Wednesday, September 19, 2012

We have the world’s best fiestas

By S. Derrickson Moore
LAS CRUCES — Most of my best fiesta memories seem to begin in Las Cruces.
Having reached an age when childhood memories sometimes seem more vivid and accessible than where I put my keys 10 minutes ago, it’s surprising that I can’t recall a single memorable fiesta image or anecdote from my Michigan youth, and have only dim memories of interviewing lots and lots of Oregon rose queens at Portland’s annual Rose Festival.
But switch to New Mexico and my mind’s eye conjures vivid images, starting with my first visit in the 1980s, landing at the Albuquerque airport during their balloon fiesta. What a welcome!
In Santa Fe, I have fond memories of covering and attending Spanish Market, Indian Market, and best of all, the Zozobra burning fiesta, back in the golden olden days when we gathered to burn our troubles and celebrate all the tourists leaving for the season (now, many tourists come to see the big Z burn, and most locals stay home to avoid the crowds).
I’ve partied with ETs at the Roswell UFO Festival and thoroughly enjoyed Balloon Regattas at Elephant Butte, Great American Duck Races in Deming and fiestas inspired by Geronimo and Ralph Edwards in Truth or Consequences.
Let’s be honest, the best festivals on the planet are in New Mexico, and the best fiestas in New Mexico are in our territory.
The Whole Enchilada Fiesta was my very first Las Cruces festival, when I moved here in 1994. I was burned out from my days as a festival marketer in Palm Beach County, where the parties cost zillions, but weren’t that much fun, and I probably would have skipped it (and maybe missed out on all our great fiestas) if I hadn’t been recruited by the Sun-News to volunteer at a soft drink booth.
The fiesta was then in the pre-renewal Downtown Mall area and the still-shabby streets were transformed with the delicious smell of roasting chiles, and color, music, parades and fiesta-spirited people. Very nice people, I discovered. Many stopped to chat and offer tips on fun things to see and do.
I came in a very good fiesta year. The Las Cruces International Mariachi Conference started a few months after I arrived, and so did the Doña Ana Arts Council’s annual ArtWalk, which has since evolved into a monthly downtown arts Ramble, and spawned assorted other regional arts walks and fine arts festival events.
I was recently reminded that I was in on the ground floor of Día de los Muertos celebration revivals, the birth of ArtsForms February For the Love of Art Month (a whole fiesta month!) and here for the very first Border Book Festival.
My extended family, some of whom came to live here, share my fondness for our fiestas.
When I was introducing them to the wonders of the Land of Enchantment, I was particularly grateful for the contributions of Lalo Natividad and the late Richard Weeks, who founded El Grupo Cultural, credited with the revival of several traditional Borderland celebrations on the Mesilla Plaza and some new twists on several regional events, from the Mesilla Diez y Seis de Septiembre Fiesta and Cinco de Mayo to Christmas Eve on the Mesilla Plaza.
During his very first visit here, then-baby grandson Alex the Great grabbed a pair of maracas and shook them during Cinco de Mayo (and I have — and cherish — the photos that prove it).
He was about 3 when many of his Pacific Northwest family members decided to move here. I have fond memories of his first Mesilla Diez y Seis parade, when we went to watch his then teen-age aunt Tanya march with her high school band.
Continuing what I have since learned is a tradition, many in parade cars and floats flung candy to kids along the route. Alex was too little to scamper far, and we were touched when older kids collected the sweet treats and gave them to my grandson and other toddlers not big enough to compete for booty.
“People are very sweet here,” said my visiting friends and relatives.
“I told you so,” I said. “And we also have the best fiestas on the planet. Maybe even the whole solar system.”
And I have the fiesta memories to prove it.

S. Derrickson Moore can be reached at; (575) 541-5450. To share comments, go to and click on Blogzone and Las Cruces Style. Follow her on Twitter @DerricksonMoore.

