Problems of Place: Querencia and Environmental History from a Chicana’s perspective

Querencia, means love of, and attachment to a place. As a conceptual framework, querencia animates my approach to Chicana feminist theory, and my constant curiosity to examine humans’ relationship with their environment.[1]

The nuevomexicano historian Juan Estevan Arellano has elaborated on the concept of querencia as a framework of analysis, a traditional ecological knowledge centered on a sense of sacred rootedness and belonging which animates how people relate to their surroundings.[2] Arellano uses food to illustrate querencia, noting how it is a “sense of place defined by the texture of biting into a recently plucked green chile, the smell of tortillas cooking over a piñón fire on my grandmother’s old wooden stove, the color of a ripe tomato waiting to be sliced.”[3]

Indeed, querencia is sensorial and rooted in place, an embodied knowledge that connects people with the places they inhabit and shape. And for environmental historians, it is a fruitful framework to understand the complex relationships between humans and their environments over time.

I share my thoughts on querencia as a critical ethnic studies scholar and Chicana who studies at the intersections of Chicanx studies, food studies, and western history.[4] My ideas are shaped by and in direct conversation with the recently-published edited volume Querencia: Reflections on a New Mexico Homeland.[5]

As I write my dissertation on food and environmental justice in New Mexico, querencia is generative for me in two ways: 1) It inspires me to reflect on my personal relationship to the lands I live in and come from; and 2) It guides me to theorize people’s environmental and food justice politics as a deep connection with and relationship to place—one that is not about how to control the land the way whiteness vis-à-vis capitalist private property and settler colonialism does, but rather about an entirely different way of living with the land. The essays published in Querencia, the edited volume, demonstrate how this framework includes an analysis of people’s relationships to place, within a broader social, political, and economic context.

I consider how I, a Chicana daughter of working-class Mexican immigrants who grew up near Isleta Pueblo reservation, navigate my sense of self through my attachments to a place, my querencia. How do people that are part of a complex and enmeshed colonial legacy, as non-Indigenous colonized people who are also settlers relate to a place while remaining in a non-extractive, and reciprocal relation with the land? For Arellano, this meant “duty and sentiment are not enough. We must have people living on and from the land who are able and willing to take care of it.”[6]

Querencia is not just about an individual love of place, it is about a collective of people who live on, from, and with the land. To take care of the land involves a sense of connection that is forged through love and tangible, collective action.

For environmental historians, querencia offers an expansive and holistic framework to analyze the varied ways humans make and remake their environment over time. Querencia grounds and propels my research as I continue to work on my dissertation and gather oral history interviews of long-time environmental justice organizers with the Southwest Organizing Project in Albuquerque. As a reader, I hope this brief introduction to querencia is generative and prompts further interest and exploration of the concept.

[1] Chicana feminist theory is a body of work—written, oral, artistic, spiritual—that illustrates how Chicanas and Latinas assert that the personal is political, and that there are multiple repositories of knowledge, including the body. For generations, Chicanas and Latinas explore the ways in which gender, sexuality, and culture have worked to silence women who challenged patriarchal, heteronormative practices.
For more, see e.g. Gloria Anzaldúa and AnaLouise Keating, Light in the Dark / Luz En Lo Oscuro: Rewriting Identity, Spirituality, Reality (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015); Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa (eds.), This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2015); Chela Sandoval, Methodology of the Oppressed (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2000).

[2] I use Dr. Myrriah Gómez’s definition of Nuevomexicana/oas a “population of Spanish-speaking new Mexicans and their descendants who trace their Spanish lineage and who rejected the term Mexican American after the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848. This nomenclature is especially used in northern and central New Mexico, although it is also found in the southern part of the state among Hispanic, Hispana/o, and Mexican American populations,” quoted from Vanessa Fonseca-Chávez, Levi Romero, and Spencer Herrera (eds.), Querencia: Reflections on the New Mexico Homeland (Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 2020), 176.
Also, Nuevomexicana/o– a term that signals a “people whose roots reach deep into the brown earth of their homeland,” the term designates a “specific site of ‘double colonization,’” from Carlos Alonso Nugent, “Lost Archives, Lost Lands: Rereading New Mexico’s Imagined Environments,” American Literature 92, no. 2 (June 1, 2020): 309-341.

[3] Juan Estevan Arellano, Enduring Acequias: Wisdom of the Land, Knowledge of the Water (Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press: 2014), 2.

[4] I use the term “Chicana” to self-identify, which is meaningful to me as a political term that acknowledges the long and complex political realities of peoples who are both colonizers and colonized. To inherit both lineages necessitates a kind of “border thinking,” a la Gloria Anzaldua, Emma Perez, Maria Lugones, Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui—and what Chela Sandoval refers to as enacting a “differential consciousness.” The interstitial space where Chicanas are written into history is what Emma Perez describes as the “decolonial imaginary.” It is this lineage of thinkers that I sit with as I meditate upon my political Chicana identity.

[5] Vanessa Fonseca-Chávez, Levi Romero, and Spencer Herrera (eds.), Querencia: Reflections on the New Mexico Homeland (Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 2020)

[6] Juan Estevan Arellano, “La Querencia: La Raza Bioregionalism,” New Mexico Historical Review 72, no. 1 (1997).

*Cover image: My abuelita’s house around the 1960s. Her querencia grounds me. The dozens of trees she has planted, rose gardens she has tended, animals she has raised, and children she has reared from this place reminds me of the sacredness of our connections to the land and each other. Photo by author.

[*Cover image description: a farm in a dry savanna shows the main house and some trees in the back, it is an old photo in sepia.]