A Tradition of Health

In Nogales, several generations come together to revive past culinary traditions.

September 1, 2014

BorderlandsIssue 8: September/October 2014

Growing up in sanora’s farming country, Esperanza Martinez started tending the fields at an early age, frequently picking ears of corn at peak harvest time for family and friends.

When it came time to plant wheat, she helped her father scatter seeds in the soil. Months later, along with parents and siblings she joined neighboring farmers to honor the Catholic saint everyone relied upon for a robust crop each season.

“Each May, we would all sing to San Isidro Labrador so it would rain,” Martinez recalls.
Now in her 60s and living north of the border in Nogales, Arizona, Martinez still grows many fruits and vegetables in a tiny plot at home. One day, her garden caught the eye of Santos Yescas, a local food coordinator, and Martinez soon found herself singing the familiar song of her childhood at an intergenerational gathering that focused on cultural food practices.

Esperanza Martinez grows a variety of fruits and vegetables in the tiny plot at her home.

Esperanza Martinez grows a variety of fruits and vegetables in the tiny plot at her home.

Señor San Isidro
Señor Labrador
Mándanos la lluvia
Para sembrador

Martinez was one of several elders who participated in a recent discussion with young people as part of efforts to raise awareness about healthy food choices and “how they relate to our traditions and culture,” says Yescas, the program manager at Nogales Community Development.

Working with various local partners, the nonprofit helps make accessible a host of opportunities for residents of the border region to acquire the know-how to start their own garden, learn about eating healthy, and participate in larger, food-related community endeavors.

The Nogales Mercado downtown has become a showcase for vendors who sell locally grown produce and other food products. The farmers’ market, which opened last year, also allows those interested in eating healthy a chance to socialize. Many of them have attended gardening and food workshops together.

Sergio Murrieta, who is in his early 20s, was at the discussion where Martinez shared stories of her youth. Everyone got a taste of wheat posole, the vegetable and meat stew that provided sustenance during the May festivities, she recalled.

“I never knew this existed,” Murrieta says of the-now rare dish. “It’s delicious.”

Talking with the elders opened his eyes to the loss of old food traditions and stirred in him a desire to pay more heed to the kind of food he puts in his body. He thought about cutting back on the juicy hamburgers he likes to devour.

“Since this program, I’ve tried to limit my food from fast-food chains,” he says. “I even planted my own trees for fruit, apples and pomegranates.”

Murrieta also volunteers with Nogales Community Development and often shops at the food market, which opens every Friday from 4 to 7 p.m.


Fresh, Homemade Cheese

In those three hours, Spanish music blares from speakers as vendors stand behind tables filled with the season’s produce and an array of food products such as baked goods, jams, and honey. Cesar Martinez is usually there, with stacks of fresh homemade cheeses he has long produced on his Nogales ranch.

“This has been a good experience because I meet new people and make a little money,” Martinez says.

Julieta Bustamante found her way to the farmers’ market in early summer via Yescas, who invited her to participate. She is on a fixed income, so whatever she earns selling her pumpkin empanadas and other pastries comes in handy.

Providing business support to entrepreneurs is one of the resources offered by the nonprofit organization, an outgrowth of the former Historic Nogales Main Street group that worked to revitalize downtown.

“We adapt to existing needs in the community,” says NCD’s Yescas.

The Nogales Mercado opened in April of 2013 after the organization joined hands with other local groups, including the Mariposa Community Health Center, which focuses on food education, while Nogales Community Development contributes its business acumen.

The market, Yescas says, has brought much-needed attention to how incorporating healthy fruits and vegetables into one’s diet can reduce the risk of diseases such as diabetes, which disproportionately affects Latinos in Baja Arizona and the rest of the country. In Nogales, the vast majority of residents are Hispanic.

Talking with the elders opened his eyes to the loss of old food traditions and stirred in him a desire to pay more heed to the kind of food he puts in his body. He thought about cutting back on the juicy hamburgers he likes to devour.

“Investing in healthy foods can keep down the cost of medicine,” Yescas adds.

At Mariposa’s learning center, where Amaury Gama works, the focus is on prevention programs that give people the tools they need to stay fit.

“Good eating habits are key to enjoying a healthy lifestyle and avoiding many health problems,” Gama says.

For Latinos who grew up with hearty Mexican meals that frequently include meat, it can be difficult to kick old eating habits, he adds.

“The huge breakfast with eggs, bacon, chorizo, big flour tortillas, and coffee is part of our culture,” Gama says. “Unfortunately, that type of food is causing our people to experience serious health problems.”

Although a poor diet is not exclusive to Latinos, “we see in statistics that we are near the top when it comes to hypertension and diabetes,” Gama notes. “It is up to us to educate ourselves and break these bad food habits.”

Nogales resident Daniel Dabdoub says attending the local workshops has been central to his increasing understanding of the food he eats and its impact on his well-being.

After a heart attack some years ago left him in frail health, he turned to a diet of mostly fruits and vegetables, chicken and fish. In a small garden, he grows purslane, squash, tomatoes, hot peppers, onions, and garlic. He no longer eats beef or pork and his intake of fast food is nonexistent.

“I became convinced that I had to abandon the fast-food diet,” he recalls. “It is a way of life that works great for me.”

With a new undertaking in the works—a community garden in Nogales—it’s almost a given that Dabdoub will be there to plant the first seeds.

And Esperanza Martinez will be more than willing to sing her saint’s song.

Nogales Mercado. 163 N. Morley Ave., Nogales, Arizona. Friday, 4-7 p.m.

Lourdes Medrano is a Tucson writer who covers stories on both sides of the border. Follow her @_lourdesmedrano.

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