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A Brief History of Cross-Border Food Trade

By: Gary Paul Nabhan and Regina Rae Fitzsimmons

Many U.S. residents are amazed to learn that three-fifths of the fresh produce eaten in the U.S. comes from the West Coast of Mexico, and that much of the saltwater fish and shrimp they eat may come from Mexico’s reaches of the Gulf of Mexico, Pacific Ocean and Gulf of California. However, we should not belittle New Yorkers or Minnesotans for this lack of knowledge, since few of us who live much closer to U.S./Mexico border have an accurate sense of how much of our food comes from “el otro lado”—the lands and waters on the other side.  Despite having lived much of my life in Arizona, and within sight of Mexican farms and ranches, I have, until recently, hardly fathomed how much I’ve been nourished by the foods produced in Sonora and surrounding states.  As a means to overcome this shortsightedness, I have asked farmers, fishers, historians and border brokers to explain to me just how our food system became so binational.

Among my friends are a few archaeologists of desert foodways. They have reminded me that trade between farmers, foragers and fishers has gone on in the Sonoran Desert for millennia, long before an international boundary split the region in half.  Salt, corn, beans, turkeys, wild chiles, acorns, agaves and other foods have been part of extra-local trade in the region for at least 4,000 years. Pochtecan traders may have taken Mayan chocolate as far north as Chaco Canyon, long before Spanish soldiers, miners and priests arrived in the region. Of course, the Valley of Mexico became the prehistoric hub for food trade in Mesoamerica, while the lands we now know as the Southwestern United States were considered on the fringe of the Aztec empire, a barely developed frontier.

Historians have told me how Padre Kino and other Jesuit missionaries changed the diets of people in this region when they arrived here around 1687, bringing with them many seeds, fruit tree cuttings and livestock and poultry breeds. These propagation materials were taken and traded from one watershed to the next, across the arid region now straddled by the border.  Some items from the Sea of Cortés—like salted fish and the jerked meat of sea turtle—may have been transported many miles inland, while other items, like olive oil and altar wine from Mission grapes, were traded to missions that still lacked orchards and vineyards on the coast.

In New Mexico, Churro sheep, Corriente cattle, cultivated chiles and grafted fruit trees were brought north along the Camino de Real from Veracruz, Mexico City, Durango and Parral. This trade route remained essential to agricultural development in the border region even after the Santa Fe Trail opened access to goods brought from steamboats along the Mississippi River.

It was not until the 1850s—immediately following the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and the so-called Gadsden “Purchase”—that there was enough pretense of a border to begin true “binational commerce.” In 1851, boundary surveyors Emory and Bartlett headed south from Tucson and Calabasas to assist the commissary of their expedition by replenishing food and other supplies in Magdalena.  But they found little more than fruits, tortillas, cakes and mescal to keep their bellies full. And so they ventured as far south as Ures—Sonora’s scrappy little capital at that time—to gather the rest of the foods they required for their journey across the Great American Desert to the California coast.

During the 1850s, Pima Indian farmers who irrigated crops along the Gila River floodplain began to produce enough surplus wheat to supply Gold Rush prospectors in northeastern Sonora and northern California. With the advent of the Civil War, Hispanic and Anglo commodity traders helped the Pima expand their market for White Sonora wheat flour to both Rebel and Yankee troops, so that these Pima farmers became Arizona’s first to engage in “export agriculture.”

Sonora, too, reshaped its production for export markets, developing trade in livestock, grain and fruits through its port at Guaymas with the help of Wells Fargo’s first brokerage banks in Mexico around 1860. By 1880, railroad lines up the west coast of Mexico began bringing live cattle up to Tucson and El Paso in extraordinary volumes, consolidating the livestock industries of the borderlands into a single food production system. By World War II, American dependence on northern Mexican-born, grass-fed Corriente cattle was so large that virtually all the beef in K-rations came from this source. While regulations and protocols for Hoof-and-Mouth disease outbreaks since World War II have reduced the ease of flow of cattle across the border, beef production remains a transborder business in many ways to this day.

