I’m surrounded by date palms. Around them run dry watercourses that look like ones I find not far from my home in Tucson, Arizona. The traditional architecture in town would not be out of place in Tucson, either—or almost anywhere from southern Spain to Mexico and up into the southwest us. The fruit trees and grapevines hark back even further, to traditions of my ancestors from Syria and Lebanon. Perhaps this is what a visit to the Canary Islands is really all about. Indeed, much of what is cultivated on this Spanish archipelago of seven volcanic, mostly undersea mountains can be traced back to crops that came aboard ships from as far away as Phoenicia, in the eastern Mediterranean, as far back to the eighth century bc.
But no less striking are the echoes here of what went westward, to the areas I’ve known for most of my adult life in the arid New World landscapes of the “desert borderlands” of the Southwestern us and northern Mexico. This includes, on the us side, Southern California, Arizona, New Mexico, southern Colorado and West Texas; on the Mexican side, the states of Baja California, Sonora and Chihuahua; and cities from Ensenada to San Antonio.
For more than a dozen years, I have been tracing agricultural and culinary influences shared among communities from the Levant to North Africa and southern Spain, to the Canary Islands, to Mexico and the vast North American desert-borderlands region. The journey makes me think of a string of beads, each distinct, but reflecting one another along a common chain.
Here in these islands I can smell the same flowers—orange blossoms, rose and jasmine—in both the gardens and patios of Córdoba in Spain, and those of my uncles and aunts in Lebanon’s semiarid Bekaa Valley. I can taste the same foods, literally from A to Z: meatballs spiced with parsley, onion and garlic called albóndigas; eggplants stuffed with fruits or ground meats called berenjena rellenas, swimming in creamy walnut sauce topped with pomegranate seeds; a kind of biscuit dusted with powdered sugar and laced with the bite of anise called biscochitos. There are callos of tripe sautéed with chickpeas; empanadas stuffed with chard or spinach; kebabs, or asados, marinated in spices and olive oil, strung on skewers and grilled, and fritters dowsed in orange syrup or honey called zalabias.
The austere lands of the Sonoran Highlands may have been attractive also because they likely reminded the newcomers of the semiarid lands of al-Andalus.
I can see prickly pear cacti and towering, flowering stalks of agaves such as sisal. I can taste the cactus juices, feel the texture of rich tomato pastes and revel in the heat of chili peppers stuffed with cheeses. All these and more were once agricultural passengers from the Americas transplanted to the Canaries and far beyond to a world eager for novelty and nutrition. It was the eastbound leg of what is known historically as the Columbian Exchange, which began with the Spanish arrival in the West Indies more than 500 years ago.
Of the many questions that swirl around in my head, there is just one really big one: How did people of Arab ancestry—people of all faiths and geographical origins who may claim the name, in whole or in part—come to play roles in shaping what grows today in the region that includes Tucson, where I live? And how does that affect what I eat?
To deepen my search, I head for the Canaries, home of important, but not always well-known, “bridges” between Old and New Worlds. I pay a visit to noted Spanish- and Arabic-speaking agricultural ecologist Jaime Gil, and he guides me to Lanzarote, the easternmost island, which once had the largest population of people the Spanish referred to as Moriscos. Like many such ethnonyms, Morisco meant somewhat different things over different times and places. Most frequently it meant Muslims of North African or Iberian descent who, in the wake of the Spanish bans on Islam, Judaism and Protestantism from the late 15th and well into the 17th centuries, either converted or, under duress, outwardly professed conversion to Christianity. Gil cautions me that when it comes to the agricultural and culinary links between the Middle East and the Canaries, I could be looking at a dense web of relations over a far greater period—nearly 3,000 years.
To show the extent of the Canaries as a kind of western outpost of even the earliest Mediterranean maritime networks, Gil points me to the work of Canarian archeologist A. José Farrujia de la Rosa, an expert in prehistory at the Universidad de La Laguna in Spain. Farrujia and his team have found sixth-century-bce inscriptions in the Canary Islands with Libyco-Berber characters identical to those that have been found in Morocco.
