Book Review: How Chile Came To New Mexico / Comó Llegó El Chile A Nuevo México

Lisa Barrow
4 min read
By Means of Red and Green
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Vincent Van Gogh said, “I have tried to express the terrible passions of humanity by means of red and green.” Unfortunately for the taste buds of posterity, he wasn’t talking about chile. Van Gogh’s subject was instead his masterpiece, “The Night Café.” The artist meant that his daubs of paint didn’t attempt merely to resemble the real world; their bold strokes and brilliant color rendered direct, emotional experience.

How Chile Came to New Mexico, illustrator (and noted santero) Nicolás Otero thankfully goes light on the terrible passions, but he does employ rich, warm fields of color and luscious details to express community, wholeness and security. Rudolfo Anaya’s text about the arrival of the “fruit that makes food taste good” is steeped in the structures and cadence of myth, and Otero’s paintings help it fairly leap off the page.

The story is straightforward but laced with magic. Young Eagle is a Pueblo Indian youth who loves a girl and must prove himself to her father. He sets off for the land of the Aztecs, far away in central Mexico, intent on bringing back the chile seeds that will win him the right to marry his beloved Sage. Angry spirits in the form of a whirlpool, an evil vulture and a toothy boulder try to stop Young Eagle. Naturally, he overcomes them all thanks to his wits and the gifts bequeathed on him for his journey. A giant eagle—in grand, stylized Aztec style—helps the youth, and his journey ultimately becomes one of connection between distant cultures.

Obviously Anaya is the big name on this book. He executes his Famous New Mexico Storyteller duties with aplomb. Though the tale apparently comes out of Anaya’s own venerable head, it has the feeling of an archetype-laden myth. To be sure, a close reading forces more nuanced critiques. For one, the treatment of gender is uninspiring—girls don’t figure much in the action, and Sage is essentially the Princess in the Castle to be won as a prize. There are also some heady whiffs of cultural imperialism here—I mean, this is a story about historical Pueblo Indians told from an unapologetically Hispanic POV. The summing-up at the end, for example, notes with no apparent irony that “In 1598 when the Spanish-speaking people arrived to settle in New Mexico, they found chile growing in Pueblo farms.” Yeah, they sure did “find” a lot of things. These are matters worth thinking about and worth exploring with children in an age-appropriate manner, but they won’t (nor should they) stop this picture book from becoming a fixture in libraries and schools throughout the state. Even in its flaws, this tale is fundamentally, trenchantly New Mexican.

One of the book’s most charming aspects is its bilingualism. Translator Nasario García appears to have taken great care in his interpretation of Anaya’s words, and there’s even a glossary that translates his New Mexico Spanish vocabulary into standard Spanish and English. So even though you learned “lodo” for mud in your high school Spanish classes, García uses the more authentically local “zoquete.”

How Chile Came to New Mexico’s strength as a picture book ultimately stems from this triumvirate of talented men each pulling and tugging at the story in his own way. With its appealing, expressive visuals, prototypical story and intelligent translation, it has the feel of a classic that will be welcomed by many for years to come.
By Means of Red and Green

Detail showing those lovely brush strokes

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