The Land of the Chile Pilgrims

Editor’s Note: As the official celebration of the New Mexico Centennial of Statehood  kicks off in earnest, Frontera NorteSur marks almost three years of special stories examining the history of the southern New Mexico borderland during the last one hundred years.  Today’s piece continues the series into the 2012 centennial year with a look at the   economy and culture of chile peppers that’s developed  in the small town of Hatch and surrounding valley. This story was made possible in part by grants from the New Mexico Humanities Council and the McCune Charitable Foundation.

FNS Special Feature:

As the winter sky rehearsed a coming storm,  noisy gulls out for cheap pickings swooped low over a McDonalds’ parking lot on the edge of New Mexico’s Elephant Butte Reservoir, a mammoth artificial lake that tests the lines of anglers, wets the feet of recreational visitors and waters the farmlands of two nations. A half hour downriver in the village of Hatch, green and red Christmas decorations mimicked the colors that pump life into the community every year and blended in with the last of the year’s red chile pepper fields crumpling alongside the rusty white of the cotton harvest.

On the highway off-ramp, a Border Patrol vehicle was parked almost surreptitiously while down on the valley floor a store that passes for Hatch’s big box operation,  Family Dollar, promised “$5 Gifts for Every List.”  Not far away, a gas station charged 40 to 70 cents more than the regional average while a huge statue of Uncle Sam stood tall clutching a green chile pod in one big hand. Up and down the opposite ends of the small town,  strands of dried red peppers called chile ristras flashed additional reminders of the importance of the crop to the history, culture and fortunes of a  rural community.

Earlier in the season, the Soto family store was bopping with action. Young Jesus Soto busied himself  roasting sacks of green chile for customers while his mother Andrea and three other women stood off to the side in the shade stringing together imaginative samples of chile ristras.

During a  pause from work, Soto said his father counted a dozen years or so growing chile  in Hatch. The second-generation farmer/vendor ran off a list of locally-developed varieties his family cultivates: mild Big Jims and New Mexico 6-4s, hot Sandias and extra-hot Barker’s. Then there is the stuff for the bold and the brave. “The Lumbre is really hot,” Soto quipped with the accent of an insider. “It’s your double XX.”

Like other producers in the Elephant Butte Irrigation District, the Sotos struggled this past season with the overarching question of water. A combination of drought and a 2008  agreement to deliver additional water to Texas downstream strained the ability of Elephant Butte Reservoir to supply enough water to the Rio Grande and its New Mexican irrigators.  Consequently, the Sotos joined other farmers in sucking up groundwater from the earth. But the water squeeze had at least one silver lining,  Soto maintained. Despite the necessity of tapping into wells, or because of it, the family managed to harvest a very good chile crop unencumbered by the problems of rain-fed wilt and mold.

“We were able to give control to how much water we gave to the field,” he added. “When it rains too much you don’t have control…”

Fronted by ceramic curios, the Soto family store is situated at a strategic crossroads. Just beyond the small business, the road forks off to the left toward Deming and the Mexican border and leads into Interstate 10, Arizona and California.

Veering right, the two-lane highway pushes north passing farms, the religious shrine outside trailer homes in the Mexican immigrant community of Salem and the Garfield home of the late New Mexican farmer Raul Medina. For decades, loyal out-of-town customers delighted again and again at the crusty but friendly farmer’s harvests of juicy tomatoes, lumbering melons, down-to-earth okra and plump chiles

A short distance from Medina’s Farm is the junction with Interstate 25, the long road to Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Denver. Turning south, the interstate swoops travelers into Las Cruces, El Paso and Ciudad Juarez.

On a regular basis, many people trek through Hatch. They are truckers taking a break, vacationers finding a short cut to California, bikers roaring in for a weekend adventure in the country and migrants seeking the Promised Land. Sneaky Smugglers, subdued saints and sassy speeders all make an appearance.

Apart from the retail chile roasting end of their business, the Sotos supply the big wholesale market in chile-hungry Albuquerque, making as many as four weekly trips north during the height of the season. The family also sells red chile powder and traditional sun-dried peppers and assembles ristras for the masses.

For Soto, green chile season and its bevy of outsiders is a special time. “The roasting, the smell, the cooking,” he summed up. “I mean it’s just good. And people leave really happy with our green chiles. Just the way they leave. And they enjoy their chiles….we really like doing it.”

If the railroad was the mother of the 19th century Hatch Valley, then the state-promoted Elephant Butte irrigation project for commercial growers and the government-built roads for motor vehicles were the midwives of the 20th century.

