesel pickup truck had its doors wide open so that everything within it could dry out. We parked next to it and knocked on the door of a neat cabin. After a couple of minutes, Oscar GonzÃ¡lez appeared shirtless and shoeless at the door, a sixty-nine-year-old man who had lost most of his hair but none of his humanity. He apologized that his wife did not immediately come out to greet us, explaining that she had been ill and was resting, but he would be sure to introduce her to us before we left.
Oscar wore nothing but shorts. His chest and back displayed massive scars from accidents and operations, but there was still something intact if not exactly elegant about Oscar.
When we asked about the status of the orchard, he immediately assumed that we had come to his home in some official capacity. He politely deferred us to his brother-in-law in the city–the actual owner of the grove–as the one who should be spoken to.
We looked at one another. We didn’t exactly look like bureaucrats.
“No, no,” Kraig explained in Spanish, “we’re not from the government. We’re involved in food and agriculture work, but we’re here on our own, not representing any agency. We simply want to know what happened to your crop, and what happened to you and to Chano . . .”
He looked at us again, and seemed to sense that we were simply other individuals on this earth, nothing more, nothing less.
“Come, I’ll show you.”
Without even putting any shoes on–they had probably washed away and been piled up on some beach miles away–Oscar took off through the citrus grove, hobbling and shuffling along in his bare feet.
“Look there, the floodwaters toppled various trees. Look right where that one fell, those aluminum irrigation pipes are now filled with sand, while others have completely washed away from the farm. The drip irrigation lines, look over here. It’s not only partially buried, but that one segment there is cut, probably by the hooves of cattle. The fences are all down, every one of them, so the cows come in from all over. That’s why Chano is working on the fences first.
“I’ve counted some twenty trees so far that have fallen over, and I’d like to see if I can prop them up, but I can’t do a thing until I get that tractor fixed over there. Two meters of water washed over it, so the engine got swamped, the gas tank filled with water, the alternator and starter wires are ruined, the filters are all clogged with mud. I’m not kidding you, the water was against every tree trunk up to here . . .” He showed us the watermark on the tree trunk in front of him.
“Even for the trees that remain standing, their fruits were hit hard. I’d guess that nearly half of them are stained, spotted, or pocked with rot. And look at how much of them are already down on the muddy ground already, blotched or blackened, rotting away.”
He waved to the downed trees as if he were telling them, To hell with you for the moment, I’ll take care of you a bit later, and then he limped over to his well in the ground and a holding tank above ground level.
“Even if I scrape together enough money from me and my brother-in-law to fix the tractor, I just don’t know yet what I’m going to do with the well. Come over here with me and look at this up close. The pumping apparatus slipped down into the shaft and is completely covered with all the sand that flowed into the well during the height of the flood. All this sand that has capped the aquifer has made it so it is inaccessible. The only reachable water is sitting on top of the sand, and it is reddish brown wastewater, completely filthy, that poured across our land from who knows where? Dumps? Animal pens?”
Oscar’s sight darted from one problem to another. “See these wires to the power source? They are damp to the touch, still all wet, we’ll probably have to replace them. The fuse box, too. I have no idea yet how much all this is going to cost. We put it in over the last fifteen years . . .”
As Oscar’s anxiety grew, he began to jolt with pain emanating from his neck and his upper back. And he began to limp more laboriously as well, since some of the pangs of pain ran all the way down his leg to his ankle. However, he kept walking, mumbling that he wanted to show us just two more things.
“See this concrete foundation here? That was where we had a house for our farmworker, Chano. And now Chano’s house is completely gone. It collapsed under the weight of the rain. Then most of it was hauled away by the floods, the current was so strong.
“He had called me over this way to help him save it or some of the things inside. But we couldn’t. So we went over toward where the chicken coop was getting washed away as well . . .”
Oscar abruptly turned and walked over to a twenty-foot-tall paloverde tree that had served as the axis around which a wire-mesh chicken coop had once been built.
“You could hear the sound of floodwaters gurgling, groaning to uplift one thing after another. The chicken wire came loose and the hens washed away. Chano and I waded over to deal with it, but then realized we couldn’t get back to the house. The paloverde tree grew out of a mound that offered slightly higher ground, but soon we had to crawl up into its branches to escape the rising waters.”
He gestured toward the higher branches of what looked to us like a spindly, insubstantial little tree.
Then Oscar broke down and began to weep.
“The two of us, Chano and me, we just hung on for dear life. Hour after hour.Maybe three, probably four hours. We watched the flood carry away our farm–even one of the dogs was carried away. Because of the back accident that had brought me back home to Mexico, the pain was intolerable. I could hardly stand staying in one position any longer. Stuck in a tree, holding on, unable to move.”
He could not help but cry. He stopped talking for a while and simply wept. We all stood there silent, listening to the breeze move through the citrus trees. Soon Oscar began again.
