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A Tortilla Is Like Life

A Tortilla Is Like Life
Food and Culture in the San Luis Valley of Colorado

An innovative portrait of a small Colorado town based on a decade's worth of food-centered life histories from nineteen of its female residents.

Series: Louann Atkins Temple Women and Culture Endowment, Book Twenty-One, Louann Atkins Temple Women & Culture Series

November 2009
This is a print-on-demand title. Expedited shipping is not available.
272 pages | 6 x 9 | 20 b&w photos, 2 maps, table |

Located in the southern San Luis Valley of Colorado, the remote and relatively unknown town of Antonito is home to an overwhelmingly Hispanic population struggling not only to exist in an economically depressed and politically marginalized area, but also to preserve their culture and their lifeways. Between 1996 and 2006, anthropologist Carole Counihan collected food-centered life histories from nineteen Mexicanas—Hispanic American women—who had long-standing roots in the Upper Rio Grande region. The interviews in this groundbreaking study focused on southern Colorado Hispanic foodways—beliefs and behaviors surrounding food production, distribution, preparation, and consumption.

In this book, Counihan features extensive excerpts from these interviews to give voice to the women of Antonito and highlight their perspectives. Three lines of inquiry are framed: feminist ethnography, Latino cultural citizenship, and Chicano environmentalism. Counihan documents how Antonito's Mexicanas establish a sense of place and belonging through their knowledge of land and water and use this knowledge to sustain their families and communities. Women play an important role by gardening, canning, and drying vegetables; earning money to buy food; cooking; and feeding family, friends, and neighbors on ordinary and festive occasions. They use food to solder or break relationships and to express contrasting feelings of harmony and generosity, or enmity and envy. The interviews in this book reveal that these Mexicanas are resourceful providers whose food work contributes to cultural survival.

