El Agua es La Vida: A Village Life Portrait

• • •
IN A REGION OF GHOSTED PRESENCES, the remote and tiny El Cerrito, situated at a double oxbow on the Pecos River has endured for centuries. This long form survey presents a village life portrait animated by interdependence on water from the community irrigation system--the acequia. No one remembers hearing of the gravity flow irrigation channel's origins, lending to speculation that the waterway was created by Indigenous peoples who farmed along the Pecos long before the arrival of the Spanish. Others believe its existence can be ascribed, as many of New Mexico's 700+ acequias, to the efforts of Franciscan priests, who when colonizing the region were directed to establish two vital elements of any village's life—water and faith. Quite likely a confluence of efforts set this hand-dug channel that traces the village.
Acequia also refers to a self-governing association of users that honors water as a community resource rather than as a commodity. This is anchored in the Islamic Law of Thirst which ordains that all beings have unfettered access to water; that it never be hoarded or sold. These source arid farming watering methods originated in the Indus Valley, and later the Arabian penninsula, were developed across North Africa, and brought to Spain by the Moors during their seven century occupation. Sharing in abundance and scarcity, repartimiento, is a vital tenet of acequias as a cultural commons with water rights attached to the land, not to individuals. As parciantes, members of the acequia hold these water rights and elect a mayorodomo as caretaker to oversee its maintenance throughout the year and especially during the annual spring cleaning, the limpia. In El Cerrito this is the one social gathering outside the rare wedding and more common funeral for which extended family, friends, and curious students of traditional village life return. Parciantes have shared for generations in the responsibility of maintaining a waterway that feeds their families, orchards, gardens, fields, and livestock. While recharging watersheds, acequias also provide a rich riparian zone for wildlife, shade trees, and native plants, many of which are used in traditional medicines.

Seeing the universal in the personal, this exploration of El Cerrito’s survival provides insight into co-operative perseverance as a model redress to the dissonance created by our time’s divisiveness. With the availability of water a defining issue for our century, monetary pressures and Western water law structure are strong forces on rural residents to consider selling their water rights for transfer to urban development needs or speculation. Doing so would effectively sever ties to water and land that are a deeply cherished cultural and spiritual component of this region’s agrarian communities. In resisting, villagers help ensure the survival of the Southwest’s oldest extant water system while reinforcing the universal truism:


Aragon Canova
A canova (lit. canoe), also known as a canoa in other parts of Northern New Mexico, is constructed of any choice of material--metal culverts, lined boards, or hollowed out logs for moving water from one point to another. This impressive feat of vernacular engineering by the Aragon family was utilized to transfer water across and above the Pecos River to their fields opposite the main village's acequia system.