Fruits of the Desert

In the desert town of Real de Catorce, Mexico, the pandemic has highlighted an urgent need for food sovereignty.

Find more of our Covid-19 coverage.

In the town of Real de Catorce, in the high mountains of the Mexican state of San Luis Potosi, Alfonso García gets up before sunrise to collect aguamiel, the juice from the maguey, or agave. He extracts the juice by digging a hole in the heart of the plant. The liquid that accumulates in the hole throughout the day can be collected every 12 hours. García explains that he will return the next evening, at sunset, to collect more aguamiel, which can be drunk fresh or fermented into a drink called pulque, an alcoholic beverage that many people call the drink of the gods.

Alfonso García, a 61-year-old resident of Real de Catorce, digs a hole in the heart of the maguey (king of agave), to start collecting the aguamiel (juice of maguey). The tool used for this process is an iron pickaxe commonly used in agriculture in Mexico.

García collects the aguamiel) during the last hours of daylight.

García uses a cup to harvest the aguamiel accumulated inside the hole of the plant. The aguamiel has to be collected every 12 hours.

García boils the aguamiel with his wife, Patricia Hernández, 51. This boiling process prolongs the conservation time of this beverage. Next morning, like every morning, Hernández walks around the town with some liters of aguamiel to sell them to other residents of Real de Catorce.

For García, the juice is a source of nutrition. Pulque is an ancient drink lauded for its health benefits, and aguamiel is abundant in a region otherwise seen as an arid landscape. Maguey plants can produce juice for up to six months each year, and some produce up to four liters per day. But these plants are just one of many desert foods that surround Real de Catorce that have been a particularly important resource for García and other local residents throughout the Covid-19 crisis.

“Here, one way or another, there is never a shortage of food, while in the city everything is money,” García says.

Before the pandemic isolated Real de Catorce, tourism represented the town’s main source of income, with more than 20,000 visitors per year, according to Felipe Frías Saucedo, the town’s former director of Municipal Tourism. Though the disease itself barely surfaced in the semi-desert town of 1,300 inhabitants, the pandemic forced the town to prevent tourists from entering, effectively halting the spread of the disease — as well as the main motor of the economy. But for many of the residents of the town, the economic shortage has reminded them of the natural richness that can be found in the area. For García, who lost his construction job due to the pandemic, that has meant tapping into an ancestral knowledge of traditional wild fruits.

Real de Catorce is a hidden town, its vegetation characterized by high desert plants like agave and prickly pear cacti. The town was originally founded as a colonial silver mining town in 1876. When mining declined at the beginning of the Mexican Revolution in 1910, most people left, transforming a prosperous community into a ghost town.

Those residents who lived through the post-mining bust turned to agriculture to sustain themselves. Corn, beans, and legumes, along with cactus and other wild fruits, were essential to the small community that prevailed in the silver shortage.

Years later, Real de Catorce came back to life due to the arrival of Hollywood. The town’s rich history, colonial architecture, and easy access to the desert and El Quemado, one of the most sacred places for the Indigenous Wixarikas community, put the town back on the map. In 2001, Real de Catorce became the second town given the title of “Magic Town” by Mexico’s Secretariat of Tourism’s “Magical Towns Program,” making it one of the most desirable tourist destinations in the country.

The arrival of tourism brought the town a new lifestyle with some benefits: easy money, a growing economy, and a variety of products not easily available here before. But this shift in the base of the economy consequently distanced the inhabitants of the town from their ancestral and agricultural knowledge. The corn fields disappeared as groceries, hotels, and commercial establishments began to pop-up around the town.

Early in the morning, Socorro Aguilar, a 77-year-old resident of Real de Catorce, cuts nopales with a knife. An entire lifetime spent in the desert mountains gives her the agility to walk alone through the desert hills. She will use some of the nopales for her own consumption and sell the rest.

Aguilar walks back to her house with a bucket full of nopales that she can sell for 20 Mexican pesos (approximately $1.20).

Aguilar meticulously cleans the nopales, removes the prickles, and prepares them to be cooked.

