Editor’s note: The late summer and autumn are times of the year when New Mexico bursts alive in collective gatherings rooted in celebrations of the earth, the seasons and popular culture. In the latest installment in our special series for the New Mexico Centennial of Statehood, we examine the deep cultural roots of festival time through the eyes of prominent borderland and Southwestern scholars. This series was made possible in part by grants from the New Mexico Humanities Council, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the McCune Charitable Foundation.
FNS Special Feature
In a year of drought, wildfires, roaring winds and changing climate, some things endure the tempest-at least for the most part. From north to south and from east to west, New Mexicans are turning out to savor the year’s harvest, prepare for holiday commemorations, pack local fairs, honor patron saints and just celebrate life in general amid tough times.
In Las Cruces, Sunland Park, Albuquerque and elsewhere, farmers’ markets where the consumer buys directly from the producer, are back in business and brimming with fresh produce, homemade pastries, handmade crafts and down-home musical sounds, As the first roasts of fresh green chile send intoxicating smells into the air, mounds of egg plant, cucumber, sweet corn, red and yellow onion, squash, okra, honey and other rich morsels of the New Mexican soil invite a feast.
It’s the harvest season, and with the offerings of the earth ready for sampling, fiesta time to boot.
“The late summer season is just filled with festivals,” said Dr. Enrique Lamadrid, culture and language scholar at the University of New Mexico. “They range from the most traditional kinds of festivals, built around a saint’s devotion, a saint’s day, like San Geronimo up in Taos, to civic celebrations that are supported by municipalities and towns that celebrate just what’s coming out of those fields, what’s coming out at the end of a productive season, of a hopefully productive season.”
Paving the way for the late summer/fall festivities, LaMadrid added, are San Ysidro Day in May, held in honor of the patron saint of farmers, and the traditional Pueblo and Hispano feast days.
According to Lamadrid, New Mexican celebrations follow a ritual-marked calendar, varying slightly depending on the place but observed across generational lines.
Dr. Howard Campbell, professor of anthropology at the University of Texas in El Paso, said modern festivals and fiestas owe a lot to the indigenous peoples of the Americas who have celebrated seasonal transformations for thousands of years.
“Of course, Europeans have roughly similar attitudes about the changing of the seasons, but the indigenous groups of the Americas have been very closely associated with nature and the changing of the seasons and their belief systems are formed around natural events and processes.”
A local example, Campbell noted, is evident with the quarterly seasonal celebrations of the Piro, Manso and Tiwa Tribe (PMT) of Las Cruces, New Mexico.
“These occur like clockwork. Every three months the entire tribe comes together, celebrates the change of the season, renews their commitment to themselves as a tribe. Their spiritual leader gives a talk about their beliefs and values and history…”
Formed by refugees from north-central New Mexico who gradually merged with indigenous inhabitants of the Paso del Norte region after the late 1600s, the PMT is in the process of seeking federal recognition, said Campbell, who works closely with the tribe.
Lamadrid and Campbell agreed that New Mexican fiestas share a lot in common with celebrations in Mexico, which once governed New Mexico. Yet New Mexican fiestas have evolved their own traditions, with different ethnic cultural influences apparent in the state’s harvest and other fiestas. According to Campbell, modern fiestas are connected to an old agricultural and ranching lifestyle, with horse races and shows, bullfights and even cockfights (legal in New Mexico until 2007) all elements connecting a now largely urban population to a distant or not-so distant rural past.
“I think most of the festivals we find today in Mexico and in New Mexico are blending a mestizaje (mixture), a syncretism,” Campbell said. “But in New Mexico, we’d also have to talk about Americanization or commercialization.”
Perhaps the La Vina Wine Festival, held twice a year (April and October) in the little New Mexico town of La Union bordering Texas, provides a glimpse of the eclectic cultural influences that pervade today’s festivals. At last year’s fall edition, the sounds of rock-a-billy, reggae and blues livened up the scene and entertained a big crowd from southern New Mexico and nearby El Paso.
The food for sale contained different cultural influences drawn from the migratory waves that have rolled into the region across time-corn elotes, smoked turkey legs, chocolate covered strawberries, Mexican-style shrimp cocktails, and not to be forgotten, the biscochito, New Mexico’s state cookie. As always, the food showcased evolving recipes.