  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Chapter 1. "I Did Do Something": Food-Centered Life Histories in Antonito, Colorado
    • Why Antonito
    • Methodology: Food-Centered Life Histories and Testimonios
    • History of Antonito
    • Antonito Today
    • Study Participants
    • The Ethnographic Process
    • Helen Ruybal and Carole Counihan on Ethnography
    • Conclusion
  • Chapter 2. "The Stereotypes Have to Be Broken": Identity and Ethnicity in Antonito
    • Antonito: An Insider/Outsider Perspective
    • Janice DeHerrera on Antonito
    • Language and Education, Spanish and English
    • Teddy Madrid on Freedom of Speech
    • Ramona Valdez on English and Spanish
    • Helen Ruybal on Learning English and Being Smart
    • Teddy Madrid on Learning English from the Presbyterians
    • Ethnic, Gender, and Religious Identity
    • Ramona Valdez on Ethnic Terminology
    • Teddy Madrid on the Connection with Spain
    • Discrimination and Prejudice
    • Helen Ruybal on Discrimination
    • Teddy Madrid on Multiple Identities and Axes of Prejudice
    • Ramona Valdez on Religious and Anti-Hispanic Prejudice
    • Bernadette Vigil on Chicano Consciousness
    • Teddy Madrid on Identity, Terminology, and Prejudice
    • Conclusion
  • Chapter 3. "Part of This World": Meanings of Land and Water
    • Introduction
    • History of Land: Acquisition and Loss
    • Helen Ruybal's Land Acquisition and Sale
    • Land and Its Meanings
    • Monica Taylor's Dream of Land, Family, and Place
    • Monica Taylor's Perceptions of the Land
    • Ramona Valdez on the Meanings of Land
    • Teddy Madrid on Land, Home, and Family
    • Water in the Southwest
    • The Multiple Meanings and Uses of Water
    • Teddy Madrid on the Traditional Uses of Water
    • Teddy Madrid on Water as a Commodity
    • Janice DeHerrera on Water as a Commodity
    • Monica Taylor on Water as Life
    • Conclusion: Land, Water, Place, and Chicano Cultural Ecology
  • Chapter 4. "Anything You Want Is Going to Come from the Earth": The Traditional Diet
    • The Locally Produced Subsistence Diet
    • Ramona Valdez's Food Narrative
    • Meat: Domesticated and Wild Animal Foods
    • Helen Ruybal on Raising Cattle and Beef
    • Teddy Madrid on Fishing, Hunting, and Making Jerky
    • Cultivated Foods: Grains, Beans, Vegetables, and Fruits
    • Asuncionita Mondragon on Her Grandparents' Garden in La Isla
    • Teddy Madrid on Food Production in Las Mesitas
    • Bernadette Vigil on Red and Green Chili
    • Gathered Plant Foods and Medicines
    • Helen Ruybal on the Importance of Piñon in Her Family
    • Teddy Madrid on Gathering Wild Foods in Las Mesitas
    • Ramona Valdez on Healing Herbs
    • Conclusion: Food, Place, and Culture
  • Chapter 5. "We've Got to Provide for the Family": Women, Food, and Work
    • Production, Reproduction, and Gender
    • Helen Ruybal's Story of Courtship and Marriage
    • Gender Expectations and Practices
    • Teddy Madrid on Her Family's Flexible Gender Division of Labor
    • Monica Taylor on the Strong Women in Her Family
    • Helen Ruybal on Gender Relations and Ideals
    • Women and Food Work
    • Teddy Madrid on Food Preservation
    • Monica Taylor on Gardening and Preserving Food
    • Janice DeHerrera on Food Preparation
    • Earning Money with Food
    • Helen Ruybal on Making and Selling Cheese
    • Ramona Valdez on Working in the Fields
    • Celina Romero on Working as a Cook and Field Hand
    • Asuncionita Mondragon on Raising Poultry and Selling Eggs
    • Balancing Work and Home
    • Teddy Madrid's First Paycheck
    • Teddy Madrid on Being a Working Woman
    • Janice DeHerrera on Balancing Job and Home
    • Conclusion
  • Chapter 6. "It's a Feeling Thing": Cooking and Women's Agency
    • Cooking and Agency
    • Teddy Madrid's Cooking Adventures
    • To Cook or Not to Cook
    • Helen Ruybal's and Her Sister's Different Approaches to Cooking
    • Janice DeHerrera's Cooking Expectations
    • Cooking, Self-Expression, and Emotional Connection
    • Janice DeHerrera on Creativity and Cooking
    • Janice DeHerrera on Cooking as Emotional Communication
    • Cordi Ornelas's Paella
    • Learning and Teaching Cooking
    • Janice DeHerrera on Learning How to Cook
    • Monica Taylor on Learning to Cook and the Family Biscochito Recipe
    • Cooking and Gender
    • Teddy Madrid on Cooking after Marriage
    • Helen Ruybal on Her Husband Cooking
    • Monica Taylor on the Chili Wars
    • Conclusion
  • Chapter 7. "Meals Are Important, Maybe It's Love": Mexicano Meals and Family
    • Family in Antonito
    • Janice DeHerrera on Family Ties versus Individual Ambition
    • Teddy Madrid on Her Father's Family Charge
    • Mexicano Family Meals
    • Martha Mondragon on Family Meals and Television
    • Janice DeHerrera on the Importance of the Family Meal
    • Meals and Gender Roles
    • Janice DeHerrera on Restaurants, Her First Communion, and Family Gender Power
    • Meals, Socialization, and Respect
    • Janice DeHerrera on Meals in Her Family of Origin
    • Martha Mondragon on Grace before Meals
    • Teddy Madrid on Family Meals, Respect, and Socialization
    • Asuncionita Mondragon on Teaching Spanish at Family Meals
    • Conclusion
  • Chapter 8. "It Was a Give-and-Take": Sharing and Generosity versus Greed and Envy
    • Cooperative Labor Exchanges
    • Cordi Ornelas on Work Parties
    • Yolanda Salazar on Making and Selling Tamales
    • Sharing and Generosity
    • Asuncionita Mondragon on Sharing Food with Neighbors
    • Helen Ruybal on Sharing Honey and Meat
    • Greed and Envy
    • Carmen Lopez and Helen Ruybal on Sharing, Cuzco, and Envidia
    • Helen Ruybal on Envy
    • Envy and Witchcraft
    • Helen Ruybal on Witchcraft, Curanderas, and Envy
    • Conclusion
  • Chapter 9. "Come out of Your Grief": Death and Commensality
    • The Wake
    • Cordi Ornelas on Foods at the Wake
    • Helen Ruybal on Death, Velorios, and Funerals
    • Food Gifts for the Bereaved
    • Janice DeHerrera on Food and Death
    • Martha Mondragon on Death and Food Sharing
    • Farewell Dinners
    • Yolanda Salazar on Death, Community, and Commensality
    • Helen Ruybal on Farewell Dinners
    • Rending and Mending Community
    • Helen Ruybal on Different Funeral Traditions
    • Teddy Madrid on Presbyterian Funeral Feasts
    • Janice DeHerrera on the Meaning of Food at Funerals
    • Conclusion
  • Chapter 10. "Give Because It Multiplies": Hunger and Response
    • Poverty and Food Insecurity
    • Bernadette Vigil on Caring and Hunger
    • Janice DeHerrera on Traditions of Sharing Food
    • Traditional Foodways, Sharing, and Making Do
    • Teddy Madrid on Hunger, Scarcity, and Sharing
    • Janice DeHerrera on Making Do with Beans, Tortillas, and Potatoes
    • Hunger in School
    • Janice DeHerrera on Hunger in the Elementary School
    • The Antonito Food Bank
    • Teddy Madrid on Presbyterian Support of the Food Bank
    • Janice DeHerrera on Hunger, Conscience, and the Food Bank
    • Conclusion
  • Chapter 11. Conclusion: "Our People Will Survive"
    • The Fourth of July Meal
    • Unpacking the Fourth of July Meal
    • Explanations for the Antonito Diet
    • Toward the Future
  • Appendix 1. Topics in Food-Centered Life Histories
  • Appendix 2. Categories of Analysis
  • Appendix 3. Population of Antonito, Conejos County, and Colorado, 1880-2000
  • Appendix 4. Wild Plants Used for Food or Healing in the Antonito Area
  • Notes
  • Glossary of Spanish Terms
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Carole M. Counihan is Professor of Anthropology at Millersville University in Pennsylvania. She is the author of Around the Tuscan Table: Food, Family, and Gender in Twentieth Century Florence and the co-editor of the scholarly journal Food and Foodways.


This book is an introduction to the unique Hispanic community of Antonito in Conejos County, Colorado, just six miles north of the New Mexico border and 110 miles north of Santa Fe. Most people in Antonito reported having Spanish, Mexican, and Indian ancestors, sprinkled with various "Anglo" influences. Their community's roots lie in the mixed ranching and farming subsistence economy of the early Hispanic settlers in the Upper Rio Grande region who came north from New Mexico in the mid-nineteenth century and pushed out the Utes and Navajos. They laid claim to the land by living on it, cultivating it, grazing their animals on it, and building acequias to irrigate it.

