June 2014

El Agua es Vida, the Acequias of New Mexico

An Exhibit at the Maxwell Museum, UNM Albuquerque


Alejandro López


El Agua es Vida, the Acequias of New Mexico, an exhibit that opened May 3 at the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, is, without a doubt, a “must see” for every New Mexican. It is indispensable because acequias, together with our land’s endless vistas, its searing sun on the horizon, its hills, orchards and chile patches, constitute essential parts of our landscape. Indeed, this landscape, against which we contemplate one another and our activities, is the cosmic stage upon which New Mexicans are privileged to live out our lives. It seems to frame the human drama much more poetically, eloquently and ecologically than the plethora of housing divisions, overpasses, rivers of cars, pipelines, open-pit mines, steel towers and underground nuclear storage facilities that are also part of our contemporary scenario.

The Maxwell Museum exhibit may very well be considered a watershed event in its scholarly interpretation of the traditional life of New Mexico’s Indo-Hispano people, for never before has so comprehensive an exhibit been devoted to the phenomenon of acequias in this region. Never has anyone cared to conduct so thorough a level of investigation, documentation, study and interpretation of this aspect of New Mexico’s 400-year-old agricultural legacy. Credit must be given to its curators, UNM professor emeritus of Anthropology, Dr. Sylvia Rodríguez, and Maxwell Museum of Anthropology Curator of Exhibits, Devorah Romanek, who worked in close association.

Particularly significant is the scope and magnitude of the many artifacts they took pains to amass and creatively display. From a pair of muddy boots, to hoes and shovels, water gates, wooden sluice boxes, an old pickup truck, family portraits, kitchen utensils, topographical and hydrological maps, original photography and artwork; all work together to shed light on the myriad aspects of ordinary life which, when touched by water, spring to life.

Viewers will marvel at how, until relatively recently, nearly every aspect of northern New Mexico’s Indo-Hispano culture was tightly woven into a whole and put to the service of people’s deeply ingrained agricultural traditions. Through the use of devotional items, the exhibit demonstrates that even the spirit and apparatus of Catholic religion in New Mexico seems to be designed in such a way as to be able to support the precarious pursuits of the common farmer. At the heart of these pursuits was the near-total reliance upon water delivered by the acequia systems, in some ways not unlike contemporary society’s utter dependency upon the uninterrupted flow of gas and petroleum from outside of the region, though netting completely different effects upon our land.

In the show’s fine arts section, a large painting by master painter George Chacón of Taos illustrates the hydrological cycle that the acequia systems keep in continuous motion within our semi-desert environment. In a symbiotic relationship reminiscent of our ancestors’ relationship to corn, it shows how humans are able to assist in replenishing the underground reservoirs of water in their respective watersheds through the practice of gravity-fed flood irrigation.

The exhibit, which will be up for an entire year, is being accompanied by a series of presentations by New Mexico acequia and permaculture experts. Among them are Dr. Rodríguez, José Rivera, Paula García, Trish Cyman and Miguel Santiestévan.

Alejandro López is a writer and photographer. Fifteen of his images, nearly all taken on his family farm, are featured in the El Agua Es Vida exhibit at the Maxwell Museum.

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