Juan Estevan Arellano

Though winter has barely began, my thoughts are already running rampant as to what needs to be done in preparation for another growing season. As an acequia commissioner for the Acequia Junta y Ciénaga in Embudo, the last major acequia to draw water from the south side of the Río Embudo, I am thinking of the work needed to get the acequia ready to carry the water necessary to irrigate 80 acres.

There are ten acequias that draw water in the Lower Embudo Watershed from the Río Embudo, a tributary of the Río Grande, aka Río Bravo del Norte. The Río Embudo itself is made up of three creeks that start up by la Jicarita, the majestic round sierra one sees upon descending into the Peñasco Valley when driving from the Embudo Valley. The Río del Pueblo, which runs through Picuris Pueblo on the north side of the watershed; the Río Santa Bárbara, itself fed by the Río Chiquito; the Río de Trampas, born on the northern slope of the Truchas Peak, the second highest in the state, and the Ojo Sarco Creek, all empty their waters to form the Río Embudo.

It is this river that provides the water for the ten acequias that make up the Embudo Valley, five on each side of the river. On the south side of the river starting just below the “garganta,” or box canyon, is the Sancochada, followed by el Medio, el Llano, la Plaza and the Junta y Ciénaga. On the north side of the river, the first one is the Leonardo Martinez acequia, followed by the Duranes, Apodaca, El Bosque and the last one, el Rincón, the smallest of all acequias, as it waters only about eight acres.

Acequias, when studied carefully, are nothing more than worker-owned cooperatives. In the past the acequia was taken care of by the owners, known as parciantes, or one of their kids. The word parciante is derived from parcela, or a parcel of land. Today that is no longer the case since the parciante usually hires someone to do the job.

The question then, is, can co-ops once again thrive in northern New Mexico where there has been a history of cooperatives going back over 400 years? Several attempts were made during the War on Poverty and they all failed. Why did they fail?

I would say they failed because they didn’t originate from the people who formed the cooperative. They were organized by people outside the community who themselves didn’t understand co-ops. For them to succeed they have to evolve from the people who are going to benefit from them and not be imported into the community. I recently heard of a co-op organized by grape growers in the Velarde-Embudo area. This type of co-op I think can survive and prosper because people with a common interest organized it. And it was organized by the cooperativistas themselves, not by outside people.

Acequias have survived as worker-owned co-ops because they were originally organized around a common need: water. Even today, though not all the parciantes get along as neighbors, when it comes time for the spring cleanup, most everyone cooperates if they want water. And since most still plant or have fruit trees, everyone needs water.

Right now the biggest challenge facing the acequias is parciante apathy. Then we have another big problem: finding good “peones” or workers. In the past most of the acequias were cleaned by the younger members of the family since most families were big. There was always another son to pick up the slack when the older kids left the nest. That is no longer the case. Now most workers are paid laborers. This is the disconnect. The acequias went from being worker-owned coops to now paying day laborers to do the job. It’s now a job like any other job, whereas before it was part of the fabric of the village, of providing food for survival.

Also, today we have a lot of newcomers who have no clue of what it takes to manage an acequia. Most are retired, which means they are like the locals, getting up there in age. Today a lot of the local Hispanos no longer want to work the land because they know it’s a lot of hard labor to farm, while many of the newcomers want to become farmers now that they moved to the country. Yet most have no clue what it takes to farm in a high desert area where we are always at the mercy of the weather; late frosts in the spring, early frosts in the fall, and sometimes not enough water. They want to farm as if they were in California. This means parciantes, the water-rights owners, have to learn to share in times of scarcity of water, known in Spanish as “repartimiento.”

But if there is one problem with co-ops it is that people don’t understand the concept of “cooperación,” or cooperation. People have to buy into the concept; the idea has to come from the local community, organized around an idea that everyone is willing to support. It has to be like a tight-knit family. If the co-op is made up of people who don’t know each other, there will not be the trust necessary to make it succeed. Also, if there is outside money, once the money is exhausted the co-op disappears because it was the stipends that kept everyone involved.

In 1997 I traveled to Mondragón in the Basque region of Spain to look at their co-ops, and when I asked one of the “cooperativistas” what was the most difficult thing about the co-ops, he looked at me and said it was understanding what cooperation meant.

In the past the co-ops failed because members started accusing members of taking advantage, members favoring their kin, and I don’t think that has changed. In fact the opposite has happened; people are a lot more individualistic today than cooperative.

But if we are going to save the acequias, it’s not going to be done with volunteers, though they are much appreciated. It’s going to be done by engaging the parciantes more on the operation and management of the acequias. And the parciantes have to elect good people as commissioners and mayordomos, and where possible embrace technology both for the cleanup and in keeping the books. Software for acequia bookkeeping is already on the market but most acequias cannot afford the $1,300 price.

In the past, the acequias “se sacaban,” meaning they were dug; “luego se limpiaban,” then they were cleaned, and today “apenas se barren,” they are barely up-kept. That tells a lot about the state of the acequias, and we invite anyone wanting to learn more about acequias to volunteer to help, but don’t come with a preconceived notion of what the villages should be like if you want to learn. Come with an open mind and heart and you will learn.

I still think we ought to give co-ops one more chance at succeeding, and they will when the participants organize around a common cause and above all learn to cooperate, which is a lot more difficult than what appears on the surface. And they have to be born locally.

Juan Estevan Arellano is a researcher focusing on traditional agriculture and irrigation. He is the translator-editor of the book Ancient Agriculture, and has written many articles about the rural traditions of northern NM. He and his wife, Elena, raise heirloom fruit and vegetables in the Embudo area along the Río Grande.

POSSIBLE PULL-QUOTES:

Acequias, when studied carefully, are nothing more than worker-owned cooperatives.

Can co-ops once again thrive in northern New Mexico where there has been a history of cooperatives going back over 400 years?

Acequias have survived as worker-owned co-ops because they were originally organized around a common need: water.

If there is one problem with co-ops it is that people don’t understand the concept of “cooperación.”

Don’t come with a preconceived notion of what the villages should be like if you want to learn. Come with an open mind and heart and you will learn.