Creative Nonfiction: Nopales by Melissa Nunez

This piece first appeared in Acentos Review


by Melissa Nunez

I often bring my children to Quinta Mazatlán—a private property turned birding center in McAllen, not far from our home. Within what the birding center has coined a Tamaulipan thorn forest, there are cacti everywhere you look. Just as one would expect in a subtropical climate, the plains that would be desert. An easy reminder to stay on the marked trails. At one time, cacti were an important source of nourishment for animals and humans alike. Native peoples like the Coahuiltecans pilgrimaged to harvest the newly sprouted flesh and summer fruit. They were found in abundance before the urbanization of South Texas, but you can still find them in some neighborhoods and gardens, growing most freely in local nature preserves like this one. 

            Standing sentry along the entrance to the park are prime examples of my favorite and the most prominent—the Texas prickly pear. The nopal. Rising from the earth in clustered paddles, at times lopsided and toppling, others almost regal. Animals such as the jack rabbit and opossum, even the coyote, consume body, fruit, or both. As we make our way through the park, we find a dried-out pad, vascular tissue exposed and intact, which resembles a tan, paddle shaped honeycomb. Or maybe more spongy bone. It brings to mind an exhibit I visited years ago of the human body dissected and exposed in myriad forms and fashions. Stripped to just the network of veins and arteries, the branches of the nervous system, in a human-shaped shell. 


            My grandmother used to eat nopal as a child; her aunt would cook with it frequently—when it was more common to find them in the monte near your home than in the supermarket. My grandmother continued the tradition, albeit less often. She would scrape the spines from the thick skin, trim the edges, and dice it, sauté it in combination with carne picada, the only meat they could afford, or eggs. Sometimes on their own. My mother didn’t really care for nopalitos and so she never fed them to me. I was disinherited of this ancient ingredient, along with much of the art of Mexican cooking. Comida casera, something we ate at church potlucks and restaurants. In the same way, the flow of the Spanish language was also absent from my tongue. It was my mother’s first language, but she was of the generation that had the Spanish scared out of her. Abandoned to the shame and silence of her elementary classroom. Forced to exchange the rolling r for the round sound of hesitancy, the hissy h for the incorrect hard stop of the English g of her own last name. Rangel. 

            I first tried it as a tea, savila con nopal. It produced a viscous liquid that tasted both floral and medicinal, which maybe was the point. Then as a candy, dried out in strips and coated in sugar and spice, chile y tamarindo. I finally decided to try them in purer form and purchased them from a local restaurant. They were the muted green of canned jalapeños or cooked bell pepper. They were presented in a corn tortilla, soft and mild, flavored of the red salsa they were cooked in. When I added refried beans to the second taco, I knew for sure. I would be eating more.


            There are many other varieties of cacti marked along the trails. The smaller ones low and dangerous. The horse crippler looks little more than an exposed head. Spines so thick they can pierce through shoe soles and hooves of domesticated animals. The twisted rib, resembling a barrel with rows of whiskered needles shifting incrementally clockwise over time. Then there are the larger ones that we sometimes must consciously avoid as they encroach on designated paths. The night-blooming cereus that is aptly nicknamed the barbed wire cactus. It wraps and weaves its slender frame among the trunks of trees, resembling discarded curls of metal when dried out. The Mexican organ or fence post cactus, deceptively smooth as a rind amid the rigid rows of thick white spines, which can be used as a living barrier. 

Amid all the danger, beauty beckons. I am, like the bees, lured to the resplendent costuming of spring. The yellow and orange blossoms of the nopal call to my nose and fingers, petals soft but inflexible, cradling the soapy smell of unripe melon. Red blooms of the same variety carrying a fresh floral scent. Musky purple petals perched on the short and slender fingers of the pitaya. Despite my warnings to my children to exercise caution, I get prickled along my abdomen by a spread of hair-like spines in my quest to discern each scent. Necessitating the removal of each irritating glochid with my fingers before being able to move comfortably.


            When my daughter was five years old, I transferred her from her traditional ballet class to ballet folklórico. When I was in high school, I was always mesmerized by the performances of our bailarinas. The dancers weren’t popular. Not like the athletes or the cheerleaders. They didn’t have the numbers or the prestige of band. But they were beautiful in their billowing bandera movements. They were shining sonrisas on heads held high. A beauty and pride I had never felt in my skin, in my bones. 

            My daughter didn’t know the language. I have not found it easy to raise bilingual children when I am not fluent in Spanish myself. Speaking in stops and starts, pausing to look up words before fading back to English in frustration. She wasn’t raised with the music, with its steady strumming strings and insistent brass. The sound of celebration I associate with quinceañeras and bodas. She didn’t know she was dancing to a song about a woman in a pink dress who had stolen a man’s heart. Who was beautiful like a flower, a butterfly. Caprichosa. A word that even after looking up evaded clean translation. Connotation can be more complex than cognates. 

            But she took to the outfit with ease. Brandishing her skirt with flourish. Sweeping the floor and the air with its folds. Her white-heeled feet quickly adopting the tapping rhythm. For performances her ruffled white shirt was tucked into the floor-length red skirt ribbon-edged with green. Designed to always dust the ground at the center and yet follow her hands out to shoulder height. More than semi-circle, a wide smile, luna creciente. Her hair was slicked back into a dancer’s bun and accented with a headband styled as a thick braided crown worn just past her hairline. The dark woven yarn was accented with three large lemon-lime flowers. The blooms of the barrel cactus at her right temple.


            We move out of the shadows of the anacua and mesquite, the canopy of prickly ash and granjeno, arms arching over the gravel walkway and weaving together, to a more open trail. Here I find a plant that looks like a cross between flowering bush and cactus. Its green leaves, lobed and sharply pointed, jut out from all sides of the main stem which has small spikes to match. They lead up to cucumber-shaped seed pods that are covered in thorns, resemble the body of a cactus in miniature. The flowers are a brilliant yellow, and delicate. Share the shape of the nopal blossoms, but are more pliable, with petals like tissue paper. Their scent is delicious. Like sipping from an agua fresca de piña y melón. At first, I believe it to be the Mexican poppy. But upon consulting my plant guide, I find it is the golden prickly poppy. Distinguishable by the darker center of the flower. The two are very easily confused if not for the perception of a few degrees of intensity.

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