This long-standing Hispanic community and culture is presented through the words of several Antonito women. I gathered their words in food-centered life history interviews between 1996 and 2006. I use food as a lens through which to see Mexicanas' relation to land, labor, family, and community—to see their world through their eyes. Because this book is based on diverse people's stories about their lives, it presents multiple views based on remembered worlds. People always censor and embellish their memories, and others in Antonito would see the same things quite differently.

Three frames organize women's food-centered life histories. The first is the examination of their sense of belonging in place and history that is a hallmark of what Latino scholars have called cultural citizenship. The second frame is Chicano environmentalism, which seeks to promote just and sustainable communities and to document Mexicano food production and land and water use. The third frame is a melding of Latina feminism and feminist ethnography, which prioritize the perspectives and experiences of women, especially those like the rural Mexicanas in this book who have been previously excluded from the pages of history. By including their voices, I hope not only to describe Antonito culture but also to promote its survival. To that end, and in the belief that education is the path to empowerment, all royalties are going to the Antonito Scholarship Fund at Adams State College.

Chapter 1"I Did Do Something"Food-Centered Life Histories in Antonito, Colorado

This book is based on food-centered life histories that I collected between 1996 and 2006 with Mexicanas in the small town of Antonito in the southern San Luis Valley of Colorado. Ninety percent of the population of Antonito identified themselves as Hispanic in the 2000 U.S. Census. They had deep roots in the Upper Rio Grande region and could point to Spanish, Mexican, Native American, and European ancestry. They were not "Mexican" or "Anglo" but part of a Hispanic cultural group spanning the geographic region from Santa Fe north to Antonito since the sixteenth century. I interviewed nineteen women about their foodways—their beliefs and behaviors surrounding food production, distribution, preparation, and consumption. This book makes extensive use of excerpts from those interviews to give voice to the women of Antonito.

Three lines of inquiry frame this book. The first brings together Latina feminism and feminist ethnography by focusing on the diverse insider perspectives of Mexicanas and by sharing the stage with them. The second comes from Flores and Benmayor's (1998) concept of cultural citizenship and asks whether Antonito Mexicanas' have cultural as well as political citizenship, that is, not just political rights but also a sense of community, place, and "cultural belonging" (Silvestrini 1997, 44). The third line of inquiry comes from Chicano environmentalism (Peña 1998) and documents the way in which Antonito Mexicanas knew land and water and used them to sustain families and communities for more than one hundred fifty years.

Why Antonito

Ethnographic fieldwork consists of learning about a culture by living in a community and conducting long-term participant observation and in-depth interviews. My husband, the anthropologist James Taggart, and I share the conviction that fieldwork is the lifeblood of anthropology and that it is fascinating and compelling work. Since Jim's previous fieldwork had been in Spain and Mexico and mine had been in Italy, we did not have a common fieldwork language. We had been looking for a fieldwork site where we could both work and raise our young sons, Ben and Willie. A fortuitous visit by the sociologist Mary Romero to Millersville University in 1990 launched our interest in the San Luis Valley. Jim contacted Kathi Figgen, who was then the state folklorist for southern Colorado. She suggested we consider Antonito, whose Hispanic community was of long standing and where older people still spoke Spanish as well as English, though younger people spoke only English.

We did more research and found that Stanford University folklorist, Juan B. Rael, a native of nearby Arroyo Hondo, New Mexico, had done an extensive study in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico in the 1930s and 1940s and amassed a rich collection of stories, plays, songs, and religious traditions. We found, however, little recent ethnographic research on Colorado Mexicanos. In summer 1995 Jim and I and our sons spent three weeks in the Antonito area, visiting several towns and getting a sense of the place. By the end of our stay, we decided to do our research in Antonito because it had been an important cultural and commercial crossroads and the people were friendly. After trying to find a place to rent, we ended up buying a house in the middle of town and going there every summer and Christmas for ten years, conducting interviews and getting to know the town.

That ethnographic research is possible never ceases to amaze me: it involves crossing the boundaries of distance between strangers and opening up to each other in quite intimate ways. Ethnographers usually travel from our homeplace to someone else's, often where we know no one. We have to meet people, explain why we are there, and enlist assistance. People usually do agree to help, and they spend hours talking to us, responding to our improbable questions and speaking about their own concerns, often on tape. People in Antonito were no exception. The town was small and welcoming, and little by little we made friends and found participants for our research. We met people at the post office, in the grocery store, at the restaurants, on the street, and in the neighborhood. We enrolled our sons when they were ages nine and six in Antonito Youth Baseball, and both played through age thirteen. We came to know many people at practices and games and learned a lot about Antonito and its rivalry with nearby La Jara, Manassa, and Sanford as we cheered the Antonito teams.

I connected with the women of Antonito across many differences and some similarities. Like me, many were wives and mothers. But there were many differences between us. I have a Ph.D. and am a tenured professor with excellent pay and benefits, available to few in Antonito. I can come and go as I wish, enjoying Antonito's beauty and vibrancy in summer and skipping its cold, windy, long, and sometimes bleak winter. I can escape or ignore the gossip and conflicts that are as common in Antonito as in small towns everywhere, whereas the women who live there have to endure the slights. I struggle to get beneath the surface, whereas they have multilayered, nuanced understandings of their community. Several of them are bilingual in Spanish and English, whereas I have command of written and spoken English but only a superficial knowledge of Spanish. I am "Anglo"; they are "Hispanic."

