Jesús Garcia connects people to the Sonoran Desert past and present with horsehair and plant fiber
Interview by Casely Coan
Born and raised in Sonora, Mexico, with ranching and farming parents, Jesús Garcia learned horsehair and agave fiber rope “reata” from his father and other residents from his hometown of Magdalena. An educator of natural and cultural history of the Sonoran Desert at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and Mission Garden. He was awarded a Master-Apprentice Artist Award from the Southwest Folklife Alliance to pass skills and knowledge to Maegan Lopez of the Tohono O’odham Nation. He spoke with BorderLore about the traditional craft of rope making and how it connects people to the desert landscape.
How would you describe the art form of horsehair and agave fiber rope making?
The rope making activity for me came from growing up in a ranching setting, where you trim the hair of horses and cows, and then you save the hair, and then you make a rope out of it. You can call it an art form, but it’s more of a traditional craft that is essentially endangered. You can find it in Mexico and other places around the world, but the people you see doing it are old folks, people who are either retired or haven’t practiced for a long time. Very few people are doing it for the sake of doing it or doing it the way used to be done in everyday life. People living in rural areas, or semirural areas, or in farming and ranching conditions, they just knew it. You just did it. It was part of learning how to saddle a horse or learning how to work the fields. Nowadays, it’s more of a revival form. I see it as a way of preserving these traditions by doing them. For me, it’s a passion. It’s satisfying to be able to learn it myself, experiment, and then transfer it to other people.
How did you become a rope maker? What were the early seeds of this practice for you?
It all started with my father, Nestor García Heredia. He came from a small town called La Estancia de Aconchi in the Rio, Sonora, He wasn’t a full-time cowboy, but he grew up on a ranch and had to do all kinds of ranching and farming activities. Also in my elementary school curriculum, in Magdalena, Sonora, I remember every month we had to do a craft—paper or plaster, wire, wood, papier-mâché, whatever it was. By the end of the year, we had to have ten crafts and then we would do a show and tell and display them to the parents. I think that created for me a sense of curiosity and creativity—to do things with my hands.
When I was a kid, running around our storage area where my father had all his tools and saddles, I would encounter these unusual tools. We didn’t have horses anymore by then, but we still had the saddles. We had the halters. We had ropes. We had tools and everything else. I would say, “What is this?” And he would say, “Well, this is a taravilla, a little tool that we use to make rope.” It was a hand-carved piece of wood, a little twisting tool. I still have one of the tools my father made over 50 or 60 years ago. I had two, but the other one I gave it to the Smithsonian Institution during one of my trips to there to demonstrate at their folklife festival.
My father would show me a few things but by then he was past his prime and we didn’t have horses anymore. But I was curious. I met a neighbor in the community named Manuel Gonzales, who everybody knew as “El Chinini.” He carded horsehair. He was a true cowboy. He was always on a horse. Sometimes he would get drunk, the horse would take him home, two, three kilometers away where he lived. When he got older, the horse was his wheelchair. He could not walk anymore, but he would ride everywhere. When I found out that he knew how to make rope, I started pestering him, visiting him. Eventually I brought him to Tucson, to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, at least twice, to demonstrate horsehair rope making. He would bring his tools. The tools that I have now for making rope are replicas of his. And those are the tools I used to make copies for Megan López, my apprentice.
When I was a young kid in school, I remember feeling ashamed that my parents didn’t have an education beyond elementary school—they probably both got as far as third grade. But then I realized the value of their traditional knowledge that my friend’s parents didn’t have—the old-fashioned ranching, farming, culinary, ethnobotanical knowledge they had of the region. I was able to embrace this while they were still alive and I started to pay more attention to them. Every time I encounter an elderly person, particularly from my background, I just embrace everything I can. Language, linguistic patterns, traditional knowledge in agriculture, ranching, farming. I love to talk to viejitos y viejitas. I have tons of informal recordings from all kinds of people—from Spain, from South America, from Mexico. That’s a source of knowledge you do not learn at a university.
You’ve shared this work in various places, what motivated you to shift to an apprenticeship form of learning?
My degree here in the United States is as an ecologist. I studied ecology and evolutionary biology. But in the last 15 years or so, I’ve been passionate for ethnobotany, the relationship between humans and the environment. At the Desert Museum and elsewhere I’ve been teaching about animals and plants and snakes and birds, but I’ve always had a passion to teach about human relationship to animals and plants. Little by little, with other colleagues at the Desert Museum, I’ve been creating curriculum about native foods, native crafts, traditional knowledge, traditional agriculture. For example, we created the Sonoran Supermarket kit, basically a big box full of agave fibers, agave leaves, tools, utensils, pictures, photographs, basketry, old musical instruments. You literally stick your hand in there, pull something out—a rattle, an instrument, a tool, a weapon—and whatever it is, I can talk to you for about half an hour about that one item.
A big part of that kit has always been fibers. Horsehair that I bring from Mexico or agaves that I have studied and grown for all these years. Depending on the program, I prepare them and have them at the ready. The more I’ve exchanged ideas with other people and experts, I realized that not a whole lot of people know how to do this. They know it at the intellectual level. Biologists and ethnobotanists in the region know all about it because they’ve read and researched and written about it. But they don’t know how to do it. So for me, the concept has been conservation of this tradition by doing it.
