Juan Estevan Arellano

Lately, a lot has been written and discussed regarding GE or GMO (genetically engineered or modified) chile that sometimes, instead of clarifying the issue, simply clouds it more. First of all, people don’t plant a different seed for green chile and red chile. Green chile is simply the unrippened fruit of the chile plant, while red chile is when the pod is ripe.

I’ve also heard people say that they are planting chicos or growing posole. For me, chicos and posole refer to a process for saving corn for use later in the season. For both, if you want to be traditional, you plant the maíz Concho. Chicos are made when the corn is still tender, in the jilote or xilote stage, while posole is made from the corn once it matures. A mature ear of corn is known as an elote. And one that has had all the kernals removed is simply an olote.

But returning to the chile – I’ve heard experts (I am not one of them) say that there is a notable difference between chile grown in Chimayó from that grown in Embudo, or Velarde, Alcalde or Medanales. My opinion is different. I say that the majority of the chile grown in Chimayó, Embudo, Velarde, El Guique, Chamita, or La Mesilla; what is known as the Española Valley, is all the same. None of these people who say it is different, if they were to participate in a chile tasting with each community represented, would be able to tell the difference. I think that “Española Valley chile” would be a better name.

A lot has to do with the cook, especially for red chile, which can be prepared as chile caribe, made from chile en greña or pods, from chile molido (ground), or a combination; pods and ground. Then it also depends on whether one adds cumino, garlic or any other herb. So the cook definitely has a lot to do with how the chile turns out.

But let’s start with the seed. First, there is not enough local, landrace, open-pollinated seed if someone wanted to plant 50 or even 25 acres of “chile nativo.” Last year Loretta Sandoval and I met with some people from the Santa Fe Alliance at the Embudo Community Center to talk about economic development, using the native crops as a starting point. But almost immediately we realized that we were putting the cart in front of the horse because there is not enough native chile and corn seed to supply all the farmers who want to grow these crops commercially.

So before we start talking about growing chile or maíz Concho commercially, we have to grow enough seed. What we need are watershed seed banks. People in the past were cognizant of where their seeds came from, and they were usually talked about in terms of watersheds, or “aguas.”

My mom, who grew chile until she died in her 80s, always saved her own seed but she was always looking for ways to improve the crop, and that entailed getting seeds “de los diferentes ríos,” from different rivers, or watersheds. She would say that at least every five years she had to infuse new seeds from different waters to those she grew in order to strengthen and grow better chile.

Early in the season she would identify the pods that were growing bigger and were straight instead of all twisted, and she would mark the plant with a stick so no one would pick that pod. That pod would in essence be babied until it was harvested sometime before the first frost. And if for some reason it wasn’t growing how she thought it should, she would harvest it green.

This philosophy that my mother had, along with almost everyone that I remember, goes against what some people say: that they have been growing the same seeds in the same piece of land for the past 400 years or 200 years. For me such statements are not factual and are misleading historically and probably also in terms of genetics. That makes me wonder whether that person knows anything about history or thinks one is so dumb as to believe them.

Those who have raised animals know that you don’t keep the same bull, boar or ram with the same cow, sow or ewe – or else instead of getting healthy offspring, you will end with nothing but runts. It’s the same with seeds. If you keep the same seeds without new genes, after five years the fruit or vegetables won’t be worth saving. If the same chile seed were used year after year for fifty years, the chile pods would be so tiny as to be worthless.

Recently I read, “This Chimayó chile has been grown for four hundred years in the same place.” 400 years ago there was no Chimayó as we know it today. The only settlement, besides the Native American Pueblos, was at San Gabriel near present day Ohkay Owingeh. Santa Fe was barely getting started in 1610 as a Spanish government villa, and the orders given to Peralta were to plant vineyards and olive groves, both Mediterranean crops that wouldn’t grow in such a harsh, cold environment.

So a lot of today’s seed savers are inventing history to fit their illusions or dreams. More than likely, chile didn’t reach present day Chimayó until the mid 1700s (Plaza del Cerro was established in 1740), and there is no way of proving chile was planted immediately. Unless someone has written records that show an exact date, we have to be careful in giving a historical date to that which cannot be proven as fact.

I am of the opinion that all the chile planted in the Española Valley is related and more than likely is a descendent of the first seeds brought by Obregón in 1580 or those brought by Oñate and the settlers that came with him in 1598. And since there were more Tlaxcaltecas (Mexican Indians) than Spaniards or Mestizos, the chile seeds might have come with the Tlaxcaltecas, as they were the agriculturalists.

But let’s not make claims that certain seeds have been growing in the same spot for hundreds of years because we know over the years they have been crossed with improved varieties. As early as the 1930s a grower from Dixon said his dad had brought chile seeds from California where he worked as a migrant to mix with his native chile because it was bigger.

Also, people have always practiced crop rotation; meaning that they would usually open up an alfalfa patch and plant chile for the first year or two. Then they would plant corn when the land had lost some of its strength. Why? Because if they were to plant corn immediately, all the energy would go into growing tall stalks that wouldn’t produce corn. In Spanish they say, “se le fue en crecer.” So they never used the same piece of land to plant one specific crop year after year because, as the late Cleofes Vigil would say, “la flor de la tierra se perdía,” the fertility of the soil would erode.

All I am saying is, be skeptical of people who claim that their particular chile or corn variety has been grown in the same place for hundreds of years because that is not true. Also, it’s not true that a person, if one was to line up different chile specimens from the different villages, could tell which is Chimayó, versus Embudo or Velarde, Alcalde or any other village. For example, Chimayó and Embudo are both at around 6,000 ft. elevation, have same type of sandy, loamy soil, and get their water from the west face of the Sangre de Cristo. There are a lot of similarities in terms of growing conditions in both communities, so the produce will be very similar.

But of course there are differences. Every farmer has, in a sense, a different seed since some have mixed their seed with Española Improved, Anaheim, or some other. Farmers are always trying to improve their produce. They want bigger pods, they want those that don’t get wilt – so of course every farmer’s seeds are going to be somewhat different. But overall, the chile grown in the Española Valley is all related.

What I’ve noticed in the farmers’ markets is that a lot of today’s growers don’t know when to harvest the green chile. For it to be ready for roasting, the green chile has to be “macizo, relumbroso, duro,” solid (gorgeous), hard, shinny, and when roasted, the seeds have to remain white instead of turning black.

Enjoy your chile, whether red or green, as long as it’s not genetically engineered, and save your seeds.

Juan Estevan Arellano is a researcher focusing on traditional agriculture and irrigation. He is the translator-editor of the book Ancient Agriculture, and has written many articles about the rural traditions of northern NM. He and his wife, Elena, raise heirloom fruit and vegetables in the Embudo area along the Rio Grande.