With the Peyoteros

The fruits and thorns of the South Texas cactus trade

Severiano Garcia grew up on a ranch near Rio Grande City, and though he now lives in town he still spends much of his time out in the thorny South Texas chaparral, whose delights he enumerated to me on a recent Thursday morning, as we wended our way through the brush. “That one is almost ready to eat,” he would say, pointing to a tall cactus in the distance, whose leafy white fruit rose like an elongated pineapple from its head of fronds. “You take those white leaves, and they’re like cabbage. You cook it with a little cheese, and mmmm, it tastes so good.” Or he would indicate a plump spiny cactus on the ground, a pitaya: Peel its magenta fruit and put it in the freezer, and it tastes like candy. If you pluck the pods of the ebano tree and boil the seeds, he told me, you can eat them like peanuts. And of course you can slice nopalitos from the rounded lobes of the prickly pear, which Garcia likes to fry up with chile colorado and egg.

As I followed behind him, gingerly fending off branches and plucking the occasional sticker from my thigh, Garcia also cataloged the land’s hazards. Catsclaw and guayacán will snag at you, he said, while the same pitaya whose fruit tastes like candy is “a horse’s nightmare” to step on. The thorns of the tasajillo cactus are “the worst thing besides rattlesnakes,” he said.

After a while we came upon a small clearing, a spot which Garcia said he calls the miraculous hill–loma milagrosa. It didn’t look all that miraculous. It hardly even registered as a hill, just a swell in the ground where there seemed to be more rocks and fewer shrubs. Yet Garcia has had extraordinary luck at this spot. “We’ve been coming here for five, six, seven years, and every time we come here we get peyote,” he says. “Some hills, it don’t grow as fast. Here, every year, we don’t know how much it’s going to have, and then we come and it has already grown again. Where it gets rocky, you start seeing peyote again.” Sure enough, he soon spotted a cluster of buttons, like five sage-colored pincushions, growing demurely beneath a bush.

His companion, longtime peyote picker Adrian Acevedo, showed me how he harvests the cactus, sliding the front tip of a machete cleanly underneath a two-inch button and tossing it into a plastic bucket. The trick, according to Garcia, is to slice as evenly with the ground as possible, so that more buttons will grow in the place of the one removed. After Acevedo was finished, the spot where he had cut the button was nearly indistinguishable from its dusty surroundings, but for a faint greenish tinge.

Garcia’s wife Diana is licensed by the state of Texas to sell peyote to Native Americans, who consume the hallucinogenic cactus in religious ceremonies. Garcia himself, who used to hold the license, is a picker. He says he is 52 years old and after a lifetime of outdoor work looks no younger: Each bend in his thin frame seems to have been baked into place by the sun. He holds his round head slightly forward from his shoulders, his bearing reminiscent all at once of an old man, a young boy, and a turtle. He has been picking peyote since the early 1970s, first for his brother-in-law’s uncle, and then for himself. The business has grown much more difficult since then, largely because the peyote has grown much scarcer. “We used to have a lot of business, and we’d go out and get 1,000 (buttons), everybody got 1,000. You didn’t need to have another job. With three, four hours a day you could make a day’s wage, but now it’s pretty hard.” These days he and Diana rely on her salary as a junior high school teacher and extra income he picks up working as a ranch hand.

The decline in the peyote supply has resulted in large part from the intensification of other uses of the land: Ranchers have taken to the brush with bulldozer-driven root plows, to remove every trace of cactus and transform the chaparral into grazing range. They have fenced their property and rent usage rights out to deer hunters, who pay considerably more for a lease than peyote dealers do. And while it’s legal to harvest and sell peyote in Texas, it’s illegal to plant and cultivate it–a process that would, at any rate, take many years–so there’s no compensating for the plants that are lost to the plow and the hunter’s rifle.

