Enduring Acequias
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Enduring Acequias

Wisdom of the Land, Knowledge of the Water

Juan Estevan Arellano

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eBook - ePub

Enduring Acequias

Wisdom of the Land, Knowledge of the Water

Juan Estevan Arellano

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About This Book

For generations the Río Embudo watershed in northern New Mexico has been the home of Juan Estevan Arellano and his ancestors. From this unique perspective Arellano explores the ways people use water in dry places around the world. Touching on the Middle East, Europe, Mexico, and South America before circling back to New Mexico, Arellano makes a case for preserving the acequia irrigation system and calls for a future that respects the ecological limitations of the land.

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La tierra dirije al agua, y el agua guia la tierra.
The way the Indo-hispano looks at the land can be found in documents from cultures from the Middle East, Spain, the Mediterranean, and Mesoamerica. Among those documents are the Siete Partidas, the Ordenanzas of 1573, the Laws of the Indies, and the Plan of Pitic.




El olor a humedad y frescura,
el agua repleta de vida . . .
el reflejo y las sombras . . .
todo alrededor cambiaba . . .
y pensar que a unos pasos el desierto y la arena . . .
ardiente y seco contrastaba con la apacible acequia
que esperaba.
The humid smell and freshness,
the water full of life . . .
reflection and shadows . . .
everything changes . . .
and to think a few steps away desert and sand . . .
burning and dry contrasting with the peaceful acequia
that waited.
MIS PRIMEROS NUEVE MESES LA pase en la barriga de mi madre, sin pena ninguna siendo que la pasé nadando en el agua, y cuando vine al mundo nací como 200 yardas del río Embudo en la resolana de los barrancos blancos, que saltan del remance de la sirena cerca la Bolsa, unos pasos del río Grande en el lugar de la oscurana cerca la Junta de los ríos. Todavía vivo en el mismo lugar que durante la tardeada los dos cerros hacía el poniente parecen dos cenos de una joven, viendose por entre las cortinas de las ojos del arbol de albaricoque, en una postura de yoga, donde solos los cenos saltan.
Desagüe, Embudo. Photograph by the author.


