Many consider the small, reddish-orange chile known as “Chimayó,” to be sacred.
They have good reasons.
For starters, Capsicum annum “Chimayo” is grown the in valley of the Sangre de Christo Mountains, nearly 25 miles north of Santa Fe, New Mexico, a stop along early trade routes from Mexico and Central America. For nearly two centuries the site has drawn pilgrims to worship at El Santuario de Chimayo, a small church built in 1816. Soil from the area, now set inside the church, is said to have healing properties for the physically and spiritually ill.
That soil might have something to do with the taste of the Chimayó chile. “It’s a smooth taste with a very full flavor. Like eating chocolate versus eating a sweet tart,” said Marie Campos, founder of the Chimayó Chile Project, an effort to preserve the native strain of chile and to keep the cultural community assets alive in Chimayó.
And temperature? Not harshly hot. Spicy, but smooth.
Residents fed arriving pilgrims dishes made with the chile, Campos said. “It was their common food. But then it became famous and was considered holy. The chile was part of that spiritual journey. It became a symbol just like the dirt because it was grown in the dirt.”
Saving the Seed
In 2001, Campos, a community organizer and nonprofit manager, was helping the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market obtain a permanent site. One of her colleagues mentioned they should start preserving native seeds, particularly seeds of the Chimayó chile, which only a handful of farmers were still growing. So Campos set out to create the Chimayó Chile Project.
“The seed was dwindling and most farmers even in Chimayó could not even get access to seed anymore,” Campos said.
Campos’ first objective was to replenish the seeds.
But that wasn’t always a straightforward task.
Chimayó seeds have been cultivated and selected for over centuries. Each family would pass seeds down over generations, selecting for the traits they liked best, Campos said.
“Families would have the seeds saved in coffee cans, in their attic or their garage. They weren’t willing to share them. The seeds were treated like gold hidden in a chest of drawers,” Campos said.
Finally, the Martinez family offered up a small bucket of seeds, “the size of a butter tub,” which helped the Project get started.
Equipped with good seed, the Project’s subsequent goal has been to get younger farmers — “anyone younger than 80,” Campos said, to learn the practice.
At one point 56 farmers were cultivating the crop, but over last 10 years the numbers have tapered down significantly.
That may be because chile is one of the hardest crops to grow, Campos said. “They say if you can grow chile, you can grow anything.”
Those currently farming the chile are in strong production, Campos said.
Many of the older farmers have now passed away. “I feel so privileged to have spent time with them and to have seen that tie to the land,” she said.
Campos shares a story told often by the late farmer Juan Trujillo. “He said the water chile farmers use is like the holy trinity, it comes in three forms. One from heaven with the rain, one on earth with the acequia system, and one through us with the sweat of the brow.”
Families also looked out for their community in the planting process. “Juan would also say that you’d plant five seeds: for the elderly, the sick, your family, the priests, and for the lazy. Even the lazy were cared for. I’ve always liked that kindness!”
Sacred and Coveted
Ensuring the survival of the Chimayó chile has also meant protecting its name.
“That name isn’t just a name of a place. It is a name that has a spiritual and cultural signification tying a food product to the place and to the earth through the native seed,” Campos said.
In the mid-2000s, the Bueno Food Company was misusing the name Chimayó on a product of salsa. When the Project team asked the company to stop using the name because it belonged to the community’s farmers, the company reacted by filing for the trademark.
“Their product had nothing to do with Chimayó or with native chilies of New Mexico,” Campos said.
In 2005, Campos and the Project’s parent organization, the Native Hispanic Institute, along with federal and state government partners, took collective action to help farmers incorporate and apply for the trade name “Chimayó.”
The fight was brutal, Campos said. She was shocked at how relentless a corporation and ruthless political operatives were in trying to shut the traditions down. “Certain things shouldn’t be touched. I saw a side of humanity that’s very ugly.”
While she says she can talk about it with ease now, Campos said she suffered professionally and emotionally from the fight. But her tenacity paid off.
The Project helped farmers incorporate as the Chimayó Chile Farmers, Inc., and in 2009 they were granted the certification mark with the United States Patent and Trademark Office.
Fortunately, not all outside companies have created such challenges.
When the Santa Fe School of Cooking was using the Chimayó name on some of its ingredients, Campos went to the director and explained the Project’s goal of preserving the name for farmers growing the native seed within the community. The School immediately rectified their error and became one of the Project’s main partners. “They’ve become a solid consistent retailer,” Campos said.
That is good news for the Chimayó chile and those who love it.
“We were really taking a stand for a seed, and for the natural culture that produced it,” Campos said. “To preserve one little seed in one place shouldn’t be that hard.”