WHILE OTHER TEENAGERS survive the heat by splashing their way through summer in a swimming pool or staring into the cool blue rays of a television set, Jessica Estrada spends several weeks camping out in the desert. She and her 80-year-old grandmother go there to gather saguaro fruit and to make enough of the delicious sweet jam to last all year. Last summer, inspired by a school photography class at Kino Learning Center, Jessica brought along a camera and recorded this family tradition.
For centuries the Tohono O'odham, whose homelands stretch across the dry reaches west of Tucson, have left their villages in late June and camped in desert foothills where saguaros grow most densely. When most food sources are scarce because of the heat, the saguaro fruit provide much-needed moisture and nutrition. The towering cacti produce an abundant supply of succulent fruit so that new seeds are ready to germinate when summer rains come.
Jessica remembers she was six or seven the first time she went collecting. The whole family helped her grandmother, Sally Estrada, pack her supplies and drive to their saguaro camp. It's located in Saguaro National Park, where Tohono O'odham have harvesting rights. The first night Jessica and her cousins were almost too excited to fall asleep as they lay on cots set up under the ramada their grandmother had built.
Before dawn, Sally woke her grandchildren and led them to the best area to collect saguaro fruit. The children carried buckets and canteens. She taught them to find dried fruits already fallen, "because they are the best one." While they hunted, Sally used a long pole made of saguaro ribs to knock down fruit which can be some 30 feet above the ground.
"The sound that they make when they hit the ground is a kind of a juicy 'thunk,' especially the really ripe and fat ones," recalls Jessica. "But my favorites are the ones that exploded on impact, because you don't have to open them up. You can just pick up the insides off the ground and throw them in."
The fruit that fall intact are opened with a sharp edge of the stem. The inner sweetness is scooped out with a thumb and the fruit's skin discarded. The children were taught how to avoid the fruit's stickers. Jessica once found a worm in a fruit when she opened it and asked her grandmother if she should put it in the bucket. "Yeah, throw it all in there! Worms, rocks, sticks. It'll get clean."
It gets clean during processing back at the saguaro camp. When the sun emerges from over the mountains--about 9 a.m.--the harvesters return to camp and Sally mixes the fruit with an equal amount of water. The mixture sits for an hour or more to allow the rock and debris to sink to the bottom. The debris-free mixture is then placed over a fire to cook. Seeds and pulp are strained out and set on racks to dry. The saguaro juice is returned to the fire and boiled down into a thick syrup. Seeds are easily removed from the dried pulp, which is mixed with the syrup to make jam. The protein-rich seeds can be parched and made into mealcakes, but Sally prefers to feed the seeds to the birds.
The day-long processing of saguaro syrup leaves plenty of time for Sally to tell her grandchildren about the old days. She talked about what it was like to grow up as a "town O'odham" in a village that was near 22nd Street then moved farther south to 39th Street. During her days at the Indian boarding school in Phoenix, her parents, unable to afford to lease the land from the city, had to move again, this time to the reservation.
Sally has taught her grandchildren to show proper respect to saguaros. The first time a fruit is opened, they stop for a blessing, to thank the fruit for its existence and to ask it for another year of harvest. Children are taught never to poke or throw rocks at saguaros, even if the purpose is to knock off fruit. Perhaps some of this respect arises because saguaros, with their great ability to store water, produce food reliably whether the yearly rains have been good or not. In this land of little water, saguaros have adapted to living through droughts and have helped people survive here.
The same urban expansion of Tucson that forced the "town O'odhams" to move has also bulldozed prime saguaro forest for new developments. Individual cactus are stolen from wild areas for front yard landscapes. Laws now protect saguaros against removal from public lands, and developers must attempt to save as many saguaros as they can. In Arizona, a "cactus cop" investigates saguaro "rustlers" who sell mature saguaros for top notch prices, as much as $35 per foot plus $50 for each arm. Newly planted saguaros must display permits to show they were legally obtained. State law also protects native desert plants against defacement, target shooting and other vandalism. In 1983, one "sportsman" north of Phoenix was killed when a saguaro he had seriously damaged with repeated gunfire fell on him. Further proof that saguaros deserve respect.
Saguaro fruit is a rich reward for those who approach the plant with collecting poles rather than rocks or rifles or bulldozers. For Jessica, it's a link to the past. "I've realized that waking up before dawn, picking fruit for hours, not knowing how much time has passed, and sitting in the blazing heat listening to my grandma talk somehow feels right. I think I know now why she goes out there every year, even when she's 80 years old. Out among the saguaro fruit she can relive the times when she did it with her mother and try to keep it going with her own children and grandchildren."
Jessica Estrada's photographs have shown at the Heard Museum in Phoenix. She graduated from Kino Learning Center in May and is still up in the air about her college plans--she's been accepted by the School of Visual Arts in New York and the Institute of American Indian Art in Santa Fe.
Kevin Dahl's new booklet, "Wild Foods of the Sonoran Desert," will be published by the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum Press this fall.
With the heat of early summer building to a crescendo, it's time to prepare for the coming of the summer rains. For some Tohono O'odham and other native peoples of northern Mexico, San Juan's Day (June 24) is the symbolic time to prepare the soil for summer gardens that will flourish with the rains. Wild foods like saguaro and mesquite pods were important to the desert peoples, but the summer crops of corn, beans and squash grown in fields supplied by floodwater runoff were also essential.
San Juan's Day coincides with summer solstice, the day of the year with the most hours of sunshine. It was recognized as important long before the first Hispanic padres brought word of Saint John the Baptist to the natives of New Spain. The Christian calendar they introduced fit perfectly with the mid-summer date known already to natives as time for fiesta and preparation. Dia de San Juan is still celebrated in rural Sonora with music, dancing and ritual bathing wherever possible--and sometimes that means just pushing your little brother into the irrigation ditch.
In Tucson, an annual San Juan's Day sunrise (that's right--5:30 a.m.) celebration is hosted by Native Seeds/SEARCH, Origins Society and Tucson Botanical Gardens. NS/S Director Angelo Joaquin, Jr. explains the event's purpose: "By creating a planting celebration tied to the cycles of weather, we can help desert dwellers once again appreciate the bounty around them, and appreciate the rich heritage of seeds and knowledge from the past."
This year's festivities will include a blessing ceremony by Mary Luna of New Pascua, seasonal dancers from the Lehi Maricopa Bird Dancers, and refreshments.
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