Sonora as Cultural Classroom: Field School Experiences Shape Life

Earlier this month TMY’s Field School adventured off the beaten track to rural Sonora, to learn via doing and to gain rich experiences in study, observation, documentation, ethnographic techniques and fun. Co-presented with the UA’s Confluence Center and The Southwest Center, the Field School focused on the “expressive culture” of rural Sonora — this includes many routine activities that folks do in everyday life but that somehow they also manage to infuse with a distinct sense of style, craftsmanship or artistry, like food preparation, for example.

Cultivating a comprehension of local life and its traditions, this six-day cultural immersion was a one-in-a-lifetime expedition into learning, culture and collegiality. While field school documentation is now ongoing, this edition of BorderLore gets a glimpse of the field school documentation that continues, in two cultural snapshots crafted by students Gay Chanler and Dr. Etta Kralovec:

Gay Chanler

Convivium co-leader of Slow Food Alta Arizona in Flagstaff Arizona, Gay also is coordinator of the Navajo-Churro Sheep Presidium, a collaboration of non-profits and Slow Food USA dedicated to the recovery and sustainable production of Navajo-Churro sheep lamb. The presidium aims to ensure that Navajo-Churro remains a multi-purpose breed linked to cultural traditions in the U.S. Southwest. Her snapshot is a photo essay about repurposing of Sonora tools:

The art of repurposing is abundantly evident among the ranchers and craftspeople whom we visited on our field trip to Sonora. Their tools and devices, constructed from discarded and repurposed pipes, tires, knives, or oil drums, are not only practical, they are unique inventions, springing from their creator’s functional needs and expert skills. Ingenuity is a necessity in their rural lives.

In this photo, old tires are sliced and used for fencing on the cattle corral.

Old sliced tires used as fence rails
Old sliced tires used as fence rails

Ramona, the tortilla maker, uses this oven and dome-shaped comal, created by her son from an oil drum, for cooking tortillas. The comal can be replaced with a hand-forged grill for other cooking purposes.

Comal for cooking tortillas
Comal for cooking tortillas

This machine, designed from bicycle parts, is used to weave rope from old plastic grocery bags.

Weaving rope from plastic bags
Weaving rope from plastic bags

Benjamin’s makeshift mechanical “helper” enables him to “despalmar,” or clean the rawhide of cow hair by himself, eliminating the need for an actual human helper. The rawhide strip is secured by a clamp on the bar and the knife blade in upper right hand corner, positioned by pliers, strips the hair off the hide.

Mechanical helper to clean rawhide
Mechanical helper to clean rawhide

 

Dr. Etta Kralovec

Etta is Associate Professor of Teacher Education and Director of Secondary Education programs at the University of Arizona South in Sierra Vista. A proud “foodie,” Etta’s snapshot recalls the joy of cooking and sharing local foods in Banamichi, the Field School’s home base:

As I was savoring the last bites of my Queso Cocido, a Sonoran cheese which I watched being made in Banamichi, I was suddenly missing our Field School. The cheese was made by Reymundo Salazar in the kitchen he shares with his wife, Lupita, an English teacher at the high school in Banamichi. In a conversation with Lupita about teaching at the school, we drifted into talking about cooking and how she uses the cheeses that Reymundo makes. During our time together, I came to understand that while Lupita loves her teaching job, it is in the kitchen that Lupita expresses herself and demonstrates her love of her family by producing a perfect chiltepin sauce and the homemade tortillas that she only makes when her eldest son comes home from college for the weekend.

Like my conversation with Lupita, the daily field trips seemed to always end with a discussion of food. As a foodie, this aspect of the Field School increased my ability to get a deeper cultural understanding of life in Sonora. Luckily, one of our professors, Dr. Ernesto Camou Healy, had written the Sonoran cookbook, Cocina Sonorense. I pestered him daily for recipes, which I dutifully recorded in my field notebook. From grilling nopals to making chiltepin sauce, each recipe was both a statement on how to approach the food as well as what to do with it. Ernesto told me that while his book was out of print, he did have an electronic copy, which he shared.

As the days went on and the recipes became more complex, Ernesto helped me understand more deeply how food shapes life in Sonora. His wife, Emma, presented us with her own, long-term research on the history of dietary changes in rural Sonora, which helped us all understand both the politics of Sonoran food and the food stuffs in the local tienda.

The Field School had a strong focus on the history of wheat in Sonora. This focus helped me gain a perspective on how changes in one part of the food industry can shape profound changes in dietary habits of the people. It also helped me understand why Sonoran big tortillas are so yummy and thin.

Perhaps the most exciting thing for me about the week was being in class with really smart, knowledgeable and insightful faculty. I am a college professor, so the opportunity to learn rather than teach, to take notes rather than to write lecture notes, was something I hadn’t done in a long time. I had forgotten how much I love learning new things…and how much I love learning about food!

Etta Kralovec talking to Ernesto Camou
Etta Kralovec talking to Ernesto Camou

 

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