Gil also explains that just as the term Morisco has carried diverse meanings, so too has Converso, which was used to identify Sephardic Jews as well as Protestants who had to renounce or conceal their faith from Spanish authorities.
While the number of members of each faith affected by Spain’s religious edicts are unknown, historians generally agree it is in the hundreds of thousands for both Moriscos and Conversos. Demographic historian Trevor Dadson and ethnohistorian Karoline Cook have explained that the numbers are difficult to assess because emigrants frequently either concealed their background in official port-of-embarkation records or avoided documentation altogether. To the Canaries, however, Dadson estimates that the ratio of Morisco to Converso emigrants—refugees—may have been as high as 10 to one.
Though ruled by Spain then as now, the Canaries for a while lay at a relatively safe remove from both the Crown and the Inquisition, Dadson says. But eventually, with the immigrants came social and economic tensions. Dadson notes that the Moriscos who had lived long in the Canaries “were anxious that the Inquisition activity directed against the Granada Moriscos did not touch them.”
Adding to the complexity, many of the Muslims who departed Spain for North Africa—and the kingdoms and principalities of Morocco in particular—found less than warm welcomes. This too stimulated migrations, both westward to the Canaries and to numerous other locations, and many people also found ways to sneak back into mainland Spain. Canarian historian Luis Alberto Anaya Hernández estimates that as much as 14 percent of the half-million Morisco refugees from the Spanish mainland later fled from Morocco.
While the Canary Islands at first offered a haven, the islands soon became overpopulated. Then the reach of the Inquisition spread, and the Crown’s price for an official name-change—a symbolic ritual called “blood cleansing” that was a tantamount profession of Catholicism—became out of reach for both native-born Canarians and immigrant Moriscos. A voyage to the terra incognita—the West Indies and the Americas—became more attractive, despite the risks and uncertainties.
It was in this way that New World Moriscos and Conversos came with incentive to settle as far from the Inquisition tribunals as possible. In continental North America, many chose to head north to the arid hinterlands—especially after the establishment in 1610 of the Inquisitional Court in Mexico City. The austere lands of the Sonoran Highlands may have also been attractive because they likely reminded the newcomers of the semiarid lands of al-Andalus, as the parts of southern Spain under Muslim rule were called. (Catholic colonists and immigrants recognized this too about the desert-borderlands region: In the 18th century, Jesuit priest Ignaz Pfeffercorn wrote of welcoming Europeans and North Africans alike to “an altogether blessed country” that he favorably compared to the landscapes of Spain.)
“Due to [formal] prohibitions on Moriscos’ and Muslims’ emigration to Spanish America,” writes Cook, “many histories of the Iberian Atlantic world have overlooked the possibility that Moriscos and Muslims played a role in colonial society.” Her work and that of other historians who have researched primary records, including census documents and church archives from settlements, towns and cities on both sides of the Atlantic now allow us to trace the arrivals of nearly 800 Canary-born colonists—including descendants of both Muslim and Jewish families—who settled in the desert borderlands. They set up residence in places we now know well: Tucson; San Antonio; St. Augustine; and Santa Fe, New Mexico, among others.
In these remote outposts, it seems that only a few were in fact arrested by Spanish authorities and charged with blasphemy, heresy or adherence to non-Christian food taboos and forced to travel to Mexico City for interrogation. Fewer still, it appears, were brought to trial, and yet even fewer were convicted, imprisoned or executed.
Still, it comes as no surprise that settlers of Morisco or Converso backgrounds were reluctant to identify as such. Nonetheless, there is evidence they were aware of each other, and this awareness likely contributed to continuity in the trade and production of heritage agriculture and foodstuffs—many of which they also had in common with Catholic settlers.