It was not until 1906 that transborder trade accelerated, due to railroad tycoon Edward Harriman, who developed railcars with icehouses and refrigerators. Fresh produce from the west coast of Mexico could now enter the U.S. marketplace and arrive at its destination in a matter of days. As Harriman’s Pacific Fruit Express became the largest operator of refrigerated railroad transporters in the world, fresh produce from the binational Southwest grew from a negligible portion of the U.S. grocery market share to 40 percent of the U.S. produce sales in 1929. (Some of my neighbors are the descendants of Nogales, Arizona’s pioneering produce brokers, and they remain engaged in cross-border food trade to this day.)

At the same time, Harriman’s railroad cars carried agricultural technologies south into Sonora and Sinaloa, ushering in the era of groundwater extraction and mechanized cultivation. Colonies of American and European entrepreneurs developed large-scale irrigated agriculture in southern Sonora and northern Sinaloa, usurping lands from both Yaqui and Mayo Indians.

In the late 19th Century, U.S. citizens bought land for cultivation around the port town of Topolobampo, in northern Sinaloa, to establish a socialist, utopian community.  Their project, called the Credit Foncier of Sinaloa, lasted only a few years in that hot and cactus-studded environment.  But these efforts paved the way for larger-scale agricultural enterprises, which bought up the best farmland in the Fuerte river valley by the early 20th century, and had diverted most of the region’s surface waters.  The sugar plantations they developed later gave way to today’s massive vegetable exportation operations.  Today the area forms part of the larger northern Sinaloa ketchup and salsa belt, producing more tomatoes than any other region in Mexico.

Around the same time, and further north in the Mayo and Yaqui Valleys, another engineer, Carlos Conant, landed a concession from the Mexican government for close to 500,000 acres of coastal thornscrub.  In exchange, he was charged with platting, subdividing and spearheading agricultural development.  The U.S.-based Richardson Construction Company (CCR) bought out Conant by the early 19th century, just before the 1910 revolution.  However, the company did have enough time before the war to begin laying the infrastructural foundation for what would later become one of Mexico’s premier grain-producing irrigation districts.  Agricultural development came at a high price for the Yoemem (the Yaqui Indians) who had lived in the valley for thousands of years; to this day, they continue to struggle with state and federal officials to gain full recognition of their legal rights to ancestral lands, and to the waters of the Yaqui River.

Around present-day Hermosillo, near the coast, binational families such as the Ronstadts began to export wagons, tractors and tillage equipment to the German, Dutch, French and Italian agribusinessmen who developed large irrigated land holdings in these southern reaches of the Sonoran Desert.  This kind of exportation also occurred around the Port of Guaymas.  Today, many of these families continue to play prominent roles in Sonora’s agricultural production, as well as in industry and government.

While the Mexican Revolution led to repatriation of some of the lands that had been lost to smallholder farmers, it also fostered clandestine trade in alcohol and firearms with businesses in Arizona and New Mexico. With Arizona’s statehood and the Prohibition era, barrels of tequila and bacanora were bottled and shipped by Julius Rosenbaum out of Tucson, but these products were still grown and distilled on the west coast of Mexico. Guaymas harbor became the region’s major, international shipping port for a variety of beverages, grains, fruits and vegetables.

In the 1920s, the demand for air bladders of the totoaba—a presently endangered fish in the Sea of Cortés—ushered in a new wave of marine resource exploitation. Motorized boats allowed the movement of fishermen back and forth across the sea, where they established new camps, depleted the local fisheries, and moved on. By 1935, Kino Bay had its first “collective” or ejido of Mexican fishermen.  Ever since, most of Sonora’s fish catch has been destined for Arizona and the broader United States. Around the same period, the Kino Bay Club of American anglers had been ramping up sports fishing along the coast, and in 1941 the United States government fostered its spread by helping Sonora build a paved 65-mile highway between Puerto Peñasco and Lukeville, then known as Kahlilville. During that time, sea turtles and lobsters were transported live, in tubs, up to Ajo and Phoenix.

