By Denise Chávez
Chile is home.
It is my family. My neighborhood. My inheritance.
Es mi familia. Mi vecindad. Mi herencia.
Our family once had farms. My grandfather, Epifanio Chávez Sr., moved away from his land in Las Cruces to seek his fortune elsewhere. He worked at Shalam Colony, the utopian settlement community founded in 1884 by Faithist religious leader, John Newbrough. Newbrough’s dream was to raise orphaned children in a healthy and natural environment. The site selected was six miles west of Las Cruces, in Doña Ana, New Mexico. Epifanio was a carpenter and laborer at Shalam Colony, but his real desire was to find gold in “them thar hills,” much to the consternation of his long-suffering wife, Guadalupe. He never did. Like Newbrough’s dreams of Shalam, Epifanio’s never came to fruition.
This loss of our land has grieved me and set me on the path of reclaiming what does belong to me: the story of my immediate family and, later, the connected family that comes from living a long time in a certain place. This blessing celebrates the enduring nature and ties that can never be broken. What belongs to me is the story of chile.
The smell of chile wafted for years between the walls of my childhood home. My next-door neighbor, Ofelia Carrillo, had converted her large backyard into a chile factory. Day in and day out during the harvest season, women with greasy arms plastered with burnt, darkened chile skins—the pellejo—pulled fresh green chiles out of costales and dropped them into a huge vat of heated oil on a burner. The cooked chiles were removed from the giant oil pit, cooled, and then put into containers to be frozen. The large walk-in freezer in a nearby room had tubs of chile ready to be used in Ofelia’s popular restaurant, El Sombrero.
I have always loved the smell of roasting chile, and this factory suited me well. Sometimes, Ofelia would bring my mother chile fresh from the field, and my mother, Delfina, would grab one and bite into it. She liked her chile uncooked, raw.
Later, when my mother passed on and I bought the house from my sisters, Ofelia, now a dear friend, would invite me over to eat dinner with her in her lovely little yellow kitchen. Oftentimes, my husband and I would also join her for dinner at her restaurant. At that time, the restaurant was located behind the legendary Welcome Inn Bar. Ofelia was a great storyteller and regaled us with stories of her customers and how one Sunday afternoon she ran out of glasses and went next door to the bar to borrow some. The bar had topless dancers on Sunday afternoons and her descriptions were priceless. She remembered how the elder denizens found great delight in the mature dancers—the nearby younger pool players, not so much. Ofelia had a sense of humor, but she was also a shrewd and talented businesswoman. She guarded our neighborhood fiercely and would call out to strangers, “Who are you? You’re a stranger. Now move along, you don’t belong in this neighborhood.”
I miss the chile factory next door.
Several blocks from our house was Memorial General Hospital. McBride Hospital, its former incarnation, was located on the same site before it was razed. The new hospital was built in 1947, shortly before my birth, but my mother felt it wasn’t up to her standards, so I was born at home. McBride Hospital was where Dr. Fabián García, the father of New Mexico chile, bedridden and sick with Parkinson’s disease, died. My mother used to talk about him all the time. They were friends, and she used to go visit him often in the hospital. She said few people went to see him there. He died August 9, 1948, six days before I was born.
My chile world includes Amador Street, named for the illustrious and prominent New Mexico family. Don Fabián García was married to Julieta Amador, but she died early, as did their infant son. Just before you get to Compress Street, and in the shadow of the giant cotton gin, was the packing shed of the Nakayama Farms. A shed-like structure is still there, reminding me of my frequent visits to Mrs. Tome Nakayama, who was always working, bending, lifting, and hauling costales of their farm produce: melons, onions, chile.
Mrs. Nakayama, the matriarch of the family, was a Japanese immigrant like her husband, John. Their son, Dr. Roy Nakayama, went on to become one of the most distinguished chile researchers in the world. In the summertime and early fall, my mother, my sister, and I would drive over to the shed, where my mother would buy melons, onions, and chile directly from Mrs. Nakayama. Her granddaughter and my friend, Peggy Nakayama Swoveland, said the packing shed was a distribution point and that most of the produce was sent to retailers. Somehow, my mother always left with produce.
I have fond and enduring memories of Mrs. Nakayama, a small but incredibly strong woman, hauling costales from one area to another. I recall that searing summer heat, the paper bags full of itchy, fuzzy melons, the odor of strong and potent onions. The chile, too, caused a reaction, and as my mother grabbed a chile with a dirt clod, dusted it off, and bit into it, I felt a tingly heat. We drove home, rich in harvest, to roast, bag, and then freeze our chile.
