Each morning I drive to work on a windy road that crosses a mountain that divides the city. As I drive, the desert plants pass my sight. The gobernadora that ethnobotanist Gary Nabhan calls the pharmacy of the desert; the sotol that produces the state drink of several northern Mexican states; the yucca whose glossy white blossoms, izote, are now a delicacy in some high end restaurants. It is the nopal, though, that most draws my attention each morning.
We are people of the nopal as profoundly as we are people of the corn. For over 20,000 years, the people of what is now Mexico and the U.S. Southwest as well as we, their descendants, have used the nopal for nourishment, for water, for medicine, and for ceremony. We have a profound relationship with the nopal that continues, sometimes unnoticed, when we take Nopalina for our diabetes or eat huevos con nopalitos or enjoy the juicy tunas when they are in season.
When someone looks "Mexican," looks "indio" but acts like they are not, we say "Tiene el nopal en la frente." He has the prickly pear on his forehead. It is obvious.
The nopal features prominently in the center of the Mexican flag because the eagle perching on top of the nopalli, the prickly pear was the sign that the people who would become the Mexica looked for as they traveled for two hundred years looking for the place that would become their home.
We have lived beside the nopal for thousands of years and the nopal has allowed us to survive in the desert where we made our homes.
Waiting for the Prickly Pear
"The best season that these people have is when they eat the prickly pears, because the they are not hungry, and they spend all their time dancing and eating of them, night and day." From The Narrative of Cabeza de Vaca (1542)
In the desert one rainfall changes everything
Yellows deepen into greens
The desiccated becomes plump and fleshy
When the rains come
Everything in the desert reaches upward
Rising towards the cloud
In prayer for more water.
When the rains come we wait
Wait for the prickly pear
For our hunger to be appeased
For the bitter taste of fruit not yet ripe
And the sweetness of its mature flesh.
First the tiny nubs of purple green appear
Like a corona around each leaf
The summer rains have fattened them
Those sickly skinny leaves are thick
The lime green flesh slimy and full
Beneath tough skin it is slippery to the touch.
Then the flowers open
Yellow Waxy dazzling
The bees appear
Buzzing hungrily around those
By magic the fruit emerges from the flower
Green oval with tiny thorns
That mature into deep purple fruit.
We grab them hungrily at first
We have been waiting long
Miniature spikes embed themselves in our fingers
But we do not feel their stink
because the sweet juice is running down
And we are singing to the desert.
From A Tejana in Tenochtitlan (2004)