Trickling water in the acequia can be heard as the people gather in the orchard next to the ditch. There are trays of enchiladas, carne asada, tortillas, and lemonade inside the little outer building at the Chimayó Museum. The altar to San Isidro is set. The blessings must take place, the seeds must be planted.
In Chimayó, New Mexico, like so much of the rural parts of the state, farming communities still depend on the irrigation from acequias to water their fields and keep tradition alive. It’s not officially the feast day of San Isidro or Santa Maria de la Cabeza (the only two betrothed saints in the Catholic tradition) but it is a Sunday, and that always feels holy and most people don’t have to work. The acequia season must begin. So, a San Isidro Celebration will take place. The patron saint of farmers, his image and name (along with his wife’s) are invoked in prayer and painted on shovel faces for a theatrical reenactment of their miracles by the local players of Teatro Acequiero. The main organizers for this event are El Museo de Chimayó, and the hard work of many including Jolene Vigil and other board members of Chimayó Historical Society, the New Mexico Acequia Association, Barrios Unidos, and various local religious organizations have come together to make this ceremony happen. I take in: the smell of soil and fresh water, the faces of children and elders and farmers gathered beneath the trees, sunlight playing shadow games on them. The alabados (prayer songs) to San Isidro of the Hermanos de Penitente wash over the crowd and mix with the sound of the irrigation water seeking level over rock and soil. What cannot be overstated is the sense of community here.
I grew up part time where my family has lived for generations in the San Luis Valley of Southern Colorado, just north of the New Mexican border. Acequias are also crucial to the way of life there, and for the past 5 years I’ve lived in and participated in the acequia culture of the Village of Placitas, New Mexico. In both places water brings the community together, but can likewise emerge as a source of conflict. In the San Luis Valley I would hear stories of the “water wars” between the neighbors on the ranches around my family’s: people taking more water than they were allotted, or locking off other rancher’s irrigation head-gates so they couldn’t access the water to flood their fields. Old blood, old feuds. Even in his 70’s my great Uncle Ernest once went to hunt his nemesis in the Valley, Lázaro, to seek vengeance for stolen water. My parent talked him down long enough for his blood to cool, but the grudge held. Agua es vida. And no water means death.
Each Acequia flows from a different source, each smaller private ditch having a different Acequia Madre or “Mother Ditch,” and all Acequia Madres themselves come from rivers, or in the case of Placitas, the natural springs that pop in the hills below the Sandia Mountains and run down into the village. If there’s not enough snow-pack to trickle down the fault lines in the mountains, there’s not enough water to fill the springs. Droughts are a constant threat in the Southwest. Sometimes so much so that folks end up having to sell their livestock with nothing to feed them, or then sell the land with no livestock to raise. Crops wither and dry and all seems lost. Then the next year the water will be so abundant that flooding occurs, and crops grow taller than the farmers growing them. And, either way, every year, the ditches must be cleaned in preparation. An annual limpia (ditch cleaning day) takes place with a representative of each owner of the water rights coming together to clean the entirety of the ditch before irrigating can begin. In Placitas the traditional calculation is one water right equals one shovel-length to clean, measured top of the handle to spade-tip, for each section of the ditch. Two water rights equals two shovel-lengths. Simple math, the kind I can follow. It’s a long day of joking and working with neighbors, or getting to know ones perhaps you’ve not encountered before. Then the talking stops as the sun gets higher and shovelfuls get heavier. By the end of the day, there’s no picnic, no beers cracked together. They used to have matanzas or cookouts at the end of these days, but now everyone is too tired or too busy to plan a gathering after the cleanings; or too beholden to grudges, and work is enough proximity that play is not even an option after the job is done. Contemporary life has spread itself over these old traditions, and new distractions and obligations are in play. Yet a song and seed planted are still the best ways to bless water, and the best tool is still a shovel. So in Chimayó, I am shown the way it should be.
“We were taught to never throw anything into the acequias but flower pedals,” says Pillar Trujillo of Chimayó. At the San Isidro blessing she represents Barrios Unidos, getting local youth involved in keeping these traditions alive. After the prayers everyone is invited to leave the museum’s orchard for a procession to the communal plot and take a handful of flower pedals from the baskets held by kids from Barrios Unidos and toss them into the Acequia. Time to let the flower petals and any intentions they’ve been imbued with to flow with the water. Musicians lead a procession to the communal plot where the rows have been plowed and carved, and the seeds need planting. Serafina Lombardi of the New Mexico Acequia Association tells all gathered to feel the soil, and take seeds from heritage plants that have been planted in Chimayó for centuries to plant them in the waiting rows. The Three Sisters are represented: corns, beans, and squash; traditionally planted together and when consumed as one meal create a complete protein. There’s also black garbanzo beans, and Chimayó chile seeds. Men, women, children, of all types go up and down the rows, laughing, breathing, and working in the soil together. An older man offers me a stick to help divot holes. I take some chile seeds, push the stick into the earth and drop some into the small hollow. Maybe the seed will become part of someone’s meal somewhere when the chile is harvested, roasted, and peeled. On the outer rows of the plot, wildflower seeds are planted for the pollinators; for the bees, butterflies, and moths.