As a young person, I often complained about our freezer. It was small and always full of chile. We had no room for trays of ice. This was before the days of automatic ice makers, and it annoyed me that chile always supplanted anything cold.
My freezer is still full of chile, a little bit from last year, a lot from the recent harvest, with ice now taking too much space from the chile.
For many years, my family bought chile from family. We would drive out to Shalam Colony Road and find the farm of Isa Chávez and his son, Reyes, my father’s cousins. The chile crop was plentiful and delicious. Reyes’ wife, my Tía Ofelia Mesa Chávez, was always cheerful and on hand. Reyes died in his fifties, and Tía Ofelia ran the farm for more than thirty years. I loved being there and talking to her and wish I’d spent more time asking about family. Eventually, her daughter, Ana, took over. For years, I bought chile from Ana, until the farm began to concentrate on alfalfa and pecans.
My elderly father, Epifanio Jr., loved nothing more than a ride in the car to see his old haunts, especially the family home on Mesquite Street, the nearby Sunshine Grocery store catty-corner to my grandfather’s house where he slept four to a bed with his brothers. An elderly neighbor and cousin, Bestina Sánchez, now the matriarch of the little store, held court in front of the Sunshine in her wheelchair, looking out to the world. The neighborhood grocery store sold Cokes, ice cream, and a little bit of produce, including chile. Her medicinal plants in nearby coffee tins offered help to those in need. “This one is for the females. And if you can’t make pee, try this . . .” Generous pots of red- and rose-colored bougainvillea sat near the large windows, offering a lovely view to all who entered into this neighborhood grocery store, a little treasure trove of family and story.
The old neighborhood on Mesquite Street was the end of civilized Las Cruces, my father said. He often told me of walking through fields of rabbits during the Great Depression to get to school—what was then New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts, now NMSU. The streets were named for trees: Mesquite, Tornillo, Álamo, with Espina Street, known for its thorns, the location of San José Cemetery. It was the cemetery where most Mexicanos were buried at that time in the city. Colorful, full of plastic flowers and homemade markers, it is the heart of La Vecindad.
These jaunts with my father were treasured. We drove around town as he enjoyed a cold yogurt treat, visiting the house he grew up in, now an art gallery. He reminisced about his family, how poor they were. “We once had land. But Dad was too good, too kind, and he gave it all away. Or he lost it.”
At one point, Epifanio moved his family to California, like many who had that dream, and came back with seashells and the memory of a child who died there, a girl named Lilia.
My childhood home, and the place where I still live, was built on cotton fields, and that has always posed a problem when having a garden. The land remembers cotton. I have a photo of those cotton fields with our lone house on that property that once belonged to my aunt, Elsie.
My father had Alzheimer’s, and he was often confused, but he always loved seeing his old house, his old street, visiting Doña Ana, where he was born before New Mexico was a state, and seeing the farms to the north and south. He loved the rows of pecan trees and seeing the chile reddening in the sun, seeing the cotton bolls full and white, ready to be harvested. Together, we bought pecans and chile from the Chávez farm off Shalam Colony Road. “This is our land?” he would ask, and I’d answer, “Yes, this was where the Chávezes had their land.”
By then, my father couldn’t eat chile, and we resorted to that familiar recipe for those with delicate stomachs: enchiladas made with canned Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom, Cream of Celery, or Cream of Chicken soup. As many do, my father enjoyed his creamy enchiladas. Having grown up with a single mother who was a schoolteacher and never had time to cook, I’ve never denigrated others for what they eat. Coming home for a quick lunch, she would grab a can of cold corn or peas and a raw chile, and she was set.
Nonetheless, when I was growing up, our refrigerator always had roasted chile, an olla of frijoles, and taco meat. You could always count on that food being ready to go when people came around. And many did. I am not as social as my mother, but I can say I always have chile and corn tortillas. It is surprising to know that the nearby grocery store mostly carries tortillas from Santa Fe, San Antonio, Lubbock, and Albuquerque when we have such wonderful tortillerías. One is Roberto’s, founded by Roberto Estrada, who set the Guinness World Record for making the largest enchilada, and who also founded and owned Roberto’s Mexican Food. Another is El Indio, a newer place that has set a very high standard.
Nowadays I buy my chile from Luján Farms in Doña Ana, near Hill. There are two ways to get there from my house, and I alternate routes. There’s always something to see along the way: the chile crop maturing in the sun, the cotton and onions ready to be picked, the pecans and their constant march to take over land and water. My heart is full and peaceful when I am around chile and on these rides to and from my chile world.
