New Mexican Chiles
Sentinels of Hispano Identity and Cultural Heritage

Strolling down the walkway of the Albuquerque International Airport, one is overwhelmed by the variety of quaint crafts that represent New Mexican culture. The commodification of both Native and Hispano cultures is displayed throughout the airport and in the city’s tourist shops that pepper the landscape of historical sites. Native heritage is sold as Kachina dolls, Navajo blankets, turquoise jewelry, and Indian fry bread. Dispersed among these Native crafts are souvenirs of a separate sort- those that symbolize the native Hispano culture. Most celebrated among Hispano products is chile, in more recent times this is most often green chile. Hispanics make up 47% of New Mexico’s population (Pew Research 2011) and particularly when tourists travel north of Albuquerque, where some of the larger Hispanic concentrations are located in the high-country’s northern regions above Interstate 40 (U.S. Census Data 2010), they find themselves confronted by a host of chile items in the form of ristras (strings of drying red chile peppers), Christmas lights, earrings, salsas, burgers, beer, soaps, and wax candles, and other commodities.

All of these products have become more readily visible in response to a rise in tourism, however, their cultural influence goes far beyond tourism. Chile has been cultivated in New Mexico for at least four centuries (Bosland and Walker 2004) and some chile lines have been bred and handed down through generations. Symbolically linked to both the land and a distinctive New Mexican identity, green chile (Capsicum) appears as a cultural heirloom that defines northern New Mexican cuisine and as one respondent stated, “is seen in part to be what makes northern Hispano New Mexico culture unique.” As both food and decoration, chile is a preeminent ethnic emblem for what Gonzales (2007) terms Nuevomexicanos, or northern New Mexican Hispanos.

Over the last several decades, there has been an explosion in research on food, identity, gendered relationships, and cultural heritage. Scholarship documents the centrality of food, consumption, and preparation in expressing and maintaining various aspects of identity (see Narayan 1997, Schenone 2004, Avakian and Haber 2005, Abarca 2006, Counihan 2009, 2005). As Narayan notes, “questions of how people connect what they eat to their personal, social, and political identities, of how they use what they eat to distinguish themselves from others within and outside specific social groups, and of the role ‘cuisine’ plays in the scripts of ‘Nation’ and ‘national identity’ are quite revealing” (Narayan 1997:161). By considering chile, this paper contributes to this ongoing research on food and identity through its exploration of Hispano in the specific region of northern New Mexico.

To explore the ways in which Hispanos symbolically use and relate to green chile and how green chile is incorporated into a sense of ethnic identity, I conducted semi-structured telephone and face-to-face interviews with people living in rural northern New Mexico, Albuquerque, and southern Colorado. A snowball sampling procedure was used to contact participants, whereby one contact provided names of others of Hispano heritage willing to discuss the topic. A total of 24 interviews were conducted in 2011 and 2012 with participants between the ages of 24 and 72 who identify as being part of a Hispano culture. The semi-structured interview guide contained 20 open-ended questions related to green chile and Hispano culture. Qualitative content analysis was utilized to systematically examine the interviews and newspaper articles from local papers (The Las Vegas Optic, Green Fire Times, Santa Fe New Mexican and the documentary film Genetic Green Chile) that added secondary supportive data. Data from informal interviews and over ten years of participant observation of funciones, fiestas, Lent rituals, and ‘topic related’ conferences/workshops were verified by speaking with key informants, including artists, teachers, retirees, local residents, business owners, and scholars specializing in New Mexican history. Examples of topic related conferences include one held at the University of New Mexico in 2012 titled, “Impacts of Genetically Engineered Crops on the Freedom to Farm in the U.S. and Abroad,” as well as a 2012 workshop at the Onate Cultural Center on seed saving and presentations made by Cuatros Puertas, a non-profit culturally based seed bank, on green chile and genetic engineering.

