SIZE: 3-6 feet in diameter
FOLKLIFE: Iconic plant of the Southwestern United States; invasive species; symbol of grit, perseverance, migration & Chicana identity
The tumbleweeds crowd against the northeast corner of our blood-red school running track on a mesa overlooking the Sandias. Some of them are as tall as Coach Mascareñas. In the winds, they chase alongside us while we do our laps.
I’m thirteen and I’ve withdrawn deep inside my heather gray track and field team hoodie, my cheeks so irritated from the wind that “Peach” becomes my new nickname. I go out with the long-distance runners and do hills, covering miles of undeveloped sandy shrubbed mesa. I think about running away from home.
I’m a Garcia, an Apodaca, a Loney, an Aragon. I’ve traced my own matriarchal line back at least seven generations in New Mexico, looking for what home means. As a Chicana of the borderlands, I’ve struggled with the many ways the hegemony seeps into my family’s sense of identity. Who are we?
In Northern New Mexico, there’s a tendency to play into tropes about noble Indian princesses and brave Spanish soldiers with blue eyes as a way of explaining our origins, a tendency that reinforces white supremacy and colonization. But those tales feel tired, static, old. My origins are more tumbleweed than that.
Tumbleweeds are stubborn. Any attempts to romanticize or get too close to them are met with sharp jabs. But these barbs serve. They hook me, for one, to a necessary resistance. I am proud of something that hurts.
Ask a Burqueña about the massive tumbleweed snowman that goes up every year on the north side of I-40 and you’ll meet a fierce defender. When the good winds blew for the hot air balloon fiesta, they always brought walls of tumbleweeds with them.
But the tumbleweed isn’t the only plant in the Southwest with which I have a complicated relationship. Stepping on goat heads was a rite of passage we gave to primas visiting from Colorado and Texas. Craving cactus fruit meant accepting the risk of getting the spines in your fingertips.
The Rio Grande valley is a land of roots. The mighty cottonwoods of the bosque and the mesquite grow well in the high desert because they can weather the worst winds and longest droughts. Cottonwoods are riparian and have shallow root systems, and mesquite out on the dry mesa have some of the deepest. The so-called invasives—tumbleweeds and puncturevine—also have specialized roots.
These trees and plants have developed strategies that defy traditional modes of reproduction, even the guest species that developed those strategies elsewhere. Some take up a plan of migration and temporality. Others lay low or fake dead until it rains. I claim all of them. The puncturevine, the mesquite, and the tumbleweed are all artifacts that tell different sides of my story.
Puncturevine grows like love, flat and innocent until it barbs you. Its thorns are called goat heads or stickers, stubborn names for stubborn things. Goat heads because their seeds are five-pointed burrs that look like the head of a tiny goat. I’ve heard my elders call them abreojos, for “open your eyes.” They also look like morningstars, both the weapon and the fertile Venusian star that lights a predawn sky above the west mesa.
Each puncturevine has a deep taproot, a thick snake that hides under the sand and clay. The weeds press against the ground low enough that you can’t efficiently use a tool to get them out. You need a solid pair of gloves and time for an intimate process of weeding. It’s hard to pull out what’s always been there. And once it seeds, it lies like a thick green rug luring the unsuspecting. But, if you step on a goat head you’ll remember it long into the evening—where it stabbed your heel you’ll feel a lingering throb, like a sharp little heartbeat.
The mesquite, on the other hand, is endemic to the Southwest. It has the deepest known roots, and it is treated like a pest by some New Mexican ranchers because it chokes out the grass that cattle need to survive. But it has medicinal properties, putting the keepers of the old ways at odds with modern agricultural practices. Its seeds can hide indefinitely, “reinfesting” areas after they’ve been cleared. Mesquite is native at the same time as being invasive, sacred and troublesome all at once.
The tumbleweed bulbs out from the start into a massive spiny orb, deceptively chromatic in dense, vibrant patches of greens, blues, and purples. When the tumbleweed dries and turns brown, it unroots itself in the wind and gangs up with its cousins to roam around causing havoc. Its migration is one of defiance, resistance, and necessity. Without tumbling around dropping seeds, it would last just a season and then choke out among the competition. It must roam; it has no choice.
We lived in dozens of homes throughout my childhood. When things got too tough, my mother would pack us up and move us elsewhere. We started over constantly, but. no matter where we were, she always said we were in a better place than my cousins, who stayed in Denver, Amarillo, Tucumcari, Las Vegas, Pueblo, Bernalillo, Juarez. And no matter where I went, I always felt that at the foot of the Sandias I was home.
When we talk about migration and the concept of home, the monarch butterflies that drift across the continent offer a striking metaphor. Fragile, delicate, and charming, they counter the often racist demonization of immigrants who’ve come to swallow your tax money. Yet why do we insist on such majesty? Many migrants are pushed from their homelands because of poverty and erased opportunities. They are forced to leave home and travel for hundreds of miles toward a better life worthy of awe.
We risk something when we rely on butterflies to tell migration stories. Through that filtration, we can further “other” people, play into colorism, and distance ourselves from honest and painful conversations about La Raza and what it means to be a nation of immigrants. Yes, the mariposa crosses these borders. But so do others.
So I forage for a metaphor that is uglier, more raw—one that inspires the complexity of pride and recognition. I choose the New Mexican tumbleweed as the icon of diaspora.
Chicana feminist scholars Gloria Anzaldua and Cherrie Moraga ask us to hold ambiguity and duality in thinking and writing about the borderlands and mestiza consciousness. Never is that nuance more apparent than when I reflect on my homelands. I live in California now, but when I think about or visit home to New Mexico, it is always with a bittersweet tangle of grief and pride.
When I was thirteen and learning to run, the tumbleweeds chased me down the track. But all along they were teaching me something beyond speed. Resistance, perseverance, and protection. I know how to be loved not in spite of my thorns but because of them, and how to build a soft home out of sharp things.
Some years ago, I got a lucky roadrunner tattoo dashing across my left knee. There are always roads connecting me back home. A Californian asks me, “Would you rather be a little fish in a big pond, or a big fish in a little pond?” The tumbleweed is the desert’s answer and my own: Neither; I will roam instead.
The tumbleweed holds both the fleeting nature of migration and the heritage of roots. Between the thorns and brittle stems, I find a “yes, and…”
A foreigner who has become an icon of the Southwest. An invasive and loathsome weed. A beloved symbol of grit and perseverance. Tumbleweed makes its own poetic and virtuous journey. As do I.
Dr. Bunny McFadden (she/they) is a Chicana mother who has gained recognition for her unique style of storytelling. Her writing often tinkers with the complexities of familial relationships, the struggles of motherhood, and the joy of life. Bunny is also a passionate advocate for justice and education.