In terms of my apprentice, Megan López, she was coming on regular basis to the Mission Garden. She was very interested in what I was doing. I was also connecting with her sister and her son, to bring this to them, to be aware of it first of all, and to see it and touch it. I figured this had a possibility of a long-term apprenticeship. We continue doing things. Every time I have a program, she comes and observes and is part of it. To me, it’s been the best way, to have this long-term relationship instead of somebody just out of the blue.
You talked about your interest in the human-animal connection and human-plant connection. How do you see rope making reflecting that?
The tradition of rope making for me came from a ranching setting. As I became a better rope maker by using horsehair and learning the techniques, I realized agave fiber is used the exact same way. In Central Mexico where agave is more prominent, people make agave ropes, and the techniques are the same. I also started looking at the Mediterranean, at Northern Africa and Southern Spain with the Moorish culture that made it here and then got blended into the Native American culture.
Here, for example, I have read that when Native women became widows, they would make rope with their own hair. When they became widows, they would cut their hair as a sign of mourning. I don’t know if they still do that. I used to have my hair down to my shoulders. In my collection, I have two and a half meters of rope of my own hair that my father helped me make in the process of teaching me. When I look at old photographs of Tohono O’odham ladies in the 1900s coming into Tucson to sell their pottery or firewood, they are carrying burden baskets. You see their huge baskets with the big sticks that come out in the back. If you pay close attention, you see these black coils at the sides of the of the basket. Guess what that is? That’s human hair. Coils of human hair rope that they likely used to tie their loads. You can also find literature later on where you see the O’odham adopting tools like the taravillas and rope making techniques very likely from early Spanish Mexican mestizos who brought that cowboy culture.
As I continue to dive into ancient technologies, looking at Hohokam early agriculture periods where people were planting agaves and other crops, I realize that fibers were being used for making sandals, ropes, nets. So you can see that plant fibers were being used way way before Europeans arrived in the Americas. All the sudden, I just made the connection. As an anthropologist, as a scholar, as a researcher, as a curious person, all the sudden, you see it all coming together right here.
What I’ve tried to do is transform the technique and package it into an educational bundle that I can teach to five-year-olds, high school students, and adults. I prepare the materials so that in fifteen minutes I can teach you how to make a rope. All these techniques, my own personal background, Spanish influences, Mexican ranching communities, Native American traditional arts and crafts, all of the sudden, everything comes together. You’re learning techniques that are essentially the same thing. Then you can give me any other fibers and the same techniques will work.
Do you see any emergent forms or any contemporary spin on this type of rope making?
Yes. If you go to a boy scout gathering, for example, one of the things they do is teach you how to make rope. But they didn’t do it from scratch. They already have the strings and they put the strings together, and they make rope. But in my case, I start from the actual hair fibers. You go and find a horse or a cow, you trim their hair out of their tails. Within half an hour, I can make a rope out of that. I can go in find a plant, a date palm, a fan palm, and cut a leaf out of the plant and within fifteen minutes, I’ll make you a rope out of that plant. What I emphasize is not the plants, not the materials, but the technique.
Many years ago, in the Earth Camp programs at the Desert Museum, I was teaching high school kids how to make rope using the back twist technique, just with your fingers. One of the things I came up with was to teach kids with whatever materials are available before they move on to other fibers. I said, “When you go to the bathroom, you wash your hands, you get a little paper towel, and then you dry your hands and then throw it to the garbage. Well, don’t throw it away. Bring that wet paper towel, and we’re going to make rope with it.” Another time we were traveling, and they were passing around candies, like Jolly Ranchers, and this one girl sitting in the back of the car decided to collect all the wrappers. By the time we got to our destination she had a two-foot-long rope out of the Jolly Rancher wrappers. Is that cool or what?
Of course, bringing in the concept of survival can also help young and older people get excited about making rope. Learning that our environment, our backyard, has many things we need. We just need to know how to appreciate the species of the plant, what part of the plant is used, how it’s processed. I don’t need to go to Home Depot and buy a rope. I can literally make a 20-foot rope out of my plants in my backyard right now. Is that convenience? Is that survival? Is that traditional knowledge? How do you get your audience to pay attention to what you want to teach them? If you tell people, I’m going to teach you how to survive in the desert, they’ll say, “Yes, I want to learn whatever it is.” It’s all about perspective, but essentially, the skills are the same. And then you can say, people in the past were not surviving, they were thriving. They were doing those things in everyday life.
Do you think there’s anything extrapolate from the practice of rope making to daily living, especially in chaotic times?
Of course. Many things. I am proud of what I do. If I’m hiking around out in the desert, and it has just rained or the grass is wet, I’ll just pick some grass as I’m hiking and make rope out of it. Or I’ll go to the movies, and I’ll dry my hands with a paper towel, I’ll make rope from the paper towel while I’m waiting for the movies. That’s just kind of silly stuff. But when I think about an activity that can connect people to cultures of the Sonoran Desert, an activity that can connect people to ways of life here from 200 years ago, rope making is an exceptional way to do that.
Casely Coan was a American Council for Learned Societies (ACLS) Leading Edge Fellow for the Southwest Folklife Alliance where she carried out research on support systems for traditional artists in the Southwest creative economy. She holds a PhD in rhetoric, composition and the teaching of English from the University of Arizona. She now works for Pima County.