Northern New Mexican Ethnic Identity

Ethnic terminology has been often political, and always fluid, over New Mexico’s history. Although Spanish and Native populations have mixed since the time of Spanish conquest and colonization, the various Native pueblos/nations and the local Hispano settlements remain distinct cultures. Today many Hispanos in northern New Mexico remain staunchly committed to the notion that they comprise a distinct group, different from Mexicans, Mexican-Americans, Latinos, or Chicanos, the term of self-identification Bejarano found used most often used in southern New Mexico along the U.S.-Mexico border by people of Mexican ancestry who were born in the United States (Bejarano 2005). That northern New Mexicans self-identify as a regional ethnic group unlike any other “Hispanics,” is based on two reasons according to Nostrand (1984) and Gritzner (1974). First, the Spanish colonists began moving northward from Mexico into the regions of present day northern New Mexico as early as the 17th century (Gritzner 1974). This arrival occurred earlier and more directly from Spain than did Tejanos or Califorñios, bringing with it early cultural forms connected to Iberian customs (Nostrand 1984), some of which have remained consistent and have been preserved. However, as Phillip B. Gonzales argues, this is a rather simplified characterization of Hispano identity. A more complex understanding would attend to the “political aspects of culture, the individual encounters of Hispanos with outside Mexicans, the reshaping of ethnic culture by urbanization, and the cultural significance of ethnic resistance to Anglo domination which Hispanos have shared with Mexican-Americans throughout the Southwest” (Gonzales 1993b:562).

After colonization, northern New Mexican Hispanos remained relatively isolated from outside contact while their numbers increased. Simultaneously, so too did attributes which became indigenous to the people and some of these remain visible, although ever-changing, to this day. These include vestiges of a Castilian dialect of Spanish known only to New Mexico (Espinosa and Espinosa 1909:53). For instance, archaic words such as facer (rather than hacer) for ‘to do’ or ‘to make’ or cajete rather than the more standard baño for a metal washtub were documented by F.M. Kercheville in the 1930s (1934:43).

In its early history, the region remained relatively culturally and geographically isolated due in part to the fact it boasted few natural resources to attract Anglo-Americans. As well, land grants tied up huge parcels of land while the threat of violence from Native American tribes kept European immigration down (deBuys 1985). Along with these factors, the perception by outsiders of the supposed poverty and ignorance of the area left it relatively untouched and thus allowed for the preservation of Hispano culture. One example of isolation is the early development of the Moradas, which are small chapels for the Hermanidad de Nuestro Padre Jesus Nazareno worship, more popularly known as the Penitentes in New Mexico. The Penitentes are most commonly associated in the popular imagination with the reenactment of the Crucifixion. The often repeated assumption about the Brotherhood is that it formed in the 19th century as a men’s religious society in order to maintain and perform the Catholic rituals at a time when the Catholic Diocese was unable to send priests to the region (Weigle 1976). The Brotherhood continues to exist and change, enduring as a unique contribution to New Mexico’s culture and politics.

In many ways New Mexico still remains insular and sits on the margins of mainstream American life. Popular culture penetration at times only heightens feelings of regional ethnic identity as it tends to occur with the invasion of Hollywood’s movie industry and the gentrification and displacement that follows with Hollywood stars buying large tracts of land (like Patrick Swayze, Val Kilmner, Carol Burnett, and Julia Roberts to name a few). A more contemporary sense of marginalization may lie with the lack of recognition by outsiders, especially those from the east coast, that New Mexico is an American state. New Mexicans find the ignorance of outsiders who believe that New Mexico is still part of Mexico disdainful as one of my respondents remarks, “I get so angry that some people still don’t even know that New Mexico is a state.” Another respondent recalled reading a story around the time of the Atlanta, Georgia Olympics whereby a resident of northern New Mexico was attempting to purchase a ticket over the phone. He states, “The sales representative insisted that she couldn’t sell the guy a ticket since that would be for the International Sales Office.”

Hispano lifeways and culinary traditions embody a commingling of Spanish, Native peoples, Anglo-Americans, and African Americans among others as a result of the legacy of three centuries of first Spanish and then Mexican rule. Hispanos adapted to the harsh physical environments of the area and acculturated much of the non-Hispanic population to the Hispano lifestyle. Thus, there are many people in northern New Mexico today who, though not originally descended from the Spanish or Native Americans, are identified as Hispano and/or who participate widely in Hispano culture because their families have been integrated throughout numerous generations (e.g. Cassidy, Regensberg, Ilfeld, Johnson, Gandert, Branch, Laumbach, Bonney). This is the case for both Anglos and Native Americans alike. For example, Wright and Campbell’s (2008) study of the geographical landscapes of Hispano villages, found that Las Trampas originated as a border fort between the Spanish in Santa Fe and the Apache and Comanche lands. The town was partially made up of genizaros (captured Native people who were forced to adopt Spanish culture) who withdrew to the frontier.

