Ethnographic Fieldwork in San Andrés Cohamiata, Mexico (Part Two)

In the Barrancas

Before you begin, be sure to read When the experience is as interesting as the data we collect, which provides background to our project and describes the first few days of our fieldwork in Mexico.

The rancho in the barrancas is located at a lower elevation than the mesa, around 4700 ft. Several species of oak and acacia are native to this region, as is a spectacular arborescent morning glory. The landscape is rough; almost everywhere you walk lies at an angle, and everywhere you step has loose rocks. Oak trees with huge leathery leaves (Quercus magnoliifolia) comprise much of the overstory, and these leaves fall to the ground, obscuring the rocks. I have always thought that the canyons of the Lower Pecos were difficult to navigate, but they seem small and tame compared to the sierras. Still, Jorge told us that the maize fields on the barranca rancho were more productive than those on the mesa. The rancho compound consisted of several small buildings arranged around an outdoor living space. A fence kept the cattle from entering the area. 

We arrived after sunset. Without lighting, the darkness was disorienting. Our first night we slept in a tent pitched under a tree where the chickens roosted. We did not know this, but we kept hearing chickens in the sky above our tent. To add to our confusion, we were also at the crossroads for all the farm animals which traipsed by the tent in the dark. Just before dawn the animals settled down, but the chickens woke up and started fluttering down from the tree, bouncing off the tent onto the ground. And the tent was pitched next to the outdoor cook stove, which Cristalina fired up at first light for breakfast. It did not matter much because the rooster stayed up all night communicating with his buddies on ranchos all around us. We did not sleep much that night.

Fortunately, the next day we moved to a roofless “carretón”, a rustic raised structure made of local materials with walls and floor of bamboo and rough-cut boards. The first two nights, the moonless sky gave us the thrill of seeing starshine casting shadows, and a Milky Way that appeared as a white carpet

Figure 1: The barranca rancho viewed from our sleeping quarters on the uphill side of the compound.
Figure 2: Out first night, we slept in a tent underneath a tree that served as the chicken roost. The chickens provided all night entertainment.
Figure 3: Cristalina prepares a meal in the outdoor kitchen. Work began at dawn and ended after sunset. The children usually brought the firewood and often started the fire before they left for school.
Figure 4: Phil and Carolyn’s sleeping quarters, a partially completed carretón (elevated storage structure) perched on a slope. Jim and Stacy stayed in an outbuilding. Note the water filtration system hanging from the eave and solar panels in the foreground.
Figure 5: Our host offered to put a tarp over the roof, but we declined. The view of the stars in an area with almost no light pollution was too much to pass up. On two moonless nights, we experienced starshine for the first time. The stars were so bright they cast shadows.
One advantage to working in the sierra—we did not have to decide what to wear in the morning. I wore the same pair of blue jeans until they almost turned the color of the Tierras Coloradas soil—resulting in a lovely dark reddish blue. When we returned to Tepic, I actually caught myself wondering if I should change my underwear more than once a week. I corrected that thought immediately.
Figure 6: Carolyn, getting ready for the day in our open-air sleeping quarters. Stacy and Jim had made this journey many times; they tried to describe the experience to us. Carolyn and I understood that we would not have a shower for two weeks. We did not know what that would look or feel like, but we found out. Wardrobe decisions were easy in the field. Because the nights were chilly, we often slept in what we wore during the day. 
Figure 7: Beans, eggs, nopales, tsinari (soup made with huitlacoche or corn smut, Ustilago maydis), red pepper, and incomparable blue corn tortillas.
We quickly adjusted to a different diet and meal schedule. Over 120 years ago, Carl Lumholtz wrote that the principal food of the Huichol people is corn with beans (Lumholtz 1902: 24). That has not changed. We dined twice each day: breakfast and a mid-afternoon meal. The menu was based on blue maize tortillas, beans, and eggs, with added nopales and peppers. One night we had chiles rellenos, another night tamales, and several days, tsinari (corn smut soup). Once, nine of us shared a chicken. I am used to three meals/day, but I was seldom hungry. If anything, I felt better than usual. The blue corn tortillas were the best. Cristalina made them daily from scratch by removing the kernels from the cobs, then after a nighttime of soaking in hot lye water which separated the husks from the kernels, and then she or the children ground the kernels with a hand crank molina. However, Jim supplemented our meals with pan dulce that he brought from town.
Figure 8: Preparation of maize kernels using an alkaline solution.
Figure 9: There was competition for the nixtamal. It was not so bad sharing the nixtamal with chickens, until they turned around on the bucket rim and shared what they had digested with us. We used a crate to discourage their efforts.  
Figure 10: Cristalina is grinding the nixtamal for the finished product, lovely blue corn tortillas.
Figure 11: Stacy and Jim enjoy coffee and tsinari with red pepper sauce. At the ranch in Tierras Coloradas, our hosts provided us with a table for work and meals.
Figure 12: During our time in Tierras Coloradas, Jim, an ethnobotanist, often ventured away from the compound in search of interesting plants, especially those with underground food storage organs (geophytes) (photo credit: Stacy Schaefer).
Figure 13: Jim holding a long, thin flower stalk with seed capsules of a Manfreda (now Agave) left over from last rainy season.
Stacy inquired whether the extended family had a scorpion shrine. Upon learning that they did, we decided to visit and leave offerings at the modest pile of rocks on a ridge above the rancho. I was a bit perplexed, wondering what the big deal was about scorpions. I found out a few days later.
Figure 14: The rocks in the forefront of the picture comprise the scorpion shrine located near the rancho in the barrancas. It is partially concealed by large, leathery oak leaves covering the ground. We are not smiling because—who smiles at a scorpion shrine? Scorpions in the region are deadly serious. We left an offering.
Figure 15: The view southward from the barranca ranch. Some of the lighter patches on the mountain sides are maize fields, many on slopes at almost a 45° angle. 
Figure 16: Cristalina, Jorge, and Jim loading La Bestia for the return to the mesa rancho. The chainsaw was necessary because we stopped on the way to cut firewood for the kitchen stove (photo credit: Stacy Schaefer).
Thanks to the efforts of Stacy and Jim we conducted three interviews in the barranca. After one week in Tierras Coloradas, we returned to San Andrés.


The next installment, On the Mesa, in San Andrés Cohamiata, describes our time at the rancho on the mesa at the edge of San Andrés and our trip out of the sierras.