Relations between Anglos and Hispanics in the Southwest have had a long history of conflict steeped in racist discourse about land, water, power, and rights. Antonito was not immune to this history, as Joe Taylor so eloquently describes in Alex and the Hobo (Taylor and Taggart 2003). Because many Mexicanos from Antonito have encountered racial slurs and discrimination from Anglos, it was reasonable to assume that they would have some diffidence toward us when we arrived as strangers in Antonito. To combat that diffidence, I fell back on the principles of anthropology: a respect for individual and cultural diversity, a commitment to honesty and confidentiality, and an acknowledgment that ethnocentrism is real and must be constantly guarded against.

Anthropology is based on the premise that human beings can communicate and approach understandings across differences—of class, culture, nation, geography, language, and customs. We connect by finding shared identities. And although I am Anglo and have a privileged urban, white, upper-middle-class background, in my ancestry are roots that connect me with the people of Antonito. On my father's side, my ancestors were Irish all the way back, and the history of Irish oppression was part of my upbringing in mid-twentieth-century Boston. Although I experienced little discrimination myself, I was raised in an environment where ethnic and racial prejudice were condemned and social justice was valued.

My mother's ancestry gave me connections to the people of Antonito in a different way, for she was born in northern New Mexico, in the town of Las Vegas, and her mother grew up a few miles outside Las Vegas, on a ranch in Rociada, in an area of Ponderosa pine forests and grazing lands. I was given my grandmother Marie Dunn's name as my middle name, and my mother always told me I was just like her. Her mother, Marie Anna Pendaries, was born in France in 1852 and came to the United States when she was four years old, crossing from Kansas to New Mexico with a wagon train. My maternal grandmother's father, Richard Dunn, was born in Maine in 1846 of Scottish immigrant parents, and he traveled to New Mexico via wagon train as a teenager. My great-grandparents met in Las Vegas, New Mexico, where he worked at the Plaza Hotel, which her father, Jean Pendaries, helped build. My grandmother Marie grew up in the Southwest and moved east after she married Wallace Watson, my grandfather. I never got a chance to talk to my grandmother about her childhood in northern New Mexico, because she died when I was nine years old, but I inherited from her a connection to the Southwest. Although I had never lived more than three hours from the ocean in my entire life, I loved the Rocky Mountains of southern Colorado and northern New Mexico the moment I saw them. Although I am not of the place myself, I can share the appreciation of my research subjects for their beloved homeland.

Methodology: Food-Centered Life Histories and Testimonios

Tape-recorded semistructured interviews constitute the main substance of this book. I also took more than five hundred pages of fieldnotes over the course of eight summers. I wrote about conversations I had, places I visited, and events I participated in, such as birthdays, baseball games, and community meetings. I also collected recipes and took many photos. Over thirty years of research I have found that food provides a powerful voice and sparks meaningful memories for many people. Moreover, Hispanic culture in the San Luis Valley revolved around subsistence food production until after World War II, when the local ranching and farming economy began to decline (Deutsch 1987). My goal in this book is to weave diverse women's voices together to create a cultural mosaic revealing who they are and how they relate to food, place, and people. The experiences and voices of women—particularly those belonging to economically and politically marginalized ethnic groups—have too long been absent from the historical record. Recuperating them enriches our understanding of American culture and is a central goal in feminist ethnography and oral history.

My food-centered life history methodology emulates the testimonio genre, a form of writing that emerged out of Latin American liberation movements. Testimonios are ordinary people's narratives about events they have witnessed that center on a compelling "story that needs to be told—involving a problem of repression, poverty, subalternity, exploitation, or simply survival" (Beverly 1993, 73; original emphasis). Like ethnography, testimonios are based on collaboration between the narrator-witness and the compiler-ethnographer. Testimonios seek "to rewrite and to retell . . . history and reality from the people's perspective," as diverse and complex as that may be (Gugelberger and Kearney 1991, 11). While many testimonios are based on one individual's experience, some, like this book, consist of a "polyphonic testimonio" composed of several different voices from one community (Beverly 1993, 74). I wanted to provide a forum for Antonito women to articulate their views of the world and to keep alive the stories, history, and culture of Mexicanas of the remote and relatively unknown southern San Luis Valley of Colorado. The diverse female perspectives on Antonito culture and foodways complement the male views described by Taylor and Taggart (2003) in their collaborative study of Antonito.

Before doing interviews, I established informed consent, telling people in Antonito who I was and what I was doing there, promising confidentiality, and giving them the choice to participate or not. Interviews were loosely structured and took place either in my kitchen or in the women's homes, according to their preference. I usually set up the interviews ahead of time and told potential participants that I wanted to ask questions about food in their lives. I asked for their permission to tape-record, explaining that I wanted to have their verbatim comments about their culture, but I also told them that they could turn the tape recorder off at any time and decline to answer any questions, which people did on occasion. While I tried eventually to address all the topics on my list (see Appendix 1), interviews were conversations with their own momentum and wandered into many nonfood topics.

My questions focused on diet, meals, celebrations, rituals, gardening, farming, food preservation, infant and child feeding, meanings of water and land, and food exchanges. Food triggered many interesting memories and stories, which led in turn not only to the women's descriptions of places, activities, and events but also to their perceptions and feelings. I conducted a total of fifty-five interviews with nineteen women (and six interviews with men) and amassed approximately eighty hours of tape recordings. Several student assistants and I transcribed the tapes into approximately two thousand pages of text. I gave respondents bound copies of their verbatim interview transcriptions so that they could request corrections or deletions and keep them for posterity. In moving from transcriptions to book, I compiled a keyword table of contents of the interviews and then sorted segments of the interviews into twenty main categories (see Appendix 2). Then I wrote several drafts with the aim of creating a medley of individuals' voices that communicated the complexity of their food and culture.