Shrimp trawlers from Guaymas started raking the sea bottom clean in the 1940s, taking and then discarding 10 to 40 pounds of live “bycatch” for every pound of saleable shrimp they caught in their nets.  A combination of government subsidies and private investment had overcapitalized the open-sea shrimping sector, swelling the size of fleets, and dramatically increasing the scale of the assault on marine resources.  By 1990, less than a half century later, trawlers had so depleted the northern and central reaches of the sea it became impossible not to notice the many rusted-out hulls of bankrupt trawlers scattered around port towns like Yavaros, Guaymas, and Puerto Peñasco.  The decline in the wild shrimp fishery inevitably led to efforts to farm shrimp (so-called “aquaculture”) in confined areas along the coast—first accomplished in Guaymas by Monterrey Tech in the 1960s. The spread of shrimp farming along the Sonoran and Sinaloan coast caused the destruction of some mangrove lagoons—the natural nursery grounds for the wild-caught “Guaymas shrimp.”  Mostly, though, shrimp farming’s most visible impact is has been the fragmentation of delicate coastal landscapes. Today, shrimp monoculture all along Sonoran and Sinaloan shores is plagued with introduced diseases, though it still generates more products for export than Mexico’s entire wild harvest shrimp sector.   Despite prompting the loss of one fish stock after another, the 40-50,000 fishermen in the Sea of Cortés still haul in 60 percent of all seafood caught in Mexican waters. Roughly 150,000 to 170,000 tons of seafood are exported from Mexico to the U.S. each year, and three quarters of what is caught or cultured by Sonorans is served at American tables.

While the aquamarine (or “blue”) revolution ramped up along the Sonoran coast in the 1960s, large-scale hybrid grain production was getting a jumpstart in Ciudad Obregón with the Green Revolution, led by Minnesota-born plant breeder, Norman Borlaug. The first releases of Borlaug’s dwarf, fertilizer-responsive wheat—like Sonora 64—hit the marketplace in the early 1960s.  It quickly drove the White Sonora heirloom bread wheat to near-extinction. The fertile floodplain soils of the Rio Yaqui, Mayo and Fuerte valleys were suddenly transformed into a contiguous wheat belt; outside of the Bajío region, it is one of Mexico’s most important granaries.

Ironically, just as irrigation infrastructure and chemical fertilizer plants began to dominate the Sonoran landscape—a massive federal investment intended to boost basic grain production—farmers suddenly converted to higher-value tomatoes, cucumbers, watermelons and peppers, rather than staple crops like wheat. Much of the winter produce exported to the U.S. from Sonora and Sinaloa is now grown in these northern and northwestern irrigation districts that were originally developed to produce staple crops for Mexico’s burgeoning population. In exchange for this nourishment provided by northern Mexican laborers, lands and waters, Arizonans deliver five to six billion dollars of goods and services to their neighbors south of the border each year in the form of farm equipment, computerized technologies and vehicles, in addition to stone fruits, corn-fed feedlot beef, frozen processed foods. Metro areas near the border have become the staging areas for Wal-Marts and other food franchises that have now cropped up all over Mexico.

Several years ago, at a reception hosted by the Sonoran Department of Tourism in Kino Bay, I noticed a table filled with uniform mini-chimichangas—an offering to the snowbirds wintering along the coast.

“Did you have some women here in the community make that many chimichangas for the reception?” I asked a state official.

“Oh, no, we buy them frozen from the Wal-Mart in Hermosillo. By the time we drive them out to the coast here for receptions, they’re already thawed, so all we need to do is microwave them, and they’re ready to serve! It really helps cut our costs by purchasing them in bulk…”

I was speechless. My mind began wandering back and forth across the border, and through time as well. If alive today, what would the innovative woman who fashioned the very first chivichanga—made with hand-made tortilla from White Sonora wheat flour—think of these mass-produced facsimiles of her homegrown invention?


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