The abuelita who sold peyote
The curious life of Amada Sanchez Cardenas
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