In an interview, Baca described himself as “a detribalized Apache” and explained that his grandparents essentially raised him from infancy to the age of six. From that point, he was shuttled from a broken home, to foster homes, to the streets of the El Paso barrio, to juvenile detention centers, and then to prison. Practically illiterate and totally directionless, he learned to read in jail, and then to write about his life. “Green Chile” was conceived as a tribute to his grandmother, a special person he trusted and loved, as a demonstration of the endearing qualities he responded to and respected.
Beyond this, the poem presents Baca’s grandmother as a representative of a culture that has often been disparaged and stereotyped, and the chile pepper that she so artfully prepares is developed as a symbol of the strength, substance, and style of her community. When Baca describes the red chile he prefers in the first section, he shows how his personal choice is a part of a larger cultural matrix in which the pepper becomes an emblem of cultural pride, signifying “historical grandeur” that carries an image of a vegetable stand into the realm of generational succession, and making its “festive welcome” indicative of a social standard.
The expansion from a single house to the entire state of New Mexico in the third section is a strong expression of pride in simple but basic facts inherent in a way of life. Baca’s depiction of the people he has seen who “drive rickety trucks stuffed with gunny-sacks” to carry the chile to the roadside stands across the state where this delicacy is available is like a fond embrace for a fundamental activity rarely celebrated if frequently appreciated. He is functioning here in the classic fashion of the poet as a living voice for a community as his poem permits the reader to “relive this old, beautiful ritual again and again”—his words spurring the imagination to reexperience something special and almost timeless.
“Green Chile” is a meditation on the enduring appeal of an essential element in the life of a community and an ode to spirit of the poet’s grandmother. Her wholehearted participation in the preparation of “green chile con carne” is the individual experience that makes the communal vision tangible and affecting. The poem is one among many of Baca’s drawn upon and contributing to a cultural heritage that has been largely overlooked in American letters, a condition he points toward in the title of his collection Immigrants in Our Own Land (1979). His writing is his own way of taking part in this tradition, a way for him to merge the “authority and youth” that “simmers” from the “swan-neck stem” of the pepper plant in a joining of ancient wisdom with the youthful energies of his poetic power.