For a few years now, after being able to travel to different places, read new things, and listening more, I have wanted to make a personal change, to evolve the narrative of this day – Thanksgiving.
Although – honestly speaking – as a Mexican-American Texan, Thanksgiving has always been more about football than anything else; but something inside me wanted a connection that was deeper, more meaningful.
Where better to start than with the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo – one of only three federally recognized tribes in Texas – and a very familiar tradition on many tables throughout the Pass of the North and the country: bread.
This thought of the cultural importance of bread kept popping up in my mind.
Created somewhere around 8000 B.C. in Egypt, then making its way to European kingdoms, eventually across the ocean to the Incan and Mayan empires, was…bread.
I remember as an undergrad at UTEP I took an awesome course “Culinary Philosophy” and one of the think pieces we read, talked about a tribe that would teach their women to bake bread, that became the commodity of the region.
The importance was placed so highly on bread baking skills that when it came time to marry, a woman would be valued by her future in-laws based on her bread baking skills and abilities; and equally, not just any man could ask for the hand of the best bread-baker, only the most worthy of men.
For these women, and for the tribe, bread was not just a trade, it was a part of their culture, ancestry and it was also part of the natural environment where all the ingredients came from.
Last year, when I visited the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo while working on another project with MarySue Femath, who was the first Native to run for state office, I was completely enthralled with the process of bread baking.
The Silvas family members educated me on the time-honored tradition that has passed from generation to generation, from MarySue’s grandparents Pablo and Herminia Silvas, to her nina Mary Silvas, and her sister Debra Cedillo, who carry on the tradition for the tribe today.
I reached out to MarySue, to get her thoughts and feelings on the overall topic, as a Native woman and now a mother.
I listened as she recalled her own childhood memories of celebrating Thanksgiving in school, being told to make a headband with feathers from construction paper, and although she remembers these as fun times with friends just being kids, she also remembers how difficult it was when once she tried to be heard, telling her teacher “that’s not how we dress” only to be rejected and silenced.
Her mom, Dora, grew up during the time when teachers would paddle children for speaking Spanish, she knew what could happen in schools to children that speak out, so without another choice available, it was best to just go with it once a year, but her mom has always made sure to instill cultural pride and the truth about Thanksgiving.
MarySue is now the Assistant Director for the Department of Tribal Empowerment and works a large part of the time with local schools. I asked her if things have changed any?
She says that on one the hand, yes there are a few schools (mostly in the lower valley) that don’t have a problem with Native regalia being worn to graduation, yet on the other hand, there are still plenty of schools that won’t allow it.
I am shocked, this is 2019, where we are constantly fighting for proper representation on a national level; how can we, in El Paso, still be living in the bubble where we won’t recognize the first people of this land?
MarySue brings up that same point, expressing a bit of frustration that while yes people recognize that Natives exist or existed, we often speak of Natives in past tense, “they forget or don’t acknowledge…WE ARE STILL HERE.”
Again, my thoughts drift back to the bread.
Pueblo bread is made in the same manner it was centuries ago. The dome shaped adobe ovens called hornos, are heated through slow burning fire. MarySue’s nina, uses mesquite, which she herself goes out into the desert and collects.
She kneads the dough then lets it rise, kneads it a second time before placing in pans, then lets the dough rest, and finally it goes in the horno. The entire process takes a couple of hours.
This is the way it has always been done.
The process of bread baking, the tradition, the tribe… has endured the span of time.
Pueblo bread, it is a part of the history of the lands here, the Ysleta Mission is the oldest community in Texas, a reminder of the time before there were bridges and divisions.
Just like the bread, centuries later… the tribe remains.
Despite the federal promises broken, the horrific acts taken against them throughout history, the water protectors that are being pelted with rubber bullets all because they are trying to protect mother nature and our water source, and even here locally, the constant battles in court to hold on to what is rightfully theirs, but through it all, they have endured…and as the bread reminds us, they are still here.
I then ask MarySue how she will handle Thanksgiving for her daughter in the future.
She tells me this is one of her concerns, making sure she raises her daughter to have Native pride, while living in the modern world. Right now she is teaching her that this week is about giving thanks to those around her, that have enriched her life, so together they made gifts for her daughter’s pre-k teachers.
Once she is in school though, she says “I just want to make sure I do everything I can to empower her in our Native cultural pride and knowledge, that no matter what crafts or activities they have the kids do at school, it will not affect her, she will KNOW who she is.”
What is Thanksgiving like for MarySue? It’s the same as it is for many of us, she and her husband and their daughter will make the rounds visiting family, first his, then hers.
They’ll enjoy the football game, enjoy eating with family but what is different is, that unlike the rest of us, this day was created to “celebrate” the slaughtering of her ancestors so it’s not an “oh let’s celebrate Thanksgiving” it’s more of a “I am going to celebrate that we are still alive, we are still here.”
Lastly, I asked MarySue what she would like to see from us, non-Natives, in El Paso? After a long pause, she responds.
“You know, mostly I would like people to be open to understanding what happened, to bring awareness not just to people from the lower valley, but to residents from all over the city, to know and understand the story here, what happened here in the borderland.”
I agree, a lot of us (myself included) are more than happy to spend tons of time at Speaking Rock but we really don’t invest time in getting to know the story of the Tiguas. Which is exactly what I was feeling when I decided to write this piece.
As we all sit down with our families tonight and break bread with our loved ones, I want to acknowledge and pay my respects to the keepers of history, the Tigua bread bakers who carry the story of El Paso, before it was El Paso, in their craft, through the adobe hornos, the mesquite embers, in the bread; and the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo, who have endured so much, then and now, and yet have always kept their hearts and doors open to us…with love and gratitude, we thank you.
Ysleta del Sur Pueblo website: “Experience an authentic traditional bread making session conducted by talented tribal members who use the same techniques and equipment as our ancestors from over three hundred years ago.
Visitors are encouraged to ask questions and interact with our talented bakers. Bread is available for purchase after demonstrations or through special order, supplies limited.” For more information please call the cultural center at 915-859-7700.