New Mexico’s Acequias — Things Invisible From the Road

51PGPTD2KZL._SX313_BO1,204,203,200_New Mexico (and Colorado’s) acequias are communal irrigation ditches — from another book I brought with me, though never did start reading on the trip. I later discovered the wealth which we drove through unknowing:

the gravity-driven, earthen-work irrigation networks handed down from late antiquity–remain the pivotal material basis and ecological precondition for the existences and sustenance of a four-hundred-year-old bioregional culture. (58)

They emerged out of the tortured history of the Southwest before Anglos arrived, out of the land grants and the traditions of Iberian settlers borrowing from the moors, as well as indigenous farming practices. There is such an amazing richness and melding of very different traditions here, but all connected to living in arid lands. From another article by José A. Rivera, found online here that gives more of the historical background.

Acequia technologies and irrigation methods employed by the Hispanic settlers in the new province were melded from diverse sources. Historians agree that these antecedents included the irrigation practices common to the arid regions in the south of Spain, particularly Andalusia, Castilla and Valencia, based on traditions from the Roman period; the superimposition of Arabic customs and techniques during the seven centuries of occupation of Spain by the Muslims from north Africa and the Middle East; the influence of Pueblo Indian agriculture as observed by early Spanish explorers and expeditions; and the irrigation horticulture of Mesoamerica brought by Mexican Indians who accompanied the Spanish caravans along the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro.

Similar to the aboriginal peoples before them, hispano irrigators of the upper Río Grande revere water and treasure it as the foundation of the community, and from inception they have utilized water as the main structural factor in spatial and landscape modification.

In a roundtable discussion also presented in the reader, Devon Peña gives a concrete example from a newer study of 8 specific farms:

The oldest one was founded before the Oñate Entrada [the first Spanish explorer’s entry], it is part Indian and they have probably been there for a thousand years, but now there is intermarriage between the San Juan Pueblo family and the Chicano family, so that land has been worked for over a thousand years and yet they have a six-foot soil horizon, and no plough pan: the hydrologist on our research staff says that the gravity-driven earthen work irrigation system … actually create soil, rather than destroy soil, especially when it is a multigenerational art form. (18)

Art form is exactly what it is.

Back to Peña’s examination of how the acequia sits within the landscape in the specific article:

The acequia irrigation system is based on the use of water released by the gradual melting of winter snowpack…The capture by humans of this renewable energy, like beaver works, concentrates ecological processes that expand the riparian life zone, creating new habitat and movement corridors for native flora and fauna…The patchy long-lot mosaics and wetlands resulting from subirrigation are renowned examples of anthropogenic wildlife habitat. Other important ecosystem benefits of the acequias include the maintenance of water and soil quality and the preservation of agrobiodiversity through heirloom seed-saving. (58)

So this:

The acequia is a profound accomplishment because it exemplifies the possibility that local cultures sometimes fulfill “keystone” functions in eco-systems by providing habitat for numerous species of native flora and fauna. (59)

He quotes Nazarea (1999) as describing this mosaic as “an almost compulsive need to link up and connect’, yet another example of networks, interconnectedness, emergence. All these things I am become more and more obsessive about.

This map from the New Mexico Acequia Associations shows that much of our drive from Chama to Pecos Ruins at least was through lands managed by the patchwork of local acequia associations along the Chama and the Pecos rivers.

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On the Rio Arriba acequias, :

The acequia is a communally managed institution that is organized under the authority of local customary practices…the acequia as a civic institution for local self-governance has emphasized three normative principles: (1) the use value of water to the community, (2) mutual aid, and (3) cooperative labor. (60)

Here they were organised into the Sociedad Protectora Mutualista de Trabajadores Unidos, the Protective Mutualist Society of United Workers, SPMDTU. This is broader than the acequia associations and continues in many land-grant villages, there is actually a resurgence of it in Antonito, which made me happy to hear. (68) Here are fields and sunflowers we passed on the train:

Cumbres & Toltec Railroad

I love this description of how farmers organize memory through landscape, one cannot be separated from the other:

During the field research, the farmers began to narrate memories that were clearly organized according to a set of cognitive maps — mental pictures of their home places. (64)

I loved also the use of James C. Scott’s idea of métis, or local practical knowledge — again knowledge intimately bound up in a physical landscape. Peña writes:

…métis has technical and sociocultural dimensions. The practical knowledge in a given locality is not the sum of local knowledge a community creates to produce a range of right livelihoods located in place. Métis inclusdes knowledge related to expressive oral traditions and these nearly always encompass moral and not just technical qualities. (72)

So we move from acequias in the landscape and the greater region, to the ways in which acequias contribute to the making of place:

The acequia is not just a sustainable, regenerative, and renewable irrigation technology. It is a political and cultural institution that intersects with the place-centered identities and environmental ethics of the local community. The acequia is the material and spiritual embodiment of people making habitable places. But it is not without its antithesis in the degradation of homeland by the forces of modernity and maldevelopment. (61)

Maldevelopment — I like that word. Because of course there are no great profits to be made from these systems, and they are very much under threat. Peña goes on to describe the attempt to carry out the massive logging of contested lands in the Sangre de Christo mountains — exemplary of how greed works. Behind it all, showing how history continues to resonate through the landscape:

Zach, “Junior”, was the second generation owner of the Taylor Ranch and a direct descendant of President Zachary Taylor, himself notoriously well known to us as the army general who led the war against Mexico in 1845-48. (62)

The logging of tens of thousands of acres has immense effect on traditional irrigation systems dependent on managing the regular melting of snow over a period of months, yet anglo-American law and tradition finds it hard to encompass such things.

The enclosure of the commons, the fencing of the land to prevent locals from exercising their traditional use rights, becomes an act of violence because it deprives people of their liberty. The barbed-wire fence is invoked as a symbol of the loss of an open landscape that was once an undisturbed part of the community’s identity. (65-66)

There even exists a fascination with the materiality, the physical artificial of barbed wire itself. I doubt anyone not from the Southwest knows just what an art form was made of vicious wire meant to divide. This board is from the mining museum in Los Cerillos, but Tombstone’s courthouse museum once had a whole room dedicated to it, and I have seen them in a number of other places:

Los Cerrillos

Still, I love that acequias continue the fight to exist — to read more you can start with the New Mexico association. I love that throughout New Mexico the boundaries of old land grants are marked. My dad must have worked to support acequias when he was working in Taos back in the 70s, I wish I could ask him about that now. He used to bring in food and supplies in to at least one of the land grant occupations during that time too. I was born in Taos, I know it doesn’t connect me in too concrete a way to these things, but it is a connection of the heart.

[Peña, Devon (2002) ‘Endangered Landscapes and Disappearing Peoples? Identity, Place and Community in Ecological Politics,’ pp 58-81 in Adamson, Joni, Mei Mei Evans and Rachel Stein (eds) Environmental Justice Reader: Politics, Poetics & Pedagogy. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.]

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