- Josefina Montoya
- Andres Montoya
- Ana Montoya
- Francisca Montoya
- Clara Montoya
- Dolores Romero
- Antonio Montoya
- Juan Montoya
It is just before dawn on a clear autumn morning, and the family is walking into the foothills to gather piñon nuts. Papá is ahead of Josefina and Tiá Dolores; Josefina is trying to keep up with Tiá Dolores's long strides, and Josefina's sisters are behind her huffing and puffing as the path steepens. Josefina admires many things about her aunt--the energetic way she walks, her wholehearted way of laughing, her strong square hands, and the way she really listens when Josefina talks. Each of the sisters are trying to find in their own way how to please her, as they want her to be happy on the rancho with them.
Josefina points out the sun coming over the mountain, and Tiá Dolores smiles at the sun and then Josefina, saying that God has given them a fine day. Clara agrees that it is a fine day for their hard work. Josefina laughs that gathering nuts isn't work, it's fun. Clara, wanting Tiá Dolores to know how practical she is, says that it's important to gather piñon nuts as Papá trades them for things they need. Francisca says that they're delicious; she runs ahead, then turns around to face Tiá Dolores as she explains that on winter evenings they sit by the fire and roast the nuts to eat, and she's hungry just thinking about it. Ana (who is carrying her son Antonio on her hip) warns not to get hungry yet, as lunchtime is hours away at noon. She has helped Carmen pack the lunch for everyone there, which is wrapped in a sack tied to the mule Miguel is leading along. Juan is riding on the mule's back, and his legs stick out straight on either side of the mule's back.
Tiá Dolores offers to take Antonio from Ana and carry him for her, and Ana thanks her; the two exchange smiles. Josefina feels jealous at the sight. She knows inwardly that she shouldn't be jealous of their connection--not only are Ana and Tiá Dolores close in age and relate closely, but Ana deserves the respect she gets from their aunt after taking over the responsibility of the household after their mother's death. Still, Josefina is envious; though Tiá Dolores is kind and loving to Josefina, she wants the kinds of smiles that Ana receives from Tiá Dolores--with pride--and longs to have Tiá Dolores think of her as special.
Francisca--who is ahead of everyone--calls that Papá is waiting for them ahead, and the sun catches the frost on the trees and they sparkle. There are also sparkles of frost in Francisca's hair visible, since she has her rebozo off her head. Josefina sighs; Francisca is naturally special and can always make Tiá Dolores laugh, while Clara has already been praised for her care in sewing and weaving. Josefina hopes today is the day she can impress Tiá Dolores and thinks of fanciful ways to do so such as saving her from twisting her ankle, falling off a cliff, or being eaten by a mountain lion. Then she laughs at the thought; Tiá Dolores is the most surefooted of them all, and if they did encounter a mountain lion, it's likely Tiá Dolores could shoo it away all on her own.
Papá is waiting in a clearing surrounded by scrub oaks, cottonwoods, and some piñon trees. He says it's a good place to build the fire and they can spread out from there to gather nuts along the hillsides and meet at noon for lunch. He then says--with a twinkle in his eye--that the sisters and Tiá Dolores will have to earn lunch today by gathering sacks full of piñon nuts. And this year there is a special reward to whoever gathers the most nuts by noontime. All the sisters smile and Josefina wants to cheer aloud, thinking this is her chance to shine and is determined to get more nuts than anyone else to get Papá's reward--and Tiá Dolores' admiration in the process. She picks up a sack with high hopes and eagerness to start gathering.
Her hopes are dashed, however, with Papá's next words--that she will stay there in the clearing with Carmen and Miguel to keep the fire going and an eye on Juan and Antonio. Juan wails that he wants to collect nuts and win the reward--and Josefina is glad he's said aloud what she's thinking. Papa kneels down next to Juan and says that he and Josefina have a different job--since everyone will be hungry after gathering and would be disappointed if animals steal their food, he must guard it for them, a very important job--then looks at Josefina to confirm it with her. Josefina agrees and tries to return his smile as she gives her sack back, but inwardly is brokenhearted as she's lost what is her best chance to impress Tiá Dolores in staying back with lunch and the babies. She sadly watches her father, aunt, and older sisters walk away, all of them happily chattering and laughing until their voices fade.
