“If I were to go outside and stuff the dirt from this place in my mouth, it would be sweet,” says Anita Otilla Rodríguez. The enjarradora (master mud plasterer), author, painter and stirrer of pots — both political and of delicious sustenance — is right. The land that has nourished her and her long line of relatives is so rich with nutrients that its taste is a surprise in more than a metaphorical sense. That’s probably because it won’t grow just anything, and it will break you if you aren’t mindful. Yet, when the time is right, it can hold you in a motherly embrace.
Like this land of contradictions, Rodríguez is at 77 a steely-eyed critic and yet a fawning celebrant of all that has given her bounty. Both attitudes are entwined in her latest book, Coyota in the Kitchen (University of New Mexico Press), a multi-award-winning collection of stories, recipes and commentary on life as a woman growing up in Taos. “I was shocked,” she says when learning that the book was the recent recipient of many accolades.
Coyota is categorized as simply a cookbook, but it is much more than that, with passages revealing the rich life she led growing up in the region.
“I feel full of stories,” she says. “I have had such a disparate and diverse life that it was hard to find some way to connect all the stories together into one book. I feel like all these stories are like actors that are all rushing to get out of a burning theater, all crowded at the door.”
The link she found was through the universal binder of family and friends — food. “I was very inspired by Günther Grass’s book The Flounder. I went into it in a little more detail than he did, but he talked about food and women and the development of civilization. It is women who’ve always been the cooks, and we’ve always been the stationary population because we get pregnant and we have babies. So we are the ones to stay in the same place and built the first architecture, and planted the first crops, and began to identify plants, and so on. With women and their cooking, we keep together the family.”
In her book, Rodríguez writes about the women in her family who were great cooks, the ones who hated cooking and those who could make chile you could sell to the Pentagon as a nuclear weapon. She also delves into the history of food in the southwestern United States, how it was influenced by the confluence of various languages, cultures, religion and political intrigue. Of the latter, Rodríguez is still a firebrand.
An activist since her youth, Rodríguez continues to make her case for humanity and justice. “I love this land, and I really love my community,” she says. You can see it in her art. A painting she spoke about at a recent roundtable discussion to wrap up an exhibition titled Work by Women at the Harwood Museum of Art in Taos provided an illustration of her views. It was titled Nuestra Senora de los Remedios (Our Lady of Remedies). This figure, she said, exists to heal the wounds of the conquest.
The “historical trauma” caused by the collision of culture and beliefs when the Spanish arrived to colonize New Mexico in 1598, then later when Anglo-Americans invaded this land in the mid-19th century, remains with indígenos today. She valiantly strove to establish a “democratic visual vernacular” with the painting. The conflicts are found in virtually every aspect of social and political interaction, she contends. At the roundtable, she expressed exasperation as to why issues of discrimination are still being discussed today, decades after the women’s movement began.
“I’m not a progressive. I’m not a liberal. I’m a revolutionary,” Rodríguez said. “I was standing in the rain in my 20s for birth control, for civil rights. I’m tired. I’m pissed.”
Rodríguez doesn’t consider Coyota to be her magnum opus. That’s something she is working on. Until then, she invites people who read her book to cook a meal, sit down with a few relatives or friends and bathe in the bounty of our good earth.
Rick Romancito is an award-winning Native American journalist, artist, filmmaker and former motion picture actor. He is editor of Tempo, the arts and entertainment magazine of The Taos News, and shares his time in Taos with his wife Melody, daughter Ella and grandchild Layla, plus three dogs and a cat.
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