“But we survived, by a miracle from God. I kept on praying to a saint that my daughter in Anaheim, California, had introduced to me. I think that unlikely saint somehow brought us some help from God. Neither of us would be here otherwise. Our survival doesn’t make logical sense.” He took a breath. Nobody moved.
“After the waters began to drain down, some neighbors found us. They brought us a tank of clean water to drink. Even the dog that was washed away came trotting back after two days. For several more days, we had only some ham that Chano had sequestered away, and a couple dozen tortillas that I had gotten just before the storm. But we had no lights. No refrigeration, nothing. Somehow, people thought to look for us and help us. They helped us survive.
“You know, it was strange. We had heard about a big hurricane off Baja California several days before, and that it might come our way. But the very day before it really hit this coast, all the electricity around here went out. No radio, no TV. No way of knowing what had happened to the storm. But then, in the middle of the night, we heard the rain begin to come. When I woke up and listened, I heard the floodwaters barking, bleating like frogs.”
We slowly walked back to Oscar’s cabin, where his wife appeared and greeted us. She had been in California during the storm and had only recently returned to Guaymas. The Gonzalezes had spent hours cleaning mud off the floors and walls of the rooms in the cabin, and she showed us the watermarks remaining in their bedroom.
Oscar and Chano, just like Sergio, somehow survived a storm of unprecedented magnitude, one that swept away much of the fruits of their labors and their technological infrastructure as well. All told, HuracÃ¡nJimena had brought more than thirty-seven million dollars’ damage to Mexico, with about a thousand acres of citrus a total loss. But just a few miles south of the destruction, the eight sacred pueblos of the Yaqui Indian Nation received only four inches of rain from the same storm, which was easily enough to pull the wild chiles on their lands out of a decade-long drought. The same hurricane that had gouged a twenty-four-mile-wide path along the central Sonoran coast had revived the ancient tradition of wild chile harvesting by the Yaqui people who call themselves Yoemem.
In essence, the season’s wild weather had divided Sonora’s chiltepin harvest this year into three parts: the northern populations, which still suffered from prolonged drought and too many gusanos infesting the fruit; the central swath near Guaymas, where wild plants were washed away or made inaccessible by mud and collapsed roads; and the southern reaches, which had received enough rainfall to ensure an ample harvest. We had seen no chiltepines near Guaymas, but we had witnessed the undeniable effects of global climatic instability. After giving Oscar’s wife some money for medicine to treat the old man’s back pain, we drove south from Guaymas in time to reach the Yaqui villages just after sundown.
Southern Sonora is the land of the Yaqui (Yoemem) and their close relatives, the Mayo (Yoremem). We had some rather whimsical reasons for wanting to talk with them, but none of them had to do with the so-called Yaqui Way of Knowledge made infamous by Carlos Casteneda’s best-selling novels. Our quest was much simpler. We wanted to visit the only pueblo in Sonora named for chiltepines: CocorÃt, whose name derives from a Yaqui word meaning “place of the piquant chile del monte.” It appears that Cabeza de Vaca, Estevanico el Moro, and other early Spanish explorers had gone through CocorÃt more than four hundred years before our own journey there, recording a flood perhaps as powerful as the one we witnessed, so the town and trails that surround it have considerable antiquity.
We also knew from our readings that, whenever times were tough, the Yaqui and Mayo had survived on their harvests of wild foods. An oral history from 1946 has revealed how a young Yaqui man, RosalioMoisÃ©s, and his recently arrived Mayo bride, Pancha Valenzuela Castro Wailika, survived a time of hunger by working as wild food foragers in the vicinity of CocorÃt:
We walked out in the brush [monte] looking for wild food. We did everything we could think of to find food, and indeed we were not often hungry.ChiltipiquÃn grew wild all through the brush, and we would pick a sackful and sell it to the Mexican storekeeper in Vicam; he paid five pesos a kilo. We could pick two or three kilos of chiltipiquÃns a week.
We hoped that we would find some elder who had survived that era who would be willing to compare the wild chile harvest of today with the one during the time that Rosalio and Pancha worked as wild foragers. Fortunately, after we spent a night on cots under open-air ramadas at a Yaqui rancherÃa at Torim, a bright young Yaqui woman named Anabel suggested that we go to talk to Angel Cota, an elder who had been born in Torim but now lived in CocorÃt.
As we tried to locate just exactly where Angel lived in CocorÃt, we came upon plenty of evidence that the wild chile harvest there had been substantial. People were selling green chiltepines at the CocorÃt farmer’s market under the shade of an enormous kapok tree; they were selling them out of their kitchen windows, and hitchhiking into the nearest city, Ciudad Obregon, to sell them there. It appeared that the rains from HuracÃ¡nJimena had come just in time to stimulate production rather than to disrupt it.
At last we found Angel’s daughter, who agreed that her father would be good to talk to about the wild harvest of co’okoi, but unfortunately he had been back in the monte at their goat ranch and she was not sure when he would return.