Carmen lays out a blanket for Juan and Antonio, and they both fall asleep. Josefina helps Miguel start a fire and Carmen asks her to stir a pot of chile stew. Josefina, grumpily, thinks she might as well have just stayed home. When Miguel says he's leading the mule to the stream, she leaps to her feet and eagerly asks to go--anything is better than stirring stew and roasting herself. Carmen starts to agree, but Josefina's eagerness made her speak too loudly and Antonio awakes, fussing and crying so loudly that Juan wakes up too. Carmen tries rocking Antonio but he waits only louder. Carmen says Antonio is hungry and she has to take him to Ana to nurse, so Josefina has to stay and look after Juan and keep an eye on lunch. Josefina agrees and sinks back down by the fire.
As soon as it's the two of them, Juan fusses that he wants lunch now and is hungry. Josefina, grinning, says he's always hungry and they can't have lunch until everyone comes back from picking nuts. Juan says he wants to pick nuts too, and Josefina says they don't have a sack. Juan points at the lunch sack and says he wants that sack and starts to untie it. Josefina, realizing that she has to find something for Juan to do or he won't stop pestering her, decides that maybe the can use the lunch sack and not go too far, so she can keep an eye on lunch still. She covers the fire with ashes and moves the stew away from the heat, then helps Juan untie and empty the lunch sack, setting the contents on the blanket and folding a corner over it. She says they'll pick up nuts that have fallen from the trees around them. Juan happily takes her hand and says they'll find more nuts than anyone and get the reward. Josefina, looking at Juan's big brown hopeful eyes, doesn't have the heart to tell him they'll likely get the fewest nuts, and only says they'll do their best.
Josefina and Juan try hard to find nuts. Juan scurries around the trees and pounces on every nut. But since there aren't many piñon trees around, there aren't many nuts and even after gathering every nut under every tree, the sack is still pitifully light. Juan says it's not enough and holds up the nearly empty bag, saying they need more. Josefina, feeling sorry for him, says she'll shake the trees to make nuts fall, something she's seen her father do. She shakes the nearest tree as hard as she can but only a few handfuls fall, making no difference at all as Juan puts them in the sack. Juan says the tree is too big and Josefina is too small. Josefina agrees; she has skinny arms and legs more the size of the branches than the trunk. She looks up into the tree and has another idea--she says she'll climb up and bounce on the branches to make nuts fall. She clambers up the tree and for the first time that say is glad to be small; none of her sisters would have fit between the tree's branches. She stands on a branch, braces herself, and bounces. The branch sways and piñon nuts fall around Juan. He crows with delight, gathers them, and says to do it again. Josefina does, bouncing on every branch on the tree and Juan gathering all the nuts that fall, then the two of them keep it up by her moving to trees one after another, with each tree they move to a little further away from the clearing; the sack keeps getting fatter. Josefina's is scratched up and her hair full of twigs, but she doesn't care.
She is high up on the tallest branch of the tallest piñon tree when she sees in the clearing that something is moving towards the campfire--a squirrel boldly nibbling at their lunch! She yells for it to shoo as she scrambles down the tree and tells Juan to run back quickly. Juan hurries but his fat and short legs can't carry him fast, and the squirrel--not the least bit afraid--takes something small and brown from the lunch and pops it in its mouth before skittering away. By the time Josefina is out of the tree, the squirrel is up a cottonwood tree and she sees its tail disappearing into a hole in the tree's trunk. Juan--with Josefina next to him--yells up at the squirrel, calling it bad and a thief. The squirrel peeks out as if it understands with a piñon nut in its paws. Josefina asks the squirrel where they got the nut, as it's not from their lunch and its hole isn't in a piñon tree. The squirrel looks back and scampers father up the tree and onto a branch, chattering and scolding. Josefina, suddenly excited, says the squirrel is trying to distract them and she knows why, and for Juan to get the sack. The cottonwood has no low branches, so Josefina has to shinny up the trunk until she reaches the branch just below the squirrel's hole. She reaches into the hole and whoops for joy--the hole is full of hundreds of nuts. She throws nuts down to Juan in handfuls and Juan holds his arms out, smiling as they rain down around him.
