Like many kids who have homework, as I approached my Escuelita de las Acequias tarea (School of the Acequias chores), all I could think about is playing. I’d rather be outside with the sun shining on me, digging my fingers into the dirt and concocting new senses of joy for my spirit. For many of us who grew up on an acequia, the work associated with preparing the fields, planting and taking care of the rows meant that little ones got to play alongside their family. As the youngest in my family, while others were working, I familiarized myself with the acequia literally from the ground level. I’d jump down from the bridge straight into the acequia to see what wonders I’d find: magical spiders with deity-like powers to walk on water, fuzzy fairy cottonwood seeds floating down from the trees lining the ditch, and if I was lucky, I’d catch a toad that my dad would let me play with until the end of the day. Despite my relentless entreaties, he would always say, “Deja aquí (leave it here), they are good for the garden.” We learned about hard work through the joy of play.
Eventually, small tasks like picking and bundling cilantro were entrusted to me. Then, I was given rows to weed by hand. Finally, gloves and a pala (shovel) of my own, the short pala that dad especially brought for me, Patricia-sized. Playing prepared me for understanding the tools and the practice of work. This is the approach I took while enacting my NMAA tarea for the Escuelitas Project.
At first, my grandiose idea was that I was going to organize a campus- and community-wide limpia (cleanup) at Northern New Mexico College—to my knowledge, the only college in the United States with acequias running through it. In my mind, hundreds—no, thousands—of people would show up to clean the acequias, so many people cleaning that the rocks would shine! Organizations would line the campus celebration with kioskos where inspired students would instantaneously come to consciousness and dedicate themselves to their current studies and then dedicate themselves to become water and land rights attorneys, farmers, conscientious surveyors and community-minded planners. Yes, that was my vision. There would be musica Nuevomexicana, puppet theater for the little ones based on Juan de Oso, a circle for elders to tell us community stories, and food—rows and rows of delicious food—like tamales, vino de capulín (chokecherry wine), biscochitos, pastelitos and delicately fried flor de calabaza (squash blossoms). Everyone would clean and laugh and learn and celebrate! Oh, and also, there would be the perfect amount of cloud cover and wind as to have my imaginary banners of all colors gently sway in unison with the leaves on the cottonwoods.
Needless to say, this is hard to plan. For two years, I’d mention my idea in meetings and classes, ask for volunteers on campus, and for two years, it didn’t happen.
My idea was always to create a community celebration of acequias through the critical educational concept of “multiple literacies.” We are trained to think of literacy just in the realm of reading and writing (formal education, book learnin’). For instance, if we say someone is illiterate, we often think “¡Ay, pobrecito, no puede leer! They can’t read!” This supports the erroneous concept of “pa’ la acequia or pa’ la escuela,” as if the two spaces were mutually exclusive. When we engage with multiple literacies, we can address the plurality of literacies. So, when we hear someone doesn’t know how to irrigate, we can also say, “¡Ay, pobrecita, no puede regar!” Reading and writing are important and necessary, but we also have great and necessary land-based literacies. Having multiple literacies opens up dominant educational paradigms to connecting our cultural basis of knowledge to formal classroom spaces. It also insists that formal classroom teachers and students learn to “read” and “write” the land with us. We cannot be traditional land-based people and be expected to learn solely in rooms that only give us windows to our culture, our language and our practices. I want more than a view of these things; I want a full sensory perspective—mind, body and spirit.
So what came of my tarea, you ask? Back to the drawing table! In spring 2013, instead of imagining a project so large and overwhelming that it exists only in my mind, I reframed my own classroom. As part of a grant to support culturally relevant learning at a Hispanic-serving institution, I teach a college skills course called “HUM 100: Northern New Mexico History and Culture.” In this class, students transitioning to college are taught basic study skills and tips for student success by engaging in New Mexico history and culture as the content for the course. Paradoxically, I started the course by keeping my students in the classroom and reading from two textbooks: Nuevomexico: A New Mexico History Anthology and Academic Transformations. As the class took shape, I found myself “wah-wah-wah-ing” in front of the room like the teacher from Charlie Brown cartoons. I’d lament, “Why aren’t these students reading? Don’t they care about their history?!” To engage them in culture, I used PowerPoint, Prezi, YouTube… you name it. Technology a la fregada. But, the enthusiasm in class was as flat as a rolled-out tortilla.
I tossed out my original class schedule and revised it after midterms. This time I practiced what I preach and combined literacies: books and acequias, palas y plumas. We read Acequias by Dr. Eric Romero, The Acequia Metaphor: Educating Hispano/Latino Students by Levi Romero. We watched videos from the Acequia Youth Project on YouTube, as well as Land, Water, People, Time, directed by Cynthia Gomez and David Lindblom. We went outside and read by the acequia. We spent time observing the water flow. Then students were asked to interview an elder about water usage in New Mexico. These water interviews were written up as essays that were shared with one another. Throughout it all, we were talking and connecting to these traditional practices. Students with firsthand knowledge shared with others who may have never worked on an acequia. We discussed why we should even care about acequias and how it connects to our identity formation as students at Northern, and people living in the Norte. As the students’ final project, they were charged with working as a community to organize a life-size educational game on the Acequia de los Vigiles. With about five weeks left of class, after discussing the concept of community organizing, I turned the class over to the students and let them run with it as community organizers. The following photos illustrate parts of the process and how the game turned out.
Patricia Trujillo, PhD, is assistant professor of English and Chicana/o Studies and Director of Equity and Diversity at Northern New Mexico College in Española, NM. email@example.com