When my older sister was very ill, I bought two costales of chile for her, Sandía and Big Jim, one for salsa, the other for chile rellenos. You buy the chile for what you are going to use it for—the Sandía, smaller and hotter for salsa; the Big Jim, for its fleshy richness as a chile relleno. Now I mostly buy Joe E. Parker, a savory medium-hot chile that suits all my recipes. This year’s crop is different, with larger Joe E. Parker chiles that look like Big Jims, only thinner.
Of course, the big question for everyone is red or green? I would say my favorite is the red. But then again, it depends on what you are cooking, what you have on hand, y que te antoja, what is your yen. Posole with red or green? Enchiladas with red or green? Frito pies with red? It all depends.
Red, to me, has more maturity and is more highly evolved. It has a spiritual nature that green doesn’t. I can’t and don’t want to debate this, but I do think about it. The red stays in the earth longer and its knowing is deep. There is nothing better than red enchiladas with an egg, or a red burrito bañado with frijoles de la olla. I would not eschew frijoles refritos either, especially if they are guiso-ed, or flash fried. To guiso brings out the flavor in the beans. Heat a cast-iron sartén and add cooking oil. It will steam and fill the air with heat. This is when you put in some cooked beans. They will caramelize and enrich the taste. To guiso makes a difference.
My mother never had time to really cook except when she did cook—holidays, birthdays, special days. Her tacos were legend, as were her sopapillas. She made a bread out of tortilla masa that she called galletas. My mother mostly worked with green chile, as it takes time to process dry red. Time she never had.
I prepare my red chile the old-fashioned way, by scraping the boiled red chile meat with a small, non-serrated knife that belonged to my husband’s grandfather, Xavier Wehrlen, who was in the French Foreign Legion. I am not a seed lover and will often remove the vein of the chile for my quesadilla, as it is the hottest part of the chile. I have never understood why people blend the chile, pellejo and all. It’s indigestible and it is the waxy exterior of the chile, the skin that you peel when it is roasted. Who wants that in their system?
When my older sister, Faride, was dying, she requested I buy her some chile. We got a costal each of Big Jim and Sandía at Luján Farms. We drove out there and picked it up and then went to her home to bag it and put it in her freezer. She was tired and had trouble remembering which chile went in which bag. Her husband couldn’t understand why she had gotten so much chile and what all the fuss was about. I couldn’t explain it to him. Christmas was coming and it was her wish to make it to Christmas. She wanted to have the chile ready for her family. How proud and happy we were to work together bagging that chile!
Faride died in early December. Roberto Estrada had been her classmate at Las Cruces High School, and it was he who catered her funeral meal, for free. That was Roberto’s nature and why his hometown has loved him so much. When Christmas came around, my sister’s chile was ready to go.
My life is a circle of family. A circle of neighborhood. That circle leads next door to Ofelia Carrillo’s chile world. Near the corner is the memory of Memorial General Hospital, before that the McBride Hospital, the memory of Don Fabián García dying there, not alone, but with the company of my mother. I had a job there as a summer intern and often thought of him as I walked that long hallway on the third floor. I was in college at NMSU and knew that the most handsome boys, the ones I was attracted to, lived in García Hall, named in honor of Don Fabián García because of an endowment he left to the university.
The circle continues as I walk my neighborhood in the summer evenings and smell roasting chile and the aroma of cumin coming from a nearby processing plant the next street over. That tangy, pungent, and rich scent is my summer blessing. Down the street is the old Nakayama packing shed in another incarnation. If you take a right onto Valley Drive, it leads you eventually to one of two routes, the old Chávez farms off Picacho Street, where you turn right on Shalam Colony Road, or straight north to Doña Ana and Luján Farms, where Lucinda Luján keeps alive the legacy of her family’s chile farm. This year’s crop of Joe E. Parker has been phenomenal. To drive to Luján Farms and to arrive there is a joyful experience. I feel at home there and feel blessed by the work and love that goes into their chile. Lucinda honors her father, Joe, and his memory is sacred to everyone.
This year, I asked Lucinda if I could put ajo/garlic in the roaster. On a visit to a school in Pueblo, Colorado, several years ago, they were roasting chile in the football field. The principal told me you could ask for plain chile or chile roasted with ajo. Ajo? Ajo!
I resolved to try it and, this year, I did. It’s the best. I added fifteen heads. Next year, I’ll double that amount.
Much more needs to be written about Dr. Fabián García, Dr. Roy Nakayama, Roberto Estrada, and the Shalam Colony, as the history of southern New Mexico is mostly unclaimed by its people. The loss of story is always present in a living culture. And in one’s youth, the importance of this legacy seems far removed, not crucial to a person at the time. It is only when time passes that we begin to reconstruct lost stories. It is my honor to be able to share what I know about my hometown. My chile town.