Although it is impossible to absolutely define the term Hispano, it has been suggested that a Hispano identity includes a Roman Catholic religious orientation, a rural heritage, emphasizes family relations over those of non-familial based associations, and encompasses individuals who speak or understand both English and northern New Mexican Spanish or have close relatives who do so. These orientations are reinforced by the rural nature of northern New Mexico that offers a supportive, extended-family atmosphere where residents personalize their relationships and forge strong ties to place (Jakle 1999). The interface of ethnicity and region, of blood and soil, has been tacitly recognized in state politics since the late 1800s throughout New Mexico. Hispanos received land grants from the Spanish and Mexican governments beginning in the 17th century. A connection to the land, actually a passion for the land that takes on a living and breathing reality through the people who speak about it, is central. Hispano lifeways in northern New Mexico developed in response to this deep connection to the land. That this passion may seem an anachronism in the industrialized United States of today is clear enough.

Northern New Mexico and parts of southern Colorado remain the homeland for many Hispanos living in the diaspora. Even though in the 1940s Hispanos in large numbers migrated to cities, often relocating in the regional urban centers of the upper Rio Grande such as Albuquerque where wages were higher and jobs more plentiful, they remained intensely loyal to their rural villages (Smith 2002). For instance, for some Hispanos it is of utmost importance to be buried in their home community (Smith 2002). Smith (2002) documented that among mortuaries providing services to local Hispanos in Espanola, New Mexico and Pueblo, Colorado, between 15-20 percent of the business revolves around those who wish to be interred in their hometown cemetery.

Northern New Mexico Hispanos share the concept of homeland, familiarized by Tuan (1976) and later expanded upon by other social geographers and sociologists as an exploration of the attachment to place (see Nostrand 1992, Nostrand and Estaville Jr. 1993, 2001, Gonzales 2007). They demonstrate the “geopiety,” that Tuan (1976) argued to be an intersection of devotion to place and one’s native land or country exemplified in a reverence for home. Tuan further argued that homeland is “an archive of fond memories and splendid achievements that inspire the present; place is permanent and hence reassuring to man… the more ties there are [to a place], the stronger is the emotional bond” (1977:154,158). One illustration of this deep devotion to place is seen in post death migration that is closely associated to the attachment individuals feel for “place” (Rowles and Comeaux 1987). Although some culture groups bond with a place more readily than do others, the most important ingredient in the development of a homeland is this deep emotional attachment to a place (Arreola 2001, Conzen 2001, Jett 2001, Jordan-Bychkov 2001, Nostrand and Estaville 2001, Schnell 2001). As Richard Muir concludes, “Often the significance of place and the meanings associated with [that place] lie at the core of a person’s identity” (1999:274).

Hispano culture both has been shaped by and shapes the geographic region. Regional foodways developed in response to a physical environment that is relatively unsympathetic, especially in terms of agricultural development. The growing season is short in the northern region of New Mexico due to high elevations, extreme water limitations, and arid soils. Locals developed innovative techniques to adapt, including water systems called acequias. The origins of the acequias can be traced back to Spanish and Native American sources while its development was closely associated with the Spanish settlement of the Southwest and was continued under the Mexican and American regimes (Hutchins 1928:261). Many acequia associations remain active to this day, with the continuation of annual ditch cleaning events, echoing nineteenth-century cultural rhythms (Rivera 1998). Acequias irrigate ‘long lots,’ which are narrow agricultural fields, most characteristic of New Mexican cultivation (Wright and Campbell 2008). According to J. B. Jackson (1952) the ribbon-shaped pattern of agricultural New Mexican fields that kept farmers close to their land and the acequias is inherently Hispano.

Seed saving, cultivating foods that thrive in local environments, and developing food preserving techniques that create foodstuffs unique to the area are still present, despite contemporary conveniences. These practices include steaming green corn in an horno, a wood fired outdoor oven, if available and drying it to create chicos (dry roasted corn); jerking the meat of elk and deer to make carne seca; cooking blue atole (blue corn meal porridge) with red chile to make chaqegue, especially popular with the older generations; drying beans; canning jellies made from wild fruit like capulin (choke cherries), ciruelas (plums), and freezing and drying fresh chile and storing it in the form of ristras and powder. Unlike Mexico where corn tortillas predominate, especially farther to the south than the borderlands, in northern New Mexico flour tortillas are much more common. Partially this is due to the difficulty in producing large quantities of corn, whereas the grassy plains and arid climate of the north makes it well suited for cattle ranching and irrigated wheat farming (Pilcher 2001). Jeffery Pilcher writes, “Whenever irrigation permitted, the settlers cultivated the European grain wheat, although the expense of mills and ovens often forced women to grind the grain on metates (stone and mortar grinders) and cook it in the form of tortillas rather than bread” (2001:262). These conditions also made it less conducive for growing a variety of vegetables, herbs, and in particular chiles.

