Lifelong Acequieros Offer Perspectives on a Changing Community

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By Quita Ortiz

Editor’s Note: The following account was contributed by well-respected and longtime Dixon residents Aaron Griego and his wife, Virginia. They graciously participated in NMAA’s Acequia Restoration and Resiliency Plan project with the Acequia de la Plaza de Dixon. The purpose of the project is to strengthen, revitalize, and build capacity of the acequia by engaging its community leaders in planning for the future of their acequia. The plan provides informative data and tools so the Acequia de la Plaza de Dixon can develop well-prepared funding requests and be a self-determining entity that uses community input to address challenges. The NMAA worked with the Acequia de la Plaza de Dixon’s Commission, as well as a number of community members, including Aaron and Virginia Griego, to gather necessary information for their plan.

The modern economic and pop culture circumstances that we  exist in have influenced the ways in which our rural communities interact internally as well as how they intermingle with the outside world. For the most part, gone are the days of taking your wheat to the closest mill, or buying rennet so you can make cheese with your cow or goat’s milk. Of course, many of us still ensure our families enjoy homemade tortillas rather than the dough-y, flavorless store bought variety; but are they made with flour from wheat that you either grew or bartered for? Probably not.

Our acequia communities are faced with a number of challenges – water transfers, water shortages, and land use changes – just to name a few. But one challenge that’s often overlooked is how we strip away our cultural stigmas and to hold on to our heritage and traditions while simultaneously engaging the gadgets and gizmos of the modern world. It’s a balancing act, and this theme definitely rang true throughout the process of gathering data and qualitative information for the Acequia de la Plaza de Dixon’s Restoration and Resiliency Plan. Through this process, it was apparent that the Acequia de la Plaza has encountered many challenges, but it has also proved itself to be quite resilient.

Aaron Griego and his wife, Virginia, are longtime residents of Dixon, a small acequia community in the Embudo Valley. They shared their views, memories, and insight about how much things have changed over the years living along the Acequia de la Plaza and also divulged some of the newer provocations in the community. These elder perspectives are invaluable as they can help to shape how acequias confront trials and hardships.

Aaron has been involved in acequias for over fifty years. He moved to Dixon in 1959, which according to him, was when more and more outsiders moved in looking for work – when Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) was established. Aaron stated the obvious: people made more profit by commuting to wage jobs than working the land, which resulted in a lack of interest in the acequia. This was the beginning of when people started hiring someone for the limpia rather than participating in it themselves. With the establishment of LANL, Dixon started to see less and less farming take place. On the bright side, however, he has noticed a resurgence in farming and gardening in the last ten years or so.

Aaron expressed how the annual limpia used to be an event in which the community came together to prepare the acequia for the irrigation season; it was a more celebratory affair. Nowadays, the community relies on hired crews to clean the nine ditches that flow through the Embudo Valley.

He also recalls traveling outside of Dixon to sell produce. When they had fruit they would travel up to Taos, Questa and Mora, supplementing their income. Bartering was also common and he told the story of when he once bartered produce for a stove. “There’s a neighbor who used to go to the Ocate area to peddle and when we’d see his truck pull up we’d run over to see what he had – chickens, or pigs, or potatoes, or beans. And we would trade with him,” he adds.

The increasingly scarce water supply in Dixon has undoubtedly stressed parciantes along the Acequia de la Plaza. Grappling with how to best address the problem is challenging. Some newcomers to the area are proponents of drip irrigation, which has created some tension among community members along the Acequia de la Plaza. Aaron summarized a particular situation. “We only have one farmer who’s real big into drip irrigation, others are smalltime. A lot of people are against it. But there are benefits to it by using less water. In drought years, though, it makes a big difference because when people use drip irrigation – because people get a little here and a little there – it makes it very difficult and it’s hard to satisfy everyone.” Essentially, Aaron was identifying and issue that violates their peon system. “The farmer in discussion who uses drip irrigation, he uses drip all the time,” he said. “And people complain ‘I’m a peon and he’s a peon but he uses the water all the time.’ Even if it’s less water, he is still using it for a longer period.” Aaron asserted that , historically, an issue like this would never have surfaced in the community.

