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Run River Run

A new anthology celebrates the life, near-death & hopes for revival of the Santa Fe River

February 16, 2011, 1:00 am

Fields in irrigation in the upper Canyon Road area, circa 1935. Courtesy Palace of the Governors Photo Archive (NMHM/DCA). Negative No. 11125.

El Agua de Mi Abuelo

By Pilar F. Trujillo

Pilar F. Trujillo was born and raised in Española. She now lives in Chimayó where she is helping her family grow chile and other vegetables on their ancestral farmland. She has a degree in Environmental Studies from Prescott College and works as the Youth Coordinator for the New Mexico Acequia Association, where she encourages local youth to grow food that is spiritually and culturally meaningful to their traditional communities.

Most days during the balmy, summer months I wake up to the sound of the acequia running right outside my bedroom window. This is the time of year when the snow has already melted from Truchas peak and surely as ever made its way down the Rio Quemado all the way to our Acequia de la Cañada Ancha in Chimayó. I wake up tired because it’s early and the majority of the work on our fields needs to be done before noon, before the hottest part of the day. I grumble about this business of waking up so early to my brothers, but in secret I like it. It’s peaceful. On any given day and depending on the time of year, there is more than enough work to go around the farm. The fields need to be cleared and prepared, or the seeds need to be cleaned, or the headgate controlling the flow of water needs to be fixed, or the surcos (rows) need to be made or fixed, or it’s time to plant, or it’s time to harvest, or it’s time to irrigate, or it’s time to make ristras, or roast the chile, and of course there are always weeds and more weeds to be pulled. Time is not linear in any sense on a farm, and neither is the work. We are just beginning to learn the cycles of our land, adjusting our bodies and hearts. This practice is not special or unique to my family here in northern New Mexico. To be sure you could say that this work is in the blood of all people, but more immediately, it is in the blood of every norteño and every native person, passed onto us by our ancestors. The land is our body, the work is in our blood, the acequia is our heart pumping blood and giving life to our body. This is how we were born.

When I think about waterways or about the Santa Fe River, I think about the people that used to know the river like I have gotten to know the acequia outside my window. There are probably people that still remember. I have met people like them. People like Louie from Tesuque, who knows the original Tewa names of the mountains and watershed that feed the Santa Fe River, who knows the old ways of using the land as a sponge. I think of people like Victor from Questa, who makes his living from his farm that is 7500 feet in elevation and only a few miles south of the Colorado border. Victor cries when he talks about water because he knows that he is talking about God, about that which sustains his way of life. I think of all the people who understand the tricks of properly irrigating with an acequia, how to be intimate with the water and get it to go where you want it, those who truly know that irrigating this way is an art form. I think about the bendiciones (blessings) that are said at the beginning of every season, out in the fields and over the acequias, honoring the sacredness of the water and the land.

When I think about the Santa Fe River, I think about my grandfather Cipriano Trujillo of Chimayó, whose land we inherited and plant today. My grandfather, whose upbringing was so hard that he couldn’t imagine tending the fields willingly and without the need for survival, did not pass his knowledge directly to us. The intimacy he had with the land and the water is something that my brothers and I have had to relearn after years of living and working in the city, of pot smoking, partying, and buying our food from stores. After years of disconnect, we seek to find ourselves again, my brothers and I. We find ourselves living in Chimayó. And together we are working the farm. At first we take advice from anybody who’s willing to dispense it. There are a lot of people who have an idea of what farming is about. We hire a nice boy from Vermont, Daniel, who lives with us and has an extended knowledge of organic farming—in Vermont. He struggles with the challenge of growing food at 6500 feet with little water, and we struggle with conveying to him the things about farming that we seem to inherently know. Daniel has a hard time believing us when we tell him that the native chile doesn’t need to be irrigated every day. He thinks it’s dying or suffering, but we know, somehow, that it loves the heat, loves the challenge of surviving and thriving in this climate. We are proud of ourselves, looking at our calloused hands at the end of the day, acknowledging the information that we are regaining. I like the idea that our hands are able to remember the work. Can you imagine what it would mean for the city of Santa Fe to regain this information as well? If you ask the right people, I’m sure you can still hear the stories around the Santa Fe River, learn the same lessons I’m learning in Chimayó. 

Can you imagine having a living river that feeds dozens of acequias, instead of just a handful of parciantes (acequia irrigators) on the Acequia Madre? If you drive down Agua Fria or West Alameda, the fields are still there, quietly waiting. They hold horses now, or a mobile home here and there, but can you imagine instead you see gorgeous irrigated fields of alfalfa or corn or chile? You see youth learning how to flood irrigate with their neighbor or grandpa. You see beautiful, large cottonwoods dotting the riverbank and owls, hawks and squirrels all making their homes in the trees. You see families and neighbors helping each other with planting or harvesting. You see chile ristras hanging outside of porches not for decoration, but because the people grew that chile and are intending to eat it once it dries. You see children running happily through the bosque, finding frogs and salamanders and getting their feet wet in the soggy riverbed. You see a community coming together, planting, weeding, harvesting. 

This traditional knowledge is not completely lost, but rather displaced by sidewalks and pavement, businesses and bigger homes. But it is still there; we still have a chance to bring it back. Imagine waking up most days to the sound of water running right outside your window.

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