Chile lore and pepper pilgrims

By S. Derrickson Moore
LAS CRUCES — While interviewing visitors to the Hatch Chile Festival, I fielded more questions than answers.
I found myself explaining the state question and answer. (Q. “Red or green?” A. “Christmas,” if you want both red and green chiles.) I answered questions about ways to make chile sauces, how to roast, freeze and ship chiles, or where to get someone else to do it for you. I fielded queries about ristras and why I no longer make them myself (it’s an art, and I’d rather support the pros). How to protect your hands from fiery oils. How heat is determined. What to add to stews and other dishes to tame too-hot chiles. What best-selling wine expert and author Alexis Bespaloff recommended as the perfect complements to chile dishes (beer or Champagne).
I realized that sooner or later, if we’re paying attention, here in the Chile Capital of the Cosmos, we all become pepper pros ourselves, sages of spicy myths and lore.
Though I make it to Hatch now and then, usually to and from other destinations up I-25, it had been a few years since I’d been to the chile fest, and I’d never managed to make it to their parade before.
The Hatch exit was pretty congested — actual gridlock by New Mexico standards — and as most of us pulled over for the parade before attempting to make it to Hatch International Airport for the big event, I expected people to be stressed and grumpy.
But, no. Everybody I talked to, even the big city visitors, seemed full of good cheer. I recalled what Chile Pepper Institute founder and NMSU professor Paul Bosland has stressed over a couple of decades of interviews: everything about chiles seems to put people in a good mood, he’s told me.
And it’s not just the endorphin rush and sense of well-being that comes from consuming the capsaicin- and vitamin-laded peppers. People also like seeing chiles, talking about them, growing them, sharing them.
I’ve discovered they are the most appreciated gifts I give, in all of their forms: ristras, fresh, frozen, dried, in various exotic concoctions. Dr. B’s Bhut-kickin Brownies (named for Bosland and the Bhut Jolokia pepper) got raves last holiday season. I stocked up on mixes from the Chile Pepper Institute (call 575-646-3028, or find it online) baked ’em up and took them to parties and sent the mix to chile-deprived far-flung amigos.
People love chile-related items, too: chile-ornamented shirts, pants, scarves, mugs, baseball caps, books ...
And, I discovered, we all love a chile parade. My fave paraders were the bouncing lowriders decorated with chiles, but I also enjoyed talking to people headed for the big fiesta.
I had fun touring Hatch Chile Express (that’s the much-photographed landmark known this time of year for its roof covered with bright red chiles, drying in the sun) and the other shops.
There were vats of chiles, labeled by name and heat, where I met Alan Thornburg, from Hazel, Texas, who said he was here to teach his son about different kinds of chile. It seemed almost like a coming-of-age ritual, crucial to farming and appreciating life in the Southwest.
For some, the Hatch Chile Festival seemed almost to be a kind of pilgrimage, or a crucial item on bucket lists.
Christine and Richard Fassler, who identified themselves as “gringos from upstate New York,” said they’d looked forward to their visit since they relocated to Farmington, and heard friends and relatives sing the praises of Hatch chile.
The festival was a romantic impulse for Jim and Lora Pierce of Tulsa, Okla., who decided the fiesta was the perfect place to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary … and their favorite food.
It was a nostalgic homecoming, and maybe even a philosophical quest for Chris Lujan, visiting with his father.
“It’s tradition: the smells, the excitement. I’ve been looking forward to this time of year,” said Lujan, who grew up in Las Cruces.
He’s now an architect based in Las Vegas, Nev., who’s seen a lot of the world.
“Wherever I travel, people — especially the Chinese — want to know about our chiles,” said Lujan, who may have a line on a solution to world peace, or at least a way to get diverse groups to the same negotiating table: serve popular chile dishes.
“Chile is a global unifier,” Lujan opined.

S. Derrickson Moore can be reached at; (575) 541-5450. To share comments, go to and click on Blogzone and Las Cruces Style. Follow her on Twitter @DerricksonMoore.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The art of minimalist gardening

By S. Derrickson Moore
LAS CRUCES — How artistic is your garden?
I’ve been pondering my own environs after learning about the upcoming Art in the Garden Tour in Picacho Hills (it’s Sept. 16 … get the details in today’s Artist of the Week feature on page 4E).
If my garden’s artistic merit were judged solely on its thriving blooms and greenery, I’d be in big trouble this year.
Most everything I planted seemed inclined to croak within weeks or even days. Almost all the sculptural stalwarts … big agaves … succumbed to the big freezes of the last two years. I’m left with one rather forlorn looking big guy and a bunch of unruly agave puppies who keep popping up in surprising places.
But my garden has great bones, thanks to a visit from my son, who’s turned out to be a feng shui-savvy garden maestro like his grandmother.
Armed only with a desert full of interesting rocks, pruning shears and a desire for a workout, he managed to transform my boring, somewhat mangy, landscape into a zen wonderland of curving paths and intriguing textures. Two trios of trees, junipers out front, pines out back, were wrangled to display elegant silhouettes.
During this long, hot, dry summer, when assorted painful calamities and long-awaited family visits left me uninclined to invest any resources in gardening, I’ve been pleased to discover how lovely a minimalist landscape (and philosophy) can be.
Without flower-filled planters, mounds of colorful lantana and verbena, and fragrant lavender bushes to tend, I’m free to kick back and admire the survivors.
John, Paul and George started life as scrawny, foot-high Charlie Brown Christmas trees grown by local kids. Planted with the assistance of my favorite then-toddler Alex the Great, the pines now tower high over the head of my now six-foot grandson. They are a refuge for occasional flocks of birds and a kind of lounge for teensy hummers preparing for feeder strafing missions.
Most dry summers, when the molting starts and the pine needles begin to fall, I’m out there with brooms and rakes and giant green garbage bags.
This summer, I decided I’d been clever, artistic and foresighted a decade ago, to choose small rocks and large slabs in warm, adobe-colored hues.
The fallen needles blend nicely into the scene, adding texture to the big rock slab paths and even improving the barren dusty gray bedding areas where nothing much seems inclined to grow this year. The agave pups look greener and healthier, somehow, frolicking in random patterns on the springy pine needle ground cover.
There are subtle beauties to be savored in an uncultivated garden with good bones.
Finally, when a few little monsoons break through, there is a burst of enthusiastic bounty: a bumper crop of weeds. This year, I try to strike an artful balance, letting them grow long enough to make sure they aren’t volunteers of coveted crops, long enough to get a grip and pull the unwanted up by the roots, but not long enough to go to seed.
In the process, I appreciate some weeds that could be considered wild flowers, with pretty little blooms in sun-gold or neon purple.
Biology is the ultimate art form, my soul mate Dr. Roger and I concluded long ago.
And the art of gardening is filled with the surprises of biology, the alacrity and animation of life, even the contemplation of points where physics and metaphysics meet and overlap. If movement is life and vibration, does a garden rock have life, on the atomic level, and in real-time, as it is moved by rain, windstorms, the leap of a small lizard?
There’s a lot to ponder, when you aren’t wasting time perfecting, manicuring, trying to wrestle mother nature into submission in high desert county.
A garden is art, however you find it.

