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Best of Phoenix 2015: Felicia Cocotzin Ruiz Teaches Cooking Classes at the Desert Botanical Garden

For more of the best people, places and things to do in Phoenix, check out our 2015 Best of Phoenix awards.

As a chef and educator, I work very closely with the desert. It's my medicine, both physically and spiritually. I'm forever learning, and the desert has been one of my greatest teachers. It's influenced me in many beautiful ways.

For instance, I've grown a profound appreciation for my relatives, who flourished in this area generations ago. When I see the indigenous plants they foraged, such as cholla buds and yucca blossoms, I feel humbled that this was their food. I now use that appreciation to help others reclaim our ancestral diets by incorporating these desert ingredients in my cooking. I'd like to think that the desert feels happy and useful when I use her foods.

I've heard the desert called "ugly" or a "wasteland," but I see beauty and sustenance. I've seen so much change here — some positive, some negative. But on a positive note, I like seeing people walking around and riding bikes. I don't remember seeing so much of that 20 years ago. There are definitely more bike paths scattered around the city, though not all of them are safe. We're not a bike-friendly city yet, but we're on our way.

I can see all these changes clearly because I was born here. My parents moved to Phoenix in 1964 for school and work. In doing so, my siblings and I became the first generation in our family to be born in Arizona. Our ancestral home is in northern New Mexico, where our family has very deep roots.

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Except for three years spent in Seattle, I've lived here over 40 years. The Valley and I grew up together. We both had our awkward years in the '90s, but once 2000 arrived, we both took risks together in areas that people said were questionable. Those areas are now flourishing and still growing. I'm very proud of that.

I'm not a fan of temperatures over 100 degrees, but I love monsoon rain and the scent of the creosote bush after the rain. That scent is so deep in my memory bank that its little scent molecules take me right back to my great-grandmother's house. She was a medicine woman and used the creosote for salves and balms. Creosote should be planted throughout the city instead of palm trees.

The longer I live here, the more I believe that embracing the desert does not make her ours. She does not belong to us, now or ever. I'm simply living out of a connection with her when I call the desert my own. — as told to Robrt L. Pela

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