Beginning in the 20th century, Hispano culture in northern New Mexico was affected by attempts to impose English language education (U.S. Commission on Civil Rights 1974), mass media, the railroad, and both WWI and WWII. Hispanos found themselves not unlike new arrivals of the Old World to the United States. Although the new world of the outsider offered many opportunities for a more convenient lifestyle, it simultaneously threatened their traditional and very meaningful cultural heritage. Local customs were often superseded by the more “sophisticated” practices of outsiders (Nostrand 1980). Even the erection of fences undermined the traditional communal land usage of small ranchers on the Las Vegas Land Grant of San Miguel County and were contested by the Las Gorras Blancas of the late 1800s (Romero 2006). There were 362 land-grant claims filed by Hispanos and Chicanos in New Mexico and yet the U.S. government only confirmed portions of 128 grants (Wright and Campbell 2005). In the end, Hispanics and Native peoples retained a slight portion, 4 million acres, of the 33 million acres of land grants. Animosity still boils over this deception, especially in the Hispano homeland of northern New Mexico (Briggs, Briggs and Van Ness 1987, Ebright 1989, Nostrand 1992).

Ethnic revivals and resistance movements occurring throughout the United States in the 1960s and 70s reached deep into northern New Mexico. Men like Reies Tijerina and Rudolfo “Gorky” Gonzales fortified the La Raza Unida movement and programs, heritage festivals, and publications that sought to strengthen the Spanish component of Hispano identity. Tijerina’s Hispano grassroots movement in northern New Mexico, the Alianza Federal de las Mercedes, contested the failure of the U.S. government to honor the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo. The treaty was written to protect the rights of Hispanos and their land and was signed by Mexico and the United States (Zentella 2004). Many of the publications and festivals continue to this day although some observances are waning. These include funciones (village saints’ day), posadas (locally hosted dinners for Christmas travelers), fiestas and mantanzas (community parties, pig/sheep or goat roasts), Lent rituals, including praying the Stations of the Cross every Friday during Lent at local Moradas (places of worship established by Hermanos), Holy week processions to a Calvario hill (holy destination site of procession) (Lamadrid 2007) and the pilgrimage to the Chimayo Santuario among others. The Chimayo Santuario chapel is a cultural and spiritual touchstone for the region’s Hispanos -- this is the destination site for the largest pilgrimage in North America that takes place for Good Friday (Wright 2002).

Given its history and cultural practices, northern New Mexico fits Zelinsky’s definition of a time-honored region:

regions are relatively self-contained, endogamous, stable, and of long duration… an intimate symbiotic relationship between man and land develops over many centuries, one that creates indigenous modes of thought and action, a distinctive visible landscape, and a form of human ecology specific to the locality. Although the usual process of random cultural mutation, the vagaries of history, and some slight intermixture of peoples, and the diffusion of innovations of all sorts presents the achievement of total stasis or equilibrium, or complete internal uniformity, it would not be unfair to characterize such a traditional region as one based on blood and soil. In the extreme, it becomes synonymous with a particular tribe or ethnic group (Zelinsky 1973:110-111).

The symbolic use of green chile emerges as central to claims made for northern New Mexican identity as a distinct Hispano identity and northern New Mexico as a cultural region.

Chile Peppers in New Mexico

The history of Mexican food is long and varied with multiple cultural influences. The chili pepper plants that were introduced in the 14th century by the Portuguese have become a popular spice in Mexican cuisine. However, the culinary artists of Old Mexico experimented with blending different chiles to make renowned mole sauces. As one of my respondents, Agnes Montoya states, “Mexican cuisine incorporates cilantro and other spices and herbs while here in New Mexico it mostly plain, ‘good ole’ garlic.” In contrast, New Mexican Hispanos perfected the cultivation and cooking of a single chile, the green chile. One respondent stated that, “as long as I can remember I’ve heard about chile, who makes the best chile in the family, whose chile to stay away from at gatherings…its always been about chile.” Applied liberally to anything from pizza, bagels, fudge, and even beer, green chile is found everywhere. One young woman from Mexico commented, “You guys put green chile on everything, all the time.” Green chile is much more than just a spice, condiment sauce or decoration; in many cases it really is more of a staple as reflected in one woman’s statement, “Chile is a staple for northern New Mexico food. We usually have chile as a side dish for most meals.”

