The roots of New Mexico’s acequias may still be traced along the perennial desert streams that feed the great Conchos River in Chihuahua, the largest tributary of the Río Grande/Bravo, named after the shell-trading natives who lived on its banks. Two communities that still practice the old ways of community-managed water are Valle de Allende and Aldama. Both are far removed from the big dams and conservancy districts that erased traditional acequia culture the same way that Elephant Butte Dam did in the north.
In the upper reaches of the feeder streams of the Conchos flows the Río Florido and the Río del Valle de Allende, the oldest Euro-American agricultural complex in northern México. Founded in 1569 and originally named San Bartolomé, this beautiful spring-fed valley fed the miners of the Santa Bárbara mining district, discovered two years earlier. An 80-mile riparian forest of native pecans is the lush ecological setting. Some are truly giants, have names and are more than three centuries old. My favorite, with an 18-foot diameter and 350 rings, was named Sixto and was finally blasted by lightning a couple of years ago.
This valley was the point of departure for most of the expeditions that explored New Mexico. To slake their thirst, they followed the Río Conchos north, even though it added many weeks to the journey. Coronado came up the coastal route in 1540, and Oñate, in 1598, went straight north across the deserts to beat the winter snows of New Mexico. As early as 1563, Franciscan friars started a mission in San Bartolomé to serve the pecan-gathering Indians who lived there. The colonists of 1598, who settled the upper Río Grande, spent many months in the area, waiting for their permits to head north.
Well into the 19th century, Valle de Allende was the aduana, or entry point, into New Mexico because it is located on the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro. Everyone traveling north or south checked in here for approval and inspection. Animals had to be healthy, and only soldiers, officials or families with papers were permitted to travel. For many decades, no single men except soldiers were allowed into New Mexico, so as not to upset the social equilibrium. Wisely, the government preferred married soldiers. Spanish names of the old rosters read like the phone books of modern Albuquerque, Santa Fe or Taos.
In 1825, San Bartolomé was changed to honor one of the four martyred insurgents of the wars of independence—Allende, Jiménez, Aldama and Hidalgo. Valle de Allende was the cradle of the new agriculture of New Mexico and is still home to an astounding variety of heritage crops. Four kinds of pears, quinces, two kinds of apricots, several types of apples and plums, peaches, persimmons, multicolored pomegranates, figs, grapes, and all of the Spanish grains, greens, onions, garlic, beans and melons still thrive there. They were adapted to Mesoamerican and northern desert soils and climates by Tlaxcalan Indian horticulturalists, who also brought varieties of corn, chile, beans and squash that had not yet come north. Desert-adapted breeds of sturdy horses, cattle, sheep, goats and pigs also came up the Camino Real, spreading behind them the seeds of the navajita, or little razor grass, which grew faster than native grasses to feed them. As teachers at the new missions, the Tlaxcalans shared this bounty with the Pueblo Indians. Side by side with other settlers, their strategic alliance with the Spanish crown for the conquest of Mexico, in 1521, earned them the same rights to own land and become hidalgos as other settlers. They helped found new settlements with Spanish and Basque settlers with names like Oñate, Archuleta, Mondragón and Ulibarrí, whose specialty was mining. Twin communities were the norm, with allied Indians on one side of the river and the Spanish on the other. Like all the cities of the Camino Real, Santa Fe followed with the same design and layout.
Valle de Allende’s acequia system also dates to the 16th century and is remarkable for its smooth transition from rural to urban zones. On the outskirts, several stretches of the acequia madre flow through elegant tunnels chiseled through rock outcrops, the handiwork of the miners. As it enters town, the water goes underground, flowing through beautiful, arched masonry and Roman-style galleries. Then, it channels alongside streets, under sidewalks, through and even under houses, where precious water is captured in patio fountains and aljibes, or stone water cisterns, before reaching walled gardens and orchards. Acequias need to be constantly attended to avoid flooding, and footpaths on their banks became streets as the town grew. The acequia official, who literally does the watching, is the veedor, or seer, and walks the streets and has the keys to all the hobbit-sized doors on all the properties, which open to allow his vigilance.