Inspired by testimonios and out of a desire to balance my voice with those of my research partners, I have written an introduction to each chapter and then presented relevant excerpts from participants' interviews, adding brief connecting commentary. To mark our different voices, my words and the words of my subjects are distinguished typographically. I have not followed some ethnographers' practice of quoting transcriptions verbatim, but at the urging of participants I have edited the transcriptions to achieve readability while staying as close to their original language as possible. I eliminated repetition and most filler expressions (e.g., "like," "and," "you know"), edited lightly, and organized excerpts to achieve greater coherence. In the process of doing the research and writing this book, I grappled with issues of balance as I tried to forge my own voice and simultaneously to keep participants' voices as prominent and authentic as possible, to lead interviews toward food topics but also to listen to whatever the women wanted to talk about.

Antonito Mexicanas' accounts contribute to a long literature by and about Hispanic women who have used food as an important part of their storytelling. Cabeza de Baca Gilbert ([1942] 1970, [1949] 1982, [1954] 1994) wrote about the recipes, cooking, and culture of Hispanic Las Vegas, New Mexico. Jaramillo ([1939] 1981, [1955] 2000) used long descriptions of foodways in her memoir of growing up in northern New Mexico, and she too produced a cookbook. Many of the Mexican American women interviewed by Elsasser and colleagues (1980) in northern New Mexico and Martin (1992, 2004) in southern Arizona described foodways and dishes similar to those of Antonito. Abarca (2006) made "culinary chats" the center of her study of Mexican and Mexican American working-class women, and Pérez (2004) used "kitchen-table ethnography" to compare the lives of Mexicanas in Las Cruces, New Mexico, and Casas Grandes, Chihuahua, Mexico. My book contributes to these studies by presenting the food stories of Hispanic women on the northern extremes of the Upper Rio Grande region.

History of Antonito

The small Mexicano town of Antonito was on the northern frontier of Greater Mexico and "the colonial empire of New Spain" (Stoller 1982, xx). "Greater Mexico," according to Américo Paredes (1976, xiv), refers to "all the areas inhabited by people of a Mexican culture" in the United States and Mexico. It refers in particular to that region in the southwestern United States that was part of Mexico until the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848, when the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ceded this region—almost half of Mexico's territory—to the United States. Antonito was settled by descendants of both the earliest Europeans on the continent and the indigenous peoples of North America. It had roots in a very old Hispanic culture, yet was also an important site of Anglo settlement and capitalist and mercantile expansion; it was a meeting place of Anglo and Hispanic worlds. These varied roots were manifest in the complex issues surrounding identity discussed in Chapter 2.

In 1821, when Mexico gained independence from Spain, the Ute Indians were the main inhabitants of this region, along with the Apache and Navajo. In 1832, in an effort to populate the area, the Mexican government gave the Conejos Land Grant to four families. Indians chased out the early settlers, but in 1852 a group of Mexicanos came to stay. Swadesh writes:

The first settlers of the San Luis Valley were a group of Conejos grantees led by "Tata" Atanacio Trujillo of El Rito [New Mexico], a beaver trapper, sheepman, and trader to the Utes, who for some years past had been coming to the Valley. The settlers brought with them an image of San Rafael and within a few years built a chapel dedicated to this saint. The first communities were Rincones, San Rafael, Mesitas, and Mogote. (1974, 77)

In 1854 another group of settlers, under the leadership of Jose Maria Jaquez (or Jaques), built the plaza of Guadalupe east of San Rafael on the Conejos River. They were soon joined by the Ute Indian agent Lafayette Head, also known as Rafael Cabeza, who in 1876 was elected lieutenant governor of Colorado (Swadesh 1973, 141).

Hispanic settlement of what became Conejos County proceeded rapidly after the 1850s, and by 1872 church records show that Conejos Parish had about three thousand members, most from northern New Mexico's Rio Arriba County and some from Taos and other counties. Anglos arrived in growing numbers in the late nineteenth century. The first Mormon pioneers came to the area in 1878 and established churches, farms, and towns—Sanford, La Jara, and Manassa. The Denver and Rio Grande Railroad built a line through the Antonito area between Alamosa, Colorado, and Española and Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 1881. Landowners in the county seat of Conejos refused to sell land for the depot, so the railroad established its station and a new town in Antonito and built the Palace Hotel there in 1902 for its workers and travelers (Weigle 1975, 1).

Antonito is part of the Upper Rio Grande region, what Martínez (1998, 70) calls the siete condados del norte: "the seven contiguous rural counties in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado that have Chicano/o demographic majorities." Antonito has a much higher percentage of Hispanics than Conejos County as a whole (90 percent and 60 percent, respectively) and thus is a repository of Hispanic culture, yet it has always been a meeting place of diverse people on the Anglo-Hispanic frontier (Deutsch 1987). Antonito was the site of the transformation of the economy from subsistence to commercial ventures and land speculation, which benefited Anglo outsiders more than local Mexicanos. Antonito grew steadily between 1881 and 1950 due to its commercial importance—sawmills, perlite mines, sheep and cattle ranching, and agriculture—with its population peaking in 1950 at 1,255 (see Appendix 1). But at the end of the twentieth century lumber was logged out, sheepherding and ranching were barely surviving droughts and low meat prices, perlite mining was faltering, the railroad had diminished in importance, and the population had declined to 872.

