José Antonio Serrano is a thriving and dedicated agricultor who cultivates land in San Pedro, near Española. When asked about his work, he laughs at the near total improbability that he would have wound up making a living as a farmer in rural New Mexico when, just a few years before, in a dizzying and fast-paced Mexico City, he had been working the beat as a policeman. He had never picked up a hoe or shovel in his life or grown much of anything.
Now he thanks his lucky stars that he is up at dawn irrigating a two-acre field, tending to his plants and picking succulent fruits and vegetables that he sells at local farmers’ markets through his business called Family Farms. In reality, he loves farming but probably never would have discovered it had he not packed up his entire family and belongings and journeyed northward to try his luck at landing a better life.
In contrast, Rosa María Alcantar, from the state of Guanajuato, and her two hardworking sisters, Estela and Liliana, who farm an acre in Santa Cruz and another plot in nearby Chamita, have known the farming life since they were little girls. And do they ever know it! By early March they have already cleared and prepared land for snow peas, which they sow by early April and are selling by late May or early June. They have discovered that as the peas mature, they can plant beans interspersed among the peas so that, when the spent pea plants are pulled up in mid-June, the beans already have a head start and will mature by the end of summer. They also specialize in white onions and several varieties of potatoes including the exotic fingerlings. Masters of irrigation, they never let their beloved plants go too many days without water—the secret to their crops’ health and prolific output.
Angél, a middle-aged man from Michoacán, specializes in growing corn and chile. He also plants saffron, a spice whose bright yellow flowers have traditionally given certain rice dishes, like the Spanish paella, their golden hue. Highly adept at employing his trusted mule, Paisa, in the plowing of fields, Angel resorts to methods and technologies that disappeared from this area decades ago. To watch him plow is to witness how—before the advent of powerful, modern machinery and the proliferation of petroleum products—people used highly ingenious means for tilling soil. These required simple but sophisticated tools, a high level of rapport between man and beast, as well as great physical strength and endurance. Angél lo tiene todo. Angél has got it all.
Neti, a 27-year-old man who hails from Guatemala, is yet another example of an individual from the remote south who was radically changed by New Mexico’s compelling agricultural, social and economic environment. Initially unfamiliar with the plant life of northern New Mexico and its agriculture, after a year of working for Don Bustos on his Santa Cruz farm, he became farm manager.
Much like the people of Iowa who have taken the initiative to publicly thank the wave of Mexicano and Central American people who have saved Iowa’s hog and meatpacking industries, so too might the people of northern New Mexico consider thanking them. For these immigrants have embraced and strengthened an essential way of life that, during the last many years, has been greatly diminished. Certainly, for the last 20 years, since the tremendous influx of Mexicanos into the U.S. and New Mexico began to take place, they have taken up the slack in our waning agricultural landscape and have helped make it viable and green again.
In one village along the Río Chama, elderly retired Nuevo Mexicano farmers whose grown children had chosen to pursue a living elsewhere recently opted to sell their land to members of this community. The Mexicano people were only too happy to buy it and pursue this richly rewarding but arduous occupation, while the Nuevo Mexicanos were pleased to see their traditional and beloved siembra de la tierra (sowing of the earth) continue into the future. Anyone who has ever worked beside Mexican farmworkers is familiar with the enormous ganas, or fervor with which they work.
For Mexicanos, this newfound role as caretakers of the New Mexican earth and as agricultores and producers (together with other people) of the region’s food, makes tremendous sense. By and large, they have a deep knowledge and regard for the soil and what it can produce. Nearly their entire population is just one or two generations removed from a traditional agricultural way of life, which goes back thousands of years, altered only by the Spanish conquest.
In general, Mexico’s produce, an amazing variety of fruits and vegetables—some found nowhere else on the planet—tend to be naturally organic. They are available in huge quantities, in bustling open-air markets where people haggle over prices, and the daily drama of life unfolds against mounds of yellow-red mangoes, heaps of green corn ears and piles of freshly picked squash blossoms. From such products comes the country’s rich, flavorful, no-nonsense cuisine. Mexico’s traditional cuisine was recently declared an important part of the world’s patrimony by UNESCO.
Thanks to Mexican immigrants, that same cuisine has found its way to New Mexico and can now be prepared from locally produced ingredients. Plenty of those resources are indeed present here in northern New Mexico, but due to the historical devaluation of small-scale agriculture and manual work, in recent years there had been relatively few individuals or families willing to pursue this way of life, upon which the lives of everyone else has historically depended. Thankfully, these people from Meso-America, the historical birthplace of corn, beans, squash, chile and tomatoes, have stepped forward, hoe and shovel in hand, to sustain and perpetuate this intensely life-serving way of life. ¡Mil gracias!
Alejandro López, a northern New Mexican writer and photographer, is an avid student of Mexican life. He teaches English in the immigrant community and Spanish to English speakers.