When dealing with drought, the Acequia de la Plaza has adapted through the years, yet nowadays it’s proving to be more of a challenge to get the water to lower parts of the valley. When one ditch ends, another begins. During low water availability, the upper ditches will allow water to flow into the lower ditches, including Acequia de la Plaza. According to Aaron, they share water in sections: four hours above, and four hours below. However, there are areas wherein the riverbed is so dry that it soaks up all the water before it reaches the following ditch. He recalls a particular instance, “I remember one time where we had this problem on the lower end of our ditch system. Because there’s so little water, during drought it’s just really hard to get water to the lower end of the valley.”

Historically, the Acequia de la Plaza has a repartimiento system in place for water sharing between acequias in the Embudo Valley during drought years. According Aaron, when water flow drops significantly, and the lower ditches can’t get as much water they need, a meeting is called to make a schedule. The upper ditches will take water for so many days and then shut the water off completely and let the water flow down to the lower end. During these periods, it was preferred that parciantes irrigated gardens, but Griego noted that because some parciantes kept livestock it was necessary to also irrigate the big hay fields.

Aaron is one of the best, if not the best, and most well-equipped person to discuss mayordomía on his acequia. Across the board, communities are experiencing increasing difficulty to find someone willing to serve as mayordomo. The Acequia de la Plaza de Dixon is no exception and at the time of this interview, the acequia did not have a mayordomo. However, prior to its on-and-off fulfillment of a mayordomo, he served as mayordomo of the Acequia de la Plaza for 50 years.

When he was mayordomo, it was simply understood throughout the community that he was willing and able to fill that role. It would seem that it was, in a sense, taken for granted. Since his resignation as mayordomo a few years ago, the Acequia de la Plaza has changed mayordomos nearly every year. It has been a challenge for them to find somebody to serve as mayordomo continuously, often leaving the Commission to serve in that role as well as fulfill their own duties.

Aaron reflected on why he thinks it’s been difficult for his acequia to find a new mayordomo. For instance, he said that when meetings were held, he recalls a time in which nobody wanted to attend. He told the few there that it was time for a new mayordomo; they had one person volunteer who, shortly after, resigned. Aaron said, “Being that I was born and raised here, I know everyone in Dixon. If you don’t know the ditch, it’s hard. After a while you know who’s using the most water. There’s a lack of experience and community knowledge. I used to walk down the ditch to check on things and would just walk through people’s properties, now you can’t do that – the newcomers don’t like you to do that. When I was mayordomo, I walked through properties, but I knew everybody.” He said that the ideal would be to have the ditch banks cleaned so the mayordomo can walk along it. But instead it’s overgrown instead so the mayordomo has to go around it. He adds, “I’m a landowner so I clean my banks, but some people don’t. That’s a difference between then and now.”

Aaron reiterated that this all began to change around the time the Los Alamos National Laboratories provided wage jobs to northern New Mexicans. Also, people started migrating elsewhere for work, education, etc.

Much has changed over the years for Aaron Griego and his wife, Virginia. Both feel that remaining connected to, or reconnecting with, the land is crucial for acequias to survive. They noted that changes in family structure, wage labor jobs, women in the workforce, etc. have all contributed to the lack of interest in farming among our youth.

According to data collected by NMAA staff during the course of the planning project, there aren’t many youth participating in the Acequia de la Plaza. According to Virginia Griego, members of the younger generations have either moved away to other jobs, or are commuting to wage jobs out of town. She shared her insight, “Those who work in Los Alamos leave at 6:00 in the morning and don’t get home ‘til dark, in summer and winter. There’s no time to garden in that schedule. And plus they have children to do homework with. It’s a different lifestyle from what it used to be. There’s hardly a household where a mother stays home.”

This trend is indicative of many acequias throughout New Mexico. Continued adaptation to change will be a key factor in their ability to survive and thrive.

It’s with hope that the insight provided by well-respected elders of the Dixon community will help foster a dialogue among the Acequia de la Plaza parciantes about where they’ve been and where they would like to go with respect to their community in the planning process. These stories and feedback point to the encouraging notion that the Acequia de la Plaza was once a thriving acequia that provided water to field after field to grow food for its families.

Although water scarcity is inherent in arid regions, these deep-rooted elders offer reminders to the community that they too experienced challenges through the years and got through them with their resiliency and ability to adapt.