Antonito Today

Today the town of Antonito is a small, dusty, urban center consisting of eight blocks running from east to west and twelve blocks running south to north along U.S. Highway 285 in southern Colorado. Most of the streets were dirt until 2004, when the town won state grants and raised funds through a bond issue to pave them. The modest homes are organized on a grid pattern. A few are adobe, some are concrete, and others are trailers and single- or double-wide manufactured homes. They are surrounded by small yards with some combination of flowers, grass, shrubs, trees (Chinese elm, aspen, spruce, willow, apricot, crab apple, cat's claw), weeds, swings, rocks, or piles of potentially serviceable used goods.

At the west end of town, a publicly funded mental health clinic stands next to the Guadalupe Health Center. There is a pharmacy, a locally owned supermarket, three restaurants, a seasonal hamburger stand, two gas stations, a video store, a barbershop, a hair salon, and several gift and used-goods stores. A small high school and an elementary school serve a student population of about 450 from Antonito and the surrounding agricultural hamlets of Conejos, Guadalupe, Mogote, Las Mesitas, San Rafael, San Antonio, Ortiz, and Lobatos.

The population is stable at 872, after dropping 30 percent between 1950 and 1990. Poverty is widespread in Antonito and Conejos County; the county has the second-lowest per capita income in Colorado and one of the lowest in the nation (Aguilar 2002). Furthermore, as Pulido (1998, 125) put it, "Poverty is highly racialized in the region," striking Mexicanos at high rates. Lucky are those who work for public entities such as the schools, the town, the county, the hospitals, and the health services, for they draw regular salaries and benefits, even though these are low compared to elsewhere in Colorado. In 2000 perlite miners were earning $16 to $18 an hour and were among the best-paid workers, living in the nicest houses and driving the newest trucks, but the mines suffered periodic slowdowns and layoffs and were effectively shut down by 2008. Many people commute thirty miles north to the larger town of Alamosa (pop. 9,000),18 to work for minimum wage or little more in the service economy, relying on private vehicles due to lack of public transportation. But, as Madrid noted in 2005, "with the hike in gas prices, this will entail an extra hardship." Other people get by with odd jobs, baby-sitting, trading in used goods, and public assistance. In the summer a small tourist economy exists due to hunting, fishing, and vacationing in the nearby San Juan Mountains and the popular Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad, which runs between Antonito and Chama, New Mexico, over the spectacularly beautiful San Juans. The railroad, however, has been constantly beset by problems, including management difficulties and fire hazards due to drought, which in 2002 halted the trains until July 30, causing the loss of two months of the season. After a couple of management changes, the railroad predicted a thriving season for 2008, with daily trips from May 24 to October 19.

Study Participants

Over eight summers I interviewed nineteen women, some once and others several times. In 2000 the study participants ranged in age from thirty-two to ninety-four. Most held several occupations across their lives, including farmer, rancher, racehorse owner, teacher, cook, cafeteria worker, secretary, bookkeeper, liquor store owner, mayor, heavy equipment operator, social services worker, sales clerk, bus driver, child care worker, postmistress, waitress, mother, housewife, and community volunteer. Some were my neighbors, others I met through friends, and many I came to know through Antonito Youth Baseball. I met some of the women for the first time at the interviews; others I had already known for years. All consented willingly to the interviews and to being tape-recorded.

Of the nineteen women I interviewed, four figure prominently in this book and another four speak as supporting characters, with occasional comments from some of the remaining eleven. Two women, Helen Ruybal and Teddy Madrid, play a major role throughout the book. They were a generation apart, and both were teachers for many years; in fact, Helen had been Teddy's first-grade teacher in the tiny Las Mesitas school. Both were born into families of small rancher-farmers, and both of their fathers earned money at various jobs, with Helen's running a small store and Teddy's emigrating periodically for wage work. Neither family was rich, but both valued education. One of Helen's three siblings also went to college and became a teacher, and Teddy and all her siblings achieved master's degrees. Both Helen and Teddy married and had two children. Their incomes from teaching enabled them to purchase land, further their children's education, and have relatively egalitarian marriages. Because of their education and long professional careers, Helen and Teddy were somewhat extraordinary, yet still fit within cultural norms. Helen's and Teddy's voices are prominent in this book not only because our paths crossed often but also because of their interest in contributing to the project.

Although she was ninety years old when we became neighbors, Helen Ruybal still took a daily walk around the St. Augustine Church and back to her home. I ran into her often, we chatted, and eventually I asked her if she would like to do an interview. Over the years I called her regularly and invited her to my house for coffee and cake or a meal. Although she did not like to cook, she loved to eat and was an enthusiastic visitor. One time Helen came over after she got locked out of her house, and our son Ben ran to her house, climbed in through an open window, and unlocked the door for her. When we built a new fence to replace one that was falling down, we added a gate out to the street across from Helen's house, which pleased her immensely. She had a sharp memory and a keen wit, and she loved to make jokes at her own expense.

Helen was born Elena Gallegos, the second of four children, in 1906 in the hamlet of Lobatos, five miles east of Antonito, into a family of small farmer-ranchers who ran a store out of their home. After completing elementary school, she went to Loretto Academy boarding school in Santa Fe, where she started calling herself Helen, and later to Adams State College. At twenty-six she married Carlos Ruybal, a rancher, who died in 1982. Together, little by little, they amassed about a thousand acres and a sizable cattle operation while Helen taught school. Their daughter, Carla, who was born in 1933 and died in 1981, and their son, Ben, who was born in 1934, both became teachers.

