I am a citizen of the border, born and raised in the Sonoran Desert. My hometown is Magdalena, Sonora, Mexico, a historic community sixty miles south of the U.S.-Mexico border and the twin cities of Nogales, Arizona, and Nogales, Sonora. Now I reside in Tucson, Arizona, sixty miles inside the United States. For the last twenty years, I’ve worked as an ethnobiologist and an educator in desert ecology and natural history.
The Sonoran Desert is a harsh environment. Weather conditions vary dramatically. It can be too hot, too cold, too wet, and too dry! These extremes make living here a unique experience.
At the same time, these conditions have created one of the most biodiverse landscapes in the world. Humans are an important part of this diversity, as inhabitants of the Tucson basin have cultivated and domesticated crops for at least 4,000 years. I feel deeply connected to the region through the tastes, smells, and memories of the foods I ate as a child.
Throughout the Spanish colonial (1692–1821) and Mexican periods (1821–1854), the desert’s small population lived well on its resources growing grains, vegetables, and fruit trees, as well as hunting and raising cattle. The Santa Cruz River floodplain and the surrounding hills easily sustained the farming and ranching needs of the valley’s people, both native and non-native.
However, now it is much more difficult to imagine large populations of people surviving on the resources of this region. With the arrival of the Union Pacific railroad in 1880 and evaporative cooling systems in the 1930s, the population of Tucson exploded. Today, most food consumed here is no longer produced locally. It comes from large industrial farms and processing plants elsewhere.
This has created long-term sustainability concerns in terms of food security and food quality. We are also heavily taxing our natural resources, such as water and fertile land. The aquifers are depleted, the rivers are dry, and we source a large portion of our water from the distant and dwindling Colorado River, pumped through the Central Arizona Project canal.
Sure, we have come up with new solutions for food production, such as the hydroponic greenhouses in southern Arizona and northern Mexico, the extensive monocrop of alfalfa, and the CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding systems) in the Gila River Valley north of Tucson. These approaches seem to be working for large-scale agro-business, but they come at a high cost. In our quest for industrialized farming of supermodel crops with perfect size, color, and, most of all, shelf life, we are compromising nutrition, flavor, and environmental sustainability. Most critical of all, we have all but lost the traditional knowledge and culture of living within the means and environmental conditions this region can offer.
In these modern times, our food and dietary crisis is literally reshaping society and the environment. Over the past century, we have transformed the Sonoran Desert by decreasing biodiversity, increasing monoculture, depleting the soil, and borrowing water from other watersheds where it is badly needed. I believe history, culture, and tradition can provide answers to our current and future food problems. There is wisdom in our history of successful cultivation of this land thousands of years, and we can turn to it for answers.
The native peoples of the Americas have complex agricultural systems that have been in place for thousands of years. The ancient crops they domesticated—such as corn, squash, beans, agaves, cactus pears, chilies and greens—are now combined with crops domesticated for thousands of years by people of the Fertile Crescent—olives, grapes, figs, dates, cucumbers, melons, wheat, ornamentals, and aromatic herbs.
Rain patterns and arid conditions similar to those in the Mediterranean region allow crops to naturalize in the Sonoran Desert. Because of similar adaptations and human interaction, crops from the Mediterranean became staple foods in the Americas, and crops from the Americas became staple foods in the Mediterranean. This union of the so-called Old and New Worlds created a fantastically diverse blend of foods that we continue to eat today.
Our traditional gardens found throughout the Sonoran Desert, especially those found in the backyards of homes south of the U.S.-Mexico border, often reflect both native crops from the Americas and ancient crops from the Mediterranean. The two can be difficult to distinguish for the untrained eye. It may seem like they have been together forever! Even though they come from different parts of the world, they complement each other well. For example, many of the introduced crops were winter growers, and there was no competition from indigenous crops. The new crops supplemented diets throughout the cold, rainy season.
This blend of crops and culinary traditions from both worlds certainly shaped my upbringing. I cannot imagine my life without homemade flour tortillas, a staple for every meal! The smells and the flavors of traditional homemade fermented drinks like tepache (fermented pineapple rinds) and tesgüíno (roasted corn sprouts, ground and fermented with cinnamon and sugar cane candy). Quince, pomegranates, sweet limes, cactus fruit, roasted agave, pinole (roasted ground corn). I didn’t know where all those foods came from—they were just a way of life. Now, I simply regard them as flavors of my childhood.
