Anthropology: The Cultural Significance of New Mexico Chile Peppers

“O Fair New Mexico” 

Located in the Southwest of the United States, it is the 47th state of New Mexico, a land that lives up to its name, The Land of Enchantment. Perhaps one of the most geographically significant locations in America, New Mexico provides some of the most varied ecological and climatic conditions. From the rolling white sand dunes of White Sands National Park to the forested mountains and ski resorts of the Enchanted Circle.

New Mexico boasts some of the most environmental extremes found in the country. New Mexico is where the Rocky Mountains begin in the north and to the south is the fertile Rio Grande river valley. Two very prominent features of the North American continent converge here.

Sante Fe style architecture fused with traditional Mexican decorum.

New Mexico is where the convergence of these ecologies, climates, cultures, and people come together. One of only six majority-minority states in America, New Mexico has the highest percentage of Hispanic and Latino Americans than any other state.

The state also has the second highest percentage of Native Americans living in New Mexico, right behind Alaska. This is in large part due to New Mexico’s history. During antiquity, before the middle ages, the native inhabitants who comprised the area were the ancestral Pueblo, Navajo, Comanche, and Ute. 

Nuevo Mexico & New Spain

It was not until the 16th century, with the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadors in their search for gold, that they would colonize the territory as a part of New Spain. The Spanish named the territory Nuevo Mexico after the Valley of Mexico that was occupied by the Aztecs. Because of New Mexico’s rugged terrain, landlocked region, and with a large demographic of indigenous peoples, Nuevo Mexico was considered a peripheral state to the Spanish empire. They were receiving a disproportionate amount of New Spain’s wealth and resources.

For 250 years, New Mexico would be under the authority of New Spain. Then they would be a part of Mexico after gaining its independence in 1821. Following the conclusion of the American-Mexican War in 1848, New Mexico was then annexed by the United States. This played a pivotal role in westward expansion and the Anglo-Americans’ so-called right to manifest destiny. As a result of the indigenous, Mexican, Spanish, Mestizo, and American expansion into the frontier, New Mexico has retained all of these roots. 

From immaculate cuisine that is an explosion of flavor in your mouth, no pun intended, to the lifestyle that the people of New Mexico live. It is a cultural blend of Mexican, Spanish, and Native American. From the very architecture itself, from cities like Santa Fe to Taos, it draws on the Pueblo Revival style commonly found throughout the Southwest. Hence, why this style is also referred to as the Santa Fe style architecture, a unique element of the region inspired by earlier Pueblo settlements. The rich cultural blend is not only found in the architecture but also in the state’s flag itself.  The yellow representing the Zia sun god and the burgundy of the Spain.

The New Mexican flag is a coalescence of all these cultures from the scarlet gold coloration belonging to the Spanish Cross of Burgundy. Placed in the center is the ancient sun symbol of Zia, culturally significant to the Pueblo tribe. The flag is upheld as a conglomerate of these cultures that have had the most significant impact on the state of New Mexico.

It Grows as it Goes

For the longest time, some 250 years, New Mexico was deemed as undesirable by the Spanish crown. Little did they know the significance that New Mexico would one day serve both geographically and culturally. It is within the very geography of New Mexico that you can give an insight as to why the residents of New Mexico are very grounded and humble people. 

A stunning aerial view of Shiprock, sacred to the Navajo Tribal Nation.

Whether one gazes upon Shiprock, a type of Inselberg similar to Ayers’ Rock in Australia in formation. To the deep and mysterious Carlsbad Caverns that seem to descend forever into the heart of the Earth. The natural forces and elements that carved out the surface of New Mexico have a significant place in the indigenous peoples’ culture. Our more modernized culture allows us to forget our deeper connection between us and the Earth.

Under the Zia

New Mexico is a place where, in order to truly understand the people, culture, customs, and values that make this great state what it is, one has to detach from their devices. The true beauty of New Mexico lies in the beauty of the beholder. Everyone will have a different experience depending on who they are individually. For those really seeking intercultural enlightenment, the Land of Enchantment would be the first place to look within the United States.

A stunning sunset in the background of the unique New Mexican terrain.
Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness, New Mexico, USA at the Alien Throne rock formation just after sunset.

The very atmosphere of the state itself has a certain aura that is almost indescribable. Unlike other states, New Mexico is heavily revered for its geography and geology, which varies so much. Alongside the second largest Native American population in North America, much of the land is deemed as sacred and plays a pivotal role in the everyday lives of the Navajo, Apache, Pueblo, and the Comanche.