I interviewed Teddy Madrid seven times between 2003 and 2006 after meeting her through Antonito Youth Baseball. Her grandsons, John and Anthony, were the same ages as my sons, played on the same team, and were among their best friends in town. Born Teodora Sofia Ruybal in 1934, the second of nine children, Teddy graduated from the Las Mesitas school and attended Western State College in Gunnison, Colorado, for two years, then transferred to Adams State College in Alamosa from which she graduated cum laude in 1960. She married Vincent Madrid, who ran a service station in Antonito for many years. Teddy had a forty-year career in education as both a teacher and an administrator. In 1969 she attained a master's degree in special education from Adams State College. She had two children and four grandchildren. Her son was a high school history teacher in Alamosa, and her daughter was a K-12 music teacher in Colorado Springs. Teddy was an energetic woman with sharp insight, a thoughtful mind, and a rich memory. She grew up in the small ranching community of Las Mesitas and remembered her family producing much of their own food.

Almost as central as Teddy and Helen in the first half of the book is Ramona Valdez. Born in 1919, she had just turned eighty when I met her, and we did seven interviews between 1999 and 2001. She lived just a block away from me in Antonito. Because of poor health, she was largely housebound and enjoyed visitors. A couple of times a week I gave her a call, and if she was free, she always welcomed me to come over and talk. Usually she sat in her recliner in the living room and periodically adjusted it to lessen the constant pain she endured from a lifelong congenital hip disorder. She was a delightful conversationalist with a lively mind. Ramona had an excellent memory of her childhood days on the family ranch on the north bank of the Conejos River, just east of the hamlet of Guadalupe. She had two siblings—an older sister, Elena, who became a teacher, married, and moved to New Mexico; and an older brother, Cres, who took over the family ranch after their father retired and ran it with his wife, Lucy, and their five children. After Cres died, Ramona remained close to her sister-in-law, nieces, and nephews, who lived far and wide but visited her often.

After our seventh interview, Ramona told me she was repeating herself and not to do any more tape recordings but to keep coming over to talk, and to take notes if I wanted. On one occasion I was talking to her about a song people used to sing in Antonito, and she was telling me the verses, which I was painstakingly writing down in my mediocre Spanish. In an exasperated voice, she said, "Why don't you have your tape recorder?"

"But you told me not to bring it any more!" I replied—and then we both burst out laughing. Ramona had numerous health problems but maintained her sense of humor and good spirits right up until she died, on November 3, 2003.

I did five taped interviews and had many conversations and meals with Janice Garcia DeHerrera who was raised in Albuquerque and Dallas/Fort Worth and whose mother was from Ortiz, a few miles southwest of Antonito. Janice had visited Antonito regularly over the years for family reunions, weddings, funerals, and Fourth of July celebrations. At age twenty-six, Janice had a degree from the University of New Mexico (UNM) and was working in the UNM library when she reconnected at a family reunion in Antonito with a distant cousin, Ted DeHerrera, a telephone lineman she had known off and on for years. After a whirlwind courtship of two months, Janice quit her job, married Ted, and moved to Antonito. She became stepmother to Ted's three adolescents, and she and Ted had four children together. When I first interviewed her, Janice had been living in Antonito for twenty years and was forty-five years old. She had recently returned to working full-time as a reading specialist at the Guadalupe Elementary School. She was still in the thick of raising her family and recounted vivid descriptions of her pregnancies, infant feeding, meals, cooking, the division of labor in the home, and the changes that ensued as she returned to the workforce. She was thoughtful and articulate, with a playful sense of humor that often led to an infectious chuckle.

Monica Taylor, Asuncionita Mondragon, Martha Mondragon, and Cordi Taylor Ornelas are supporting players in this book. Cordi was the eldest sister of José Inez (Joe) Taylor, my husband's coauthor, and she lived a block from me and across the street from Ramona Valdez. Cordi was born in 1925, the oldest of seven children, in the hamlet of El Rito, Colorado, fifty miles east across the valley from Antonito near the town of San Luis. She had vivid memories of growing up on the family ranch, taking care of the garden, and moving to Antonito at the age of seventeen, after she finished high school. She went to work at the J.C. Penney's store and helped support her siblings until she married Ernest Ornelas in 1950. Ernest and Cordi had three children. Their son lived in Minnesota, and their daughters lived in Alamosa; each had two sons. After her children grew up, Cordi worked as a church administrator for many years. She had a gentle demeanor, a sweet face, and a soft-spoken voice with a husky laugh. When her health started to fail, she refused all life support measures and died peacefully in her daughter's home in Alamosa in fall 2004.

Monica Taylor was Cordi's niece and Joe Taylor's daughter. She was born in 1960. Soon thereafter her mother, Bertha Marquez Taylor, died of kidney disease, and Monica was raised by her maternal grandmother, Amada Marquez. Monica spoke of the family land in Mogote and Lobatos and of the food production and preservation they carried out there. She expressed a strong spiritual connection to and respect for the land. Monica held many jobs, including police officer and waitress. For the past several years she had worked as a nurse's aide in a local hospital. She quit to become a long-distance truck driver with her husband, Kevin, but then decided that life on the road was not for her and went back into health care and then police work. She was articulate, funny, and generous in word and deed.

