Skip to Main Content
El Paso Community College
Library Research Guides

Borderlands: Looking Back at the Chile Pepper

A unique resource of faculty edited college student articles on the history and culture of the El Paso, Juárez, and Southern New Mexico regions.

Looking Back at the Chile Pepper

By Janis McPhilomy. Contributing research by José Luis Guzman (Articles first published in Vol. 9, 1991)

Chile Update 2017

Girl Scout Cookies and lip balm were not the only things sent to our soldiers in the recent Gulf War. Soldiers from the Southwest, and particularly those stationed at Fort Bliss, missed one of the region’s food essentials — chile. Local chile growers quickly responded and sent various chile products to help lessen another type of homesickness. After all, chile is a border staple.

Many border residents eat various salsas daily, but the rest of the country is catching up. The El Paso Times reported in 1989 that hot salsa sales had grown 55% since 1985, and salsa sales will reach $789.7 million by 1993. Although chile has only recently become big business, peppers have been part of the human diet for thousands of years.

As early as 7000 B.C., native Indians in the New World were eating the wild chiltecpin (piquín)pepper. This is a small and very pungent chile eaten like peanuts today only by the brave. It is believed that chile peppers were domesticated between 5200 and 3400 B.C. by nomadic Indians dependent on the harvesting of wild plants for more than half of their food.

Chile peppers were first cultivated in South America around 2300 B.C. by the Incas who called them uchu in the Quechua language and huayca in the Aymara language. In one of the Inca myths, chile was believed to be one of brothers of the Inca creation known as Agar-Uchu or “Brother Chile Pepper,” the brother of the first Incan king. The Incas worshipped the chile pepper as one of the holy plants and used it to represent the teachings of the early kings.

Before 1500 B.C., chiles traveled north into Mexico and gained the reputation as a spicy condiment, becoming an important part of the native diet. Around this time, the Olmecs, one of the first agricultural tribes, settled in what is now Veracruz, Mexico. 

About 500 B.C., the Monte Alban culture of the Zapotec Indians from the valley of Oaxaca, Mexico, began exporting to neighboring tribes the Suchilquitongo bowls that resemble the handheld mortars or molcajetes. These bowls are believed to be the first evidence that people crushed chiles for chile powder.

When the Mayas reached the peak of their civilization about 500 A.D. in Southern Mexico and the Yucatan Peninsula, they were growing many different varieties of chiles. They used chiles in almost every meal, from breakfast, which was a hot cereal of ground maize spiced with chile peppers called atole or pozol, to the evening meal of various stews spiced with chiles.

The Aztecs were the last agricultural tribe to arrive in the area of Mexico City around 1200 A.D. The marketplaces of the Aztecs overflowed with chiles of all shapes and sizes and colors. They called this pungent fruit chillis in the Nahuatl language, which referred to both red and green chile peppers.

Much of today’s Mexican food is based on Aztec cooking. And many of those dishes have survived virtually unchanged to this day.

The Aztecs ate a variety of seafood stews spiced with different kinds of chiles. They had two types of moles (pronounced mo-lehs) which evolved from thick stews, one with red chiles, the other with yellow chiles and both with tomatoes. These sauces became the moles that are famous today in Mexican cuisine.

The Pueblo Indians in the Southwestern U.S. and Mexico borderlands learned agriculture, which provided most of their food, from the Mayas and Aztecs. The Pueblos acquired seeds for chile peppers through trading with these other tribes.

In 1492, Columbus found the native Indians of the West Indies growing chile peppers in their gardens and fields. Columbus and the explorers who followed him were looking for a direct route to the Spice Islands. The Indians used so many peppers in preparing food for Columbus and his sailors that the Spaniards often ate with tears pouring down their faces. 

“It was Columbus who first introduced peppers to a world hungry for spices. The pungency of the berry from the spice plant being used for seasoning their food reminded the explorers of black pepper; thus it was called pepper, to the confusion of generations to come,” wrote Jean Andrews in her book Peppers: The Domesticated Capsicums.

When the Spaniards arrived in the New World in 1521, the Indians were cultivating many different varieties of chile peppers. Overtaking the Aztecs, the Spaniards noted that the Indians grew peppers everywhere with much diligence and attention because of their importance to the native diet. 

The Spaniards, realizing that chile peppers would make a good item for trade, collected and transported seeds, a decision which initiated the use, cultivation and exportation of chiles around the world. Today, chiles are found in the foods of many different cultures.

back to top

EPCC Web site || EPCC Libraries Web Site || EPCC Library Catalog
Report a problem