The Pueblo for instance hold great reverence for the Zia sun symbol. The Zia sun is the symbol that represents the four cardinal directions, the four stages of the day, and the four seasons.  While different in certain cultural aspects, every tribal nation has a deep commemoration for the unique geology and ecology that makes New Mexico such a spiritually connected place. 

A Taste of the Southwest Sun

There are many ways to experience one of the most unique cultural blends in the United States, 250 years in the making. The best, most affordable way to experience the unique culture of New Mexico is through their cuisine. Considering the blend of Spanish, Mexican, Native American, and American tastes, New Mexico has a mouth-watering mix of all flavors. New Mexico is known for its authentic-rooted cuisine which makes the food feel as though it has been made in another country altogether.

Although mostly known for its traditional Spanish, Mexican, and Native American cuisine, New Mexico is also like any other state in America. There will always be a taste of American cuisine, whether it be an atypical fast food chain, or a truly authentic American diner at the iconic steakhouse. But these foods are available in any state; North, South, East, or West. To truly experience the taste of New Mexico, one has to try the authentic cuisine that is unlike any other in the continental United States. But it is inevitable to see the remnants of what was at one point the American frontier.

Traditional New Mexican dish with an assortment of spices, meats, and chile peppers.

From the vintage Route 66 diners that span across the United States, to the classical western frontier saloons dating back to the cowboy and outlaw days, the westward expansion of the U.S. heavily influenced the cuisine of New Mexico. However, what makes true New Mexican cuisine standout was in large favor due to its geographical positioning. Having developed under isolated circumstances, the cuisine of New Mexico has greatly retained its Latin and Indigenous roots, making it the most unique Latin cuisine located anywhere in the United States.

An Exchange of Flavors

An assortment of authentic Pueblo dishes.

When the Spaniards occupied Nuevo Mexico as a part of the viceroyalty of New Spain, they brought with them a variety of ingredients that were not native to North America. The Spanish provided the indigenous people with wheat, rice, beef, lamb, just to name a few. In exchange, the indigenous people introduced the Spanish to corn, beans, chile, and squash amongst numerous other ancestral and native ingredients.

One of the most distinctive features of New Mexican cuisine established during this time period was the creation of the horno. The horno is an outdoor Earth oven constructed out of adobe mud in the shape of a beehive or mound. These hornos have become a staple of Puebloan and Hispanic communities within New Mexico. 

In spite of New Mexico being a periphery state for nearly three centuries, the distinct history bound to this state along with the isolated terrain and diverse climates resulted in a significant difference in the style of cuisine. So much so that the cuisine found in New Mexico, although similar to the cuisine found in Northern Mexico, is vastly different from the rest of the southwestern states, like California, Arizona, and Texas

A Flare of Sweet and Spicy

Red chile ristras hang off the horns of a cow skull.

But what makes New Mexico’s food truly standout? The answer is their amazing chili peppers. The New Mexican Chile is a staple of their cuisine and is so prominent in their culture that they hang these colorful peppers on strings in a wreath called a Ristra.

These Ristras are found hung along patios, fences, over doorways, or over any outdoor fixture and doorway. The modern day New Mexican chile that most people associate with their cuisine was in fact developed and cultivated by horticulturist Dr. Fabian Garcia and his team, the father of the modern New Mexican food industry.

Birth of the New Mexico Chile

But the original Chile Pepper had been native to New Mexico and the surrounding region for centuries.  The indigenous Pueblo have grown and cultivated many different types of Chile plants till this day. Noted for its delicious taste, the Zia Pueblo Chile, for example, has a noticeable pungency, sweetness, and spicy flavor when the chile matures into its red color.  Before the arrival of the Europeans, the indigenous peoples of New Mexico used to plant and harvest their chilies the traditional way passed down through the generations.

With the arrival of the European settlers, they taught the local Pueblo and other indigenous tribes new cultivation and agricultural techniques used throughout western Europe. Through the newly introduced techniques, the locals learned how to propagate the chile plants into cultivars. These cultivars are a collection of plants known for their desired traits or characteristics which are then maintained during their propagation period. Thus, they were able to produce more flavorful chile peppers. 

Cultivating an Endemic Delicacy

A chile harvester roasting the peppers

Over the years, the cultivars would be revamped by Dr. Garcia himself. Alongside the cultivars, the New Mexican chile also has a variety of terrains and climates to grow in. Altitude, climate, soil, and acreage all determine how the heartiness of the crop will be and the taste of the produce. The greater Rio Grande basin provides the right environment for growing chile. 