With the greater difficulty in finding peyote has come a souring of the business climate, and that is what Garcia blames most for his falling fortunes. “The problem is these guys crossing fences,” he says in reference to his competitors in Rio Grande City. “You want to pick, you’ve got to pay for a permit to get into a place, or know somebody, but the other guys go and jump the fences. It’s been going on for six, seven years. I used to go to these hills, and there was a lot of medicine. You pick the ones that are big enough for selling, not everything. But these guys pick everything. You go to where there was an abundance of peyote, and now there’s nothing.” He points to a pale, shallow scar that swoops across his jaw like a seal’s whisker, which he says is the record of a fight with another dealer, whom he found trespassing on his brother-in-law’s ranch.

Because of the ruthlessness of the competition, some older dealers have been driven into retirement, he says, “but I’m still here because I like the peyote business, and I like the Indians who come here. Even if they’re trying to break me up, I don’t care. They broke my cousin, they broke my other uncle, they’re trying to break me. But they won’t do it.”

There are five licensed peyote dealers in the United States, all of them in South Texas: three in the border town of Rio Grande City; one in Roma, 17 miles to the west; and one in Mirando City, a tiny town 30 miles east of Laredo. Native Americans, who have been coming from points north and west to South Texas to purchase peyote for the better part of a century, arrive year round to buy from the peyoteros, though business slows to a trickle in the heat of summertime. While peyote dealers also sell by mail, a sizable contingent of buyers travel south in person–”they come in their vans and trucks and campers,” Garcia said–to buy for their families or for a larger group.

That all of the nation’s peyote dealers live within 80 miles of one another is the result of the limited growing range of the cactus. Peyote grows only in a region lying mostly in north and central Mexico, except for a northern strip which extends about 40 miles into Texas–shadowing the border from around Big Bend on down to the Rio Grande Valley. A scholar of the Texas peyote trade, George Morgan, speculated in his doctoral dissertation that the cactus may have originated in Mexico and migrated north along the Bordas Escarpment, which cuts through Webb County east of Laredo and across Starr County, home to Rio Grande City. Morgan offered no evidence for his claim, but certainly peyote does grow along the escarpment, and it is in fact a migratory plant that spreads via a thick root system. (“You’ve got to follow the peyote,” Garcia told me, “It grows like a vein in different directions, like a vein of the earth.”)

But peyote’s most remarkable migration has been the one effected by humans, for while the cactus has evidently been used ceremonially by native tribes in its growing region for thousands of years, it was only taken up by northern tribes in recent times. The Carrizo Indians of South Texas, who lived in its growing area, are thought to have been the originators of the peyote ceremony in the United States, and it was probably they who taught it to other tribes that once populated Texas, notably the Lipan Apache. In the 19th century, as the Apache were driven north and west by United States settlers and soldiers, they in turn shared the ceremony with Plains tribes like the Kiowa and Comanche, and so it spread. The peyote religion in its present form, wrote its foremost historian Omer Stewart, was “a result, albeit small, of the conquest of the New World.” By the 1980s, groups within more than 50 tribes in the United States had adopted the peyote ceremony, in which the cactus is ingested as a sacrament during an all-night ritual.

The northern tribes’ need for peyote occasioned the birth of the peyotero, who in the early days of the trade would harvest the buttons, dry them, and ship them north via middlemen in Laredo. Indians were observed making the trip to Texas to buy peyote as early as 1908, when an Omaha couple arrived in the Mirando Valley by Model T, but the pilgrimage didn’t become common until later in the century. Presently, the largest contingent of peyote buyers arrives on President’s Day weekend, when an annual ceremony takes place at the Mirando City house of Amada Cardenas, a revered former dealer who, at the age of 96, was still welcoming visitors last month. On the holiday weekend, Native American visitors erected a tepee in Cardenas’s yard, along with a colony of dome tents, which were nestled among permanent structures built over the years by the Cardenases for their legions of customers: a covered picnic area and two small shelters. Though confined to a wheelchair and mostly deaf, Cardenas, a tiny woman outfitted in flowered polyester, sat inside her small frame house and greeted all comers, clasping their hands and loudly saying, “Nice to see you,” and “I’m happy that you could come.”

