When we drove south into Sonora, I had a special order for ristras, the long strings of red chiles sold in Mexico and the Southwest. One was a request from a friend and the other is actually going to be a birthday gift for another friend about to turn eighty.
We wound our way south of Cananea, the site of a recent mining pond spill. Soon we would hit the Rio Sonora, one of three rivers that received some of the acid spill. The sulfate acid, along with a host of heavy metals that have not yet been categorized, has killed the river, the lifeblood of the people who live along the waterway.
For the first forty or so miles, we saw no hint of the damage other than the roads being torn up due to heavy rains. It wasn’t until we drove through the Rio Bacanuci (yes, through – there are no bridges in the northern part of the Rio Sonora road) that things began to change.
Parked right alongside el rio were three large water trucks that appeared to be pumping water. At first we thought they were pumping water into local wells, but no. The workers were taking water from clean wells to distribute to towns further south that have had no safe water since the August spill.
We stopped, took photos, and eventually asked about where we might be able to buy ristras. Just as one of the young men was explaining where to find some, a truck drove through el rio heading south.
“That’s him. He has the farm with the ristras!”
I waved down the driver of the truck and found out where his farm was. A few minutes later we were greeted by his son, Norberto, and his wife, Marisa. This young couple manages a farm on Ejido Pueblo Galera, which is close to 6200 acres in size. They share their plot with Norberto’s parents who live just across the driveway. (An ejido is land held in common by a community and sometimes farmed or used cooperatively.)
Norberto plants a portion of his farm with chiles, pecans, tomatoes, pinto beans, alfalfa, corn, peanuts, and flowers. There are also about twenty-five chickens for eggs and meat. Ah, and peaches. We left with two jars of freshly canned peaches and left them with some of our homemade burritos de carne y frijol (meat and bean burritos).
“Our land wasn’t affected by the spill,” Norberto explained. “But everyone thought it was, so the mine actually compensated us for our damaged reputation.”
They even had the main Sonoran newspaper, El Imparcial, print a story about the spill which included information about how the water in Pueblo Galera hadn’t been affected.
Unfortunately, though, the heavy rains destroyed more than half their crops. “This deep!” said Norberto, holding his hand about five feet off the floor. “That’s how high the water was. We could see only the top of our corn.”
Norberto and Marisa’s house sits on the east side of the road. All the crops planted to their east were flooded, but the crops on the west side of the road were spared.
They were able to harvest chiles from the west side, and when we stopped for ristras, Marisa was busy drying chiles and grinding them into chile powder, a three-step grinding process.
First Marisa pounds the chiles which bruises them a bit and loosens the seeds.
Then she slowly dries them in her oven and finally grinds them three times, first coarsely, then finer, and then finer still. Finally the powder is bagged.
After watching this process for a while, we got the tour of the portion of the property still in production. We crossed the highway and slipped through a V-shaped entrance through the fence into to their field.
Most of what is left in the field is marigolds which are about to be picked and sold for Dia de los Muertos, coming up in just under two weeks.
Norberto was proud of the fact that he uses no pesticides. He mixes the plants in his fields to help protect them from predators. It was a delight looking out across the organic field buzzing with honeybees and nearly blanketed in about eight varieties of butterfly.
Finally, it was time to choose the ristras and leave. Norberto chose the two that would travel the best and carefully placed them in my car. We left to Norberto and Marisa waving goodbye as we drove off, south to Banámichi, the smell of chiles wafting through the car.