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Juan Estévan Arellano ¡Presente!
September 17, 1947 – October 29, 2014
At the edge of the Río Grande’s bosque, still resplendent with the golden bower of the cottonwoods, hundreds of people joined together in Española to commemorate the life and celebrate the legacy of Juan Estévan Arellano. We began by acknowledging the antepasados, realizing he is now one of them. He took his last breath not long after midnight on Oct. 29, 2014. Once again in northern Nuevo México, the “Canción de las acequias” became a hymn:
La noche está llegando, Night is falling,
yo sigo trabajando I keep on working
para mantener to maintain
lo que yo quiero tanto. what I love so much.
—García, Montoya, Vigil
Although the wind has taken his voice, Arellano will continue to speak to us in years to come through his writing and his example. Activist, farmer, builder, poet, journalist, sculptor, historian, father, husband, leader, teacher, he was true to his name, Estévan (Stephanos, in Greek), the crown of leaves and flowers given to poets and champions, for he was both. As one of the preeminent cultural journalists of his time, his chronicle and critique of the last half-century in New Mexico is spread across more than half a dozen newspapers, at least six of which he founded. In the Taos News alone, more than 500 weekly columns spoke to the issues of the day, both in English and in El Crepúsculo, the Spanish section, originally founded in the 1830s by Padre Antonio José Martínez. His last few articles, already written, will continue the conversation in Green Fire Times even after his passing. True to his other name, Juan (Yohannes, in Greek), there is sometimes a strident tone of prophecy in his voice as he tirelessly defended culture, land and water. Yet the name Juan also means full of grace and recalls the blessing of the waters.
One of his most memorable newspapers was Are Llano, the “arid plain” of his surname, recalling the forebears, the people of the deserts of the Middle East and Iberia, of Mesoamerica and New Spain, who sought refuge and the precious, life-giving waters of the mountains, valleys, and canyons of New Mexico. Its pages overflowed with analysis, dialogue, research and art. Another was called Caminante and chronicled his interest in the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, our historic corridor and link to México and beyond. Caminante also means pilgrim, and Estevan led neighbors, students, friends and colleagues to Spain and México on cultural pilgrimages to explore their roots.
Arellano served a number of years as the most dynamic director of the Oñate Center in Alcalde, which he transformed into a venue for Resolana, the critical community dialogue that emerged from the sun-drenched corners of the town plaza. His cultural agenda included lectures, theater, art exhibits, regional food and music. Among the many events to honor New Mexico’s Cuartocentenario celebration in 1998 was a call for commemorative corrido ballads, which was answered by the region’s most important composers and musicians. The center hosted community meetings and symposia, including historic gatherings of land-grant and acequia activists, who joined together to revitalize their movements.
Arellano’s home and ranchito in Embudo, over the years, hosted hundreds of students interested in sustainability and acequia culture. He liked to call his gardens his almunyah, an Arabic term for the experimental gardens where plants were adapted for desert agriculture. Many lively seminars were held in the shade of the ancient apricot tree behind his house. He served the Acequia Junta y Ciénega his whole life—as parciante, comisionado and mayordomo—and was justifiably proud of it. Its banks and easements were always clear of undergrowth. Where it ran across an unstable, sandy hillside, he identified and helped install a kind of interlocking brick designed in Afghanistan to stabilize the watercourse. He defended it at every turn.
A tireless scholar and spokesman, Arellano was recognized as the conscience of the acequia movement in New Mexico. He approached problems and threats directly, criticizing insiders as readily as outsiders for neglect and mismanagement. Acequia culture is in danger, and Arellano was quick to sound the alarm and educate his community by example. Acequia landscapes are culturally green, and part of cultural literacy is learning how to read the land, its wisdom and its memory. Since periodicals are ephemeral, he wisely chose to inscribe his knowledge in a book, published in the UNM Press Querencias Series only weeks before his passing, Enduring Acequias: Wisdom of the Land, Knowledge of the Water. His most lasting contribution is in its pages: “The elders, the viejitos, talk about la sabiduría del agua, and the juicio de la tierra, but that wisdom is rapidly disappearing as the Spanish language, which is the keeper of our environmental ethics and philosophy…” In his last paper, delivered to the fall 2014 Acequia Symposium in Valencia via Internet, he theorized the observation, confirming that there is a “linguistic infrastructure” for the acequias in language itself that must be decoded by much more than translation.
Most people know Arellano as an activist, as a vecino, as a friend. But his legacy is also that of a filólogo, a logófilo, a lover of words. As poet, storyteller and novelist, he loved and defended the ancestral language of this land as fiercely as he defended his cultura. His literary work exemplifies the combative, old 19th-century verse:
Nuevo México insolente, Insolent New Mexico
entre cíbolos criado, raised among the buffaloes,
¿quién te hizo letrado, who taught you to write,
para cantar entre la gente? to sing among the people?
Arellano loved folklore, which he considered “el oro del barrio,” full of creative expression, dialogue, and sharp cultural critique. He was a founding member of La Academia de la Nueva Raza, with other Nuevomexicano cultural activists Tomás Atencio, Facundo Valdez, E.A. Mares, Antonio Medina, Alejandro López and many others. In collaboration with them, he published Entre Verde y Seco, a collection of traditional narrative and poetry compiled from the landmark oral-history project that the Academia conducted in the early 1970s. He also edited El Cuaderno, the journal of the Academia, in whose pages could be found their philosophy and manifestos.
Arellano’s internationally celebrated literary writing is his novel Inocencio: ni pica ni escardia, pero siempre se come el mejor elote, one of the only books written in Nuevomexicano Spanish, which won him the prestigious José Fuentes Márez prize in México. In it, he places his homeland within the millennial Ibero-American Picaresque tradition, which links ancient Eurasian animal fables to Roman satires, to Lazarillo de Tormes in Golden Age Spain, to El Periquillo Sarniento of Colonial New Spain, to Pito Pérez of post-revolutionary México. In these writings the pícaro, or trickster hero, lives by his wits, avoiding work, surviving on the edges. Since he has nothing to lose, his gift to society is sharp and relentless criticism, delivered through satire. Inocencio is a composite of characters drawn directly from the plazas of northern New Mexico.
Estevan Arellano’s most enduring lesson to us can be summed up in the way he cultivated and wrote about his Querencia, the folk term for love of place, land, culture, and people: if we don’t learn to love them, we will never defend them.
About the author
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