The February ceremony “started about seventy to seventy-five years ago, when Mr. Cardenas (Amada’s husband Claudio, who died in 1968) got sick,” says Salvador Johnson, the lone remaining licensed dealer in Mirando City. “Some gentlemen out of Oklahoma ran a doctoring ceremony for him, and then they started coming every year, started making it–and kept it–a tradition.” The annual pilgrimage has both spiritual overtones–for centuries, Mexican tribes made sacred journeys to San Luis Potosí to harvest peyote–and practical advantages: “you get away from the cold weather, and Laredo is known for its Washington’s Birthday celebration,” says Alden Naranjo, a Ute from Colorado who led last month’s ceremony, and who has been coming to Texas for peyote since he was a young boy. “Also, in Nuevo Laredo the bullfights begin around this time.”

Amada Cardenas is the last living link to the early days of the peyote trade in Los Ojuelos, a now-abandoned settlement about two miles south of Mirando City, where the peyote trade is thought to have started in the 19th century. Cardenas’ father was a peyote dealer there–as were most of the town’s residents, according to Bureau of Indian Affairs special agent William E. “Pussyfoot” Johnson, who in a 1909 letter to the bureau’s commissioner listed four Los Ojuelos peyote traders and wrote that, “this industry has developed until practically nothing else is done by the people of this village, except to gather peyotes.” A curious footnote: Some of the best records of the early peyote trade were left by those who tried to stop it, and no man was more vigilant in this effort than Agent Johnson, a Nebraska newspaperman turned ardent prohibitionist. Appointed special officer by the BIA in 1906 to suppress liquor on the reservations, Johnson expanded his mission to include peyote, deciding to go after the supply. In 1909, he visited each of the seven Laredo companies which sold peyote and bought their entire stock, collecting 176,400 buttons in all, which he destroyed by burning.

Another curious footnote: The crumbling stone remains of Los Ojuelos later became part of a private ranch, whose owner in the 1960s and ’70s contributed to the countercultural movement in South Texas (which was somewhat smaller than countercultural movements elsewhere) by allowing “a select group” of non-Indian peyote enthusiasts onto his property to gather and partake of the cactus. Many other landowners, by contrast, are said to have barred all pickers from their ranches during those decades, because of their aversion to the hippie element.

Of all the current peyote dealers, Salvador Johnson most resembles a conventional businessman: “I run this like a pharmacist,” he said, sitting in a sales office within his newly-built, apple-green Mirando City house, which seems to be the only two-story house in town. Johnson, who also has a contracting business, sells roughly half a million buttons per year, at around fifteen to sixteen cents per button. He says he averages six hours a day picking peyote except during deer season (which Johnson, an avid hunter, takes off) and midsummer, when he and his wife visit reservations in South Dakota and Montana and Wisconsin. He also pays two or three pickers to harvest buttons for him.

“I got started in this business very young,” Johnson said. “I was about 10 or 11 years old when I started harvesting peyote with Mrs. Cardenas and her husband. At that time it was $1 per thousand (for the picker.) You could cut that in a couple of hours, two to three hours. I used to go with friends of mine. That was the only means of work that was here.” Unlike most of the other dealers, Johnson has participated in peyote ceremonies, and says that while he is not a member of the Native American Church, “I have so much belief and so much history with the sacrament, that I consider myself one of them.” (Native Americans who participate in peyote ceremonies belong to the Native American Church, which was incorporated in 1918–largely so that its members could mount a defense against opponents who doubted there was a religious basis to peyote use. Church chapters must register with the Texas Department of Public Safety.)

The day I visited Johnson, a family of Navajo from Arizona arrived by van, toured the peyote storage area behind the house, and bought two brown bags full of dried buttons. One of them said that they would probably go down to Rio Grande City afterward, and when I asked whether he bought from different dealers, Johnson interrupted: “They go wherever, I don’t have enough for everybody.” In the next breath, he dismissed the very idea of competition among dealers as absurd: “Anybody who thinks they have enough peyote for everybody, they’re not accepting reality. They say the Native American Church has 500,000 members, and if 100,000 of them take peyote, each approximately 100 buttons per year, you’re talking 10 million buttons. All the dealers together can’t harvest 10 million buttons, so how can one dealer get angry with another one?” (Native Americans interviewed for this article gave varying accounts of how many buttons they consume per year, but all confirmed that there isn’t enough peyote to go around.) The real difficulty, says Johnson, is the lack of access to ranches, and ranchers’ tendency to root plow. A dozen years ago, he could harvest two to three times as many buttons as he can now, but the increasing popularity of deer hunting has sealed off ranches where he used to pick peyote.

