BorderLore: Culture and Folklife in the US-Mexico Borderlands
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   January 2009
(Apologies: due to technical difficulties with our database service you are receiving the January edition in February; there will be a February edition as well). 


chilt snuffBorderLore's first edition of 2009 is devoted exclusively to the wild pepper popularly known as "Chiltepín."   (In Spanish, "wild" as used here is translated as "silvestre"). 
This tiny but very, very hot variety (rated as an 8 in a scale of 10)  is a significant marker of the regional culture of the Arizona-Sonora borderlands. Due to its genetic makeup and because it is thought to be the oldest known species of the chili genus, it is also called sometimes  "the mother of all chiles." 
Read on to learn more about the power house otherwise known as  "Capsicum annuum var. aviculare" (but, afraid of burning your mouth, we are sure, were afraid to ask).
BorderLore  thanks and acknowledges the main sources of information consulted for this edition: (1) Kraig Kraft (UC Davis, Ecology Ph.D. Candidate; visit his blog    (2) Native Seeds/SEARCH, Tucson, AZ (     (3) researchers at CIAD in Hermosillo Noemí Bañuelos, Patricia L. Salido, and Alfonso Gardea, from their essay "Etnobotánica del Chiltepin" published in the journal Estudios Sociales 16:32, Julio-Diciembre 2008, CIAD.     (4) the inspiration and assistance of Gary Nabhan and the Sabores Sin Fronteras team.                             
Esta primera edición de la revista electrónica BorderLore está dedicada exclusivamente al chile silvestre Sonorense mejor conocido como Chiltepín. Este chile, muy pequeñito pero muy bravo, es un aspecto sobresaliente de la cultura regional de estas tierras fronterizas. Por su composición genética, y por ser considerado el más antiguo de los "genus" conocidos de los chiles, algunos lo llaman "la madre de todos los chiles" (en el buen sentido de la palabra).  Aqui les brindamos un breve resumen de los datos más interesantes del chile que lleva por nombre científico "Capsicum annuum var. aviculare." 
chiltepin manos
The word "chiltepín" is of Nahuatl (Aztec) origin: "chili" for pepper and "tecpin" for flea (in Spanish, pulga). Some believe it is a reference to the size of the pepper; others claim it has to do with the "bite."
The chiltepín is sometimes simply called "tepín."  Other common names are: chile mosquito or bird's eye pepper. 

 In Sonora, the term "chiltepín" is also used colloquially to refer to someone with a bad temper (persona iracunda, irritable). For example, the expresions" "Eres peor que un chiltepín," ó "eres un agua chile."
Also small, but not as tiny or fiery as the chiltepín, and not of the same family, are some chiles popularly known as "piquin" or "pequin" (this word is believed to be a variation on "pequeño" or small). 
Some people think the chiltepín is hotter than the habanero, but this point is debatable if the assertion is based solely on official measures of pungency(also known as the Scoville score). Expert chile eaters affirm that the difference is that when first bit into, the chiltepin is hotter, but then it subsides, whereas other chiles burn less but linger more..... thus confusing the senses....(yikes).
wild plant
Chiltepines grow on rocky surfaces and steep slopes; they are difficult to find because they are usually protected by shrubs. The chiltepin grows wild in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona (north of the border) and all across Mexico all the way to Chiapas, Veracruz, and Central America. The Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts, however, are prefered spots.
In Sonora, entire communities participate in the wild-harvesting of chiltepín from late September through early December. Prices can reach upwards of $72/ lb.
Though chiltepín is literally everywhere along the Sierra Madre Oriental, the crop is still vulnerable to potential threats such as overharvesting, grazing pressures, fire, and drought.

jalap image

Although the Jalapeño is the "official chile of Texas," in 1997 the Texas Legislature realized that they had made a mistake in giving such honor to a non-native plant. To mend their ways, in 1997 they approved a resolution naming the chiltepín the official "State Native Pepper."

The first mention of the chiltepín by a non-native of the borderlands ocurred in 1584, when Baltasar de Obregón wrote about finding the little  devil  among  thick bushes in Sonora. By 1756, a local priest of German origin named Ignacio Pfefferkorn saw it fit to note in his chronicles the extensive use of the chiltepín in the culinary habits of the people of northern New Spain. The natives of the Sierra Madre (los serranos) he wrote, made a "sauce with this chile that they serve and eat with everything." 

chil verde
In northern Mexico, people eat the chiltepín in a variety of ways: fresh off the plants, cured in vinegar (especially if still green), in salsa, in jelly, and crushed --- out of a shaker and mixed with salt.  But one of the most celebrated approaches to consume this tiny pepper is by simply pulverizing the small bulb with one's fingers and sprinkling at will over food.
In Sonora, it is not uncommon to hear stories about people being so devoted to the
chiltepín that when traveling away from home, they carry several pods in a snuffbox or pillbox to use, as needed, even in the finest restaurants.
There is at least one attractive incentive for consuming chiltepín: allegedly, eating chiltepines increases human metabolism as much as 25% (thus making it a great weight control natural product). But notice that we use the word "allegedly." BorderLore has no "scientific" proof of this claim (nor are we reporting it as a medical fact).
What we can assert with confidence, however, is that ethnographic research by colleagues at the CIAD (Centro de Investigación en Alimentación y Desarrollo in Hermosillo, Sonora) confirms that chiltepín is considered by many people in Sonora and Chihuahua a chile with medicinal properties (especially among some of the indigenous communities in the area).
Perhaps one of the most interesting beliefs about the curative powers of chiltepín is that, as opposed to other chiles that can irritate the digestive system, this little one helps digestion. The reason? According to the vernacular knowledge, precisely because the chiltepín "es de monte" (grows wild).
On account of the chile's association with the forces of nature as a wild crop, some indigenous communities such as the Seri and the O'odham, believe that the chiltepín can also assist in "cleaning" one's spiritual path. Its hotness and wildness, just as those of the mesquite tree, are signs of "fortaleza" (strength) that can assist a healer (curandero) to heal the spiritual ailment known as "Daño" (when someone wishes you wrong).
bag chiltepin 

