From the Archives: Petra, the chili pepper queen of Pinewoods

Note: A hacker knocked out the digital records to about two years worth of my writing from early in my career. Some of my favorite pieces reported for Flagpole Magazine are lost, but I've been digging through my computer to see what evidence is left. I found this interview with Petra, a grandmother living in a Hispanic immigrant community on the outskirts of Athens, from my Everyday People series — short interviews with folks far outside the public eye.

Petra, Grandmother and Chile Aficionado

Outside a trailer in a North Athens mobile home park, Petra cooks posole in a dented stew pot suspended over a fire by two cinderblocks. “It’s a soup of pork, corn and chile Guajillo,” she says. “When you eat it you add oregano and lime.” Her son-in-law pulls up in a mini-van, unloads chopped wood from the back and stokes the cooking flames. Is there a reason for making posole outside on an open flame? Yes, she says, all that stove heat makes her home unbearably hot! Petra, a native of Mexico, passes the afternoon embroidering flower designs onto yards of white fabric, keeping one eye on the needle and the other on the bubbling soup; the eyes in the back of her head are trained on her grandchildren who are playing among the flush of pepper plants that frames Petra’s patio. On an average day, when stormy skies aren’t busy ending weeks of drought, the stone circular tables outside Petra’s home are piled high with drying chiles.

A note: Petra enjoyed her interview for Everyday People, but as our meeting wrapped up she requested some anonymity as far as her picture and last name were concerned. She worried her neighbors wouldn’t understand why she was in the paper. They might think she’d done something wrong. To ease her fears, Flagpole asked local artist Eleanor Davis to craft an illustration to replace the usual photo portrait. This interview was conducted with the help of a translator. (I can't find that original drawing. But did find the original photo I took that the sketch was based on.)

André: What’s your secret to growing peppers?

Petra: This year, I would’ve grown from seeds, but the winter left so late so I just bought the plants. I make small beds but thick with dirt. The week after I move the plants in I add some plant food. It’s the same process for all the plants, even watermelon – I would just make the hole a bit deeper.


A: What about drying peppers?

P: When they’re red, I pick them. I put them out all day and take them in at night. Every single day, but not today, of course, because it rained…I don’t know how long exactly it takes, but a lot of days until they dry very well…when you pick them up, they crack in your hand and you can keep them forever. My father made hills of chiles…so big you couldn’t see over them. I love chile poblanos and chile pasillas, but they don’t grow very good here. [Petra pulls over a five-gallon bucket full of bright red chiles in varying states of dehydration]. I grow these. Some people call them tree peppers. And chile piquin, too.

A: What was your town in Michoacan like?

P: I was born in Luvianos in the state of Mexico. It was nice because my father had a garden and I learned all about how things grow. He grew pineapples, jicama, chiles, and sweet potatoes. My husband was from Michoacan, so that’s why I moved there. All my children are from Michoacan, so that’s why I say that I’m from Michoacan. My husband worked in the fields; he would raise cows for milk. I would cook food for him, bring him food in the fields and help him with the labor…now I have 12 years as a widow. Luvianos to Laureles to Athens. I came right here to Athens and I’ve been in this parking lot all 12 years. I bought this trailer 7 years ago.

A: What was your first impression of Athens?

P: I didn’t like it. The same moment I got here I want to got back. My first three years I was crying a lot because I wanted to get back. But my kids said, “What’s to do back there. You should stay here.” I was very homesick for the country. I had a house with animals – goats, chickens, cows. I don’t miss it much now. My sister is there and sometimes I call her, but nobody is in my home and no one is working the field.

A: Why did your family want to come here?

P: My children came before my husband died and they wanted us to come but he didn’t. But when my husband died, my kids came to get me…you know young people…people told them they can come to [the U.S.] a make a lot of money…they have illusions, dreams…they can buy whatever they want, cars, dress in fancy ways. And that’s the reason…they build dreams in their head. I have three daughters. Two are here and the oldest is in Mexico. She has a husband and they grow guava.

A: What do you like about this community?

P: Not much. I don’t work. I’m only here for my family. I’d go, but I fear that they’d follow me home. Their families are here, they have to work for their families; it’s better for them here.

A: Do you get out into the city very often?

P: I don’t know the language so I have nothing to do out there.