ROAST OF THE TOWN

CHILE LOVERS TAKE A STAND ON FEDERAL BOULEVARD.

Essential chile facts: The heat comes froms an alkaloid called capsaicin, which resides mainly in the placenta that holds the seeds inside each pepper. Degree of heat is measured by something known as the Scoville Scale. A completely heatless pepper--a paprika, say, or a Yolo Wonder Bell--would be a 1 on this scale, while habaneros, the world's hottest peppers, rate a 10. In between are jalapenos (8), Anaheim Milds (2) and New Mexico 6-4s (3). But the varieties are seemingly endless--both because of the chile pepper's tendency to cross-pollinate at the drop of a hat and because many New Mexico farmers prefer nativos to commercial seed.

"All that means is they're saving seed from a particular region and a particular cross-pollination," Graham explains. This, coupled with climatic differences, is how there came to be so many particularly regional pepper varieties. "Now, the Hatch Valley has hot days, cool nights and lots of environmental stress, which does a lot for pungency," Graham says. "The chile capital of the world, it's called."

But that kind of hype has not always helped the Hatch Valley. Last year's green-chile crop was snapped up by merchants all over New Mexico and Colorado, but the red chile--picked from the same type of plant later in the year after the peppers have turned red, and then dried--was disappointing.

"So none of the Hatch farmers could borrow money this year," Charles Gurule says. "They had too much red chile sitting around, and the banks were saying, hey, if you grow something else, maybe, but not chile. But a few of them were smart. Angel Baquera got me to sign a contract with him that I'd buy 350,000 pounds, which was no sweat, because last year I bought at least that from him. He took the contract to the bank and got a loan, and now he's one of the only guys with green Hatch chile to sell."

"But we cut way back," Angel says. "Last year we had 150 acres planted, this year half that. But we sold close to 400,000 pounds already, and all of it in New Mexico."

Which makes Charles's contract somewhat void--he's had trouble getting Angel to part with more than a few truckloads. "And we'll be done by the end of this month," Angel guesses. "It's a smaller year, but not too bad, still."

Indeed, this year Angel, his wife, Yvette, and their three children were finally able to move out of the adobe warren of a house they shared with Angel Sr. into a home of their own. But they are still close by. It's hard to be in the town of Arrey, New Mexico, without being within spitting distance of a Baquera.

Angel's not sure exactly which year his father settled here--only that he was born in Julimas, Chihuahua, in 1935, and made his living as a sharecropper most of his life. Angel's mother, also from Chihuahua, came over to work as a maid. The Ba-quera parents became citizens in the Fifties and started a family that eventually numbered three boys and three girls. Angel, now 31, is the oldest--he began working in the fields when he was five and has scarcely stopped since then. At eighteen he went away to Phoenix to study auto mechanics at the United Technical Institute--but chile followed him.

"My dad sent me away with a pickup load of powdered chile," Angel says. "He told me I could sell it to restaurants. I stayed eight months and lived off that chile the whole time. I'm lucky we're famous here, I guess. If you were to bring in chile from Mexico and try to pass it off as Hatch chile, it wouldn't fool anyone."

Angel didn't last long as a mechanic. Soon he was back in Arrey, where two of his sisters run a general store and one has a restaurant. His two brothers were working chile with Angel Sr., and Angel was drawn back in. Gradually, not wanting to offend his father, he began to take over, attending NMSU chile conferences and implementing changes--such as the often ignored but highly necessary concept of crop rotation. Until last year he managed to run his father's empire, routinely working sixteen-hour days and supporting a family while maintaining a drinking problem of grand proportions.

"I remember crying when my brother was killed in a drunk-driving accident," he says. "I remember crying at his funeral and then going back out to get wasted that same night." Yvette, now 26, tried to pass on some of her fervent Christianity. It didn't take. "Yeah, one time she brought over her preacher, and I laughed in his face," Angel recalls. "I stayed drunk. And then one day about six months ago, I saw that God is a big God. I asked him, please, I don't want no more cravings. Just show me. And he did."

Since his conversion, Angel has kept the chile business going in fine style, but he's not sure how long it will last. "The Lord is calling me to do something different," he says. "And my sons, well, they like tractors, but I hope they don't decide to do this."

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