February 2014

Acequias, Up Close

Alejandro López
The Acequia de Santa Cruz flows through the land where my family settled in 1943 after my father moved his family back to New Mexico from Redcliff, Colo., where he had sustained a serious mining accident. On this four-acre piece of property, most certainly his pride and joy, my father tried hard to reproduce, as best as he could, the agrarian lifestyle he had grown up with in Las Truchas, a full 1,000 feet higher in elevation. He and my brothers dug lateral acequicitas (secondary ditches) to water the orchard of one hundred trees that he had painstakingly put in, a chile patch and a corn and vegetable field. On the dryland side of his property he channeled Noah’s ark, with every sort of animal short of elephants and giraffes. His seven sons provided all of the labor needed to produce all of the food that grew. In fact, so much food was harvested from the two acres under cultivation that in the summertime our farm supplied the nearby Tewa pueblos with truckloads of corn, melons, tomatoes and cucumbers, all at a premium; and the upland villages of Las Truchas, Ojo Sarco, Las Trampas and Peñasco with apples galore of every conceivable variety.
Each year on a particular morning toward the end of winter, a team of peones (paid or community workers) would suddenly show up on our property, making their way through the acequia, head and shoulders clearly visible, the rest submerged in its trench and obscured by its banks. In a kind of concerted rhythm, they scooped out with their shovels the dirt that had accumulated since the previous spring, chopped down encroaching bushes and burned away any brush in their path. It was as if the peones themselves were a force of nature equal to the lengthening of the days, the reappearance of the birds or the gentle jostling of the wind. Their arrival and the readying of the acequia for the flow of water made patent the fact that winter by now had irrevocably retreated and that a new season of growth and renewal had arrived.
After the annual cleaning of the acequia my father arranged for a neighbor to come with his tractor or perhaps a horse to plow the land. The sight, smell and texture of the moist overturned earth was nothing short of intoxicating as it revealed the beauty of the normally unseen levels of soil and its potential to harbor and produce endless life. Next came the planting of our crops, using simple hand methods that involved two people working in tandem with but a hoe to make small holes on the edge of the rows and a tin can that held the corn or chile seed that was thrown into the holes by a sure swing of the hand. It was a scene straight out of biblical times and had been repeated for generations and generations of my ancestors, probably for thousands of years. Uncomplainingly, we worked day in and day out doing this, all the while feeling the satisfaction that now the semilla (seed) was deep within the bosom of earth and beyond our control.
The day on which the water was released was magical because the flow of water across the landscape is itself magical. If one were lucky enough, one witnessed the advancing tongue of water gliding swiftly like a serpent down the bed of the acequia. As children, we sometimes jumped inside the acequia ahead of the water and ran hard to keep from being overtaken by the advancing current. No longer was the acequia a mere hollow trench. Instead, it had become a swiftly moving body of water that brought with it all kinds of surprises. In the early spring, it ran full of tetones (bunches of pointy packets filled with cotton) that had hung from the cottonwood trees lining the ditch upstream and had fallen into the acequia. Later on in the summer, after violent thunderstorms, it delivered endless supplies of early ripening manzanitas de agosto (little August apples) from someone else’s trees up the way, much to our hearts’ delight.
When it came time to irrigate, my father delighted in slowly opening the compuerta (headgate) to initially let in a trickle of water so that it would not cause erosion or drag the seed away when it had finally reached the rows. Only when he was fully convinced that the amount of water that he had released was benevolent, would he open the compuerta just a little more in order to obtain a flow capable of watering the land just enough without causing any damage. Having watered a few rows in this gentle manner in which, perhaps after an hour, the earth showed clear signs of having drunk in as much water as it needed, he would block the rows already irrigated with an earthen tapanco (small dike) and open up other rows downstream. By doing this repeatedly he managed to irrigate an entire field in just a few hours.
As the water made its way down each of the furrows to moisten the seed and prompt the process of germination, it reflected the sky and sometimes the rising or setting sun in a kind of living three-dimensional impressionist painting. The gurgling of the water punctuated by bird song or children playing infused one’s being with a kind of deep peace and a yearning for time to forever stand still. In those moments, one was filled with the certainty that what one was doing was in and of itself a sacred and timeless act in which one viscerally communicated with the earth, water and plant spirits.
One could not long afford to remain in paradise because the selfsame water that caused the plants to sprout also engendered millions of weeds, originating primarily, of all places, in Russia! There was Russian thistle, the prickly rosetas, the broadleafed añiles, the deeply rooted patitos, together with a host of other annoying weeds that always came back soon after they were cut. Our summers were spent hoeing endless rows of chile, corn and other vegetables, in part because we had been socialized to do this kind of work, but also because we both respected and feared our elders who had commanded us to do this work. During the course of the long, hot summer we irrigated once between each hoeing. Every time, soon after the water had successfully reached the plants, they responded by standing up straight, growing taller and taller, and most importantly, by defying the scorching heat of the merciless midsummer sun.
To offset the same intense heat, the neighborhood children gathered almost on a daily basis at our bridge to swim in the acequia, which was an impossibility because it was much too shallow and because no one knew how to swim anyway. Wade, soak, splash and dive are a more honest reflection of what took place during those cacophonous summer afternoons between stretches of hard work. So brilliant, refreshing and invigorating was the water of the acequia that in our minds, the recreation that it provided was ample reward for the work that we did.
Other times, we launched homemade boats and ships and watched them sail by. A few times we launched canoes, rafts and even tubs to harness the transportation possibilities of the acequia and ended up in other people’s properties further downstream. They knew exactly what we were up to, looking for adventure, of course, and they laughed at us with fondness in their eyes, for as children, they had done the same thing. How I wish that children growing up today could have these kinds of innocent, private property-defying experiences.
In late July, just as the water supply in the Santa Cruz dam was dropping considerably, the annual rains came pouring down and frequently circumvented the need to irrigate our fields for the week. At times the downpours were so enormous that the melons and watermelons became waterlogged and we had to carefully turn each one over to avoid rotting. Typically, however, we irrigated until mid- or late September, when the harvest peaked and the water was turned off.
When the water stopped running it was as if an old friend had suddenly left our midst, and the ground had returned to just being the ground and not the water-laced earth that poured forth its greenery and abundance of fruit and food. From this time forward the magic of the water flowing through the acequia instead turned into the magic of the snowfall. There to the west, on Chicoma Peak (Obsidian Mountain), which lay directly in our line of vision, the snowpacks kept growing all winter long, if it proved to be a wet one. The same thing occurred along the Sangre de Cristo Mountains on the opposite side of the Española Valley, the fountainhead of our own acequia water supply.
During the long winter months, when one grew weary of the cold, one could gaze out the window and appreciate the source of our summer acequia waterflows, which together with a plot of overturned earth, a hoe, a tin can, some seed, the sure swing of an arm and a few tapancos (dikes), we were able to transport ourselves into a literal paradise for as long as summer lasted.
Alejandro López, a photographer and writer in English and Spanish, grew up farming on an acequia in rural northern New Mexico. Several of his recent photographs will be used as part of a Spring 2014 exhibition on acequias at the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.

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