I grew up interested in the communities who have called the Sonoran Desert their home, especially the Tohono O’odham. At the same time, I was attentive to the traditions and agriculture of the first Europeans settlers in Northern Mexico.
A colleague and I started the Kino Heritage Fruit Trees Project (KHFTP), giving me a way to relive and enrich my childhood taste memories by contextualizing them within the ethnography and natural history of the region. It has taken me on a quest to identify and reproduce the ancient, old-world crops that were integrated into our local foodshed.
Based on ethnographic and historical research, we know that a few hundred years ago the diversity of old-world grains, vegetables, herbs, and fruit crops was quite extensive. However, in recent times, many of these locally adapted varieties have been virtually lost, largely owing to the disappearance of small-scale farms and backyard gardens in favor of the efficiencies of large-scale industrial farms.
Growing up, I remember the Agosteña and Octubreña pomegranate trees growing all around the fields and gardens. The August variety had a reddish golden skin, and the arils were light pink, sweet, and soft-seeded. The October pomegranates had a light green skin with brown specks. Their arils were dark pink, soft-seeded and very sweet. By 2002, when we started the KHFTP, these and many other varieties of fruit trees, once widespread north of the border, were all but lost. A single pomegranate variety was available commercially.
I set out to discover whether any of these traditional crops were still around. Could we find them in the Sonoran Desert? After consulting with local Tucsonans, historians, academics, farmers, elders, and anybody I could find who felt connected to this region, the answer was yes! My interest became an obsession, and now I feel more connected than ever to the legacy of these trees.
I found many of these answers in the journals and accounts written by one of the first Europeans who arrived in this region in the late 1600s, Jesuit missionary Father Eusebio Francisco Kino. Historians often credit him for introducing many of the Mediterranean crops and livestock to our region, which he called the Pimeria Alta, the historic land of the upper Pima Indians or Tohono O’odham people. He also introduced the traditional colonial small-scale ranching and farming culture that persists to some extent in Arizona and remains prevalent south of the border.
Father Kino’s footprint is visible in the Sonoran Desert. Through the KHFTP, I came to understand how the many crops I used to harvest in the orchards near my family’s home—including pomegranates, figs, and quince—were all part of Father Kino’s cultural and agricultural legacy. I know now that when I eat a delicious pomegranate or bite into a fragrant, ripe quince from this region, I am tasting the exact flavors tasted three centuries ago by Father Kino and his congregation of European settlers and indigenous people, our ancestors.
My modern approach to carrying on this legacy is to embrace the simple but rich agricultural traditions brought here in the eighteenth century. Learning this history has given me tools to embark on a journey of discovering some solutions to our food sustainability issues. I am convinced that by growing heirloom or historic trees, we are not only bringing back many of these unique crops that are well adapted to Southern Arizona, but we are also enriching our lives in many ways. We are conserving our history, our identity, and our sense of place through historical edible landscapes.
In addition to preserving cultural heritage, increasing biological diversity is also environmentally beneficial. All the life around the trees—from pollinators, such as birds and insects, to microorganisms in the soil—are vital components of the equation. Moreover, a diversity of crops means a more resilient food system and therefore greater food security for future generations. At the end of the day, maintaining genetic diversity will help prepare us for potentially devastating biological problems such as crop disease and pests. Soil and microorganism diversity will also increase, adding a diversity of nutrients and flavors that will eventually reach our palates.
These connections go deeper than just growing trees; it’s the people who grow them that matter—the families, the recipes, the stories, the songs, the celebrations, the land, the blossoms, the fruits, and, most of all, the flavors! Here in Tucson, thanks to the KHFTP, we are now reconnecting to the flavors of our past and to the pleasure of tasting fresh, heirloom, local crops.
Fortunately, for the last decade, through my work with colleagues at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, I have collaborated with an enthusiastic group of Tucsonans and several government agencies to create a four-acre farm called the Mission Garden. Visitors can learn about the native foods and traditional crops grown in this landscape throughout history, from the first indigenous domesticates to the most recent immigrant contributions. And we don’t just show you the crops—we let you taste them! You can experience history through your taste buds.
Visitors to the Mission Garden leave the experience with new connections to this special place and its flavors. If they are new to the area, they gain a connection to this land. Native Tucsonans can feel and smell the crops their ancestors grew. Like me, they are reminded of the childhood flavors and comfort foods they long for. They can taste their history.
Jesús M. García is a conservation research associate at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson, Arizona. Jeff Smith is a photographer also based in Tucson.