Perhaps no image captures New Mexico better than the chile pepper. Declared the state vegetable, celebrated in song and story and projected the world over in everything from glitzy photos to tourism brochures, the chile pepper in its myriad forms symbolizes the historical legacy and cultural essence of the New Mexican people.
For centuries the chile trade bound together the remote Hispano villages of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado, provided the culinary glue for fall family get-togethers and gave linguistic flavor to countless conversations on the topic of chile across the state.
In the late 20th Century, a large commercial chile industry boomed in the southern part of the state near the Mexican border, drawing in thousands of immigrant farmworkers who earned a seasonal if precarious living from hand-picking the spicy pods that delighted connoisuers everywhere.
Nowadays, the fortunes of New Mexico’s cherished chile crop are on the downside. Just ask Jose Rocha. A veteran farmworker with nearly four decades of experience in the fields of New Mexico and the US, Rocha says he once worked “first class fields” in a wide swath of the borderland chile-growing belt.
Today’s farm is very different than the one before, according to Rocha. “Sometimes the land gives, sometimes it doesn’t,” the Mexico-born worker says. “There are bad (chile) rows and and good rows.” Nowadays, Rocha encounters slimmer pickings, job-killing machines that methodically pluck rows of ripe chile where humans once treaded and fewer dollars in his pocket.
Global trade and investment patterns, coupled with mechanization, are at the root of the troubles of Jose Rocha and his fellow workers.
In 2007, religious, community and government representatives gathered in Las Cruces, New Mexico, to consider the future of farmworkers. They heard testimony how trade pacts like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) had seriously cut into New Mexico’s share of the chile production. By 2008, New Mexico’s harvested chile acreage fell to 11,000 acres, a sharp drop from the 34,500 acres harvested in in 1992, the year before NAFTA.
To compete in the new market scheme and keep labor costs at a minimum, growers increasingly turned to mechanical harvesting. According to New Mexico State University Professor Terry Crawford, approximately 80 percent of the red chile harvest is now mechanized.
However, mechanizing chile harvesting has proven tricky. Before it turns a mature red color, chile can be picked green and consumed in a variety of dishes that are essential to the New Mexican palate. Since a good green chile crop can give multiple pickings, prematurely machine-harvesting the plants in one fell swoop would kill the stalk that enshrined the golden pod, so to speak.
In an age of free trade and mechanization, chile plant breeders are taking the next logical step based on the rules of the existing game. If green chile is not suited for machine harvesting, then the task becomes finding a new suit for green chile. Preliminary research got underway in recent years at New Mexico State, home of a long-established pepper-breeding program, to genetically modify New Mexican chile so it is more suitable for, among other things, mechanical harvesting. Although no plantings of transgenic chile have yet to break the New Mexican earth, some chile-lovers are outraged.
The spectre of transgenic chile has stirred opposition from small chile growers, cultural activists and consumers. An independent filmmaker, Albuquerque resident Chris Dudley, documented the controversy in his film “Genetic Chile”, which puts the local battle in the larger context of the international struggle over genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and the growing power of the world’s food cartels. “This is something that strikes at the heart of who we are as New Mexicans,” Dudley says.
While proponents of GMOs claim the new plants will yeld healthier and more bountiful crops for a hungry planet, opponents decry the lack of hard evidence presented by the industry and the possible risks of contamination of native species. Further, the critics like Dudley contend that the expansion of GM crops will consolidate control of the world’s food supply in the hands of transnational corporations like biotechnology giant Monsanto, which will dominate more and more seed patents.
To boost its fortunes, the biotechnology industry has received crucial support from world governments far removed from the vagaries of rural life. For instance, Washington even mulled a trade war against anti-GMO European nations, according to State Department cables leaked courtesy of Wikileaks, according to a report in the British newspaper the Guardian.
Working in tandem with the biotechnology industry, the Bush administration in 2007 framed European opposition to GMOs in terms of a virtual military challenge. “If Spain falls, the rest of Europe will follow,” warned one cable couched in Cold War language and quoted by the Guardian.
Back in New Mexico, the years of free trade accompanied by intensified mechanization and now looming genetic transformation have been nothing short of disastrous, according to many workers and their supporters.
A 2006-2007 survey by the New Mexico-based Colonias Development Council, a grassroots organization that works with farmworker and rural communities, reported that 54 percent of the respondent households that relied on farm work had an annual income of less than $9,999.
A longtime advocate, Rose Garcia and her Tierra del Sol Housing Corporation have spent decades building affordable housing for farmworkers in New Mexico and Texas.
Today, Garcia says many farmworkers scrounge for odd jobs like scooping stray pecans off the ground, while government agencies do not even have updated and reliable data on how many workers have been displaced or what has happened to them.
“This is the worst I’ve ever seen it,” Garcia insists. Trapped in the economic storms that have lashed the U.S. in the last few years, farmworkers, already a marginalized population even under the best of circumstances, are becoming even more expendable, according to Garcia.
“It´s almost ‘out of sight, out of mind’ if you don’t acknowldge a population,” she says. “It´s an effort to make them non-existent.”
Garcia is among community activists and leaders in the southern New Mexico borderland who urge public action to safeguard farmworkers in a time of economic and technological turmoil. “I really urge leaders to seek methods to protect our workforces that are still out there, especially historical workforces like that of agriculture,” she adds. “Farmworkers are the base economy of the U.S. (Agriculture) was our first economy of the U.S.”
Kent Paterson is a freelance journalist who covers the southwestern United States, Mexico, and Latin America. He is an analyst for the Americas Program at www.cipamericas.org.
Editor: Laura Carlsen