Water is apportioned according to the kind of crops being grown. Pecan orchards are generously watered by un buey de agua, the measure of water that reaches the belly of an ox standing in the ditch. Other measures are based on the diameter of fruits, progressing in size from limón (lime) to naranja (orange) or toronja (grapefruit) up to melón (melon), depending on the size of the garden plot. Square stones are perforated to size, set and changed when necessary, at the spot where the water enters. Measuring stones like these were found at Rancho de las Golondrinas, south of Santa Fe, and were only recently identified. Careful management of water has sustained a lush paradise in the desert, which the town of 5,000 shares on weekends with the people of the nearby bustling city of Parral, whose people flock to the parks and swimming holes of Valle de Allende.
Located on the Río Chuvíscar, downstream and east of Chihuahua City, Aldama is a much newer 18th-century settlement artfully built around water. Early in the century, in 1707, the Jesuits encroached on Franciscan territory to minister to the Chinarras Indians and built the spectacular Santa Ana de Chinarras church in the same massive but ethereal, whitewashed style as the San Xavier del Bac church in Tucson. Only a few people survived a massive Apache attack in 1769, and the area was abandoned.
Years later, in 1781, the Franciscans took over and built a church nearby in their favorite neoclassical style with the name of San Jerónimo. Acequias were routed down from the Río Chuvíscar, and each was planted with an alameda, or bower of álamos (cottonwoods), the shade of which slowed evaporation under a scorching desert sun. The three acequias meet not far from the plaza in a repartidero, a series of masonry canals and gates for measuring out the water. Ancient trees still preside over the spot, which has become a municipal park, always fresh with flowing water. Typically, the lower trunk of each giant cottonwood is painted white, like a petticoat for a much-loved grandmother.
The old maps in San Jerónimo’s archive read like a page torn straight out of the Nuevas Leyes de Indias, which prescribed the way towns should ideally be laid out to maximize resources, to create inviting public spaces, to facilitate civic defense and to celebrate the social order. To one side of the plaza is the church, to the other the Casas Reales, the residence and office that received visits of royal administrators. After independence, the name was changed to honor the secular hero Aldama, and the same government buildings became municipal headquarters. Prominent Spanish families lived near the plaza. Indian families had their own barrios, or neighborhoods. Agricultural plots, or suertes, were so named because they were literally chosen by luck in a drawing. In the original plan drawn by civil engineer Manuel Marcazo, one hundred families each got a suerte measuring 200 by 400 varas, a measure roughly equivalent to a yard. Water rights were measured in time, and each suerte was given a data, which was 12 hours of use every 14 days. Today, the official who watches the water and mediates disputes in Aldama is called the aguador, the waterer.
Aldama survived the precipitous growth of Chihuahua City because its access to water was preserved by law. Because the river only flows during the rainy season, farmers still have access to a generous water table, and the old acequias are recharged by pumps. Aldama also has survived successive social upheavals—the Reforma, or modernization period of the 1860s, a major revolution in the early 20th century and the narco wars at its close. The datas, or water rights, have been inherited, sold and consolidated into fewer and fewer hands. The main cash crop is now pecans because cornfields and gardens have diminished. But people still harvest their beloved fruit trees, and the quince preserves and wine of Aldama are famous. Today, new business owners in the city of 15,000—five times the size of Valle de Allende—have to be reminded not to block the acequias that still flow along sidewalks. The town is now frequented by city-weary residents of Chihuahua, who escape to enjoy Aldama’s parks, swimming pools and greenery. This enlightened vision of a desert paradise, built around flowing waters, is still intact and much appreciated, even as it survives into the 21st century. New Mexico has many lessons to learn about itself from its historic sister communities to the south.
Enrique Lamadrid is a cultural historian, literary folklorist, and acequia activist who edits the Querencias Series at UNM Press, after his retirement as a long-time Spanish professor at UNM. He and Estévan Arellano wrote John the Bear and the Water of Life / La Acequia de Juan del Oso, a story of the Bear’s Son and the history of the Mora Acequias. firstname.lastname@example.org