The abuelita who sold pey­ote

The cu­ri­ous life of Amada Sanchez Car­de­nas

Pasatiempo - - NEWS -

When Amada Sanchez z Car­de­nas died in 2005, , t he Laredo Morn­ing g Times ran her obit­u­aryy on the front page un­derr the head­line “Pey­ote pi­o­neer dies att 100.” Car­de­nas was first trained as a pey­otero by her fam­ily in the 1920s.. Over the next eight decades her qui­ett pres­ence and deep spirituality wouldd build a pey­ote cul­ture in South Tex­ass that faced down le­gal chal­lenges andd won greater un­der­stand­ing of t hee plant’s use and pur­pose. In the 1960s,, Car­de­nas won over a con­ser­va­tive Southh Texas judge, who made her and her hus-band, Clau­dio, among the coun­try’s firstt fed­er­ally li­censed pey­ote deal­ers. Butt her true legacy lies in the gen­er­a­tionss of a com­mu­nity she forged throughh her friend­ships with tribal mem­berss of the Na­tive Amer­i­can Church. Of­tenn ar­riv­ing with their fam­i­lies, thou­sandss made pil­grim­ages across the coun­tryy to Car­de­nas’ wel­com­ing front porch inn the tiny town of Mi­rando City, Texas, too ob­tain the medicine so cru­cial to theirr religious cer­e­monies.

“They call her Mom, they call her Grandma,randma all of them are her kids. There are even peo­ple who have their own kids and they name them Amada,” said Nora Martinez, Car­de­nas’ long­time care­giver and sur­ro­gate daugh­ter. Martinez’s rec­ol­lec­tion comes from the re­cently re­leased Amada’s Bless­ings from the Pey­ote Gar­dens of South Texas (Univer­sity of New Mex­ico Press), by Stacy B. Schae­fer, an an­thro­pol­o­gist and a long­time friend of Car­de­nas’. Part mem­oir, part ethnog­ra­phy, the book uses in- depth in­ter­views with Car­de­nas’ friends and fam­ily to re­con­struct the un­likely life of this grand­moth­erly ma­tri­arch, de­vout Ro­man Catholic, and staunch de­fender of the Na­tive Amer­i­can Church.

Schae­fer ended up on Car­de­nas’ doorstep in 1993, when she was teach­ing an­thro­pol­ogy cour­ses at the Univer­sity of Texas at Edinburg (now Univer­sity of Texas-Pan Amer­i­can). Hav­ing done years of field­work in coastal Pa­cific Mex­ico along­side in­dige­nous tribes, Schae­fer was highly fa­mil­iar with with religious pey­ote cer­e­monies. She is the co-editor of the 1997 an­thol­ogy, Peo­ple of the Pey­ote: Hui­chol In­dian His­tory, Re­li­gion, and Sur­vival (UNM Press).

But Texas was dif­fer­ent. “At the time, I had no idea there was pey­ote be­ing ggrown in the U. S.,” Schae­fer said in aan in­ter­view with Pasatiempo. Af­ter a llo­cal news ar­ti­cle about pey­ote deal­ers aap­peared, “I asked my stu­dents if they hhad rel­a­tives or friends who t raded ppey­ote. Through meet­ing some of the ddeal­ers, I was told I re­ally needed to mmeet Amada. I was em­bar­rassed and sshy. I felt like she was go­ing to think, ‘Here comes this gringa from Cal­i­for­nia sshow­ing up at my doorstep.’ When I got tthere, there were trucks with li­cense pplates from New Mex­ico, Ari­zona, and OOk­la­homa. And there was Amada. She wwas so wel­com­ing, warm, and friendly.”

The two women formed a tight bond. For tthe next 12 years un­til Car­de­nas’ death, SSchae­fer would­spend­most of her free wee­keends at her friend’s home. “I would go as ooften as pos­si­ble to spend ttime with her,” Schae­fer said. “I knew she was up in age. I dde­cided her story needed to bbe told. Here was the chance tto in­ter­view her and dis­cover hher story from the be­gin­ning. I sought out peo­plep very im­por­tant to her, her fam­ily, her friends. She knew gen­er­a­tions of fam­i­lies. She grew up in the pey­ote trade, be­gin­ning with her father and con­tin­u­ing with her hus­band.”