During the quarantine I cleaned and carved many stretches of the Placitas acequias by myself. There could be no communal “Ditch Day” with social distancing at it’s peak, so those willing to work were assigned areas to clean solo. I cut the sides square of grass and excess clay, two feet wide at least. I scraped the bottom of the ditch flat of silt and leaves that had gathered during fall, and cut any roots that had grown into the ditches path that might catch and clog debris washing down when the water would be released. I thought about how long people had been doing work just like this for their livelihood. There is that smartass phrase “I’d rather dig ditches,” as one would exclaim as a comparative for something they hated. It’s hard work, but there’s a simple peace to the labor of it. And for me it wasn’t a bad way to spend some of quarantine. I’d rather dig ditches than do many things. “Stay inside” was the mandate for so many, but I was blessed enough to have the smell of cut soil at my boots, and a freshly sharpened shovel in my hand. I worked with the Mayordomo (or Ditch Rider) a lot over the quarantine, repairing and replacing water lines, digging trenches, reading water meters, cleaning ditches, burning out the holding pond of excess weeds, and fixing leaks in water lines around the village. It was great to learn about Placitas, hear stories from old timers about robbing hippies during the BB King concert back in the 70s; tales of a long forgot time silver church bell buried during the the Pueblo Revolt. I was offered fresh peaches from someones orchard. One time a dog attacked me. The Mayordomo would often say: “water seeks level.” It’s good to keep in mind. After all, isn’t that what we’re all seeking? The pandemic certainly felt like a re-leveling of society. My son was born in Spring 2020, and taking care of the beings right in front of me was all that felt certain. It was a time of reflection, and slow growth. But soon even that condensing of all things necessary became a source of its own imbalance for those accustomed to interaction with the contemporary world. For myself, that certainly was the case. The weight tipped, and I poured out. I’m still seeking level.
The Plaza del Cerro in Chimayó could be considered the oldest fort in North America. It is certainly one of the most historically significant plazas in Northern New Mexico, and the least well-preserved. There’s a small chapel I was lucky enough to step into where the Hermanos Penitentes still hold an occasional prayer gathering that contains art by the same artist who provided much of the art in the famous Santuario de Chimayó. Little by little, grant by grant, the village is trying to restore the plaza. The ancient adobe buildings are part of it, but so is the restoration of the agricultural use of the land within the plaza. It was designed to be an enclosed fortress in Colonial New Mexico if necessary and that meant being able to grow food within its enclosure. Member of the Chimayó Historical Society Jesse Berryhill works his shovel and waters the communal plot and the freshly planted seeds, letting in the water row by row. Jesse tells me history of the Plaza, and how each agricultural plot in the plaza is designed to descend from one plot to the next as the acequia flows down. Right now they only have one plot they’ve brought back from extinction, but the Chimayó Mayordomo Brett Ellison tells me that as a community they have applied through the CCPA for a Healthy Restoration Grant to revitalize all the original four plots in the plaza for agricultural use. As Jesse works the water into the first plot they have restored, he invites me back to help out or visit. “Come anytime,” he says.
I visited my family in Los Lobatos, Colorado with my son recently and my parent Sofia took us out on the fourwheeler to check the water on her fields. Abundant this year, but I remember a time as a child walking cracking dry ground and Sofia just crouching in the dirt shaking her head at the dead grass. A season of hopelessness always comes to an end though. This time the water was everywhere. “Here in the Valley, the water always flows towards Mount Blanca,” Sofia told me. It doesn’t matter where you release it, where you want it to go, eventually it flows that way. There were clouds of mosquitos, my son got his first real real bites, but he didn’t care much. He loves water, like most kids. He had water boots on, but he jumped fully clothed and hatted into a huge puddle. He almost lost his glasses dunking them up and down in the muddy water. “I’m just cleaning them, Dadda,” he told me. There were countless chorus frogs all singing, a sign of healthy land. My family has a long-standing joke. One time when my sisters and I were all children a writer came to do a story on our family for “Range Magazine” and completely made up a quote my parent never said. Something like “Listen Anna (that’s my little sister) -“those frogs are the voices of our ancestors singing to us,” “wow!” exclaims Anna. We laugh and quote the non-quote every year when the frogs come out: “those are the voices of our ancestors.” A cheesy line to make our Chicano exoticism stand out in the story, but now when we say it, part of it feels like the joke is slipping away, and sincerity is taking its place. They do feel like family. I’m always happy to hear them come out when Spring rolls back around.
As the ceremony in Chimayó comes to a end, musician and scholar Dabi Garcia tells a story of his grandmother. She would ask for one of the grandchildren to fetch her a glass of water. They would bring it back for her and knew to wait for her to finish drinking it. She would always leave a little in the bottom of the glass, to bless whichever grandchild brought her the water. I ask Dabi if I can share this story, he tells me yes, and offers another companion tale told to him by Maria Dolores Gonzales. As a child her family had a well with a bucket and rope, and each time they drew water from it, her mother would always leave a little in the bottom of the bucket, to pour back into the well for the next ones who needed to draw water.
I leave with more than I came with: Chimayó chile starters from Pilar Trujillo’s farm, a pack of dried lavender and rose petals, a full stomach, and a prayer card to San Isidro. What did I leave behind? Some footprints, some breath for the trees. I can’t say much else, but whatever these words written down will do.
P. Antonio Márquez is a writer, filmmaker, and a 12th generation New Mexican. He is a contributing writer to Southwest Contemporary, and his latest short film ¡Baca the Kid! Made its premier at the 2022 Santa Fe International Film Festival.
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