Nopal, from the Nahuatl word nohpalli (the common Spanish name for Opuntia cacti, generally referred to in English as prickly pear), has been significant in Mexican culture from before the land was named México. The Aztec Empire’s origin story is one of the earliest and still visible references to nopal. The Mexica, the proper name for the Aztecs and for whom México is named, were originally nomads. One of their gods, Huitzilopochtli, told them that when they saw an eagle perched on a nopal devouring a snake, that would signal where they must settle. The Mexica did this and built their great city of Tenochtitlan, meaning “Land where the prickly pears grow from the rocks,” in what is now known as México City.
As an ancient Indigenous symbol, nopal survived conquest and is represented at the center of the modern-day Mexican flag. Another cultural nopal reference is the common Mexicano expression, “con el nopal en frente” (which translates into English as “with a cactus on the forehead”), historically spoken as a sly remark to someone who obviously has Indigenous features but claims only their Spanish heritage. Contemporary artists, scholars, and culture makers have embraced and subverted the term to proclaim and elevate their Indigenous identity.
Nopales transcend geopolitical borders and have long existed north of what we know today as the US-Mexico border; people use nopales and their fruit in daily life, from southern México to what we refer to today as the United States’ Southwest region. With thorns removed, the green pads of the nopal are a common food eaten in the regions they are grown. I love them in a salad chopped with tomato, onion, jalapeno, and olive oil. My wife prefers them with eggs in the morning. When my parents were kids in New Mexico, they made jam out of the tunas, the blood-red fruit that sprouts from the top of the nopal pads. These prickly pears are egg-shaped with spines as well. Carefully skinned, the tunas are sweet with hard, tiny but edible seeds.
In southern México, nopales are home to the famous cochineal insect that produces a red dye that had a global impact on commerce, wealth, and fashion during the Spanish colonial period. Cochineal is not commonly found this far north in New Mexico, so I began the arduous attempt of making ink from the tuna. After experimenting with the prickly pear fruit, I realized that when used as ink, it is unstable and light-sensitive. It is no wonder why cochineal was a global game-changer for the color red. Though my “Tinta de tuna” drawings may fade, the experience of learning and creating with this historical significant cactus will stay with me.
As a Roswell Artist in Residence for the past year, I of course had to make art about aliens. I decided to use my experiments with nopal tuna pigment to take a new perspective on the term “alien” that the US government uses to identify a foreigner who doesn’t have proper immigration status. By using the same definition of the word “alien” in conjunction with the satirical context of extraterrestrials, we can conclude that aliens are not only real but they did in fact arrive, invade, and conquer these lands long ago. Colonizers like Christopher Columbus and invaders like Hernan Cortes were in fact not from this “new world” (as the colonists would have phrased it) which would make them aliens.
With this theme in mind, I then had to figure out a mode of creating. I am often looking for different ways to create with materials or methods that have meaning embedded in them to enhance or go along with the idea for the project. Since I am using an Indigenous perspective that looks out at the alien colonizers, I thought I should create my drawings by using something native to the area. Luckily, I found a huge nopal cactus growing close to the Roswell residency compound and it had huge purple tuna crowning the tops of the cactus pads. I picked some to eat, discovered how the juice stained my hands, and immediately thought to myself “I have to make ink from them.” After many “scientific” trials and errors experimenting with the juice, I conjured an “ink” that I am still figuring out, the light-purple ink in this series of alien drawings.
When I was studying Chicano Studies at the University of New Mexico, my professor likened the Spanish conquest of México, to H.G. Well’s famous sci-fi novel War of the Worlds — a highly advanced alien army invading and conquering the world. From some perspectives, this is exactly what happened to the Indigenous peoples of the Americas. Although these space invaders were not from outer space, they did indeed invade space and space that was already occupied.
With this perspective, I began to create satirical sci-fi images of colonization. For example, I placed a Spanish galleon ship not on the water but in the air like a spaceship, with a tractor beam abducting Natives. The irony of so many UFO and alien encounters that happen “out West” reflects the real-life alien invaders who “explored” and colonized the “American West.” Another iconic vessel of colonization is the covered wagon, which I depict disembarking from a flying saucer driving right into the junipers of an iconic western landscape. These small humorous drawings are hopefully pointing out one of the biggest hypocrisies of the United States. Indigenous people have been conquered by aliens and are now made to feel alien in their own lands.