November 2015

The Genesis of Acequias in Atrisco (the South Valley)

Jorge García
Even though it is easier for folks to categorize the South Valley as the South Valley, it has not always has been known by that name. What we today call the South Valley is actually a region that, prior to 1848, was subdivided into land grants, or, as they used to be called under Mexican rule, las Mercedes.

A quick snapshot of the region shows how it was subdivided by the Alameda land grant around the area we now call Corrales. Moving downriver, there was the Albuquerque land grant in what we now call Old Town, and north of Old Town there were land grants in what we today call the North Valley, which started with the Los Duranes land grant right by I-40 and Río Grande. The communities of Martínez town were by the university, Barelas and San Jose by the freeway and I-25. Across the river there was, and still is, the land grants of Armijo, Atrisco and Arenal. Further south were several other mercedes, such as the Gutierrez, the Chávez, Los Padillas and the Pajarito. All of these communities make up what we call the “South Valley” of Albuquerque.

During a conversation about our particular area, which we call Atrisco, a good friend of mine mentioned that it is easier to refer to the area as the South Valley because that is what everyone understands now. That is true, but in simplifying things, we risk losing the richness of history, culture and tradition. The South Valley evokes nothing more than a semi-urban area that it is slowly getting gentrified and absorbed by the city. Atrisco, on the other hand, speaks about the history and the semi-rural environment that still remains connected to its pre-industrial economy and Acequia tradition.

So the question is, how did the place lose its history, or better yet, has the place lost its history? The answer to that is no, the place has not lost its history. The South Valley, or the Atrisco Valley, still safeguards its history and traditions. There is no doubt that social, cultural, economic and political dynamics under Anglo rule changed the landscape and modified the local economy, as well as the social and cultural dynamics of the region, but to say that the traditions of the South Valley were lost would be a complete oversimplification of the resilience and resistance that the Atlisqueños, Armijos, Los Padillas and the rest of the families maintained as the new industrial economy swept through. It is true that a lot of other families and individuals capitulated to the “American” way to benefit from their incorporation into the social and political class, but that is nothing new, and in fact we still see that dynamic today as valley residents fight to protect water and land from getting transferred from agriculture to industrial and residential uses.

As the Atrisco Valley is pushed into modernization and slow gentrification, there has been a concerted effort to maintain its Acequia culture, not only as a symbol of resilience and resistance, but also as a form of cohesion with the rest of the Indo-Hispano communities across the state that are maintaining their local traditions and ways of life. As the effort took place to reinstitute Acequias, one of the learning experiences was the fact that people held several misunderstandings and misconceptions about this community and its traditions. One of the big misunderstandings was that the people had given up Acequia culture as the formation of the Middle Río Grande Conservancy District (MRGCD) took place in the 1920s. Another misconception was that “there were no more Acequias in the South Valley.” The community fought hard for several years reestablishing Acequias because everyone else had this idea that the people in the South Valley were crazy to try to restitute Acequias because, in their minds, the establishment of the MRGCD meant that Acequias had ceased to exist. So in a big way, the greatest struggle in restituting Acequias was to understand the real enemy, which were the misconceptions and misunderstandings fueled by the ignorance of people who purposefully made claims that “the Acequia people wanted to take the ditches away from the MRGCD.” These comments were extremely misleading, but before explaining the reason for this assertion, let’s understand how these misconceptions and misunderstandings developed.

To do this, let’s go back to 1848, when the American Republic took over this land from México. During this time, the mode of subsistence was based on growing produce and livestock. The economy was based on bartering, and people produced what they needed. Their goods came either from México City via the cities of Zacatecas and Chihuahua, or as Anglos moved westward, from St. Louis, Missouri. In 1848, the U.S. won the Mexican-U.S. War and, as a result, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed between the two countries. This stipulated that the traditions, customs and property of the Indo-Hispano communities would be respected and incorporated into the Anglo-Saxon judiciary system. That is why the customs of the Acequias eventually made it into the U.S Constitution under the provision of Water Law. So between 1848 and 1912, when New Mexico was finally accepted into the Union, a process began to change the economy from bartering and agricultural to industrial. Think about that. From 1912 to the 1930s, people were barely getting into a new economy when the Depression of the 1930s hit. For the people in the South Valley, this was especially difficult because, at that point, they were not only getting used to a new economy; a lot of the people did not even speak English, with the exception of those who were able to afford sending their kids to get educated in the Midwest. They did not understand the new system of law and intricate processes that in many ways were used to dispossess people from their land and water.

So, to add to the complexity that people had to endure as the new American system came to change the people’s life and customs, in the 1920s the Middle Río Grande Conservancy District was created to manage the distribution of water in the valley. Over the years people thought that the MRGCD came to displace the Acequias, but in fact it did not, at least not entirely. The MRGCD was created to ensure an efficient distribution of water. The formation of the MRGCD did not take away the constitutional right that people had to form Acequias. Today, thanks to provisions under the law, the South Valley has reinstituted the original Acequias of Arenal, Armijo, Atrisco, Los Padillas and Pajarito.

As we move forward beyond the misunderstanding and misconceptions of the past, there are other big fights looming to protect water and a way of life. But the community of Atrisco, or the South Valley, continues to fight to ensure that the legacy left behind to maintain the land and the water together is not destroyed by the elusive promises that big developments and industrial complexes advertise in their quest to shift water use to support big enterprises at the expense of beautiful and powerful communities that still regard water as a sacred element that promises life, not as a commodity that supports decadence.


Jorge García is president of the Center for Social Sustainable Systems ( He co-founded the nonprofit La Placita Institute and currently serves as vice-president of the South Valley Regional Association of Acequias. He is directly associated with many local, national and international community initiatives.


What Are Acequias?

Acequias are the age-old, handdug, gravity-fed irrigation ditches in northern New Mexico that make possible the cultivation of locally grown food. But they represent much more than that. As a social system implanted into the hydrological cycle for community subsistence, acequias constitute a place-based knowledge of watershed, intertwined with food traditions, community and culture. They are an instructive example of democratic self-governance, stewardship and sharing of resources. They are also the defining structure of their ecosystem. The unlined ditches allow water to seep into and recharge local aquifers, providing a rich riparian zone for wildlife, shade trees and native plants.




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