We know for certain that among people in Sonora (rural and urban, indigenous or mestizos alike) there are at least two common curative uses of
  • dolor de oido (ear ache)
  • la "cruda" (hangover)

 Here's a well known remedy for ear ache:

  1.  Heat oil (olive, corn, any type) in a frying pan.
  2. Throw in the chiltepín until it becomes golden.
  3. Wet a small piece of cotton in the oil.
  4. Place in the ear while still warm.

Similarly, remedies for curing hangovers with chiltepín are quite common in Sonora. Here's one of many possible concoctions, one called "agua de gallo" (rooster's water) or "agua chile."

  1. Boil some water.
  2. To the boiling water, add crushed garlic, salt, and a handful of chiltepines.
  3. Let it boil for a short while.
  4. Drink this mix to "sweat" the hangover.
spice rack
Browsing the internet for information on chiltepín, we found the following recipe. Seems yummy as well as easy to prepare.
Diced Potatoes with Chiltepins
Recipe (from
This recipe is extremely hot and very typical of Sonora, where people make salsa casera with 2 to 3 cups of chiltepins! Serve this with a mild fish or poultry entree. Feel free to reduce the amount of chiltepins, or to substitute 3 tablespoons chipotle powder for a milder, smokier flavor.
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 pounds potatoes, peeled and cut into a 1/2 inch dice
5 cloves garlic
1/4 cup chiltepín chiles, or subsitute piquins
1 cup water
1/2 teaspoon salt
Heat the butter and olive oil in a large saute skillet and add the diced potatoes. Toss and turn the potatoes with a spatula for 1 minute. Reduce the heat to a simmer, add 3 tablespoons of water, and cook the potatoes at a low heat while you are making the chile sauce.
Place the garlic, peppers, water, and salt in a blender and puree thoroughly. Pour this mixture over the potatoes and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes, or until the potatoes are tender.
chiltepin picking
If you cannot find chiltepín in your local market, contact Native Seeds/SEARCH in Tucson, AZ (they can ship you some):
native chile
Love and the Chicana poet Lorna Dee Cervantes has duly noted in the subtitle of one of her books, form an inextricable connection.
Of course, as other feminist writers have remarked, the same pleasure-principle (curiosity and discipline) is true about the order of things we call "cooking" and  reading" or food and writing, or perhaps simply something or other about
"consuming" the world, as Walter Benjamin would have it.
Thus, BorderLore cannot pass the ocassion to recommend a couple  of interesting food chronicles we believe stand apart from the rest of the foodie-faddy publishing cottage industry that has of lately exploded.
an excerpt from
Pat Mora's book
Adobe Odes
chile peppers

This one happens to be the "Ode to Chiles"
(excerpt only):
"Always essential
guests at a party,
We greet you,
bevy of beauties,
with a deep, respectful
Hungry, we escort you
to the kitchen....
We nudge the sluggish tomatoes to the edge, but you rub against their plump blushings, bump
into the onion's transparent blouse....
the flame loosens
your tight garment,
slowly embraces you
in its intimate dance....
With your flare,
you entangle our tongues in memories...
We lose control,
shove aside
our firm resolves,
our ascetic timidity....
 roasting chile
 Another book that has grabbed our attention recently is the very interesting work of Meredith Abarca (Associate Professor, English, UT El Paso).
Voices in the Kitchen: Views of Food and the World from Working-Class Mexican and Mexican American Women"
The first book fully devoted to the sociology, anthropology, and art of Latina's food imaginary. The author does not only collects and tell great stories and makes important theoretical connections, she also enacts out of the practice she is documenting a methodology, which in turn she brands "charlas culinarias"
(culinary chats).  With chapters with titles like "A Place of their Own: Appropriating the Kitchen Space," and "Sazon: The Flavors of Culinary Epistemology," the book is both subtle and fierce in its argumentation. 
Here's a powerful short excerpt that turns on its head any impulse to do an "easy" reading (folklorized or made nostalgic) from women's work in the kitchen. This one is  from the chapter "Homemade Culinary Art: Cooks-as-Artists." 
El arte culinario casero, therefore, reflects an artistic creation that does not fall under Western canonical definitions of aesthetics, but that also goes beyond the notion of minority oppositional art. For example, the aesthetics of the moment in el arte culinario casero go beyond the politics of "anti-aesthetic" art creation. "Anti-aesthetic," as defined by Hal Foster, "signals that the very notion of aesthetics, its network of ideas, is in question"...............Yet while the "anti-aesthetic" is useful for initiating a dialogue concerning the limitations that are created by what we view as "classical form," it only recognizes minority cultural production in oppositional terms. This particular view reduces the creative spirit of of working class women's culinary art-in-process, which is informed by their sazón, their senses, and inspired by their emotions, to forms of reacting against rather than acting toward something."
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