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Acequias: Arteries of Life

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The compuerta (water diversion headgate) of the acequia.

Water is the most important natural resource in the world. In the arid climate of New Mexico farmers have relied on the acequia system to provide irrigation for hundreds of years. There are more than a thousand acequias located throughout the state. All of these waterways use traditional acequia methods for irrigation. Some of them are small, serving just a few families, while other acequias maintain an entire village. With every new generation the ancient tradition for irrigating continues to ensure survival for its communities.

Spring Cleaning for the Acequias

Men gather for the annual cleaning of the acequia.

The community allocates a special day for the annual cleaning. Springtime comes late to northern New Mexico, so the communities in that region don’t meet to spruce up the acequia until the month of May. However, in the southern part of the state the temperature is hotter. Preparations for the yearly cleaning commence in March down south. It is the mayordomo (care taker) who supervises the day-long event. Throughout the year he or she also tends to the daily issues related to the acequia. Cleaning day usually takes place on a Saturday when most people have the day off from work or school. They arrive in the early morning expecting a full day of physical labor.

Acequia Day

Community organizers alert people to the date, time and location for the cleaning. People show up in pick-up trucks with their shovels and rubber boots. The mayordomo takes roll call to ensure that all of the families that benefit from the use of the acequia are there to pitch in. Some members of the community are too frail, or simply cannot help out. In those circumstances, they will send someone on their behalf to provide the physical labor. Some communities allow payment in lieu of manpower. They use the money to hire men to help with the cleaning of the waterway.

Ancestral Pride

Some people dread having to spend a day cleaning the acequia. Others feel a sense of pride as they carry on the work of their ancestors. The early Spanish settlers brought the acequia system to New Mexico. Its development has maintained a Hispanic cultural tradition that has survived 300 years of expansion and land development. The family passes down the land from one generation to the next. This inheritance ensures the preservation of their cultural heritage.