This work, whatever it might be, is a writing experiment, incorporating (1) research—archival, oral history, genealogy, and personal history; (2) travel experiences—throughout the Río Arriba bioregion; Mexico, from Juarez to Chiapas; and Spain, from the Basque Country to Andalusia; and (3) practical experience, since I was born into a family that always lived off the land and we have continued that tradition with the creation of our own experimental space in a harsh high-desert environment, a combination experimental farm and recreational site that I call my almunyah, from the classic Arabic word meaning desire. This space is what anchors me to the land, a land where water is the most valued resource. Few people have learned to use water as wisely as those who rely on the acequias, open-air water canals common throughout the arid world; these people have developed a philosophy of sharing water that applies globally. To understand one acequia, the acequia that provides our food, our water, life itself, we must go back in history and around the globe in order to understand how it works.
“In this book,” Roberto J. Gonzalez wrote in Zapotec Science: Farming and Food in the Northern Sierra of Oaxaca, “I attempt to combine both local and global approaches by maintaining a strong focus on one village while exploring global events through history and prehistory. In other words, I have tried to view global changes from a local vantage point.” I will do the same. Whereas he focused on Talea in the region of Rincón in the Sierra Juarez in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, my focus will be on the Acequia Junta y Ciénaga within the land grant of Embudo in New Mexico, part of the Embudo watershed, where the Sierra Jicarita reigns as queen. This will be for the understanding of place, or in Spanish, querencia, love of place.
Acequias are what give us a sense of place, and the water becomes the blood that brings communities together, that separates the commons from the suertes, a land division introduced by the Spanish Crown, while at the same time uniting and making the land grant landscape one. But the acequias were not built for modern-day watercolorists to paint; they were a necessity for survival, for without the acequia water there would be no food.
My journey to reconfigure my space began in 1987 when my only daughter, Única Paloma Lucía, was born on a beautiful April 10 afternoon. My attempt here, as in my hectare, is to create a collage with words and photos, based on my memory and the memory of the land that has molded me, showing what it is to live in a rural space in northern New Mexico inhabited by ghosts and memories of my ancestors for centuries. Every time I step outside I’m in communion with those who worked the land before me. I am reminded of their presence by all the pottery shards found throughout and by the whistling of wind as if they are playing a flute: al pasar el cementerio me chifló tu calavera (as I passed by the cemetery your skeleton whistled). For the landscape carries the memory of those who came before me, those who also understood that you cannot separate water from community.
It’s my family’s odyssey, but more than that it’s a person’s journey in search of querencia, of breathing and living querencia, of defining querencia, both with words and with pick and shovel, with poetry and by planting trees. Querencia, “place”: love of place, that sense of place defined by the texture of biting into a recently plucked green chile, the smell of tortillas cooking over a piñon fire on my grandmother’s old wooden stove, the color of a ripe tomato waiting to be sliced. Terroir, the French call it; to us it’s querencia. From the town of Arellano in the Basque region of Navarra, to Aguas Calientes in central Mexico, to Embudo, my ancestors crossed the ocean and traversed the hot desert terrain of the Jornada del Muerto along the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro—the road of water, one might say—for me to arrive at La Junta de los Ríos, the juncture of the Río de Picurís, now the Río Embudo, where I have come to anchor my bones, where I have found my querencia. As humans we are at a juncture—la junta—where we can survive sustainably or destroy Mother Earth due to humanity’s greed, all in the name of God.
But la junta also has a different meaning, the gathering or coming together, the same as an embudo is also a funnel, where everything is gathered before it embarks on its journey; in a sense embudo and junta are one and the same, for before water goes through a funnel it has to come together. It is here that I have come to learn the secrets of the ancient acequias, but especially one, the Acequia Junta y Ciénaga, or the “ditch of the juncture and marshland,” which quenches the thirst of my land, my plants, my trees, my animals, and my family.
Long, long ago, in the kitchen of the late Demostenes Griego—a descendent of the early Greeks who came to northern New Mexico and because of their unpronounceable last names were referred to generically as Griegos, the Spanish word for Greeks—when I was about nine years old in the midfifties of the last century, I remember my dad and his vecinos (settlers/neighbors) smoking home-rolled Prince Albert cigarettes while they discussed acequia business. Then, during the day, I remember going swimming in Cañoncito in the Acequia del Medio that ran through the center of Arellano land (which I later learned was actually Martinez land) with my cousin Anita, who was three years older than me. By this time we had moved to La Junta, about five miles west. It seems like I was born in the acequia, because ever since I can remember, the acequia has been part of my life, and the older I’ve gotten the more entrenched it’s gotten into my blood. It is a memory of a certain landscape that invades my dreams, tortures me when I am awake, knowing that in a generation or two this landscape will be a thing of the past. Today I continue this journey in search of the story of the acequias, trying to understand water in the context of an old system based on community and to retell that story to a new generation. For a long time, like a lot of nuevomexicanos, I thought we were the only ones who had acequias. But I have come to find out that the type of irrigation provided by acequias might have originated in the Bronze Age civilization of the Indus Valley. But at almost the same time, though maybe a little later, the indigenous people of what is now Peru and the southwestern United States and other desert people were irrigating their crops using the same type of system, though under a different name. The Pueblo Indians of Ohkay Owingeh (Village of the Strong People)—which was renamed San Juan de los Caballeros under the Spanish Crown in 1598 and only recently returned to its original name—called this type of irrigation by canal kwi onu, kwi on.