Taking a break from the crowd, Fernando Cazares of El Paso’s Delicious Mexican Express described a newer product, “papas locas,” that his company sells in addition to the traditional gorditas that are quite popular in the Paso del Norte borderland.
“These are fried potatoes with soy sauce, lime and Valentina hot sauce,” Cazares said. “The three ingredients blend in a flavor with the potato. This is a Mexican invention. It’s sweet, bitter and spicy.”
Owned by Ken and Denise Stark and opened in its current location in 1998, La Vina winery’s 27 acres of grapes form part of the modest grape-growing and wine-making boom that visited the Land of Enchantment after the 1970s.
“It’s remarkable the number of people who’ve delved into the business.” Stark said in an interview last year. “We’ve gone from 15 wineries to probably 50 in the state of New Mexico.” According to Stark, as many as 10,000 people have turned out for a La Vina weekend, a number the southern New Mexico vintner said was too much for the relatively small festival grounds to handle. Five thousand attendees, she said, would be “just wonderful.”
The grape vine has an old history in New Mexico, dating back to the Spanish colonial period when Franciscan monks smuggled in vines in violation of the royal trade laws of the time, according to a report from the New Mexico State University Cooperative Extension Service. Regional grape-growing then extended from the Paso del Norte north to clusters around Socorro, Albuquerque and Bernalillo, where Italian immigrants implanted a vine culture.
“Arid climates are good for wine, and wine does really well in irrigated soils where you have control over the moisture,” Lamadrid said. “And probably our biggest wine-producing area was El Paso del Norte. All the travelers had something to say about it. There was just this proliferation of vines from horizon to horizon in this irrigated oasis type of valley. You’d never know looking at Ciudad Juarez today, what it must have been.”
If anything distinguishes New Mexican harvest season celebrations from similar ones in other sections of the U.S. or even Mexico, it’s the locally-grown green chile that’s splattered on hamburgers and hot dogs, splashed across burritos and enchiladas and simmered in stews.
The production, processing and consumption of chile has undergone numerous changes, La Madrid said, including the replacement of the barter economy with cash transactions, the gradual fading of lentils and chile as a popular dish and the popularization of chile rellenos after World War Two, among other developments.
Pressured by economic changes and land speculation stemming from the war period, the small chile farms of Albuquerque’s North Valley might have disappeared, Lamadrid said, but the families who once cultivated peppers stay embedded in the culture by making chile an essential dish in celebrations or even by roasting other farmers’ produce and selling it on street corners.
Overall, chile is an important ingredient in the modern identity of New Mexicans, he added. “Food is part of that cultural identity, and food permeates cultural boundaries,” Lamadrid said. “Look at the importance of chile in New Mexico. It’s the state question, you know: red or green. It’s done a lot of cultural mediation in New Mexico.”
Can the festival season get out of hand, or lose its significance ? UTEP’s Howard Campbell said there was an over-saturation of local festivals across the United States, with each town seemingly staging its own “garlic festival,” for instance, and many events acquiring a “cheesy” flavor.
“El Paso one time had a menudo festival,” Campbell recalled. “I think it kind of died essentially because of lack of interest. I mean, people eat menudo every day, especially on the weekends.”
The border scholar reflected: “What I’ve seen is that some of those festivals become essentially like tail-gating for a football game. It’s just an excuse to go out and party and drink a lot of beer and go out in public and act wild, which you know is a lot of fun and could be a nice thing socially, but isn’t necessarily something that is deeply spiritual and we shouldn’t confuse the two.”
In 2012, long- familiar aspects of the harvest/festival season will be missing or different than in previous years. Las Cruces’ Whole Enchilada Festival is expected to take place for the first time without the giant enchilada. Later, in October, visitors to Albuquerque’s International Balloon Fiesta could encounter fewer local food vendors because of a conflict over outsourcing.
Meanwhile, on street corners and in market parking lots, the unmistakable smell of roasting green chile is beginning to drift into the air of a fickle monsoon season. Consumers in the key Albuquerque market are paying from $27 to $30 per sack for the first batches of the coveted green stuff that not too long ago commanded $10 or $15 a sack.