La Luz de Nuevo México: Rituals of Seasonal Change in Acequia Communities
Al pie de la montaña
Sale el sol muy de mañana
Ya viene amaneciendo
La luz de Nuevo México.
Yesterday, December 21st marked the winter solstice in Earth’s northern hemisphere. It is a special period for many Acequia communities who celebrate various festivities over the span of the month. The solstice, though not specifically celebrated in these communities, marks the time when the earth’s northern hemisphere is tilted furthest away from the sun. Following this day the earth’s tilt reverses and the hours of the day grow longer until the next summer solstice. In many land based communities in the northern hemisphere these natural occurrences coincide with important celebrations during last month of the calendar year.
Though many Acequias lay dormant during the winter months it is a time of planning and observation of the natural world. The mountain snows are among the most scrutinized phenomena on this high desert landscape. In addition, it is an important time for Acequias communities to process many ritual foods that were harvested during the year. Among the most commonly prepared indigenous foods during this time of year are tamales, pozole, and chile con carne. In addition there are many fine desserts such as pastelitos de calabaza, molletes, and bizcochitos. The preparation and consumption of these foods are enmeshed in the ritual significance of religious observances.
The Christian observance of la navidad (the Nativity of Jesus) in New Mexico is perhaps the most recognizable of these. The celebration of the Christmas season was perhaps culturally celebrated to coincide with the solstice to symbolically link the birth of Jesus with the coming of the light. This symbolic meshing of the natural world with religious belief was a well know concept of the Franciscan order of missionaries who first brought the belief systems of Christianity to the indigenous populations of these areas in the 16th century. As folklore scholar Enrique Lamadrid has noted, “seeing God revealed in Nature,” was a way for these missionaries of sacrilizing the landscape.
This most notably this can be perceived in the alboradas or songs honoring the dawn. The most popular of these are what are commonly known in greater Mexico as Mañanitas. These are ritual songs that honor the Christ Child, the Virgin Mary and various saints at daybreak on their feast days. The Mexican song “Las Mañanitas” is fact is an alborada which has become so popularized that it has lost much of its earlier significance of marking a religious saint's day, it has now become a typical birthday song. In New Mexico the significance of the alborada can still be perceived in ritual religious songs such as the Canto al alba which is sung in many Acequia communities after all night velorios (vigils) as the sun is rising the next day.
Cantemos al alba,
Ya viene el día.
Bendita sea la luz del día.
Benditos sean San José y María
A la madrugada
Nació el Niño Dios.
Dio su luz el sol.
In my own particular family this alborada was sung daily at the early hours of the morning before the break of dawn as people were awaking from sleep. Alba in Spanish describes the color white color of dusk as the sun rises. Luciano Lovato the elder of the family, would be the first to begin singing the verses and the younger Lovato Children would join in singing the chorus above as they woke up from their beds. By doing this they would welcome the dawn in this song honoring the birth of Christ Child.
To get to my point about the solstice and the Christian observance of Navidad, this song articulates the symbolism of the coming of light and the receding of darkness that is linked culturally to the birth of Jesus. This is also culturally tied to cultural identification in the Spanish language of childbirth as dar luz (togive light). The Virgin Mary is perceived as the bringer of light. The image of Immaculate Conception iconically figures Mary overlaid over the rays of the sun. This finds a notable articulation in the popular image of the Virgin of Guadalupe.
The importance of the shift in seasons is prominent as this shift is marked culturally and religiously through Indo-Hispano Christmas celebrations. As many Acequias communities are also aware of the corresponding summer solstice is marked culturally by the Feast day of Saint John the Baptist on June 24 even though it takes place around the 21st of that month. Whereas the winter is signaled by the heightened importance and return of la luz (the light) the summer signals the importance of el agua (water). Culturally many religious and spiritual traditions in Acequia communities have observances that demonstrate the syncretism of belief systems that mesh the natural world with core beliefs.
The practice of observing the nature world and making significance of this world has been a part of the traditional agriculturalist culture since emergence of farming. Estevan Arellano has stated the importance of relying on, “nature, the stars, sun and other phenomena to better understand when to plant or how much seed to commit to the soil.” In an essay on the tradition of Cabañuelas Arellano address the employment of this tradition by farmers to observe and make sense of the mircoclimates that exist on one’s particular property during the annual cycle of the year. Knowing where the sun rose and set on the horizon in addition to where the resolana or the sombrillo was located on a particular property was and continues to this day to be a necessary knowledge that a farmer must know to make best use of their land. It obliges farmers to become better attuned to their senses and become better observers of their natural world.
Common sense would inform us that culturally these observations would become a profound part of people’s belief systems. As I mentioned before many Acequias lay dormant during the month of December. It is this time that parciantes look not only to the snow pack but also where the sunlight makes it’s path across the sky. Taking note of these occurrences day after day, month after month, and year after year make the parciante conscious of the natural cycles and microclimates of their property. They can tell where the land has more clay or where it is drier and sandy.
The tradition of Cabañuelas employs the first month of the year as the model of how the weather could affect the property for the entire year. For an in depth discussion of Cabañuela traditions consult Estevan Arellano’s article “Cabañuelas: Forecasting the Entire Year,” which is attached below. It is an informative essay that details the cultural background and methods of las cabañuelas.
This commonly cited method of keeping track of observances of the change of seasons and weather patterns that was common sense at one time has faded from use. As a traditional methodology, we can re-affirm this tradition of Las Cabañuelas as it offers us a tool to ask questions about how the natural cycle of the earth rotation on its axis effects life at the local parciante level. It is important to use our senses to conduct documentation of our observations of our microclimates on our Acequia lands. This may involve mentally taking note or more rigorous methods of written note taking in a notebook. Your suggestions on how this can best be accomplished are welcomed here.
Finally, the comments made in this Blog are meant to show concisely some ideas that I am attempting to work through. The ideas may be incoherent but I believe the history and significance these ritual observations have for Acequia communities are significant. The cultural interpretations presented here are not definitive and I humbly request your feedback.
Finally, Feliz y conciente año nuevo
Hasta el año venidero
David F. García*
*David F. García is an Anthropologist that specializes in researching subjugated knowledge in northern New Mexico and assists the NMAA in Community Education outreach.
Here is the link below:
Arellano, Estavan. “Cabañuelas: Forecasting the Entire Year. ” http://www.newmexicohistory.org/filedetails_docs.php?fileID=1360