I met seventy-year-old Asuncionita Mondragon at a birthday party for her grandson Anthony and interviewed her twice at my home. She grew up in the ranching hamlet of La Isla, northeast of Antonito near the convergence of the San Antonio and Conejos Rivers. She married her neighbor Fred Mondragon in 1948 and moved with him to the edge of Antonito, where they built a house and operated a small trailer park. Fred had a large ranch, which he worked part-time while working full-time in the perlite mine. Asuncionita raised five children, ran the household, raised chickens, sold eggs, and later worked at the local credit union. She was a cheerful, no-nonsense person who spoke her mind with a smile and opened her home to her children and grandchildren.

I interviewed Asuncionita's youngest child, Martha, twice, and we talked on many more occasions at baseball games, family parties, and her home. Martha was born in Antonito and lived there much of her life, graduating from Antonito high school in 1987. She received a B.A. degree from Adams State College in 1995. In 1989 she married a man from Durango, Mexico, whom she had met at college. They lived for several years in California and had two children. After the marriage fell apart, Martha returned to Antonito with her children to live in a double-wide manufactured home near her parents, unmarried older sister, and married brother. When I interviewed her she was thirty-two and in a relationship that later ended with Joe Taylor Jr., an elected county official. She and Joe had twin girls in 2000, increasing the size of Martha's family to four children. Martha held several social service jobs but had recently quit her latest job with the county because of poor health. She was a warm and cheerful person who was always smiling, even when she was exhausted by the demands of raising toddler twins and teenagers and coping with stressful health problems.

These eight women form the major core of the book. Four others speak briefly: sixty-five-year-old former mayor Carmen Lopez (a pseudonym), eighty-year-old Celina Romero, fifty-two-year-old Bernadette Vigil (a pseudonym), and thirty-four-year-old Yolanda Salazar (a pseudonym). The interviews with the remaining seven women are not quoted here, but they nonetheless contributed to giving my study a broader base.

The Ethnographic Process

I want to end this introductory chapter by citing a conversation I had with Helen Ruybal in 2000, when she was ninety-four years old. Helen was one of the first people I met and the one I interviewed most frequently. She was an enthusiastic participant in the research process, saying once, "The past is interesting if you sit down and listen to people, and you tell something and I tell something and she tells something. It tickled me now here my life has already passed, and when we talk about it, one little thing brings out another one." Helen's love of telling stories was manifest in her energetic participation in seventeen interviews between 1996 and 2001. In the following interview excerpt, Helen and I were talking about what I was trying to do with the food-centered life histories I was gathering with her and other women in Antonito.

Helen Ruybal and Carole Counihan on Ethnography

Carole: Helen, you know all these interviews we've been doing and you know how I type them, type up your words and put them in that book of transcriptions I gave you? If I want to write a book using your words, is that okay with you?

Helen: Yes, it will be fine.

Carole: Do you want me to use your real name?

Helen: Yes, anyway they don't know me. If I ever did read it, I'd think it's fun.

Carole: Good, I hope so. Well it's going to take a while for me to—

Helen: Chop those things up.

Carole: Right.

Helen: Those things that are no good; it's fine when you can throw things away and dig them out—and there're some things that you cannot throw away and be comfortable.

Carole: The good thing about typing them on the computer is that you can take pieces from one interview and put them with pieces in another and then leave out things that don't fit.

Helen: That don't fit in. I understand that because I know.

Carole: I would have to take the interviews and the stories that you've told about your life and try to cut and paste and weave them together into a story.

Helen: And go through a weaving and then make a story.

Carole: Like you used to weave your mats and your rugs, that's what.

Helen: It looks like nothing, a pile of yarn, and a pile of strings, and little by little it's coming to show that it's going to be something and finally find out, oh, I did do something.

Carole: It's like mining for gold. You might get a pan full of pebbles, and then there'd be some gold nuggets, and that's the way the interview is.

Helen: Yeah.

Carole: Sometimes we wander off and talk about gossip or whatever and sometimes you have gold-nugget stories.

Helen: [Laughs] Golden nuggets.


I have taken the golden nuggets from the interviews and strung them together like beads on a chain of linking commentary to show that the women of Antonito, as Helen put it, "did do something." Through the medium of food, they experienced a complex world with diverse locations across religion, gender, class, and ethnicity. Chapters 2 and 3 focus on women's stories of identity, place, land, and water to introduce where they live, who they are, and how they define themselves. Chapters 4, 5, and 6 examine women's stories of the traditional diet, food work, and cooking to show how they established identity and provided for their families by producing, preserving, and preparing food. Chapters 7, 8, 9, and 10 explore stories about meals, community food sharing, commensal rituals of death, and the community response to hunger to show the important role of giving and receiving food in establishing social relations.

Overall, this book seeks to contribute to Latina feminism and feminist ethnography by describing in their own words the place of women in the enduring Mexicano culture of the southern San Luis Valley and by broadening understanding of the complex Latino experience in the United States, an important task given that Latinos will constitute one-fourth of the population by 2050. It aims to contribute to Chicano environmentalism by documenting the evolving food culture of one of the driest and coldest regions inhabited by Mexicanos. Finally, by describing women's food production, preservation, preparation, and consumption, this book aims to foster the Mexicano community's cultural as well as political citizenship in the United States.



“Counihan's work represents an important contribution to Mexican American culture.”
Oral History Review

“Counihan's book is well written and will appeal to a wide spectrum of readers...I would recommend this book to those whose interests lie in foodways, gender studies, ethnography and folklore. A Tortilla is Like Life would be a good addition to any reading list, and a beneficial resource for those who desire to understand the complex associations of gender, food, culture and ethnicity.”
Digest: A Journal of Foodways and Culture


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