Excerpt: Situational Identities along the Raiding Frontier of Colonial New Mexico

The following is an excerpt from Situational Identities along the Raiding Frontier of Colonial New Mexico (February 2018) by Jun U. Sunseri. 

From Chapter 4: Hearthscape Tools

Scraping a bit of beans from the edge of her wooden spoon, Eufemia had just checked the simmering midday meal when she heard the shout from outside. Careful to not again nick the edge of her hardworking and soot-blackened micaceous pot as she drew the spoon out, she put the handful of dried steam corn kernels back in the polychrome jar at her side and stood up. “Those will have to wait, or perhaps go into posole later,” she thought to herself as she stooped through the purposefully small doorway into the plaza outside. One glance at the stream of sheep and worried children pouring through the heavy wooden gates and she knew something was terribly wrong.

“Utas? Nabajos?” She caught and held the terrified eyes of Ximena as the girl whipped stock into the increasingly tight courtyard of the fortified plazuela. The answer chilled Eufemia through: “Comanches, and coming fast.” As this particular child had lived with a band of them for ten years of her life, Eufemia knew not to question the analysis. There was not enough time for the livestock to be herded through the gates, and the majority of the community’s warriors were gone on their current campaign for at least another week. Time was running out, and if the small community was going to survive this raid, Eufemia had to make some hard decisions quickly.

Of all the people running from their outlying households to this main quadrangle, not a single family remained untouched by the experiences of captivity, violent raids, and counterraids in which the northern communities had been locked for a generation. In the next valley over, a combined force of Utes and Comanches had attacked Ojo Caliente only last year. Men defending the equally remote settlement were killed and every woman and child carried off to be sold at distant trade fairs. Was it time to run, maybe try for shelter at Abiquiú or San Juan? Even with the strategic placement of their fortified plazuela at the constriction of the Rito Colorado valley, not everyone would make it. The raiding party might easily run them down on their swifter mounts. No, they could neither fight nor flee; but there had to be another way.

“Estefanita, go get Tonita and Eufilia. We need them to start that dish of panza de cabrito that they do so well.” She looked over at a small child who seemed transfixed by the scene, standing wide-eyed in the corner of the plaza. “Mija, you remember your language, no? Help me with the beans and lay on some tortillas . . . quickly, go now.” “Nocario, get these animals out of here and get the big Pueblo painted bowls from Santa Clara and San Juan down for me.” Setting everyone on hand into motion calmed them only slightly. With a few sharp obsidian edges sitting on the sill of the horno, Eufemia quickly and methodically removed a few portions from the carcass of a goat she had begun butchering that morning. As she stooped back through the doorway into her kitchen command center, she knew that she was asking everyone for near impossible courage.

Outside, a few riders reined their mounts up short as they approached the heavy outer gates of the plaza. They had taken their time getting there, checking through the now empty houses of the outlying ranchos as coordinated units. What they saw here now was confusing, suspicious. The gates were wide open and a little girl, trembling, holding up a tray of something delicious-smelling and welcoming them in their own language. They remained mounted and waited for the raiding party leader to come around from his flanking run. When he did, they followed his lead and entered the plaza together. The feast awaiting them took them completely off guard. They had not seen a spread this good since the last annual trade fair at Pecos. Welcomed as kin, the team warily sat down with their nervous hosts and tucked into the meal.

In different versions of this folktale, common in the Genizaro frontier communities of New Mexico, Eufemia saves the day in slightly different ways. In one version, the fortified plaza remains buttoned up and raiders thrusting lances through the tiny external windows or chimneys are surprised to find tortillas stuck on the points. They eat enough tortillas to be satiated and ride away. In another version, the raiders are lured by feast into the middle of the plaza and are shot down by womenfolk on the surrounding rooftops, lying in wait with their bows and arrows. Sometimes the story ends with the feasted raiding party working out a trade arrangement with the people who have proven their kinship relations with the cultural performance of an appropriate meal and reception. One imagines trading a few choice sheep, a supply of corn and beans, and one of their famous wool weavings in exchange for a questionable bit of buffalo pemmican and a barely serviceable French trade knife. Under such duress, regardless of a potentially uneven exchange, the negotiation would have been a success if no one was taken captive and homes remained standing.

9780803296398-JacketBlue (1).inddAt the center of each version of Eufemia’s story is how in these frontier communities—low-status land grantees put in harm’s way by a colonial administration to protect central towns like Santa Fe—a matriarch saves them from certain devastation through the quick mobilization of foods that signify kinship and belonging. For archaeologists studying the material context of folk stories like these, the persistence and resilience of memory in our host communities connects violence and negotiations of the distant past with issues of today.

At its core, Eufemia’s story is about making a performance out of shared meals and eating in ways that bind people together across a dangerous homescape. No performance occurs without some form of stage or staging. In this case, there is a foodway performance at the hearthscape. Foodways as a concept comes from a description of not only a whole suite of ingredients but also social constraints that a community shares in their eating practices (J. Anderson 1971). In the case of an archaeology of Genizaro foodways, what is most important is how eating and meals might have created bonds between community members who themselves were representatives of many nations both within and from without the Southwest. The kitchens, tables, and tools, all sets and props on their hearthscape stage, were intimately linked to places outside of their homes in which those nations came together in unique ways.

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