Just then, an elderly man in a white cowboy hat came into the backyard. The daughter turned and said, “My father’s come back! You’re in luck!” He had penetrating eyes, an unshaven face, an unbuttoned cowboy shirt, and a big handshake for us.
He asked us to sit down with him outside in their garden. We told him that we had been buying chiltepines from others in CocorÃt, and it looked like it would be a good harvest.
He agreed. There had been less rain the last few years, but this last month they had received enough to make the harvesting of chiltepines lucrative.
“So will everyone be going out to harvest them commercially?” Kraig asked.
“No, not all people here pick their own chiltepines anymore. They’ll all have them on their kitchen tables, but those are ones that are gifts or purchases from friends. It’s not like in the old days, when I was a youth. It was everyone’s seasonal income back then to pick both wild oregano and wild chiles. We’d take them into the market at Ciudad Obregon, or a few buyers would come around. We didn’t have many other options for income back then.”
“Is CocorÃt a good collecting area?” Gary asked.
He smiled. “What do you mean, because of its name? Well, there are a few bushes of wild chiles nearby in the washes, but the harvesters go back into the sierras where they are much denser, near Rancho Corohuisi, Rancho del Mezquite, Rancho Chichiquelite, Rancho de Guayacan . . .
“It seems you are curious about the name of our village. Its full name when it was founded in 1617 was Espiritu Santo de CocorÃt, en la Loma de GuamuchÃl. Yes, it refers to place of the wild chiles, but in those times, they were referring to the fierceness of the Yaqui people, not just that of the little fruits. Like the hottest chiles, the Yoemem back then were muybrava, muyfuerte . . . eranvaliente, eranmatones!”
What Angel was expressing in Spanish was a sentiment well known throughout Mexico and the Southwest. The Yaqui are considered to be a tenacious, persistent people, one that has kept much of its indigenous culture intact, one that has shown resilience and resistance to detrimental social, economic, and environmental change. When Mexico, much like the United States, subjugated the indigenous groups within its borders through force, the Yaqui were the only ones not to be conquered. Like the wild chiles that survive droughts and floods, the Yaqui are survivors. They are fierce, they are strong, they are courageous, and, when they need to be, they are tough sons of a gun!
Angel Cotam left us with much to think about. We all know that change is inevitable, and that droughts, hurricanes, and floods have wreaked havoc with farmers, foragers, and their food crops for centuries. However, some experts suggest that the rate of climate change has been accelerating. But just what kind or level of change is tolerable, and when should it be considered detrimental? How do people adapt to rapid change? Can they develop enough resilience so that they can resist or at least quickly recover from the worst of climate change, and be opportunistic about reaping the benefits of its windfalls?
Perhaps what Yaqui elder Angel Cotam was suggesting was that plants play an allegorical role in our cultures . . . we emulate their strategies for survival, and use them as symbols to guide us through uncertain times. Chiltepin foraging, at least for now and in some particular places, appears to have a bit more capacity to recover from catastrophic events than industrial agriculture–even the kind of small-scale mechanized, irrigated agriculture of citrus being attempted by Sergio, Oscar, and Chano. Nevertheless, most wild chiltepin harvesters and merchandisers were in hot water back in 2009.
The last stop of the Spice Ship in Sonora brought us to the southern edges of that state, to the great historic colonial town of Alamos. There, amid streets lined with palms and colorful guamÃºchil trees, Guarijio Indians seasonally arrive from their haunts way up in the Sierra Madre Occidental to offer their harvests of chiltepines to local vendors. But that traditional pilgrimage hardly happened during the latter months of 2009. Like the north, far southern Sonora was hit with a drought so fierce that the wild chile crop completely failed in many localities.
“Not a single bag of chiltepines arrived from Guarijio Indian territory this year,” spice market vendor Hugo Sesta explained to us. He was surrounded by bags of wild oregano, medicinal herbs, and such but had only a few bottles of dried chiltepines from the 2008 harvest to sell.
“There were so few produced in the entire region this last year, a very small harvest, and very late even where they did produce something outside the Guarijio zone. Well, they’re from the wild, and get no pampering, so they produce very little some years. Two years ago, when there was a bumper crop, I could buy them from the harvesters for 350 pesos per kilo. This year, I couldn’t get the few that were offered to me for less than 800 pesos per kilo. So I didn’t buy any of them; they cost too much for my customers to even want to purchase them . . .”
In a seed and spice shop around the corner from Hugo’s farmer’s market booth, spice trader Fernando NiÃ±o Estudillo was even more distressed about the scarcity of chiltepines, for he typically runs tons of them up to the border, to be sold on the US side of the line.
“I’ve been ten years in the business; most years I drive truckloads of chiltepines to Tijuana myself. Only this last year has the wild chile crop ever failed me . . . I didn’t even make a single trip up to the border . . .”
As Gary heard Fernando lament this sudden shift in his business income, he remembered the words he had heard from an eminent desert scientist just a few months