Buying Ristras

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.

Ristras of red chiles
Ristras of red chiles

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.

The mine has had to send dozens of truck to pump water and deliver it to affected communities.
The mine has had to send dozens of truck to pump water and deliver it to affected communities.

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 the chiles are dried outside
First the chiles are dried outside, on the roof of a shed.

First Marisa pounds the chiles which bruises them a bit and loosens the seeds.

Chiles are in a bucket, waiting to be
Chiles are in a bucket, waiting to be pounded.

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.

Chiles drying in the ove
Chiles drying in the oven
Marisa grinding chiles.
Marisa grinding chiles.

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.

This little V entrance to the field keeps ca
This little V entrance to the field keeps cattle out.

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.

Marigolds for Dia de los Muertos.
Marigolds for Dia de los Muertos.

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.

The Letter

Yesterday I attended my freewriting group. I should do this more than once every eight or ten weeks!

We were give the first sentence and had ten minutes to write. Here’s what I ended up with.

It all started after she sent the letter.

Cindy wrote a letter to her boyfriend’s mother. She spoke a little Spanish, but his mother spoke no English at all, hence the attempt to compose in Spanish. It was a desperate attempt to please a woman long-known for rejecting her only son’s – her only child’s – girlfriends. None were good enough for Salvador.

“Querida María Jesus,” she began. Cindy was attempting to say she was sorry for not inviting her for a visit sooner. They had just moved to a new house and it was quite large and they still needed furniture.

“Soy muy embarazada,” she had written. And no, this does not mean she is very embarrassed. It means she is very pregnant.

And she didn’t describe the house as large and needing furniture. She had said she was quite large and needed furniture.

For the baby, thought María Jesus as she read the letter two days later. My first grandchild! Ai! And I haven’t even approved this woman! And she is having a baby without being married to my Salvador!

María Jesus began to pack immediately. The she paused, called her friend Elena at JC Penney, and ordered a room full of baby furniture to be delivered muy pronto.

Early the next morning, María Jesus lumbered aboard the Amtrak bound for Fresno. She told everyone aboard about her expected grandchild. By the end of the six-hour journey, it was a grandson, due tomorrow. And it was going to be a Cesarian delivery. And María Jesus had to get there today because Cindy (was that her name?) refused to have the operation without her almost mother-in-law’s presence.

Both María Jesus and the baby furniture arrived on Cindy and Salvador’s doorstep at 4:30.

Fried Green Tomatoes

On cool Sunday mornings of late summer, my father, always an early riser, would slide quietly out of bed, pull on his stay-at-home clothes, and go to the kitchen to measure coffee into the stovetop coffee percolator.

I am also an early riser, so soon I’d be in the kitchen with him stirring Bosco chocolate into a tall glass of milk, spoon clinking against the sides, frothing tiny bubbbles at the top. We’d sit at the table in silence, looking out the window at patches of flowers, wild blackberries, and tended gardens.

“Why don’t you go out and find some good frying tomatoes,” he’d say, and out I’d go to wander the rows with a small worn Easter basker, to gather the largest, firm green tomatoes I could find.


When the basket was full, I’d carry it into the kitchen, place it on the counter, and quickly rinse and dry the fruits. Dad had the frying pan out, its bottom covered with oil, with a bowl of beaten eggs and a platter of spiced flour. He’d pull out the sharpest knife and cut the tomatoes into thick slabs and begin the frying process.


Flour, egg dunk, flour, fry.


No matter how full a basket I’d brought in, the two of us could eat most of the fried green tomatoes before my mother and sister rose. Though to be honest, I’d usually bring in only two or three tomatoes.



Last bite.
Last bite.

Addendum 1: My sister says she didn’t remember this. That’s because we always polished off all the tomatoes before she got up!

Addendum 2: Many thanks to Lori and David for the green tomatoes!