Several varieties of chile are grown in New Mexico, including the New Mexican type, cayenne, paprika and jalapenos. However, central to this study is the New Mexican type cultivars that extend from New Mexico 6-4’, NuMex Big Jim, Sandia, NuMex R Naky, NuMex Conquistador, NuMex Joe E. Parker, and Arizona-20 (Bosland and Walker 2004). Green chile is a seasonal crop so for most of the last 400 years it was only available a few weeks out of the year. Therefore, red chile, preserved as ristras, was the standard form of chile for most of the year. This is changing, however, and despite the fact that canning was not widely practiced among the women I interviewed, as many expressed concern about the possibilities of botulism, the advent of technology such as freezers, has meant that green chile is more readily available year round.

The difference between green and red chile is that the green chile is simply harvested earlier in the ripening process than the red chile pod. Red chile tends to have a milder flavor. New Mexicans have their own preferences when it comes to purchasing chile for home consumption, choosing among chile varieties with names like “Big Jim,” “Mira Sol,” “Socorro,” “Rio Grande,” “Sandia,” “Chimayo,” “Hatch,” and “Mesilla Valley.” Oral tradition suggests that in 1598 the celebrated and lambasted conquistador, Don Juan de Onate, traveled into what is now known as New Mexico bringing along the green chile pepper from Mexico (New Mexico Green Chile Company 2010). Jose Pacheco contends, in one interview that “since a great deal of exchange occurred prior to Onate between the northern region and what is now known as Mexico, the green chile pepper arrived much earlier.” For certain, it has grown in New Mexico for at least 400 years (Votava, Baral, and Bosland 2005). The New Mexican green chile peppers originated in the Rio Grande valley and are now grown throughout the state. Much of the credit for improving chile cultivation is given to the century old chile program at New Mexico State University. Less acknowledgement is given to local indigenous seed saving that many Hispanos have been practicing for generations. The major commercial production takes place in the southern part of the state, concentrated roughly along what has been coined, “The Chile Trail.” In the west the trail begins in Hidalgo, Luna, and Dona Ana counties, the state’s three largest chile producers. As the trail continues past Hatch, Texas is the next site, where it is strictly “chili” spelled with an “i”, which represents a dish made and created by Anglo-Texans, and does not refer to the plant. Chiles for local sales are a relatively small part of the total commercial chile acreage, but chile is a good cash crop for some small growers (Bosland and Walker 2004). Starting in 1970, chile became an important cash crop for farmers whereby most are grown under contract to be sold to processors (Dudley 2010).

Symbolic Representation: Natural Item and Item as Food

Northern New Mexico Hispanos are one of the primary heirs to the cultural and technological knowledge pertinent to the production of green chile foodways in the United States. In Hispano northern New Mexico green chile exists both as part of nature and part of culture as it understood not just as food but also as a seed that is pure, handed down through the generations, and thus a conveyor of local knowledge. Seed saving has been a constant throughout the region as the “seeds are considered sacred,” as Isaura Andaluz of Cuatro Puertas stated during her interview. According to Agnes Montoya, “the seeds are important because if you get them from way back when, then you know you have the real thing. Nowadays, a lot of chileros have mixed the seeds." In spite of some polluting of the genetics of green chile seeds, many Hispanos continue to protect the heirloom seeds of green chiles which creates a food with great symbolic meaning.

Given the reverence of the land and nature, Hispanos understand green chile as both a living object and as a prepared food. The dual role of the green chile as natural object embedded with local cultural knowledge and a pervasive food item in Hispano life is partly responsible for this food’s success as an ethnic emblem. The way of life, the resilience of the people in an arid harsh environment, and their connection to the land, creates symbolic meanings communicated by green chile as a symbol of resistance to modern forces that threaten to undermine cultural heritage. The green chile can be manipulated symbolically both as a natural item and as a food and thus the meaning expressed by the image of the chile as natural item is different from the meaning expressed by chile as a food item. For this reason, the chile possesses a broad range and flexibility as an ethnic and regional emblem.

