Enrique Villasenor is at the head of the Pasadena City College classroom, extolling the many unsung virtues of the prickly pear cactus.
“It’s often referred to as poor people’s food,” Villasenor explains, “but did you know that it contains all the essential amino acids — and some nonessential amino acids as well?”
Villasenor is the de facto ambassador of the humble prickly pear cactus, a plant that has been used for food and medicine for millennia.
After 35 years as a school teacher, Villasenor recently retired and now actively works as an assistant to pharmacologist Dr. James Adams, who shares traditional Chumash healing methods.
In his popular two-hour presentation, Villasenor takes his audience through the fascinating history and the vast healthful benefits of the prickly pear cactus, beginning with the fact that cacti remnants were found in jars in Mexico dating back 10,000 years. He explains that archaeologists have found old jars that contained not only cactus, but teostine (the forerunner to corn), chili, amaranth, sapote and mesquite — some of the earliest foods from this continent.
As part of his presentation, Villasenor shares details from the historical book, “Relacion de Cabeza deVaca,” the account of Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca’s journey in the unknown interior of America. De Vaca was one of four survivors of the 1527 Narvaez expedition. From 1527 to 1536, de Vaca wandered across the US Southwest, learning from the natives about the local foods. Though he was a slave for the first two years, he became both a trader and a healer to the various tribes. He learned of the value of the nopal (aka the prickly pear cactus) from the natives and used it for scurvy, treating arrow wounds, and for stomach issues. After returning to Spain in 1537, he wrote his account of the journey, first published in 1542. De Vaca is sometimes considered a proto-anthropologist for his detailed accounts of the many tribes of Native Americans that he encountered.
“The prickly pear cactus is one of the best immune system boosters,” says Villasenor, quoting Hippocrates, who said “Let food be thy medicine, and let medicine be thy food.”
Historically, the prickly pear cactus pads have been used for lowering cholesterol levels, digestive issues, edema, wounds, bronchitis, fevers, vitiligo, inflammation, type II diabetes, muscle pain, urinary problems, burns, and liver problems. Students of Villasenor listen in awe, wondering why they have always considered the prickly pear just a food to eat when you’re next to starving, rather than the superfood it is.
Villasenor explains that because the prickly pear was always available in good times and bad, in times of drought and plenty, it was always something that poor people could and did use, but then it came to be regarded as simply a food of last resort.
Today, however, that view is changing. Villasenor points out that one can find hundreds of products made from the prickly pear on Amazon. This includes food and food supplements, pills for diabetes, as well as various products from the cochineal bug that is often found on the prickly pear plants. The cochineal has historically been dried and crushed to get carminic acid and a very good red dye for clothing, and even food products.
The highlight of Villasenor’s presentation is when he turns on a food processor and makes a prickly pear drink for everyone to try.
First, he scrapes the young pads to remove the spines and the tiny hair-like glochids. He puts one large pad into the food processor, and adds one apple and one lemon, and blends it all. The resultant drink is thick, and so it can be thinned further with water if one prefers. Everyone enjoyed the tartness and sweetness of the drink. Sugar is never added.
Dice 1 prickly pear pad. Place in blender with 1 cup of water. Blend. Dice 1 green apple. Blend. Dice 1 peeled orange. Blend. Add additional water to taste if the smoothie is too thick. Serve with ice. Use lime to taste. Do not add sugar. Suggested serving is 1.5 cups twice a day.
According to Villasenor, this is one of the best ways to get your daily intake of the prickly pear in a form that is tasty and easy to prepare. The benefits are that it helps you to lose weight and improves your immune system.
Villasenor adds that complete health is really about complete balance, and by “balance” he explains that each of us needs to find balance physically, spiritually, socially and financially within our community and family. “You should work at this every day,” he explains.
Additionally, Villasenor points out that the natural immune boosters include sleep, plant-based diet, exercise, not-smoking, having minimal stress in your life, maintaining a healthy weight, minimal alcohol consumption, maintaining healthy relationships, and avoiding infections. Consuming prickly pear cactus daily is just one part of this overall balance.
Villasenor shares a little about his background during his presentation. His mother is still alive at 101 years old, and she taught him balance in all things. “I was outside all day, always doing things outdoors,” he explains. “And when we had a problem, my mother healed us.”
Villasenor also shares testimonials from students of his and Dr. Adams, students who have had “miracle healings” by consuming the prickly pear cactus drink, and other herbal remedies they teach.
Regarding the many additives to foods today, Villasenor advises, “If you cannot pronounce it, do not eat it.”
Villasenor smiles as he shares an old idiom, which underscores how Mexico’s identity is tied to the nopal, or prickly pear cactus. “Soy mas Mexicano que el nopal,” he says, which translates as “I am more Mexican than the cactus” The expression is asking, between the lines, what came first, the Mexican or the cactus, affirming the person’s pride in being Mexican.
Contact Enrique Villasenor at email@example.com. Christopher Nyerges is the author of “Guide to Wild Foods,” “Foraging California,” “How to Survive Anywhere” and other books. He can be reached at SchoolofSelf-Reliance.com.