Records point to what scholars are coming to see as a practice by both Moriscos and Conversos to adopt new surnames that referenced animals or plants, and trees in particular. This worked as a kind of code. Research into the founding families of Tucson, Santa Fe, San Antonio and Monterrey, Nuevo León, show a surprising number of these “floral” and “faunal” names: Aguilar, Alicante, de la Garza, de León, Cabrera, Castañeda, Granada, Martinez, Manzanares, Mora, Olivo, Olivera, Palma, Robles, Romero, Rosa, Uvedo and so on. All are names that continue to abound throughout the region today as a kind of linguistic link to the agricultural and culinary heritages of crops, fruits, nuts and game that flavor the culture of this part of the Americas.
Fittingly, those who chose to adopt such surnames appear to be among those who helped introduce and adapt what number more than 50 kinds of Old World crops and animals. Of course, some of these terms have much older origins, harkening back to millennia of interactions among the civilizations joined by the long shores of the Mediterranean. Some of the words come from Hispanicized Arabic or Berber-influenced Arabic, while other words have been adapted from other languages including Persian, Dravidian and Sanskrit.
Today we can make food-historical links, because by the time they arrived, these food crops were mostly called by names that were already in use in Iberia, and often also in the Canaries.
Along with Middle Eastern fruit crops like date palms—which arrived in Mexico as early as the 1530s—there came also figs, pomegranates, olives and grapes; there came spices like anise, coriander, cumin, fennel and safflower. Settlers essentially reconstructed the oases of their former homelands, using irrigation systems of qanats and acequias as modelsto better farm crops they knew best how to farm. They complemented these with plantings learned from Native American tribes, most famously squashes, beans, peppers and maize.
Recently, historians have received help from geneticists in tracing the origins of crop and livestock species. The Mission olive, a cultivar of Olea europea, prized in Arizona and the Californias, is closely related to both the Andalusian variety, Cañivano Negro, and its Moroccan counterpart, Picholine Marroquine. The Mission grape, Vitis vinifera, is closely identified with a dark red grape of the Canary Islands, Listán Prieto, which was formerly grown also on the Iberian Peninsula. The closest variety to the Mission fig, a cultivar of Ficus carica, is the Albacor or Coll de Dama Negra, which is still found on the southern Spanish coast and in the Canaries.
With regard to livestock, the Churra Libranza sheep of southern Spain is a likely precursor to the Navajo-Churro still valued for its two-layered wool. (The other potential source is a Churra breed from near Basque country in northwestern Spain.) The Criollo Corriente cattle (Bos taurus) of the borderlands comes from a blend of ancient livestock breeds that go back to North Africa, particularly Morocco, the southern Iberian Peninsula and the Canaries.
Back on the island of Tenerife in the Canaries, where I see how Listán Prieto, Listán Negro and Listán Blanco grapes, all precursors of Mission grapes, remain widely grown, Gil directs me to one of the island’s historic vineyards. This one is owned by the Núñez Garcia family, and they show me their use of a very old cultivation method: Their vines grow horizontally, just above the ground, on trunks of rope three to five meters long, not trellised upward as in most modern vineyards. This is the very same grapevine style I had encountered both in Baja California Sur, at Misión San Francisco Javier, more than 300 years after it was introduced there, as well as in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon.
Such discoveries of shared farming and food heritages, both large and small, now also have support on a global scale through the unesco Cities of Gastronomy, which is part of the greater Creative Cities Network program. Out of 26 cities worldwide, three in the desert borderlands now belong to the gastronomical network—Tucson, San Antonio and Ensenada—and Santa Fe participates as a unesco Creative City.
These affiliations are putting contemporary chefs and food historians in closer contact both with their own histories and with one another. Cultural-culinary creatives from Spain, Lebanon, Turkey and Iran are all engaging with North American counterparts.
And for me now, whether I am biting into a hot empanada in Tucson, savoring grapes in the Canaries or sitting down to lunch on my cousins’ farms in Lebanon, I feel more connected than ever along this necklace of history strung across a hemisphere. •
Gary Paul Nabhan is a Lebanese American writer, agricultural ecologist and ethnobotanist who lives in the Mexico-US borderlands. He has been honored with a MacArthur Fellowship, the Vavilov Medal for plant exploration, and lifetime achievement awards from several professional societies. He has authored or edited more than 30 books as well as numerous scholarly and popular articles.