The natural aspects of the chile’s quality that make it an especially appropriate ethnic emblem are its tenacity and hotness. As mentioned earlier, northern New Mexico offers a rather challenging growing environment and yet the chile has prospered. The resilience of the chile in response to the environment parallels the resilience of those who settled here and thus serves as a symbolic image of a forceful people. As also noted above, northern New Mexican Hispanos possess a rich cultural heritage that persists in spite of its marginalization in the state, national, and global economy, racial oppression and appropriation, and displacement from the land (Wright and Campbell 2005). Green chile is an appropriate Hispano symbol given that land and water are traditionally fundamental to Hispanos, not only because they sustain life but as concepts around which this distinct culture emerged (deBuys 1985, Ebright 1994). “Here in New Mexico we interface with nature, interface with traditional culture; we have a different experience, and a lot of it is reverence,” according to Miguel Santistevan (Dudley 2010). For this reason, land loss whether by annexation, confiscation, poverty, or environmental conflict, constitutes an injurious and disempowering detriment to the very essence of Hispano culture (Zentella 2004).

Many challenges impact the culturally significant foodways of ethnic groups. These challenges often prompt groups to re-establish their connections to heritage and cultural continuity. The love of green chile and its iconic symbolic representation of Hispano ethnic identity and cultural maintenance is demonstrated in the resistance struggle that threatens green chile production on a number of fronts. As a result of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and heightened border security, New Mexico’s green chile commercial harvest has been cut by two thirds and half of the commercial jobs in the industry have disappeared. It is important to note that the labor shortage and other production problems are suffered almost exclusively by large industrial farming operations in the southern region of New Mexico (Dudley 2010). In contrast, organic farmers and traditional family and subsistence farmers have enjoyed chile price increases and note that the seeds that have continued to adapt and have pushed production per acre up by 75% from 1992 to 2009 (Save New Mexico Seeds 2010). Moreover, green chile production has offered modest incomes to growers or middlemen selling door to door. During one interview, Lila Candelario pleasantly remembers traveling with her father Thomas Maes, throughout the southern regions buying sacks to sell to neighbors in the north. Jose Pacheco recalls the time when his dad, “farming the Chamita area sold ristras to the general store for one dollar a ristra.” The struggle to maintain small localized family green chile production has encountered opposition from what is identified as corporate imperialism in New Mexico and which threatens local control over New Mexican green chile. Specifically the push to create genetically modified green chile at New Mexico State University (NMSU) is at the center of this struggle. In 2007 state legislatures signed a memorandum protecting green chile from genetic contamination of native seeds, thus supporting the farmers’ rights to maintain their seeds uncontaminated in light of genetic engineering to take place in New Mexico. However, shortly thereafter, NMSU was awarded one million state dollars to research genetically engineered (GE) green chile. The introduction of GE green chile is to take effect in 2012-13.

The physical nature of green chile enhances the power of the chile-as-food in regards to being an ethnic marker. For many Hispanos chile encompasses the culture of northern New Mexico and this was stated by a woman from the Las Vegas area in the following response to the question, “Is there any particular food that you think represents the culture of northern New Mexico: 'Definitely chile, anything with chile.'" Chile, as a complex food symbol, is manipulated in different ways to determine and impregnate it with ethnic boundaries. This includes the roasting process, culinary preparation and ability to withstand its hotness.

Roasting Green Chile

Each year from August to September, owners of grocery stores, roadside stands, and small fruterias in northern New Mexico faithfully roast green chile. On display are the home-made open black wire cages that are turned while a propane flame heats the chiles to the point of blistering the thick outer skin. The gushing sound of propane gas is followed by the snap, crackle, and pop of roasting chiles as the skins begin to swell up, allowing the pod to be peeled to expose the chile flesh. Chiles are purchased in various quantities, from just a few pounds to 50 pound sacks; many people will purchase numerous sacks to take them through to the next season. One woman fondly states, “It was just awesome to see my mom get together with all of her sisters and enjoy themselves while roasting, like, five sacks of chile.”

Although in more contemporary times individuals sometimes request a roasted sack of red chile as well as green, most often the roasted chiles bought at the black wire cages will be green chiles of many varieties and degrees of hotness. They have a thick flesh that is propagated for good flavor. Roque Maes commented that while he was growing up in the 1940s and 50s, however, “green chile was not the most popular chile that existed in northern New Mexico because there were no modern conveniences like refrigerators. Green chile is seasonal and red chile is more likely to be saved as ristras used in cooking, red chile was used more often especially during the winter.”

