By: Robin McKinney Martin
Published online: Wednesday, October 10, 2012
Appeared in: Home, Santa Fe Real Estate Guide
Edition: October 2012 Vol. 15 No. 7
Pat Naranjo and his cousin Joe Naranjo were busy in the month of September making chicos, roasted corn kernels used in traditional Pueblo stews. The cousins farm the rich bottomland along the Río Grande, south of their homes at Santa Clara Pueblo. On their families’ plots, they grow corn, chile, native squash, watermelon, tomatoes, eggplant and cucumbers.
They grow most of their crop from seeds, many saved from prior years. Their white corn for instance, is an heirloom Pueblo variety, passed on from one generation to the next. Pat said he acquired his chile seeds about 15 years ago from a man at Isleta Pueblo. Cherry tomatoes, on the other hand, come from sets he bought at Santa Maria del Mirador, a commercial greenhouse in Alcalde.
The garden is a mix of immaculately tended rows of chile, and of other vegetables that grow among wild flowering plants. The chile is hardest to grow, Pat said. Morning-glory vines growing among the chile plants will choke and kill them; therefore the rows need to be completely weed-free. Squash, corn and cucumbers on the other hand can coexist with morning glories and other weeds; in fact he encourages it, as weeds discourage the crows that would otherwise ravage the crops.
His squash crop was small this year, as insects attacked the vines. He uses no pesticides in the garden.
Pat irrigates his chile every second or third day from an acequia that feeds off the Río Grande. He is busy in his garden daily. The setting where he works is spectacular. The Sangre de Cristo Mountains are visible behind ancient cottonwoods that line the river to the east. To the south is the stark outline of Black Mesa. In the west are the white cliffs of the Pajarito Plateau, with the Jemez Mountains behind them. North is mile after mile of Pueblo gardens, with the village of Santa Clara beyond.
Pat said that between 25 and 30 people maintain gardens near his plots along the Río Grande, and in the village. He added that interest in farming has increased in recent years.
By the Naranjo garden is a comfortable shack made of ply board and metal scraps, furnished with old chairs and a few seats recycled from automobiles. Here the cousins take refuge from the sun and rain. On the fence hang deerskins and sheepskins. Next to this shack, which the men jokingly call their refugee camp, is where they make the chicos.
Pat and his cousin Joe soak the whole ears of corn, and then begin cooking them, husk and all, in a pit made of a metal culvert. They build a fire in the pit and after it dies down, they bank it with damp cornhusks to keep the crop from burning. Ears of corn go in at 7 p.m. and come out at 9 a.m. The ears cook as they cool, then are taken home to dry. They prepare about 200 ears at a time.
Some of the hundreds of ears they harvest are saved for feast-day stews, some for family use in the winter. Other corn is sold to friends and acquaintances, the garden’s cash crop.
Pat has been farming for decades. He began in 1973, when he was first married to his wife, Margaret Suazo. His father, Louis Naranjo, farmed one of the plots that Pat still uses. (Louis, who has since passed away, was the subject of previous gardening columns in this publication.)
Pat served stateside in the Navy for four years in the late 1960s, during the Vietnam War. Joe was in the Marines, with a tour in Vietnam in 1971. Pat is retired from leadership roles at Santa Clara, having served as tribal sheriff, interpreter and councilman. He is a great-grandfather. Joe was also on the tribal council. He is a grandfather.
Their families use the produce from the garden all summer and in winter eat the chicos, which the men prepare in September.
The garden means daily hard labor, but both men are dedicated and skilled, and they greatly enjoy the camaraderie of working outside together.
Robin McKinney Martin is the owner of The Santa Fe New Mexican and The Taos News and a member of the Associated Press board of directors, as well as a gardener and an enthusiastic witness of the agriculture-related pursuits of other norteños.