We Fed Them Cactus by Fabiola Cabeza De Baca

Cultural Differences New Mexican History: We Fed Them Cactus by Fabiola Cabeza De Baca

The story of the early pioneers of the American west has been told and re-told. However, it is important to remember that people of Mexican heritage also colonized the plains, even after many of the formerly Mexican territories were incorporated into America. Before New Mexico formally became a state, Fabiola Cabeza de Baca, a descendant of Spanish conquistadors was one of the last Hispanic residents of the Llano Estacado. These were the great plains of northeastern New Mexico and northwestern Texas also known as the Staked Plains, that were dominated by Hispanics before Anglo farmers came to populate and profit from the area. In her memoir We fed them cactus, Fabiola Cabeza de Baca portrays an ethnically diverse world that gradually was encroached upon by white Americans who abused rather than used the land for their own enrichment. Fabiola also depicts a world where of either Hispanic or Anglo society do not necessarily apply, and where strong women like herself were able to transgress cultural expectations of womanhood.

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The tone of Cabeza de Baca’s memoir is more descriptive than confessional: she is an acute social observer and focuses on historical and geographical details rather than personal reminisces. Even these reminisces usually take the form of folklore, told to her by visiting travelers, ranchers, or people of the land who unfold their stories. Cabeza de Baca has been called part of a “first generation of Nuevamexicana writers who were conscious of their heritage and cultural identity” because of her seamless integration of lore, agriculture, and biography (Cabeza de Baca xix). Cabeza de Baca’s first chapter, entitled “The Llano” centers on the lives of the settlers who lived in New Mexico before her, even before she beings her own tale: “Between these boundaries are the settlements, whistle-stops, trading posts, chapels, ranch headquarters and homesteader’s houses — some new, some old, many abandoned — which tell the story of more than a hundred years of living on the Llano” (Cabeza de Baca 1). Long before white Americans came, Mexicans lived upon the Llano, and long before any foreign settlers made their homes upon the Staked Plains, the native inhabitants resided there. Cabeza de Baca writes as both an outsider and an insider: as a woman, but also as a resident, and as a non-white individual of Spanish heritage who could cast a critical eye upon the ways whites farmed and settled the land she loved, and treated the native populace. She attempts to preserve her native traditions, medicine, and way of life for posterity, and commemorate practices no longer common, such as buffalo hunting.

Cabeza de Baca’s own story is no less fascinating than that of the land on which she lived: Cabeza de Baca’s mother died when the girl was four years old, and young Fabiola was born in 1894, on the precipice of two eras, the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century. “As a child I was a problem to my grandmother and was from her” (Cabeza de Baca xiii). The young Fabiola was a tomboy, delighting in the local rodeos and enthusiastically helping out with the chores, not all of which were conventionally feminine. The land was rough, and the family’s living conditions were rough, despite their fine name and heritage: “The hard dirt floor of the patio always had a certain coolness about it. Just a few nights before, the boys had been in the mood to renovate it. They brought a load of dirt, which we sprinkled with water and spread over with burlap sacks. We had such fun tramping it down. We made it a game by jumping on it until the soil was packed hard. This was repeated until we had a solid, even patio floor. Around it the boys built a supporting wall of rock filled in with mud” (Cabeza de Baca 9). The family’s home was thus created from the earth, and part of the earth, an earth so flat that a storm could be seen “still thirty miles away” when it was coming close, bringing precious rain that the family appreciated in a way no city-dweller could (Cabeza de Baca 31)

Of course, this love of the land and commitment to the land made the loss of the family’s home even more tragic: the tragedy of the loss of her family’s way of life on the plains is paralleled by the loss of the land itself to the Dust Bowl, as greedy Anglo farmers tried to extract as much as they could from the dry soil, without replenishing its bounty. Before Anglos came to dominate the land, Cabeza de Baca portrays a kind of paradise-like environment, where even the sheepherders were like “musicians and poets” and “the troubadours of old,” and every person had a story (Cabeza de Baca 11). This has been called a method of “preserving the culture” against the dominant discourse of Anglos: Cabeza de Baca, along with other writers of her generation are portrayed as trying to “get it [their culture] right” in an effort to transcend the overwhelming discourse of the Anglo “other” (Cabeza de Baca xx). Using Hispanic phrases and names, blurring historiography and biography, and the view of the past as a kind of lost “Eden” are all aspects of the authors ‘agenda’ (Cabeza de Baca xx). Cabeza de Baca deliberately uses English as a way of communicating with the Anglo reader and ‘setting the record straight.’

Yet while Cabeza de Baca strives to paint a picture of a lost world, her tone is respectful as much as it is nostalgic. Learning from the storytellers around her was clearly a critical aspect of her development as a writer. Furthermore, although she speaks from a Hispanic vantage point, Cabeza de Baca was noted for paying great deal of homage to native foods and practices, and when she became a teacher was dismayed at the fact that native history and culture was not a part of student’s education: “one sentence and perhaps a paragraph told about the Indians” she marveled (Cabeza de Baca 159). She was fluent in several native tongues and was one of the first educators and health workers to stress preserving the native diet through a return to traditional practices, rather than imposing a white diet upon native peoples. The fact that her own work is in English has been called an attempt to “dominate the language” of the colonizer and to show her fluency in various languages and cultures, and not simply in her own Hispanic heritage (Cabeza de Baca xx).

Unlike Anglos, Cabeza de Baca suggests she is able to see the world from a variety of cultural perspectives: as someone who is a settler yet who is not one of the privileged castes of Anglo professional farmers, she can thus view natives and common laborers with compassion. Unlike the Anglo farmers who came to dominate the land in later decades, she was able to establish a connection with the land that transcended a need to profit from it. She had respect for the people who first grew things upon the land, just as much as she had respect for the land itself: this is not simply evident in her writing but in her life: Cabeza de Baca went on to teach in a rural bilingual school after graduating from high school and after graduating from New Mexico University and worked as an extension agent for many years where she used the knowledge she had gained growing up in the area to work for all nonwhite persons (Cabeza de Baca xx).

While Cabeza de Baca does not engage in long periods of introspection, overall the book suggests that living in harmony with the land toughened her. Periods of punishing droughts alternate with heavy rain on the Llano: “Money in our lives was not important, rain was important” (Cabeza de Baca 11). But unlike the Anglos, Cabeza de Barca and her family respected their dependence upon that rain — and the soil in general. Ultimately, living in a world with bandits and ranchers, and living in harmony with the land was better than the types of practices adopted by the Anglos, where no respect for the land was shown, and drought ravaged the lives of all the Great Plains’ residents.

Work Cited

Cabeza de Baca, Fabiola. We fed them cactus. UNM Press, 1954.

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