Down in Rio Grande City, though, that very scarcity seems to fuel tensions among the vendors. The peyote trade has its kingpins in Mauro Morales and Miguel Rodriguez, who live next door to one another on Fairground Road, and who each sell more peyote than any of the other dealers. Both used to work as migrant farm laborers and pick peyote when they were not on the road. Then about 15 years ago, Rodriguez hurt his back in a trampoline accident, which prevented him from picking any longer, and he applied for a dealer’s license. “I used to like to go out there,” he said, but now he hires up to 25 people to pick for him.

Morales, who is Rodriguez’s wife’s uncle, applied for a license about five years after Rodriguez did. Morales put up a painted sign outside his house–”Buy Or Sell Peyote,” it reads, and Rodriguez followed suit, painting a sign of his own. Competition heated up after that. “Whenever the Native Americans came here, they (Morales and his family) woul
try to call them over to their place,” says Rodriguez.
When it’s slow, they try to take away our business. We got into arguments, and I told them not to do that, but they kept on doing it, so I did it too. Eye for an eye. What do you call it when somebody tries to take your business away?” According to Severiano Garcia, both Morales and Rodriguez would also show up in front of his house and try to intercept his customers.

Rodriguez says that he and Morales came to an agreement about eight months ago, and “things have quieted down. We’re living a more peaceful life. These things happen in every family,” he says. His neighbor and relative, meanwhile, downplayed their dispute. “There’s no competition in this,” said Morales, a squat middle-aged man with a heart-shaped tattoo on his hand and a gold tooth. “Once the Natives come, they look at the medicine, they look at the person, and they more or less get an idea of who’s a better person. Sometimes we sell for less, or try to make bargains.” As for Garcia’s allegation that he and Morales had come to blows, Morales conceded that they had had a fight, but that it was over “something else,” and not peyote.

I was unable to reach the fifth peyote dealer, Arturo Reyes, by phone, and so I went looking for him at the address he had listed with the Department of Public Safety: Highway 83, 1 1/2 mi. east of Roma. It was not obvious where exactly “1 1/2 miles east of Roma” lies, nor did I see any sort of sign advertising peyote, and so I never found Reyes. The following is a partial list of things I did in fact see advertised for sale on the strip of Highway 83 between Roma and Rio Grande City: strollers, plants, used clothes, fireworks, storage rooms, pigs, auto salvage, tacos, chairs and tables, mufflers, jumbo shrimp, roast potatoes and onions, septic tanks, dill pickles, oil changes, and foam. You might conclude that no matter how hard or brutal the peyote business gets, it will probably remain at least as lucrative as the freelance dill pickle trade, and so will probably continue on into the foreseeable future.

As we toured the ranch where he picks peyote, Garcia would assess the size of the buttons at particular locations and deduce that his competitors had recently jumped the fence–””They’ve been here. There isn’t any medicine,” he would say–or estimate how long it had been since they had done so: “They haven’t been here in about three years.” He would also point to swaths of grass, areas that had been plowed, and say, “That hill used to be full of medicine.” Though the work has gotten harder, Garcia said he plans to stick with the business: “I like to pick it, I like to see it, and I’ve been with it a long time.”

Driving toward the ranch gate, Garcia returned to the subject of desert cuisine. I asked him how to cook an armadillo and he told me: Marinate it in orange juice and lemon juice for an hour and a half, then grill it with lots and lots of butter. “It’s so juicy, and the flavor stays in. We love armadillos,” he said. He’ll cook a javelina the same way, or sometimes he’ll make a guisote, stewing the meat in gravy. Rattlesnake is good either grilled or fried–”like chicken, but it tastes better than chicken,” Garcia said. He had already warned me that peyote country is full of snakes, and that if you come across one, you either have to grab it by the head or leave it alone.

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Published at 12:00 am CST