Due to its thick flesh and outer skin the chile must be roasted just long enough and then steamed in a heavy plastic bag so that the steam can further roast the chiles and make peeling an easier task. The peeling process is not terribly complicated if the chile has been roasted for the right amount of time. When the skin blisters it simply sheds from the flesh, otherwise it remains adhered to the surface and much of the chile is wasted. Today, chile is generally placed in freezer bags immediately after roasting and steaming. Otherwise it will sour and many people also dry green chile as a form of preservation. Some prefer the convenience of roasting chile on-site in a propane roaster while others roast their own on homemade apparatuses, estufas (wood burning kitchen stoves) or gas grills. For one woman the smells brought back fond memories as she stated, “Roasting chile reminds me of being young and my mom and aunts would get together since early in the morning and roast and peel green chile on our grill all day.” Participation in chile roasting requires a degree of specialized cultural knowledge in order to achieve the final product.

Chiles roasted at the stands are bagged and lugged home for the final part of the process which often serves as a time of family bonding. As Corilia Ortega reminisces:

Ford had nothing on my Mom. She would set up an assembly line starting with three vandejas (large stock pots) filled with cold water, where the first person began squishing the chile down into the cool water to rinse, quickly turning the water black and thus requiring a constant replenishment of fresh water. At the second vandeja the older sisters would remove the stems and continue rinsing. My mom was anal about it, at the last stage of rinsing, chiles picked from the third vandeja would be peeled by my sisters and landed up in in yet another individual bowl. The less interesting task was given to the youngest girl, ME, where I would bag the chile amongst a mound of ziplocks and many towels that sopped up the dripping hotness. My mom made sure that the chiles were lined up side by side in the bags like little soldiers laid in waiting, and then stacked in the cleared corner of the storage freezer.

Red or Green?

For Hispano New Mexicans this is a philosophic question, for the heart and soul of New Mexican cuisine is the chile, and this question is the official state question. When ordering New Mexican dishes at restaurants, patrons are asked if they prefer red, green, or Christmas, a unique New Mexican term for the combination of the two chiles. This is reflected in one elderly man’s statement, “Red or Green? Chile represents all of New Mexico. Especially the way that it is prepared in this state.” Chile is prepared as a dish to be eaten with everything from eggs and potatoes to burritos smothered in red, green or “Christmas.” It is also served in a variety of forms such as freshly chopped or simply prepared as a mixture of chopped or powder with water and thickened by a roux to form a sauce or stew. Chile, as it is known in New Mexico, constitutes a variety of dishes where the main ingredient is fresh green chile, or a sauce made from rehydrated dry red chile pods, known as chile caribe.

The Spanish spelling of chili with an ‘i’ is understood as something more like a soup or stew, made with meat and various other ingredients, and seasoned with a mixture of powdered chile, and other spices. The New Mexican spelling of ‘chile’ with an ‘e’ represents something much more than ground beef, beans, and cheese. As a response to the question, “What food do you think represents northern New Mexico?,” one women states, “ Well this would probably be categorized under the entire state, but it would be chile.” The state’s iconic pepper constitutes the essential ingredient for both chile verde and chile colorado, which can be served thick as a sauce or with broth and vegetables as a stew although in the latter case the green is more common. At times the labels, carne con chile verde or chile Verde caldo (used more by old timers) distinguishes the fresh from the sauce as Cruz Flores states.

Cultural Syncretism and Cultural Borrowing

Even foods that are not traditionally recognized as Hispanic may become so through the introduction of chile. Cruz Flores tells of his mother’s rodillos now infamous within his family circle:

My mother spent many working hours with an upscale Lebanese family who introduced her to stuffed cabbage rolls made with lamb and rice. My mother substituted hamburger for the lamb and introduced the mixture to a profusion of powdered red chile to make what the family now refers to as rodillos. Rodillos now have come to represent a celebrated traditional dish served over the decades on New Year’s Eve.

The dish is enjoyed by family members and all who have been introduced to it. “The kids now request the dish for Christmas and Thanksgiving, next you know we will be eating it for fourth of July,” Cruz laughs. Agnes Montoya smiles when telling of her children’s latest culinary adventure; “For Christmas they tried a new recipe of homemade tamales with green chile, chicken, and Mozzarella cheese. Different but very good for a change.”

Cultural Boundaries

The hotness of the chile is often used as an ethnic boundary between Hispanos and others as well as within Hispano groups. Depending on seasonal variables, such as rainfall and temperature, the chile will be milder or hotter than previous years. However, the commercial pods bought at the local market will likely be mild to medium in heat as they tend to cater more to tourists or newcomers and therefore the spiciness is toned down.