As a young girl, Amada watched as her father scoured the l and­scape for pey­ote clus­ters, haul­ing his har­vest by ox­cart to Laredo, where it was shipped to tribes across the coun­try. She spent most of her life in Mi­rando City, a tiny town in Webbbb County, Texas, 40 miles east of Laredo. The vil­lage is at the cen­ter of the sole re­gion in the U.S. where pey­ote grows wild. In 1932, Amada mar­ried Clau­dio Car­de­nas. In the early years of their mar­riage, the cou­ple would rou­tinely spend days in the hot sun, se­cur­ing per­mis­sion from lo­cal own­ers and search­ing the brush­land of ranches for pey­ote cac­tus.

Af­ter her hus­band died in 1967, most friends and fam­ily as­sumed Car­de­nas would re­tire from the busi­ness. In­stead, af­ter a year of mourn­ing, she re­sumed her life as a pey­otero. Soon af­ter, she be­came part of a Texas le­gal case that would firmly es­tab­lish the right

of the pey­ote deal­ers and Na­tive Amer­i­can church mem­bers to cul­ti­vate and use the plant for religious cer­e­monies. In 1968, she was the sole dealer in the re­gion will­ing to make le­gal waves over the right to use and sell pey­ote. She agreed to sell pey­ote to Frank Takes Gun, a Crow ac­tivist and Na­tive Amer­i­can Church of­fi­cial, who was then vol­un­tar­ily ar­rested while trans­port­ing pey­ote out of Car­de­nas’ drive­way. The goal was to cre­ate a test case that would firmly es­tab­lish a religious ex­emp­tion for pey­ote use and cul­ti­va­tion in Texas.

Hav­ing dealt with her late hus­band’s ar­rests and tri­als for grow­ing pey­ote in the 1950s, Car­de­nas knew both the judge and his ex­tended fam­ily. In a re­mark­able rul­ing, Judge E. James Kazen ruled in fa­vor of the Na­tive Amer­i­can Church. But what came next sur­prised all in­volved. He took Car­de­nas up on her in­vi­ta­tion to join her and other mem­bers of the church at an all-night religious pey­ote cer­e­mony, as an ob­server.

The land­mark le­gal de­ci­sion was the cap­stone to a religious pey­ote trade that be­gan more than a cen­tury be­fore. Be­gin­ning in the 1860s, wide-rang­ing Plains tribes such as the Apaches, Cree, and Caddo in­cor­po­rated pey­ote into their religious cer­e­monies, a prac­tice they picked up from in­ter­tribal trade with in­dige­nous Mex­i­can tribes in the Río Grande bor­der re­gion. Mean­while, His­panos liv­ing in pey­ote’s nat­u­ral habi­tat in South Texas and north­ern Mex­ico had a long tra­di­tion of us­ing the cac­tus as a folk rem­edy. Car­de­nas’ hus­band drank an al­co­hol tinc­ture made with the cac­tus to treat mus­cu­lar pain, while friends of the cou­ple ap­plied the plant juice to di­rectly to their eyes to treat cataracts. Car­de­nas her­self used pey­ote daily in small quan­ti­ties — a prac­tice that Schae­fer muses may have con­trib­uted the longevity of a woman who lived to be one hun­dred. Even mem­bers of the Texas Rangers were known to use the desert cac­tus to stave off hunger and fa­tigue.

But the real por­tal opened by Car­de­nas was less to an­other world and more to her front door. “There are very few In­di­ans in South Texas; most trav­eled quite a ways to meet her. She didn’t dis­tin­guish be­tween the tribes. In­stead, she car­ried out the very Mex­i­can tra­di­tion of open­ing your house to give some­one a bed for the night if they are trav­el­ing or strug­gling,” Schae­fer said. “In that re­spect, she was a re­ally amaz­ing per­son and an es­sen­tial role model.”

“Amada’s Bless­ings From the Pey­ote Gar­dens of South Texas” by Stacy B. Schae­fer was pub­lished in 2015 by Univer­sity of New Mex­ico Press.

Im­ages from the life of Amada Sanchez Car­de­nas; op­po­site page, Car­de­nas sit­ting on her front porch hold­ing a pot of pey­ote, 1994, cour­tesy Stacy B. Schae­fer; all im­ages cour­tesy Univer­sity of New Mex­ico Press

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