But I am also interested in finding out how these acequias are tied to the land, the land our ancestors called mercedes, or land grants. A merced is a gift, but the gifts I am after are the gems of wisdom imparted by learning from the land—what we called in La Academia de la Nueva Raza el oro del pueblo—and the knowledge revealed by the water as it meanders from one bank of the acequia to the other, creating its own journey, in search of that sacred knowledge we all aspire to find.
I remember as a young kid going from Cañoncito, where we lived until I was seven years old, to Ojo Sarco, where my dad’s youngest sister, Merced, used to live, and how on our way back through the Cañada del Oso my dad would say, “Todo ésto le pertenece a la mercé” (All this belongs to the merced, to the grant). I thought he meant it belonged to my aunt, and I would say to myself, “My tía Merced sure has a lot of land.”
On our way to Ojo and on our way back, or when we would go for wood, we would always stop for a drink from Ojo del Oso, Bear Spring. There would be tracks of deer, coyotes, and an occasional bear. The spring had the most crystalline and pure water I have ever tasted. One could count the grains of sand on the bottom of the chupadero. A chupadero is a small bowl made by hand to gather water so one can drink from it. When water gathers in basalt eroded by nature, the rock formation is known as a tinaja, or bowl. Now this type of traditional knowledge is a forgotten nugget of gold. People can be stepping on top of an unclean chupadero or next to a tinaja full of rainwater and die of thirst. This water is a lot better than the $1.80 bottled water the local store imports from Tuscany. It’s a cooperative that espouses sustainability, but still the water is imported from Italy! If people only knew about this springwater and rainwater, they wouldn’t waste their money.
As an adult I found out that this same cañada, or arroyo, was the eastern boundary of the Embudo land grant, granted to my ancestor Francisco Martín and two others in 1725. To me, then, a merced didn’t relate to my querencia, or sense of place, but to my wonderful aunt, who would always hug me and kiss me whenever she saw me. That was familia. And when she came to visit she would bring calabazas mexicanas, chicos, posole, whatever she had, as part of the convite, the sharing of food tradition that disappeared with the coming of supermarkets.
La Jicarita. Photograph by the author.
Later, as I grew older, during the summers Aaron Griego, our Little League baseball coach, would take us up to the lakes under Truchas Peak, which form the easternmost part of the Embudo watershed; though at that time I wasn’t interested in learning about the watershed or water. We never took water on our seven-mile hike up to the lakes, for there was plenty of water running on the creek, populated by panzas coloradas, red-bellied native trout. The Rito de San Leandro could be heard gurgling a few feet beneath the trail going up. If we got thirsty we would make a cup with our hands to drink the cold, pure water from Laguna Escondida—today Hidden Lake—under Truchas Peak, for here water oozed from a spring under a rock sculpted with all the details and finesse of a Henry Moore sculpture, where the wildlife also gathered to quench their thirst. We always knew where to find water. My father would always tell me, if there’s sand, there’s water; the same if you see cottonwoods—there’s water, because they have shallow roots and they grow only where there’s water close to the surface. In the fall one can make a mental map of the places with water simply by noticing where the cottonwoods are growing as they turn from green to a golden yellow.
Therefore, this work in search of the acequia trails begins many centuries ago (hundreds of moons into the past), and not only in the Americas, for I am Apache and Pueblo, but also on the Iberian Peninsula, high in the Pyrenees Mountains; in the deserts of North Africa near the Holy Land and of the Arabian Peninsula in southern Yemen; and even farther east, in the Indus Valley, in present-day Afghanistan and Pakistan. I am told by those who know that I might also be Sephardic/Basque and Moorish. What a combination: an Apache-Basque and Arab-Jew, settled in Anasazi land, who speaks a language we call Spanish, although it is not Castilian (made up of one-third Arabic words), and more than a smattering of Nahuatl and a sprinkling of Hebrew and Latin.
Clarification: I am not Spanish; I consider myself New Mexican, for my father always said we were “mexicanos”; and I am not a Jew, nor am I a Moor, but I do think of myself as Chicano. Neither am I Basque, or Apache, or Picurís, but I am all of the above; I am Indo-hispano, whatever that might be. I was a global creature before globalization became a buzzword; I am a Heinz 57, a mestizo with my taste buds on several continents. I am a Chicano writer and a nuevomexicano, as the writer from Tierra Amarilla, Sabine Ulibarri (another Basque last name, I am told), would say. I have no trouble eating buñuelos, a Middle Eastern specialty, with chile and maíz from Mesoamerica and for dessert having arroz con leche from Morocco or capirotada, a Sephardic Lenten dessert. All while sipping a glass of Rioja wine with my dinner and an after-dinner drink of sotol or mescal, communicating in Spanglish with my family while I attempt to decipher a document on the feixes of Ibiza written in Catalán. I am a walking contradiction. This is me, this is my family; join me for a cruise around the block, or better yet, the manzana, which also means “apple” but here refers to a city block, or more precisely to 1.43 hectars. This cruise will take us across the globe and back to see how community and water survive as a divine right.
Water is not a commodity; it belongs to all living beings—humans, animals, and plants. I tend to follow the Law of Thirst, as it is known in Islam. My mother would say, “Para vos, para nos, y para los animalitos de Dios” (For them, for us, and for God’s little animals). One can’t find a better definition of the Law of Thirst. Water should not be sold for a profit.
My journey (that is, searching my roots) begins in the town of Arellano, Spain, near Estella, about eighty miles from Pamplona, the city made famous for the running of the bulls during the fiesta of San Fermín every July. The town itself is situated on a bluff, looking down on beautiful green fields known f...

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