Although during the lock down the shop shelves were never completely emptied and food was always available to be purchased, the lack of tourism — and therefore of economic income — motivated many of the residents of the town to resort to their ancestral knowledge. The collection of cactuses, wild fruits and flowers, and the production of traditional beverages and dishes, once again became common practices within the community.

This is the case for García and his wife Patricia Hernández. Before the pandemic, Hernández used to sell cajeta, a traditional caramel spread, to tourists while García travelled to Monterrey a few months each year to work in construction.

When tourists were denied entry into the town, Hernández was unable to sell her traditional caramel spread, nor could she rent out rooms in her property to artisans and Wixarikas Indigenous pilgrims, who abandoned town due to the lack of income during the peak of the pandemic. This year, Hernández has started selling part of the maguey juice extracted by García to other residents of the town. This supplementary income, in addition to a family orchard where they grow peaches and apples, has been helping support them during the pandemic.

Socorro Aguilar, another resident of Real de Catorce, cuts nopal cactuses for her own consumption as well as to sell. Like aguamiel, nopal cactuses contain immense health benefits, according to the Traditional Mexican Medicine department at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Seventy-seven-year-old Aguilar assures that her own physical health is testament to the miraculous properties of this cactus. Despite suffering from an embolism a few years ago, she walks slowly but without difficulty across the hills surrounding the town.

Aguilar fondly compares the current lifestyle with the earlier one before the tourism boom. The town’s youth, she bemoans, “only want food in packages and medicine in tablets, putting aside the important benefits of cactuses, flowers, and medicinal plants.”

Aguilar agrees with García and Hernández that there is always food available in the desert, some of which grows wildly while others are cultivated. Most of these foods have a season, yet they vary, enabling a secure food source all year. In addition to nopal cactuses and maguey juice, it is possible to find cabuches (the flower of the cactus known as biznaga) in March and April, prickly pears (the fruit of nopal cactus) between July and November, aloe vera flowers from April until June, and quiotes (the trunk of the maguey plant) between November and January. The quiote can grow up to ten meters long and both its trunk and flowers are suitable for human consumption at a time of year when other fruits are not available.

Juan Martínez, a 77-year-old resident of Real de Catorce cuts the quiote, the trunk of the maguey plant, to feed his horse and donkey.

Martínez cuts a sotol plant with a machete in order to pick up its edible fruits. This wild plant grows around the hills of the town, as well as in the regions of Coahuila and Chihuahua, located in northern Mexico.

Martínez shows the fruits collected from the sotol plant.

After an arduous day walking the hills and cutting the quiote , Martínez returns home with the reward for his animals.

Many residents in Real de Catorce also use these plants to feed their animals. Juan Martínez, for instance, feeds quiotes to his donkey and horse — two animals that are commonly used for transportation in this mountainous terrain.

Martínez grew up around the villages close to Real de Catorce in a time when, just as during the pandemic, tourism was nonexistent. “During those times agriculture and wild plants were the only way to survive around here,” he explains. In his early years, Martínez used to cook quiote in an oven made with volcanic rocks. Later, he would barter the quiote for other products like corn. Now 75, Martínez has been finding it increasingly difficult to carry on this process. The cooking time of quiote can take around 36 hours without counting the collecting of firewood, itself limited in the desert. Currently, Martínez reserves the quiotes for his animals.

During his daily walks through the hills of the desert, Martínez collects the flowers of the sotol, a plant similar to an agave, as well as agave flowers for his consumption. He agrees with Aguilar: The younger generations do not appreciate the benefits of these plants. “None of the five grandchildren who live with me eat what can be found in the desert,” he laments.

The pandemic, however, has illuminated the importance of returning to the wild fruits and flowers of the desert in Real de Catorce. More broadly, it has revealed a need for food sovereignty — the right for people like Garcia, Hernandez, Aguilar, and Martinez to choose their own food system that’s culturally and ecologically appropriate.

In 2008, for the first time in history, urban populations outnumbered rural populations, and while every year there are fewer people who focus on agriculture, the pandemic is a stark reminder that we could soon be facing a shifting point in how our global population sees and accesses food. As food researcher Anusha Murthy wrote in Edible Issues, “Now more than ever it is important to focus on a centralized, hyperlocal production… The best way to guarantee access to foods all year around, is to grow them ourselves.”

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