Credit: Zach Donnenfield | Mustang News

The dry, fruitless and seemingly uninhabitable land surprised agricultural science senior Rafael Pintor when he visited his ancestors’ land. Pintor was curious about how the Navajos had harvested nutrients from the unforgiving earth, so he traveled with his father to experience it first hand.  

Growing up, Pintor visited reservations and national parks fairly often, as his grandfather is Purépecha. The Purépecha are a group of indigenous people centered in the northwestern region of Mexico. Pintor quickly developed a passion for the cultures, especially in the Navajo country. Understanding the importance of crops and the nutrients they need to survive in such harsh conditions, he wanted to take ingredients linked to that land and make a product that encompasses them all.

“On one particular trip we took out to the south of the Grand Canyon, we actually hired a local guide and [I] asked him, ‘I get how the Chumash survived: coastal waters. I get how the Purépecha survived: abundant lakes around them. But how did the Navajo? How did you guys survive out here? There’s nothing,’” Pintor said.

This led to the creation of Atsá Foods Co. just over a year ago. Pintor used the wild pinyon nut in combination with fruits and grains native to the Navajo land to create a sweet and chewy bar that tastes like a handful of trail mix.

Zach Donnenfield | Mustang News

However, this product is not just for commercial use. Pintor has worked side by side with many Navajos in an effort to build a stronger connection between Navajos and non-native American citizens.

The wild pinyon nut stood out to Pintor as the Navajos described it as a source of strength to climb the Grand Canyon and survive harsh winters in 30 degree weather. Pintor was shocked at how cold it was visiting the native land last fall, 12 hours and worlds away from cozy San Luis Obispo. It was experiences like this that lead Pintor to find his passion building not only a company, but also a partnership with the Navajos.

“It’s been a wild ride,” Pintor said.

The thought of creating a product that binds the American culture and the Navajo culture has been on Pintor’s mind since visiting Navajo land eight years ago. Without any guidance, Pintor put the idea behind him and focused on achieving his degree in agriculture science, in hopes of becoming a citrus farmer.

Well into college, Pintor came across an event called Startup Weekend. Here, he was able to pitch his idea to a large community.

“… I pitched my idea. No one thought it was cool at the time, except for one guy who worked for Guayaki,” Pintor said.

“No one thought it was cool at the time, except for one guy who worked for Guayaki”

The Guayaki representative approached Pintor and told him he would mentor him and help him build Atsá into a company. This led to an introduction to the Cal Poly Hatchery, “a program open to Cal Poly students who are interested in learning how to take business from idea generation to launch,” (Cal Poly Center for innovation and Entrepreneurship).

Soon Pintor found himself applying to competitions such as Innovation Quest to gain further guidance. Eventually he was accepted into the Accelerated Program, an intensive 12-week program in the summer. The company was coming along and all Pintor needed was an investment, which he received from angel investors, to launch the first Atsá bars.  

“At first bite, there’s a hint of cinnamon. I like the balance of crunchy and chewy texture and how the cranberries give it a sweetness but the [pinyon] nuts give it a roasted flavor,” said environmental management and protection senior Natalie Urbina on her first time trying an Atsá bar. 

After Atsá Foods Co. was launched in September 2017, Pintor saw his product thriving in stores from Atascadero to Santa Barbara. They can also be found all over Cal Poly’s campus in The Avenue, Lucy’s and Poly Deli.

But how does this product support the values and mission of the Navajos other than using food that is native to the land? Atsá means “eagle,” a symbol of strength and freedom in both Navajo and non-native American cultures. With a name like this, Pintor was certain he could bring the communities together.

Pintor and his team have recently started to work with Tolani Lake Enterprises, an agricultural non-profit, to continue to build relationships during tough times such as droughts that prevent the production of pinyon nuts. “Recently we have done a couple of interviews with leaders from different Shoshone tribes in Nevada…” said social media director of Atsá Foods Co. Elan Sherman, though he was not able to disclose any of the information shared in these interviews due to their privacy clause.

Driven by his mission to strengthen the independence of indigenous areas, Pintor said he expects to spend the next decade traveling to and from Navajo country, communicating with each community and acting as a liaison between them and non-native American culture.

“They don’t treat things as a transaction; they treat things as a meaningful relationship. So, if you come to their community, what are you here for? You can say all you want but I need to trust you and we need to have this dialogue,” Pintor said.

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