It is later, and Tiá Dolores praises Josefina and Juan for setting out lunch for everyone before they returned. She and Juan have spread lunch out on the blanket: white goat cheese, plums, sweet apples, the chile stew, cold meat, and tortillas and buñuelos in the bread basket. Francisca sinks to her knees onto the blanket and sighs dramatically that she's sure she collected the most nuts as her sack's so heavy she was tired carrying it. Clara says hers is heavier and the two bicker back and forth before Papá holds up a hand to stop them and says they'll see. The other three sisters and Tiá Dolores put their sacks in a line and Papá checks each one by picking it up. He says they're all quite heavy and is about to say whose is the heaviest when Josefina interrupts and says Juan and her collected nuts, and they want him to lift their sack. Francisca whispers to Clara that there's no way in the world poor Josefina and Juan collected as many nuts together as either of them did alone.
Papá asks where their sack is. Juan and Josefina grin and point at it under the big tree. Everyone gasps--the sack is bulging, much fatter than any of the others, and filled to the top to the point of overflowing. Papá laughs out loud and makes his way over to the sack and pretends to struggle to pick it up. He says bless his soul--the sack is the heaviest by far and it's easy to see who collected the most nuts this year. He smiles at the two and says well done, little ones, and they deserve the reward. However, when he looks through the lunch, he says he can't find the reward, which was a piloncillo (little cone of hard brown sugar), and wonders what happened to it. Josefina and Juan grin and Juan says a squirrel stole it, to which Papá says that's too bad. Josefina says it's only fair, as they stole the squirrel's stash of piñon nuts they found in its hole.
Tiá Dolores--using Josefina's full name--says that she thought Josefina was extraordinary from the moment they met and now she's sure of it and praises her and Juan's cleverness. She hugs each of them and, as she's hugging Josefina, whispers that she's proud of her. Josefina hugs her back, glad the squirrel stole the sugar reward--because no reward on earth is as sweet as Tiá Dolores's praise.
Meet the Author
Valerie talks about one of her favorite New Mexican books, The Good Life by Fabiola Cabeza de Baca Gilbert, and how its description of a family picnicking and piñon nut gathering being inspiration for the story.
Looking Back: Rancho Life in 1824
Discusses the seasonal work on a New Mexico rancho. Topics include:
- How there was work to do year-round on the rancho for everyone there.
- How ranchos and villages were built near water as it was an important resource in dry lands, and the shared use, control, and maintenance of acequias (irrigation ditches), including spring cleaning, and spring crops planted by men
- The spring refreshing of homes and churches with adobe plaster and the planting of the kitchen gardens done by women and children
- Summer chores and crop tending
- Fall harvests and chores, including dry preservation of fruits and vegetables and animal slaughter and storage of meat
- The importance of corn and its many uses
- How people worked together and filled the time by telling stories, singing, and passing along gossip and news
- How working together at harvest meant making sure everyone had enough to get through winter and how others would help families who had bad harvests
- Gathering piñon nuts at the end of the harvest and their uses as food, fuel, and trading goods
Activity: Make a Pastel
There is a recipe for making a pine nut, raisin, and pumpkin pastel (pie).
Glossary of Spanish Words
A glossary of Spanish words used in the text.
Items Associated with A Reward for Josefina
- The girls have already started learning to weave, read, and write.