¡Ay, mi chile! Chile is home.
IN LOVING MEMORY
Epifanio Chávez Sr. Dr. Fabián García. Tome and John Nakayama.
Dr. Roy Nakayama. Ofelia Carrillo. Xavier Wehrlen. Epifanio Chávez Jr. Roberto Estrada. Joe M. Luján. Ofelia M. Chávez. Faride Faver Chávez Conway. Delfina Faver Chávez.
DR. FABIÁN GARCÍA (1871–1948) is considered the Father of New Mexico chile. Born in Chihuahua, México, his parents died when he was a baby and he moved to the Mimbres Valley, then to Mesilla, with his grandmother. The first Hispano graduate of New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts (later New Mexico State University), he was the director of the Agricultural Experiment Station and also became a professor of horticulture at the college. For many years, he was the only faculty member of Mexican descent. He developed new varieties of chile peppers, pecans, and onions that are still grown throughout the world. Dr. García left his entire estate to NMSU, including $89,000 toward the construction of a dormitory on campus for Hispano students, stating “I want to help poor boys, for I know their hardship.” Portrait by Fred Feldman.
Photo courtesy of Archives and Special Collections at NMSU Library.
DR. ROY MINORU NAKAYAMA
(1923–1988) was known as Mr. Chile. He was the son of John K. and Tome Nakayama, who emigrated to the United States from Japan. Settling in Nebraska, they later moved to Las Cruces for John’s health. Roy attended two years at NMSU (then New Mexico A&M), enlisted in the US Army, and was called to active duty in 1943. He participated in the Battle of the Bulge and was captured. He spent seven months as a prisoner of war.
Nakayama taught and conducted research in agriculture and horticulture at NMSU for thirty-two years before retiring in the mid-1980s. He developed chile varieties that helped make chile a commercial crop, including the chile cultivars NuMex Big Jim, the NuMex R Naky (the “R” is for his wife, Rose) and the Española Improved, which was released in collaboration with Frank Mata, then superintendent of the NMSU Agricultural Science Center in Alcalde.
A modest and humble man, Nakayama is one of the founders of the modern chile industry in New Mexico, greatly building on the work of Dr. Fabián García.
Photo courtesy of Archives and Special Collections at NMSU Library.
RECIPE FOR GREEN TOMATILLO ENCHILADAS
- 2 pounds tomatillos
- 1 bunch cilantro
- Garlic/ajo fresh or powdered, to taste
- Green chiles to taste (around 4 or 5), hot as you want it
- Good tortillas from Las Cruces I use Roberto’s or El Indio brand
- Cheese to taste: longhorn cheddar, colby, Monterey Jack (whatever you have on hand, but no swiss)
- Onion to taste
- Boil tomatillos for a few minutes until the skins are soft but not mushy. Save the water.
- Blend tomatillos with 1/3–1/2 of the bunch of cilantro. Add water as needed, but not too much.
- Remove seeds from the chiles. Add 4–6 chiles, to taste.
- Add fresh or powdered garlic/ajo, to taste.
- Add more water as needed to make a sauce that is not too thin. The taste improves the next day.
- Save tomatillo water to add to soups or vegetable dishes, or to water plants.
- Fry tortillas, layer flat, and spread with cheese and onion. Ladle prepared chile onto the cooked tortilla sureño/southern style. I usually do at least three layers and have often done up to seven.
- ¡Buen provecho! Enjoy!
Denise Chávez is a fronteriza writer, bookseller, and activist from Las Cruces. She is the founder of Libros Para El Viaje / Books for the Journey, an ongoing refugee, migrant, and asylum-seeker book-donation initiative, and the owner of Casa Camino Real Bookstore in Las Cruces. She is the author of The King and Queen of Comezón; A Taco Testimony: Meditations on Family, Food and Culture; Loving Pedro Infante; Face of An Angel; and The Last of the Menu Girls, among other works. She and her husband, Daniel Zolinsky, are working on a long-term project, Museo de La Gente / Museum of the People, an archival resource center celebrating the Borderland in art, culture, literature, food, and music, in the Mesquite Historic District on the Camino Real. Chávez is the winner of the American Book Award and the New Mexico Governor’s Award in Literature. Recently, she received the BIPOC Bookseller Award in Activism, given by Duende District and The Word to a national bookseller who goes above and beyond to advocate for Black and Brown booksellers and literary representation in their stores and communities.