Que Viva el Arte de Regando!" Long Live the Art of Irrigation!
Andrew Mascareñas' story of the importance of flood
irrigating to his family and to the culture of New Mexico. This movie
recently won 1st place in the "cultural heritage" category at the 2009
ESE (Española Showing Excellence) Film Fest, as well as the Audience
Favorite Award, and Incredible Movie of the Year Award.
Video produced by Acequia Youth.
New Mexico's acequias—communal irrigation canals—still function as a tool to preserve and share scarce desert water.
New Mexico has a spiritual power emanating from the landscape—its rios, mesas, llanos, sierras—that informs our traditional cultures.
Native Americans live each day in a vibrant relationship with
everything around them. For them, New Mexico is not just a place to
live. It is a way to live.
Similarly, Indo-Hispanos have created an intimate relationship with
the landscape over the past three or four centuries. They built acequias—communal
irrigation systems—not only to sustain an agricultural lifestyle, but
also to caress and sustain the Earth and its natural creatures.
Acequias evolved over 10,000 years in the deserts of the Middle East
and were introduced into southern Spain by the Moors during their
nearly 800-year occupation. Spanish colonizers took acequias to the New
World. Acequias included specific governance over water distribution,
water scarcity plans, and all other matters pertaining to what was
viewed as a communal resource. The mayordomo, or watermaster,
of the acequia made decisions about water distribution among community
members, with the consent and advice of the acequia members.
This communal system of irrigating was a response to the scarcity of
water in arid regions and was key to the survival of agricultural
communities. In many instances, the acequia governance system was also
used to settle other community conflicts, especially in areas like New
Mexico, located far from the seat of government in Mexico City. The
irrigation system that evolved over centuries and that was implemented
in New Mexico was created to ensure a formal civil process to resolve
water-rights issues, especially in dry times. Each irrigator had one
vote to elect the mayordomo. The mayordomo had ultimate authority over
water disputes and his word was final. He derived his authority from
the communal power vested in him by all of the irrigators.
In the spring, every able-bodied male was required to show up on the appointed day and time to clean and repair the acequia madre—the
mother ditch from which each individual plot received irrigation water.
Once the main irrigation canal was repaired and water began flowing,
the mayordomo monitored the use of water for irrigation by each acequia
member. Each member was assigned a specific time each week to irrigate
his personal field. If an irrigator used water without the mayordomo’s
permission, he was severely punished by having water withheld from his
fields. If the acequia madre was breached during the year, the
mayordomo called on every irrigator to help repair it. This was
considered a sacred duty.
This commitment to maintaining the village’s primary irrigation
supply bonded villagers together over the years. The concept of working
communally became an integral part of a village’s world view: the group
was valued over the individual.
Community in a Changed World
This model of cooperation and communal ownership can be a guide as we enter a time when climate change, lack of oil, or economic turmoil will require deep change in the way we live.
Author James Howard Kunstler predicts a “long emergency”—a time when world oil production peaks
and the remaining oil to be exploited is geometrically more difficult
and expensive to find and extract. What that means is that we will be
pushed to plant and grow food closer to home, since transporting food
from other parts of the world will become too expensive due to the
rising cost of oil. Our energy-intensive water systems, based on moving
huge amounts of water long distances or pumping it from deep
underground, will become unworkable. Homegrown food will become
affordable once again, and acequia systems can step in to provide the
water to produce healthy, affordable, locally-grown food for local foodsheds.
Kunstler argues that this long emergency as we move into an
oil-depleted economy will change forever everything about a society so
dependent on cheap petroleum. He presents a bleak future for all of us.
He does, however, offer one ray of hope: “If there is any positive
side to stark changes coming our way, it may be in the benefits of
close communal relations, of having to really work intimately (and
physically) with our neighbors, to be part of an enterprise that really
matters and to be fully engaged in meaningful social enactments instead
of being merely entertained to avoid boredom.”
I would argue that we already have those conditions to live
successfully in a postmodern world in New Mexico. We have those close
We need to study our acequias to see how people can find a livable
future using the most effective power source available—local communal
vision, cooperation, and mutual support.
Collaboration Across Cultures
To do that, we need to learn how to celebrate our roots and culture
and still cross our individual cultural boundaries in hopes of building
successful collaborations. We all want healthy people and communities;
we all want good health care; we all want a good education for our children; we all want decent housing; we all want justice and peace in our lives.
But for us to reach those goals, we all have to examine our own
practices and beliefs. The acequias and other communal traditions in
New Mexico demonstrate the positive values that permit us to embrace
each other despite our fears and biases. We must build on those and
root out those negative behaviors that limit our capacity to grow and
We are blessed to have living among us a native son, our Chicano
poet laureate, Jimmy Santiago Baca. For him, the Rio Grande is sacred.
I leave you with a piece from his latest work:
Arturo Sandoval wrote this article for Water Solutions, the Summer 2010 issue of YES! Magazine. Arturo is founder and president of VOCES, Inc. and the Center
of Southwest Culture, Inc. He has been active for more than 40 years in
community, cultural, environmental, and civil rights efforts in New
Mexico and across the United States.
|“Winter Poems Along the Rio Grande”
“Sometimes I stand on the river bank
and feel the water take my pain,
allow my nostalgic brooding
The water flows south,
constantly redrafting its story
which is my story,
rising and lowering with glimmering meanings—
here nations drown their stupid babbling,
bragging senators are mere geese droppings in the mud,
radicals and conservatives are stands of island grass,
and the water flows on,
cleansing, baptizing Muslims, Jews and Christians alike.
I yearn to move past these days of hate and racism.
That is why this Rio Grande,
these trees and sage bushes
the geese, horses, dogs and river stones
are so important to me—
I go on altering my reptilian self,
reaching higher notes of being
on my trombone heart,
pulsing out into the universe, my music
according to the leaf’s music sheet,
working, with a vague indulgence toward a song
we the people.”