Chronicle of an Acequia in Northern New Mexico
My position would be a curiosity to most people I take pleasure in conversing with in the city and would be to them probably of little more importance than the identity of the plant emerging at my feet. “Is it good for anything?” What good is it to be the mayordomo of the Acequia de la Jara? Very little. Possibly none. My salary is one hundred dollars a month for six or seven months. What was once a position given to a respected elder in the old daysif there were old days, and perhaps these are still the old days hereis now foisted onto the old, the stay-at-homes, sometimes even the derelicts, or is occasionally coveted only by desperate young men in their early twenties who see in the modest salary the illusion, a roadsomehowto freedom and self-respect, an escape from the confines of this narrow valley. A job nobody much wants. But nonetheless a job, one of the few that a small community can give, often reluctantly, to one of its members. No, by becoming mayordomo you do not become the Man, even if you are a gringo. You become something quite opposite. You become even more involved and entwined. Next to blood relationships, which rule the valley, come water relationships. The arteries of ditches and bloodlines cut across each other in patterns of astounding complexity. Some families own properties on two or three of the valley's nine ditches. You can argue that the character of a man or woman can be as much formed by genetic and cultural material as by the location of their garden or chile patch along the length of a ditch, toward the beginning where water is plentiful or at the tail end where it will always be fitful and scarce. “He's that way because he lives at the bottom of the ditch and never gets any water” is an accepted explanation for even the most aberrant behavior in this valley. The man who lives at the bottom of a ditch is forever expectant, forever disappointed. My number catorce, Reynaldo Vasques, lives at the bottom of our ditch, the penultimate parciante. He has reason to distrust every one of the twenty-some parciantes above him. Age has given him a certain tolerance of his fate, but over the years he and his family have threatened lawsuits against upstream parciantesincluding myself on one occasionover water, and his sons have pulled guns on neighbors over water and women. We get along now, I have learned how to grow chile from him, he trades me chile seed for garlic, and I understand his position of being one who has always lived at the bottom of the ditch, at the end of the line, as did his parents and grandparents. Two or three times a year, first as commissioner and now as mayordomo, I take the precaution of telling him to telephone me when the water starts getting scarce down at his place. “Don't wait until the last minute when your chile is wilting and then get angry at everyone for not letting you have any water.” But old habits die hard. He still waits for the last minute. “I haven't had any water for five days,” comes his scratchy voice quavering over the days, “five days,” he will repeat out the open pickup window on a morning search up and down the ditch for who's taking all the water. But he no longer gets angry at me. He knows I'll get the water down to him in a few hours. I'll call up the habitual water hogsthe two or three parciantes who leave their ditch gates open all day and night for weeks on endand tell them to close their gates and let the water go past. Or drive around, as Reynaldo used to do when he was mayordomo, and close them myself. As mayordomo you become the pump, the heart that moves the vital fluid down the artery to the little plots of land of each of the cells, the parciantes. Water relationships would be simple and linear were they not complicated by all those other ways that human beings are connected with and divided from each other: blood, race, religion, education, politics, money. Against human constructions and diversions the mayordomo must pump water seven months of the year. You can even come to envy those who work far away from here in institutions which deal with human beings piecemeal, one category at a time, and have thus managed to subordinate or exclude concerns peripheral to their specialized central purpose or to consign them to some vague world out beyond the parking lot. A mayordomo has to deal with people whole, often angry, in their own backyards, on their own property, regarding a commonplace substance that can inspire passion like no other, with all connections everywhere firmly in place, including who beat up on who twenty years before in the village school yard.
Water. The crew straggles back through the newly pruned apple trees, across the thick brown orchard grass, and climbs up the ditch bank, wiping away the last traces of water from their mouths with sleeves and wrists.
© 1988 by the University of New Mexico Press.