A Ditch Rich With Tradition

We left at about 6:30 a.m. in Ricky's old yellow Ford pickup truck. But first we drove around in the pale gold morning light of early June on the road overlooking the valley, to the houses of two other guys in town.

Ricky gunned the motor outside their doors to stir them from within the somnolent adobe houses. But only one person, who had apparently just crawled out of bed, paid us the courtesy of poking his head out the door and offering an excuse.

So it was just Ricky Chavez, his brother-in-law, Martin Trujillo, and I who started up the road to the irrigation ditch some 2,000 feet above town in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in northern New Mexico. This was the yearly ditch-cleaning day - for about the 240th time since it was dug in 1752.

Not far above town, the road became badly rutted, and Ricky's truck bounced around so much as he muscled it up the road that just riding in it was like a form of exercise.

We were near the tail end of an informal caravan of trucks going up to clean the Acequia de la Sierra. It was something everybody loved to do - to be up where the aspens, which had leafed out near town, were still just a fragile gold, and where there were still pockets of snow in the shade.

Most people going up in their pickups were at least part descendants of the original Spanish settlers who made the ditch. It had been dug with picks and shovels made out of fire-hardened wood, as metal was very scarce in this remote area of what was then Mexico.

Without even the most basic engineering instruments, such as a transit to measure elevation, they diverted water from the north fork of the Rio Quemado and wrapped it around a mountain to flow down into the community they were founding miles below.

Martin and I had never cleaned the ditch before, and it had been a few years since Ricky had done it. What motivated all three of us was that the ditch commissioners had plans to replace the mile-and-a-half-long acequia with a plastic pipe in August. The controversy had stirred the entire town.

The commissioners said they needed more water for the drought years when ditch water dried up in late summer. Exactly 50 years ago, when the Los Alamos laboratories were being established an hour away from here to develop the atomic bomb, almost everybody in the area was a subsistence farmer.

Now nobody was, and the water was needed most commonly for cattle and alfalfa raised to supplement low-wage jobs at Los Alamos and elsewhere. Because of the radically changed economy, commitment to ditch maintenance was withering away, and the commissioners complained that it was harder and harder to find people to do the work.

This was why there were so many people and trucks gathered at the temporary ``base camp'' at the bottom of the acequia, where little fires for an early-morning breakfast still smoldered. The year before, only 14 people had shown up. This year there were about twice that number, to show loyalty to the ditch.

The assistant mayordomo read the rules and regulations for ditch-cleaning, while the men leaned on their shovel handles in an almost mediative manner. The mayordomo, a man of considerable gravity, made a statement that they should all keep their disagreements to themselves for the day.

But Jerry Martinez shouted, ``The ditch belongs to everyone!'' -

implying not just the commissioners - and Ricky Chavez seconded that with ``Viva la raza!,'' which rippled through the group along with fists raised like flags.

But this was just a small disruption in the preliminary procedures, and when these were over, everyone picked up his shovel and took his place in his assigned tequio, a work section about 10 feet long. Each person shoveled away the silt or rocks that had accumulated in the ditch. The mayordomo walked along the banks, sternly inspecting people's work, and when everyone was finished, he would shout: ``Vuelta!'' (Turn!) and all would move on.

I quickly learned that what it took to clean this ditch was far beyond what it took to clean the Acequia Madre (Mother Ditch) that ran through town, where I had helped out a month before. There, I had just strolled along, picking up bottles, digging a little silt here and there, and snapping pictures while others clipped overgrown brush.

But cleaning the Acequia de la Sierra was hard labor even for young men. After the third or fourth tequio I realized that I wouldn't have any time away from my job to take pictures. So I soon excused myself and turned to my photography, and helped out with a vuelta or two when I could.

At about 11 a.m. we broke for lunch, walking the half mile or so back to the bottom of the ditch. People gathered into little groups, based on either family or political orientation in regard to the ditch. Some of the most vocal opponents of the pipe project sat by a truck near the center of the clearing in the midday sun, with cans of Spam and Dinty Moore beef stew.

They were youngish, hip Chicanos. One has since been put in jail for drug dealing.

While you might expect tough guys like these to be indifferent toward tradition, they were the ones who were ready to defend tradition.

In this town there was a lot of drinking-and-fighting type violence, and there were occasional rumors amid the swirl of petition-gathering and sign-posting that the issue could erupt into gunfire. But this had not happened.

After lunch, Presiliano, the white-haired commissioner and retired school-bus driver who was going ahead and marking off the tequios, hunkered down to chat with me every so often. He went out of his way to show me places of interest, such as the part of the ditch that broke in the 1940s, when men came up with teams of horses to fix it, and the remains of a cabin up on the mountainside where men had stayed for a while in the 1800s to reroute part of the ditch.

I told Presiliano that somehow this ditch was more fun to clean than the Acequia Madre in town, and he said yes, he had noticed it was more fun than the other ditches, too.

Did it have something to do with the altitude, I wondered? We were about 3,000 feet from the Truchas Peaks at 13,000, where the air was thinner and cleaner.

There was also a very definite feeling of well-being and a sense of common bond with others, brought about by pitching oneself into a joint task that required every ounce of one's physical energy. The back-breaking labor left no space for any friction or disagreements.

And there was a particular elation from working shoulder to shoulder with the descendants of men who had cleaned this ditch regularly for centuries, of feeling in solidarity with a centuries-long tradition, and of being near the source - the sweet, uncontaminated source of the culture and history of the little Spanish town fed by this acequia.

But the amazing thing was that, for this day at least, high and hidden deep in the mountains, everybody seemed to rise above their divisions like a leaf in an updraft. You couldn't tell by looking at them who was on what side of the ditch issue. The acequia brought out people's better selves. It sobered them, cheered them up, and brought them together.

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