February 1, 2023

Official aroma bill wafts through first legislative hearing

By Daniel J. Chacón, The Santa Fe New Mexican

The unmistakable aroma of roasting green chile wafting across New Mexico in the fall is now but a distant memory.

But it may be captured in state statute forever.

A bill that would adopt the smell as the official aroma of the state of New Mexico cleared the Senate Indian, Rural and Cultural Affairs Committee with unanimous support Tuesday.

If the bill is signed into law, the aroma would join nearly two dozen other symbols that are official. And of course, very New Mexico.

The bolo tie, for example, is the official tie of the state. The tarantula hawk wasp, scientifically known as Pepsis formosa, is the state’s official insect. The hot air balloon is the official aircraft of New Mexico, home to the world-famous Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.

The state’s official question — “Red or green?” — and its official answer — “Red and green or Christmas” — are both linked to chile.

A group of fifth-graders from Monte Vista Elementary School in Las Cruces, who have been working on the legislation with sponsor Sen. Bill Soules, a Democrat who represents the southern New Mexico city, served as expert witnesses during Tuesday’s legislative hearing.

The students appeared via Zoom, making it somewhat difficult to hear their pitch.

Soules, a former public school teacher and elementary principal, summed it up for them.

“They’re asking for your support for Senate Bill 188,” he said.

Soules said discussions about New Mexico’s various state symbols turned up the idea of an official aroma.

“When we talked about New Mexico being unique with ‘Red or green?’ as the official question, it was brought up, ‘What about the smell of chile roasting?’ From there, we started talking about [making] that the official aroma of New Mexico,” he said.

A fiscal impact report states SB 188 may have a positive, though difficult to calculate, impact on tourism.

“New Mexico has consistently lower visitation rates than neighboring Colorado, which reported 84.2 million visitors in 2021 compared to approximately 40 million visitors to New Mexico in the same year,” the report states. “The new state aroma could help draw visitors away from Colorado, which, for some reason, thinks it has green chile comparable to that of New Mexico.”

The report also states the bill could sow division among New Mexicans.

“In addition to potentially increasing New Mexico-related-trivia, the legislation could increase contention in the great ‘Red or Green?’ debate, swaying the answer towards green, despite the codified answer to that question being ‘Christmas, please.’ Further comment on the definitive answer to the ‘Red or Green?’ question is (unfortunately) beyond the scope of this analysis,” the report states.

The report raised technical issues with the bill, including that it’s “highly specific” to green chile roasting in the fall. While ideal harvesting for green chile is early October, harvest can occur as early as July, according to the New Mexico State University Chile Institute, the report states.

“Additionally, many chile growers harvest a field more than once a season to keep up with the tremendous, and completely justified, demand for green chile in New Mexico and across the world,” the report states. “Under the legislation as written, these chiles roasted in the summer would be left out as part of the state’s official aroma.”

During questioning, Sen. Bill O’Neill, D-Albuquerque, asked the students whether “any other state in the nation” has an official aroma.

“I think no,” a young girl replied.

“So we’ll be the first state going down this road,” O’Neill said. “I’m very excited.”

Soules said he prepared the students for possible questions committee members might pose.

“You never know what the committee is actually going to ask,” he said.

Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, asked the students whether they had considered other aromas.

“New Mexico is a big state, and while I completely understand the aroma of green chile roasting in the fall as being an official aroma of New Mexico, I guess I’m wondering if perhaps we should include the smell of money in Southeast New Mexico created by oil and gas or if we should include of some of the dairies that we have in New Mexico or other industries that can be rather aromatic,” he said, generating laughter.

A young boy said the smell of roasting green chile is everywhere in New Mexico while the smell of cows can only be found in certain parts of the state.

“Like if you were to go to Albuquerque, you’ll be able to smell it. But … if you go to Albuquerque, you won’t be able to smell a cow,” he said.

Soules told Ivey-Soto there’s a big difference between roasting green chile and dairy farms.

“Lots of people might consider the smell of cows more of an odor or a stench instead of an aroma,” he said.

Kasandra Gandara, Las Cruces’ mayor pro tem and Soules’ wife, testified in support of the bill. She said Soules has been getting “a bit of flack” from critics who call the bill a waste of time. But she noted January is National Mentoring Month.

“This is so exciting to have the fifth-grade elementary students take part in their state and participate in what it’s like to form a bill, to stand up on behalf of a bill, and this is really what this is about, and we need to be able to do more of this,” she said. “Of course, the smell and the aroma [of roasting green chile] brings a smile and just a comfort to many New Mexicans.”

Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.