Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Sonora revisited

When I first planned my trip, I wasn't necessarily going to revisit the Sonora River Valley. However my colleague, Kimberlee, was looking for a new research project as she starts up her research/teaching position at Willamett Univesrity and she presented me with a great opportunity to collaborate. Beyond the attraction of the chiltepin as a spice and as the "mother of all peppers" (remember that this wild pepper is thought to be the pre-domesticated pepper, or proto-pepper), Kimberlee was interested in how the local community manages this important resource.

Kimberlee flew to Tuscon from Oregon and I picked her up on the way to Sonora to explore the social and economic aspects of the chiltepin world.

I knew that we needed to begin with the veritable local chiltepin expert, Luis C. Louis was Heather and my first guide last year. I had no way to get in touch with him, so we crossed into Sonora and drove directly to his house, crossing my fingers the entire time that he would be there. As you can tell by the above picture - he was there and more than happy to receive us. His fame as a prominent "chiltepinero" extends beyond just US academics. He told us (a number of times) about the recent interviews he gave to TV stations based in Hermosillo. He was happy to tell Kimberlee all he knew about the chiltepin and took us to some scenic canyons to find the plants and tell us about how the community managed them as a resource.

As you can see by the above photo, we were a bit early for chiltepin harvest. Not a single red, ripe fruit was to be had. However, we could feel the anticipation of harvest in the air. There were freshly painted signs "chiltepines for sale", yet no product to sell. When Luis broke down the economics of harvest to us, it was obvious why this sensation was palpable. According to Luis, a normal day laborer who was working as a cowboy, in a maquiladora, farming, etc., would make an average salary of 1,000 - 1,500 pesos a week, or approximately $100-$150. They could earn this amount in a single day harvesting ripe chiltepines for 10 hours. Groups of men and women will gather and camp in the hills harvesting for 4 to 6 days at a time. They would then sell their harvest to middle men, earning a month's wages in one week of harvesting. This cycle would repeat at various other locations, from mid-October until the end of November or December. We were told multiple times that it was the most important economic activity for the valley.

Where did all these chiltepines go? We left Luis in search of the few middlemen that lived in town - the majority come from larger towns, or the Sonoran capital of Hermosillo. We found the Andrade family in La Aurora, a tiny village of about 50 families that lived across the river from Mazocahui. Biding their time before harvest, they were pickling the green chiltepin for resale. While the red and ripe form of the chiltepin fetches a premium, the green are often harvested by people in real economic need and sold pickled. It is more laborious to harvest the fruits from the plant (often using scissors to cut off each individual fruit) and the price is often a third or a fourth of what could be fetched when the fruit is ripe. In the picture above, the Andrade family are adding vinegar, garlic and carrots to the green chiltepines, which will sell for about 30 pesos, or $3. During the thick of harvest, the middlemen drive through the valley, collecting a kilo here, a couple of kilos there, and then resell the chiltepines to commercial spice companies in Mexico who retail the dried chiles as a spice or use it in their salsas and hot sacues or through smaller retailers who package the dried chiles themselves, often in "recycled" plastic jars or in empty Coca-cola bottles.

We found a small commercial operation in the valley that sold dried chiltepin and made a hot sauce as well - but to find a larger operation, we had to go to Hermosillo. Here the trail washed away. We were caught in a major flash flood that deluged the streets, overwhelmed the storm sewer system and cut power to some of the neighborhoods which caused us to abandon our search. But before the rains came, we were fortunate enough to have a real authentic Sonoran lunch, with local liquor, bacanora, made from an endemic agave species and served with giant flour tortillas made by hand.