Subsequent cycles of cotton, chile, onions and other crops drove local fortunes and failures, later joined by big dairies. In 2006 Hatch endured a crisis when a rain-filled arroyo broke, flooded the town and displaced upwards of 500 people. For a few years, some of the climate refugees found shelter in a FEMA trailer park erected in the nearby village of Rincon. A new housing complex where farmworker families were once flooded out and still-damaged homes attest to the disaster.

A “Y” is how Dr. Gina Nunez-Mchiri described Hatch. A professor in the anthropology and sociology department at the University of Texas-El Paso (UTEP) about an hour south of Hatch,  Nunez-Mchiri told Frontera NorteSur that the rural town which bills itself as “Chile Capital of the World” is actually a “very interesting intersection” of trade, transportation and the movement of people.

In the last one hundred years, immigrants from Europe, Mexico and elsewhere found their way to a fertile desert region where indigenous Apaches and Spanish-speaking  New Mexicans earlier inhabited. The different settlement patterns are  reflected in the hierarchy of land ownership that has since evolved, according to Nunez-Mchiri, who passed lettuce harvest seasons in Hatch as a young child with her migrant farmworker family that hailed from south of the border. Though now immersed in academia, Nunez-Mchiri still maintains contacts with families of the land in her old stomping grounds.

The scholar recalled how her mother used to leave chile ristras hanging and pluck a pod as  needed for cooking, scattering the seeds on the floor. The family matriarch conveyed to her daughter how ristras also warded off evil spirits.

Andrea Soto and her helpers devote a lot of  meticulous effort into creating ristras. Splashed with red, yellow and green colors,  Soto’s specialties are fine, almost manicured products employing little but fiery peppers known as chile pequin.  A  resident of Hatch for nearly a quarter-century, Soto mastered the craft by first working for another person before striking out on her own. She is noticeably proud of her ristras, which are both wholesaled and customized on order.

“It’s very nice but laborious work,” Soto said of the stringing process. “It’s like an art, and some people like the work. Some people buy it for decorations, others with the idea of eating it. It’s a very commercialized product that the people like.”

In addition to the typical long strings of chiles, Soto and company fashion crowns, hearts, peace signs and whatever else a customer desires. “We can do any design,” she insisted.

Economically, chile ristras give a “value added” component to an otherwise perishable  farm product and extend the amount of time locals can work the crop. According to Nunez-Mchiri, ristra-making provides primary and extra income as well a hobby for people in the Hatch Valley.

From a utilitarian perspective,  ristras  can be viewed as an ingenious response to food spoilage prior to the advent of refrigeration, constituting a sort of “banking system” that survived as a New Mexican tradition, the UTEP researcher said. And as an iconic symbol, the chile ristra shaped impressions of New Mexico when early photos of ristras draped across Pueblo-style buildings made their way around the world, Nunez-Mchiri added.

“It’s a symbol,  and when we see a symbol, we tend to weave relationships, ”she said of the New Mexican chile pepper and old traditions such as ristra-making that involve networks of people. “When we exchange favors, when we help each other out, we are weaving our lives together, and we have a lot in common.”

In the view of the former Hatch Valley resident, chile  has broad cultural significance. “The way communities are built are often centered around food,” Nunez-Mchiri said. “So we have the Nuevo Mexicano, the people who have been here for several generations, and then we have the more recent immigrants, and they (all) have the tradition of chile. Chile is very indigenous to the Americas.”

Chile is an integral part of contemporary New Mexican identity, Nunez-Mchiri  added, contending that newcomers are gastronomically  acculturated when they “crave chile.”

In a world beset by division, chile is a bond that crosses borders, ethnicities and languages, with the late summer and early fall the time of year when New Mexico celebrates the coming together of the Chile Nation, or the “Great Chile Pilgrimage,” in the words of Nunez-Mchiri.

From all corners of New Mexico, El Paso and many other places, thousands flock to the Hatch Valley and its famous chile festival, now more than 40 years old. Their goal: savor the fresh aroma and taste of green chile and pack enough of the good stuff in ice coolers for the long and hard winter.

“It’s good for all the people here,” said Andrea Soto of the Labor Day extravaganza. “Everyone has work, people pass by and have fun,” she affirmed. Suddenly switching to English, Soto proclaimed a common statement frequently heard in Hatch: “The best chile!”

The chile pilgrims who come to Hatch every year get a glimpse of a rural society that has changed in many respects but still has passed on certain traditions.

“Definitely in the Hatch Valley you have the contrast in ecology. Sometimes you see the Rio Grande. You’ll see the chile turn red in the fields. You’ll see the cotton. You’ll see the dirt. You‘ll see the mountains in the background,” Nunez-Mchiri reflected. “I think it’s still these little pockets of heaven, where you can be connected with the food and know where it’s coming from and see the people who harvest it.”

-Kent Paterson

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