Wreaths of Pānquetzaliztli

Illustration by Robert Samec

For all its reputation as a dreary, overcast place to be during winter, the solstice temporarily turns December in Oregon clear and cheerful. The solstice has always marked two occasions for me: wreath-making and pānquetzaliztli. In the old Mexica tradition, pānquetzaliztli was a festival that marked the transition from waning daylight to waning night. My ancestors celebrated the ancient brawl between Coyolxāuqui and Huītzilōpōchtli. The solstice marks the day Huītzilōpōchtli beats out his older sister, the moon, and sunlight begins to bud. Many Indigenous communities still celebrate Huītzilōpōchtli’s victory in some form or another. 

My father, an activist and former campesino, used to hold annual celebrations to honor the solstice, and to welcome the season ahead. By the dozen, people would flock to his farm for ofrendas, to give thanks, and to come together in joy and reverence for the Earth. Traditional meals were always prepared after the offerings and the land ceremonies were given. Not long after our huge feasts, bottles of mezcal were inevitably uncorked and poured. And as daylight dwindled, wood crackled under the heat of the fires we lit. We played jaranas and sang sones late into the night—very late, often until the sun greeted us again. It was all very bohemian. 

But what of wreaths? Oregon is the nation’s largest exporter of Christmas trees—almost nine million annually. And every year the women and children of Pioneros Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (PCUN), Oregon’s largest farmworker’s syndicate, assembles a beautiful collection of handcrafted wreaths as part of winter fundraising efforts. As a boy, I savored the winter afternoons I spent with my father at his office in the old Woodburn church-turned-labor rights movement headquarters. The scent of Douglas firs wafted through long, old halls and tight corridors whose walls hung with portraits of history and history-makers. Portraits of people who looked just like my father. And my aunts, uncles, and cousins. And me. 

In my life, the land has been equal parts tradition and politics. 

My father came to this country to work the land. He labored away in squalor and was never seen as more than replaceable human machinery in the eyes of his patrones. He was a dispensable brown body in a sea of dispensable brown bodies. It is not lost on me that I write this from mighty heights in the ivory tower. My present could never have been entertained as possible by my father thirty years ago. I find meaning, in my times of need, in the journey my father—like millions before him—has taken. My worldview has been sculpted by my youth. Seeing fighters, guerreros with rough chocolate hands, lobby for fair treatment and be denied by congresspeople in suits behind mahogany desks does change a Chicanito

Migrant farmworkers are the bedrock of American society. They pick the fields, harvest the land, furnish your Thanksgiving platters, and are spat on in return. Many of them, like my father, come from rich Indigenous lineages. We are peoples grounded in our connections to our lands and animals. I’ve always found farmwork to be a cruel parody of land stewardship. I often imagined my father’s solstice celebrations were his way to get back at the sick joke society had handed him. Here he was, a proud Indigenous man, working and honoring the land on his own terms. 

And here I am, a proud Indigenous son, working and honoring my history on my own terms. 

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