“Enduring Acequias – Wisdom of the Land, Knowledge of the Water” by Juan Estevan Arellano
University of New Mexico Press, $24.95, 220 pp.

Arellano discusses and autographs “Enduring Acequias” at 2 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 25 in Salon Ortega, National Hispanic Cultural Center, 1701 Fourth SW.

Review by David Steinberg

There’s a lot to learn in “Enduring Acequias,” and author Juan Estevan Arellano makes you the reader want to understand.
Given its compactness, the book cover a great deal of ground. My use of the word “ground” is literal and figurative. Arellano’s refreshing, accessible and revelatory book explores how certain inhabitants of our planet have survived arid lands through the sharing of life-giving water.
That’s a simplified overview. Actually, Arellano’s book takes the reader on a trip through many periods and dimensions of history and through the communal land and water in present-day New Mexico.
For one, the book is a connective history of peoples applied a concept of communal lands to manage precious water in the ancient Middle East, in Arab-ruled Spain and, to my surprise, in the pre-Columbian world. There were the sacred, steep terraced highlands of the Incas in Peru. There were the acequias of the indigenous Huarpes in what is today Mendoza, Argentina. And there is the chinampas of the Aztecs’ Xochimilco in Mexico City. Xochimilco’s hanging gardens may be a tourist attraction but the chinampas were part of a cultivation system that supplied water.
Arellano’s book is also a history of the acequia system of New Mexico, primarily in northern New Mexico. An acequia is an open-air irrigation canal. That system had crossed an ocean; it came out of the water management and land use systems of Moorish Spain. Spain was under Arab rule from 711 to 1492.
From another view, the book is a personal history of the author’s close relationship to the acequia in his hometown of Embudo, N.M. “The Acequia Junta y Cienaga or ‘the ditch of the juncture and marshland.’ which quenches the thirst of my land, my plants, my trees, my animals, and my family,” Arellano writes.
The book is a history of words about land and water management, Spanish words borrowed from Arabic. Based on his research, Arellano writes that the word acequia comes from the language of the ancient Sabean people of pre-Muslim northern Yemen. The Sabean word “saqiya” means a cupbearer of water or wine. Arabs, who ruled Spain from 711 to 1492, slightly altered the word to assaqiya. Among other Sabean-rooted Arabic words still used in Spanish, Arellano cited, are al-birka (alberca in Spanish), a cistern for irrigation, and az-zanija (zanja) or a channel sculpted in rock.
Arellano opens part two of the book (“The Knowledge of the Water”) with a chapter on the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, (The Royal Road of the Inner Province), which stretched from Mexico City to Taos during Spanish rule. The road’s name is often shortened to Camino Real.
But Arellano’s research uncovers something curious. There’s a second name for the road – Camino de Agua, or Water Road, “because the settlers, especially those from Zacatecas on north starting in 1596, had to make sure as they traveled that there was water for their animals and also for them.”
The road, Arellano writes, is marked by place names that had water – e.g. Aguas Calientes, Ojo Caliente – and those designated by places where water was scarce. A major segment of water scarcity on the Camino Real is the Jornada del Muerto (Journey of Death). Today’s Interstate-25 in southern New Mexico parallels that road used by conquistadors and Spanish settlers.
The book’s second part delves many connected subjects, issues and historical events among them the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, land grants, the Rio Arriba bioregion, and much more.
All of these subjects are rolled into in what he calls his journey in search of querencia, his own love of place, where he farms, cherishes the flavor of chile he grows, the smell of cooking tortillas on an old stove.
Arellano’s epilogue warns the public be vigilant of these traditional agricultural practices: “When we forget that sacred knowledge that bonds water to community, humanity disappears. And the acequias are in a very precarious state at this time.”
Traditional agriculture doesn’t produce food, he writes, but it does serve other purposes, “such as the maintenance of the agrarian landscape, the preservation of the environment, and the provision of green belts.””Enduring Acequias” is part of UNM Press’ Querencias Series, edited by Miguel A. Gandert and Enrique R. Lamadrid.

Arellano is also the author of “Ancient Agriculture: Roots and Application of Sustainable Farming” and he contributed the essay “La Cuenca y la Querencia: The Watershed and the Sense of Place in the Merced and Acequia Landscape,” which is in the book “Thinking Like a Watershed: Voices from the West,” edited by Jack Loeffler and Celestia Loeffler (UNM Press, 2012).

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