The late New Mexican writer and community leader, Estévan Arellano, left this world while still in the process of enhancing his 2.5-acre garden-like plot of land in La Junta, the place in Embudo where the Río Embudo joins the Río Grande. He described this special place as an “almunyah,” a word derived from classical Arabic, meaning “desire.” In the Iberian Peninsula, where Arab and Moorish peoples occupied Spain for nearly 800 years, almunyahs were designed as experimental and recreational gardens where imported trees and vegetables could be acclimatized. The almunyah concept that Arellano envisioned transplanting to New Mexican soil included a protected, garden-like place dedicated to learning, relaxation and living fully.
Aside from some homes, few such places exist in our society today. Most spaces within our communities have been denatured, commercialized or relegated to serve but a single function; i.e., kindergarten, park or church. There are few fully integrated spaces remaining where food is grown, meals prepared and hospitality shown. It is even harder to find places where, in community with others, individuals can pursue creative activities and exchanges, ranging from conversation to collective physical work.
For a people who, until recently, were land-based and had practiced farming for hundreds of years, modern commercial spaces such as fast-food outlets, movie theaters and bars do not invite substantive exchanges like dialogue, storytelling or the kinds of healthy, cultural engagement with one another and with nature that land-based activities foster. In the Indo-Hispano community, people used to meet in their plazas and homes, where news was shared and ties renewed. They also met in their lush fields and gardens, where they might take a break, eat and tell stories beneath a large cottonwood tree.
The concept of the almunyah builds upon this sort of experience, always in communion with the fullness of hearth, land and cosmos. The need for such places emerges from the collective human need to affirm our humanity amid the plenitude of nature. As a kind of cultural and agricultural sanctuary with a profusion of plants and animals, an almunyah could be a place where one goes to immerse oneself in life and into the work—solitary or communal—that makes us whole. Ideally, it could be located at an old family farm, perhaps one that has been reclaimed to serve a purpose that goes beyond raising food. In an almunyah, there could be opportunities for an examination of the forces at work in nature, in society, as well as within our own spirit and psyche, all of which are undergoing tremendous revolutions at this time. Whether as a nonprofit or as a for-profit entity, each almunyah could serve as a repository for all that is beautiful and valuable in our cultures and which, in the future, might serve as seeds for the regeneration of our communities.
Alejandro López is a writer, photographer and educator.