S. Derrickson Moore can be reached at; (575) 541-5450. To share comments, go to and click on Blogzone and Las Cruces Style. Follow her on Twitter @DerricksonMoore.

Portales Season in the Southwest

LAS CRUCES — It’s been a long time coming in this torrid, sometimes tortuous year. Another bitter, destructive freeze and an all-too brief spring quickly blazed into a scorching summer of triple-digit temperatures, widespread drought and record wildfires.
But it’s coming. Relief is almost here.
You can feel it already on a starry night, an early morning walk, and, if you’re alert, sometimes even in a maverick marine breeze that leapfrogs over the Rockies and arrives with a hint of Pacific ocean freshness.
In Florida, we used to call it “magic day,” that long-awaited time when you could walk a block without getting muggied (mugged by heat and humidity).
In Las Cruces, it’s that wonderful day when you realize you’d rather linger another hour outdoors instead of rushing into the shelter of A/C or the laboring swamp cooler.
It’s prime time for portales, that nice Borderland term that could refer to whatever your portal to the outside world might be. It could be anything from a doorway fronting a patch of grass, a rock slab or concrete big enough to perch a chair on, to sprawling verandas that stretch around your home with sheltered loggias, elaborate arches or rustic vigas and latillas.
In between are patios (some covered, some not), gazebos, tables with umbrellas, free-standing summer houses, outdoor balconies or screened porches known in some parts of the world as “Florida rooms.”
Outdoor rooms have really caught on during the two decades I’ve lived here. Upscale incarnations can be almost indistinguishable from their indoor counterparts, with upholstered furniture, lamps, giant flat screen TVs, sound systems and complete kitchens with all the usual appliances, from fridges to pizza ovens and even dishwashers.
The infinity pool concept has expanded to encompass infinity walls of glass that open completely to blur the line between indoor and outdoor living.
Whether your lifestyle is modest or ornate, in the Land of Enchantment, fall is the time to get out there and live.
There’s a reason why our fiestas start this time of year, when we find ourselves looking at rich warm adobe against lapis blue skies and remembering why we love living here.
However I’m tempted to hike and fiesta, I’ll make a date with myself (and friends and family) for some prime portales time, too.
If things are looking a little shabby, I’ll spring for a new chair, bring a comfortable rocker outside, run a broom or a hose over the premises and maybe look for a few pots of annuals to pop in a pretty planter.
Humming at my door reminds me to refill the hummingbird feeders. It’s been a tough year for birdies, too, and many will be migrating soon and looking for food, water and shelter along the way.
But don’t waste too much time on gardening, cleanups or repairs — you can get to that later when the leaves have fallen and blown in with tumbleweed components and assorted Halloween candy wrappers and desert detrius.
If you’re longing for some alone time, (or avoiding free-ranging politicians and their advocates, out in record packs this election year), head for the back porch or close the front gate, if you’ve got one.
Have a private picnic. Do some power lounging. Curl up with a good book, contemplate nature and the sky or ponder an al fresco nap.
If you’re feeling sociable, sit out on the front porch and greet your passing neighbors and their kids and dogs (keep a stash of cookie bones handy). You might want to exchange a few words with some favorite old friends, or meet intriguing new neighbors and get to know them. Invite them over to “sit a spell,” as my great-aunt used to say, or share a cool drink or cup of tea.
No need to make a production of it. Relax and enjoy. Portales prime time is its own reward.

S. Derrickson Moore can be reached at; (575) 541-5450. To share comments, go to and click on Blogzone and Las Cruces Style. Follow her on Twitter @DerricksonMoore.