The primary reason New Mexican chilies are so sought after is that they only grow in such a unique environment. Considering they were first grown by the Pueblo, the chile plants always grow the best in their ancestral soil. This same tradition had been carried through the region by the American frontiersmen and the Spanish who came before them.

The Chile Capital of the World

Referred to as the Chile Capital of the World and a huge part of the culture in New Mexico is Hatch Valley. Running north to south along the Rio Grande and just southeast of Hatch, New Mexico, is home to the Hatch Chile. The soil in this particular region of New Mexico has a special kind of terroir, a French term used to characterize the specific environmental factors that contribute to a specific plant’s phenotype and growth conditions.  

These unique circumstances give the Hatch chile its unique texture and flavoring. Most of the Hatch chile varieties have been developed and cultivated over the last 125 years. Although specifically grown in this valley alone, the Hatch chile peppers are sold locally throughout many parts of the southwest.

An array of ristras arranged on a decorative patio.

Most, if not all of the chilies bought and sold in New Mexico are grown fresh and locally as they have been for centuries. As recently as 2012, there was a local law that came into legislation that prohibited other brands from claiming that they’re New Mexican chilies unless grown in New Mexico or having an eminent disclaimer stating “Not Grown In New Mexico”.

New Mexico Chile Festival

Not only is this a big deal for the farmers who have planted, grown, and harvested these chilies that have been taught to them and passed down for generations. It also protects the cultural significance of the New Mexican chile and all its variants.

Most chile grown in a town will bear the name of that town, making it distinctive to that particular community. Many New Mexican towns partake in this cultural tradition from Albuquerque, Chimayo, Hatch, all the way down to the Rio Grande communities.    

Generally, farmers will plant the peppers from March till April. The green chile peppers are then harvested into Summer and early Autumn from July to October. The red chile is harvested around late Autumn to the start of winter from October to December. To put it into perspective, New Mexico leads the United States in chile production, producing on average over 60,000 tons of chile peppers. 

Tons of Hatch Chile being harvested for the annual festival.

In 2014, a certification program was passed which certifies the production of New Mexican chile to protect its ancestral growing grounds and the rich cultural harvesting of the chile. The preservation of these New Mexican chile peppers helps to preserve a longstanding tradition that is heavily tied to the cultural aura that makes up the New Mexican heritage.  

A Land of Enchantment

New Mexico is a place rich in history, culture, and natural wonder. The generations-old tradition of farming and harvesting of the delicate chile peppers alone is a major cultural aspect. The New Mexican chile is so sought after and hard to come by, that is why it is considered a delicacy. This unique culmination is a point where very distinctive cultures have retained their presence in the area for over two centuries.

The cultural aroma and aura of New Mexico is a blend of the indigenous, Latin, and romantic cultures encompassed by a distinctive meld of terrain and climates. From the mystical Sangre de Cristo and Rocky mountains of the Enchanted Circle that runs from Taos to Angel Fire, to the richness of the Rio Grande river valley. New Mexico’s culture has retained its roots dating back to the Pueblo ancestors who first settled here 10000 years ago. Through the Pueblo, they laid the foundation for New Mexico, building sophisticated cities and irrigation techniques.

Hot air balloon with the design of the New Mexican flag.Cultural Significance in Anthropology

As a result of the Puebloan way of life for millennia, New Mexican Chile peppers were propagated into existence. Due to it being endemic to the region, growing only under the right circumstances, New Mexican Chile is a large part of the culture. That is also a big reason why these delicate peppers are so sought after. The taste of these peppers is a fiery sweet swirl in your mouth and they are a main staple in New Mexican cuisine.  

The Land of Enchantment lives up to its name. New Mexico is just one of a select few places like Alaska or Hawaii within the United States that has preserved its rich cultural heritage for centuries. New Mexico, having been isolated by its terrain and climate, has a long-standing culture untouched by major westward expansion. Venturing here is like traveling back to a more scaled-back rustic version of what the ancient past might have looked like. 

Planning any adventure in this marvelous state simply for the pleasures of vacation is a must on everyone’s bucket list.  But for those looking for a deeper spiritual connection, the enchanting allure of New Mexico is inescapable. It is a unique intercultural experience nowhere else quite like it that makes New Mexico what it is today, what it has been, and that is what it will be in the near future. 

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