Along the rugged foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountains is a crescent-shaped valley, carved with acequias, stone-lined roads and fertile fields that for millennia have been fed with storms and snowmelt from the highlands of northern New Mexico.
Named Chimayó, after the nearby “T’si Mayo” hill of the Tewa tribe, it is an arts and farming community of 2,600 that straddles the line separating Rio Arriba and Santa Fe counties. Through centuries of New Mexican lore — that hybrid of Native American, Spanish, Mexican and Anglo legend — Chimayó has become a symbol of the ancient culture of the Southwest, and of the reverence for cultivating the land.
Crescencio “Chencho” Ochoa, a farmer in Chimayó, devotes his time to working the New Mexico soil, growing what is perhaps New Mexico’s most iconic contribution to the world: the tantalizing flavors of red and green chile peppers.
“To every soul, God gives something. For the artists, God gives some the gift to sing, some to dance. God also gives gifts to the different soils of different places,” he said. “The soil of Colombia has the gift to grow coffee. For the soil of Chimayó, God gave the gift to grow chile.”
The chile pepper, the most enduring fruit — not vegetable — of New Mexico land, first grown in the soil of the Mayans and Incas, likely made its way through Aztec trade routes into this land, where later-arriving conquistadors hastened its trade. It was grown in the gardens of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and George Washington’s Mount Vernon, and last year 2.4 billion pounds of it were sold around the world.
While New Mexico is the top chile-producing state in the nation, USDA figures show that chile is not the top product in the state’s $3.4 billion agricultural market. Nor is it second, nor third. Chile is ranked a lowly sixth, below milk, cattle, pecans, hay and onions.
But the popularity of chile peppers, the fruit that looks and tastes like a vegetable, is a phenomenon that is hard to explain, even inspiring a wing in a major university devoted entirely to its study.
“It has a cult following. You don’t see people getting this excited about zucchini,” said Liza Lopez, program specialist for the Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University. “There is a mystique around it. Why do we eat it? It burns, it hurts. Why do we continue to do it? Because it makes us feel good. It releases endorphins, and it is something that we’ve come to crave.”
For some New Mexicans, the chile pepper transcends its culinary role, reaching the highest status of becoming a cultural symbol — an icon not just for an industry, but for New Mexico and its lifestyle, both cosmopolitan and grounded in tradition.
“It is synonymous with who we are as New Mexicans,” said New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. Chile is a bridge across all lineages, from the Native Americans to Hispanics, she said, and is an entrenched part of the identity of the people in the state. “This is a reflection of our culture, and how we view ourselves,” she said, adding that “it is embedded even in our basic traditions.”
“When we grow it, when we harvest it, when we roast it, when we start to peel it, whole families will come together, much in the way you might recognize with tamale making with the holidays, where it’s a huge family production,” said Lujan Grisham. “That’s how New Mexico families embrace chile.”
New Mexico chile is as varied as the people in the state. Farmers and experts say that different soils, temperatures, elevations, watering and growing techniques all produce different flavor profiles for chile.
“Each community has their own chile,” said Noel Trujillo, part owner-operator of Vigil Farms in Chimayó. “In the north, Chimayó, is just one of many.”
Although opinions abound on which chile region represents the true New Mexico flavor, most observers agree that the state’s chile identity is primarily defined by two chile-growing regions: the Chimayó fields in the north of the state, and the Hatch Valley in the south.
Growers of Chimayó are an exclusive group
Chimayó chile — sold by “Chimayosos” — is considered a craft chile for the culinary purists, Noel Trujillo said, and is grown “by only a handful of us, five or less.”
Authentic Chimayó chile is orange, smaller than standard chile peppers and noticeably wrinkled with a ridge near the stem, he said. It has a citrusy, smoky flavor and a little rush of heat — “just enough to give you a little bit of sweat on your brow,” he said — and with a savory aftertaste.
But authentic Chimayó chile is an elusive product,Trujillo said, often mislabled by imposter chiles brought from elsewhere. If someone wants the real thing, he recommended finding a farm connection, and schmoozing your way into the inner circle.
“In Chimayó, they plant, mostly not to sell, but for their own use. They produce it just for their family and friends, for consumption,” he said, chuckling at the comments he hears at farmers markets in other parts of the state. “They say they’re going to drive to Chimayó and buy some chile. That’s pretty unlikely. There’s no big sign by the side of the road that says, ‘Get your Chimayó chile here.’ It’s pretty hard to get.”
The entire Chimayó Valley probably grows 30 to 40 acres of chile, and only about a third of that is grown to be put on the market, he said.
Ochoa is the largest chile grower in Chimayó, but he said the chile from this region represents a tiny drop in New Mexico’s chile market. This year, for example, he grew two acres of chile — down from his usual four or five acres — and sells it at nearby farmer’s markets.
Unconcerned with the ups and downs of chile markets, he is confident in the chile he grows, and says simply: “The people who know chile prefer Chimayó chile. And those who know will pay whatever is the price being asked.” As far as chile pedigree goes, Gloria Trujillo, maiden name of Vigil, can be considered chile royalty in northern New Mexico. Her family was among the first settlers in the Chimayó area, and has been growing chile since they first arrived.
“We made our living by planting. It was a family affair,” she said, clearly recalling her youth with fondness. Times have changed a bit with the local chile customs, she said, and remembered how in her childhood, the ristras — the popular clusters of red chile wound together and hung like ornaments — were “twice as long as now,” right around 5 feet long.
“They hung them against the walls to dry, and there were a lot of houses that in September and October had the walls covered in sun, with ristras hanging from the eaves. It was beautiful,” she said. Her husband, Noel Trujillo, said he believes the Chimayó chile is a chile truer to the original plant grown throughout the centuries in New Mexico.
Academics agree, citing a concept known as “landrace” — a term for plants that evolve into a specific chile “race” after 100 years of repeated seed selection and growth in a geographical area.
“The seed from landrace chiles was passed on from generation to generation, bringing forward genetic traits that allowed for adaptation to the unique growing conditions in northern New Mexico,” said Dr. Stephanie Walker, extension vegetable specialist at New Mexico State University, in an NMSU academic article titled “The Landrace Chiles of Northern New Mexico” in 2016. “‘Chimayó,’ the chile pepper landrace from the small village of Chimayó, is the most well known of the New Mexico landraces,” she says in the article.
Researchers found that northern New Mexico chile is not related to the Hatch Valley chile grown commercially in the southern part of the state. Chimayó’s closest relative is the chile grown in Mexico, adding credence to the legend that northern New Mexico chile was brought in by the ancient trade routes of MesoAmerica, including the Mexica — known popularly as Aztecs.
“I would think there is a great possibility,” Walker said. “It certainly would make sense, because we know that those groups were actively trading other commodities at that time.”
Chile in the north of New Mexico is also distinct because it is more directly tied to the original chile grown by the Indigenous and early Spanish settlers, chile experts say. They add that the evolution of chile in the north has been natural, different from the southern chile in Hatch that has undergone engineering to create a specific size, thickness and flavor profiles.
“While these New Mexico commercial cultivars are the main type grown in the southern part of the state, in northern New Mexico many Native American Pueblo and Hispanic communities have long grown ‘native chile,’ also known as New Mexico landraces,” Walker said in her article.
Gloria Trujillo agreed that the northern New Mexico is more natural, less altered and generally more unpredictable, sort of a free-range chile.
“We don’t have mild, or medium, or hot. It is what it is,” she said. “If it happens to be hotter one year than the next, then that’s the way it is.”