Outsiders or newcomers who acquire a love of chile and purchase sacks for home consumption may become the subject of humorous stories. Witnessing or hearing of an outsider or tourist accidentally rubbing their eyes while peeling chile is the butt of many jokes and stories. And on the other hand, Hispanos in the diaspora are at times tested by family members on their Hispano authenticity; those returning home will be put to the test to see if they can still withstand the level of hotness of the New Mexican green chile.

Cultural Acceptance and Appropriation

New Mexico has gained international fame as a tourist site and many outsiders are eager to become acquainted with the “exotic” local foodways. Although few tourists have the opportunity or desire to purchase vast quantities of green chile to roast, numerous tourist-oriented restaurants introduce newcomers to the culinary novelty of New Mexican cooking in a thoroughly American commercial setting. In such establishments, the hotness or spiciness of the chile is toned down to suit the less seasoned palates of many tourists and is often served in small quantities by staff who graciously explain the red, green, and Christmas distinction. In more expensive restaurants, dishes are available that rarely if ever grace the table of the average local: Piñon crusted trout with green chile chutney; pan seared Hatch green chile Colorado Rosen lamb rack; or sweet avocado green chile ice-cream. In all of these dishes chile is disguised more as a spice, sauce or condiment, rather than a principal food. Thus, in the heavily advertised New Mexican restaurants, where tourists and their dollars are welcome, the loosening of ethnic boundaries is reflected in the setting and the food. To the outsider, these restaurants are different enough to be interesting, but not so different as to be threatening or not enjoyable. Smaller, out-of-the-way, “authentic” restaurants also exist where the clientele is more local, Spanish is more commonly spoken, the food is hotter, the menu more limited, and the setting less formal. Although such restaurants welcome outsiders who happen by, only the more adventurous are apt to feel comfortable in what is obviously “insider” territory. Some locals joke that Hispano New Mexico lies over the chile curtain (as opposed to the Tortilla Curtain popularized by T.C. Boyle’s novel with the same name). Hispano New Mexico is separated gastronomically from Anglo-Americans, where green chile is occasionally peppered in gentrified dishes, representing an exotic adventure into the “land of enchantment.”

Throughout the region of northern New Mexico people express a great deal of pride in their cultural heritage and subsequently their local foodways especially through the numerous major festivals and minor fiestas. These celebrations feature New Mexican cuisine for the benefit of locals and tourists both. Most small towns celebrate their local saints at village funciones or fiestas during which a great deal of food is shared and sold, most of which feature green chile, including green chile enchiladas, green chile stew, “smothered” burritos, green chile powdered popcorn, and jerky. The state fair at the New Mexico fair grounds, the largest of all the state’s fiestas, offers the annual burger cook off, dubbed the Governor’s Green Chile Cheeseburger Challenge. The New Mexico State Tourism Department went so far as to create the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail as a tourist attraction.


Micro-level studies of cultural festivities and everyday occasions revolving around eating offer a window into symbolic representations and ethnicity for as Roger Abrahams writes, “Ethnic or regional identity can be acted out within the home by eating certain foods prepared in special ways” (1984:20). This is often an unconscious process in the absence of alternatives but when newly introduced foods come into the picture the process of choice becomes symbolic. Thus, in looking at the poetics of food we can appreciate more fully how foodways are utilized in forms of exchange other than just meeting dietary needs. In this article I have argued that the green chile, both in it natural form and as a food item, is symbolically representative of the unique Hispano identity of northern New Mexico. There it is held as a rich ethnic emblem of reverence for the land, ethnic pride, and resilience. Even though there is a realization that the sales of green chile to non-Hispanics will probably remain low, attempts are being made to expand the market. The New Mexico Department of Agriculture (NMDA) began its “Get Your Fix” green chile promotion to introduce New Mexico green chile to residents throughout the United States. The Marketing and Development staff at NMDA works with grocery stores in different cities to help set up the chile displays and educate consumers about the many uses of green chile. In 2010, the “Get Your Fix” green chile promotion was featured in retail stores in several Texas cities, Washington, D.C., Las Vegas, Nevada, Virginia, and Long Beach, California, just to mention a few. For decades chile has been the heart and soul of Hispano culture and the pride of the regional foods. With technological changes, green chile became especially prominent and with promotional efforts, its importance as a cultural symbol only promises to grow.

This article is dedicated to Lila Candelario whose stories will live in our hearts always.

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